For the second time in my life I am taking part in an Ithaca College commencement. As I wrote down the thoughts I wanted to share with you today, I couldn’t help thinking of that other day in May more than a decade ago….
You know, it’s an awesome thing to be awarded an honorary degree from one’s undergraduate school, particularly when the school enjoys the reputation Ithaca does in the broadcasting industry, and especially when one graduated a relatively short time ago. To say I found the whole thing intimidating would be an understatement. Something along the lines of “paralyzed with fear” would be more accurate. Because on an occasion such as this, it isn’t enough to give a little “thank you and good luck” speech…it must be a memorable commencement address. And so in my quest to make this address memorable, I thought back to my own graduation, one of the most memorable events of my life.
I remember…it rained. Not a delicate May shower. Torrents. Buckets. A veritable deluge! I remember a steady stream of water dripping from my tassel down my neck the entire ceremony. Our families were asked not to take pictures of the procession, but one parent couldn’t resist. The flash cube fired in our faces causing me to miss a step, slip, and careen into two people ahead of me.
In that year of post-war baby boom graduates, there were so many of us that there was not enough time for all of us to receive our diplomas when our names were called. In fact, there were so many, that the audience was asked not to applaud after the name of each graduate was read out. And it all worked fine until they got to the S’s ….
There was a Mr. Saunders. Magna Cum Laude. An athlete. A student government representative. So when his name was read off, the audience broke out in spontaneous applause – just long enough to drown out the name of the graduate who alphabetically followed Saunders: Savitch. I had to physically show my mother the diploma to prove that I had indeed graduated.
So yes, it was memorable. I remember all but one thing. Not only can I not remember one word my commencement speaker said – I cannot remember who my speaker was!
Now, I am sure we had a speaker. And I am sure that person spent a lot of time carefully crafting a commencement address worthy of remembering. But the truth is a commencement is a very personal event. It stands as a milestone in every life, marking the culmination of struggle and achievement. A commencement speaker’s message then is little more than a footnote.
The footnote I will offer concerns the pursuit of excellence.
Not long ago, I received a letter from a young woman who wanted a job in broadcasting. Actually, the job she wanted in broadcasting was my job! Her reason? She wanted, she said, to make a million dollars. She figured she was good enough, willing to work hard, and since (as everyone seems to believe) all women in broadcasting make a million dollars, she wanted to cash in. Her letter was like many I have been receiving for the past few years. And it concerns me. She didn’t want to be a broadcast journalist. She wanted to be rich. If the road to riches to her was labeled “broadcast journalist” then that was the road she would take.
I asked the young 13-year-old boy who delivers my newspaper what he wanted to be. He told me: an electrician. And when I asked why, he said, “the hours are easy and the pay is good and you don’t have to waste a lot of time in college.” Thirteen years old, and already he has been socialized into believing that success and fulfillment are byproducts of plentiful perks and fat salaries. Actually, it’s the other way around.
As a reporter, I have had the chance to observe people at the top of almost every field. And it makes no difference if they are male or female, black or white, old or young. The people who really succeed are those who have been taught or teach themselves to strive for excellence. The pleasure that comes from knowing you have done a job the best way you know how. It seems to me that in our modern society, there is little done in pursuit of excellence. But what little we have stands out because it is so rare.
In the early days of the nation, a craft was taught. And that craft was handed down from generation to generation. People often were born, lived out their lives and died in the same town. Everyone knew everyone else. You knew the people who sold you goods and services and they knew you by name. They learned to trust you. And you uphold that trust by doing good work.
Somehow, as society grew more complex, people grew more mobile, as assembly lines and mass production put the craftsperson out of business, the pursuit of excellence got lost along the way.
There is an Elton John song, one of his lesser known songs. The line goes: “I work for the foundry for a penny and a half a day. Like a blind street musician, I never see those who pay.”
No longer do we answer directly to each other for the jobs we do. More often than not, we answer to a middle line management person – a person who may or may not have the high standards of excellence. Like the blind street musician, we never see the people who would benefit, or even those who pay us our salaries unless we are doctors, or lawyers, or perhaps small shop keepers who deal directly with the public. It has become increasingly difficult for each of us to set and maintain excellent standards.
In my own industry, I, too, am like the blind street musician. My job as a broadcaster is to serve the interest, convenience and necessity of the viewers. The people who own the airwaves on which my network is licensed to program. Yet I never actually see most of those people. If I don’t do the best job possible, ultimately I will be replaced. But on a daily basis, who is to monitor my performance?
The answer I have found to pursuing excellence is increasingly to be found within. At the top of every field I have observed as a reporter is a person who does the job, not because it pays well, not because it makes the person famous, but because doing the job makes the person happy. And a person happy in his or her work is usually successful. And success often brings with it may of the tangible rewards — as byproducts.
Although rare, there are examples of the pursuit of excellence in our own times. The courage of conviction is not easy in any career, and it is particularly difficult in public life, where, no matter what course of action is taken, at least some of the public will disagree.
Probably the most graphic example in the world today was the Sadat Peace Initiative into Israel. Anwar El Sadat personally lost a brother, a bomber pilot, during the 6-Day War. He was shot down by Israeli fighters. So surely there was opposition to the Israeli treaty within Sadat’s family as well as within his party. Lifelong hatreds are not easily wiped out, and within the block of Arab nations, Sadat’s Egypt was, and is now, alone in its wish for peace with Israel. Other Arab nations threatened and made good on an economic boycott of Egypt. With all that against him, Sadat went ahead. Part of it was smart politics. Sadat realized the ongoing war with Israel was sapping his country economically, and emotionally, and an end to the fighting could mean a chance to build up economic resources. Also, there was the fact that the United States actively favored a peace treaty. And to bring that about would probably mean increased economic aid from the United States for Egypt. But not to be discounted was Sadat’s own belief that there had been enough war, enough killing, and whatever the political and personal price, peace was worth it. Sadat believed it. And he acted upon it to all our good – because an end to any war brings us closer to becoming a truly civilized global culture.
Menachem Begin, too, weighed the risks. He had been victimized by Nazi Germany, and fled to the mideast desert to help carve out a safe piece of ground for his people. Begin had learned from the Nazis that enemies could never be trusted, and it was a risk for him to trust this new enemy. Begin also encountered opposition from the Kinesset. He was also opposed by Israelis who had lost members of their families fighting the Egyptians, as well as those who had worked to make homes in the hard-won occupied territories.
But, like Sadat, Begin held to his conviction that peace was of paramount importance, and ultimately, both men acted on their convictions.
To some extent, it was President Carter’s risk. Each president has a moment when diplomacy must eclipse politics. As Bob Dylan wrote: “Sometimes even the President of the United States must stand naked.” That was perhaps Mr. Carter’s moment. Here at home, we were and are in an economic domestic crisis. The President’s standing in the polls was at that time not the best. For President Careter to have personally gone and engaged in shuttle diplomacy and failed would have severely damaged US power and prestige with other nations. It could well have had a strong bearing on the outcome of the SALT negotiations. It was a calculated risk. To be seen as a peacemaker would have helped Mr. Carter somewhat. To be seen as a failure would have been disastrous. The President, too, must be credited for acting on what he said he believed to be the only right course of action — pursue peace — no matter the odds….
My own personal view of a person who pursued excellence and did not lower her standards was Francis “Sissy” Farenthold. Mrs. Farenthold of Texas was a state representative who ran for governor in 1972 against Dolph Briscoe. In that same year, she was the only woman placed in nomination for the Vice President at the Democratic National Convention. She later went on to head the National Womens’ Political Caucus and is now President of Wells College in Aurora, New York.
When I met her, she was running for governor. A woman – in a state known for its tough, two-fisted, male politics. Farenthold was running as a liberal in a very conservative state, and she was running for her party’s nomination against a millionaire landowner. But there was dissent in the Texas Democratic party then. A Watergate-type stock fraud scandal had swept the state. Party leaders told Farenthold she was going into the race with at least an outside chance. But, she was told, she’d have to play the game. Drop her standards. Make political deals to win election. She refused. And she lost. But with it all, she lost by a narrow margin. And many political observers say she did better than if she had made the deals.
Francis Farenthold paved the way for other women in politics in Texas and across the country. And she showed one young reporter that it was possible to be strong and honest, and feminine, and work successfully in what was traditionally an all-male field, be it politics or broadcast journalism.
And as a broadcast journalist, my role in life is not to to be a doer of great things, but rather a chronicler of those who do. And it appears to me that all of those people who pursue excellence with the strength of their convictions live out their lives typified by one basic idea. The Biblical “do unto others.” Voltaire’s “all things are possible.” The Jefferson theory of democracy.
But the one I like the best, the one that hangs above my desk, and the one I have chosen to share with you, is by Theodore Roosevelt. The President who perhaps best typified the pursuit of excellence through rugged individualism. He said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Do what you can: You leave here with a foundation of skills and experiences. Build on them. Become involved. Stretch. Grow. Take advantage of all the choices and opportunities that are now open to both sexes.
Do what you can, with what you have: Know your strengths and employ them. Find your weaknesses and shore them up. If you do not know your strengths and weaknesses, invest some time in learning.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are: No one is ever exactly where they want to be. Healthy dissatisfaction, desire for something better, is the the catalyst for change – the main ingredient of accomplishment. On the other hand, constant discontent with where you are, or pretending you are elsewhere, keeps you from enjoying the present. Set your goals, work toward them, but enjoy the process of getting there. Pause to smell the flowers along the way.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. It may not necessarily bring success. It often, however, brings the peace of mind that comes from knowing you have given it your best shot. It is the quote I have used in my own personal pursuit of excellence. No doubt you will find, or perhaps write, your own quote along the way.
Lifetime creeds, like commencement memories, are very personal things.
And so in the memories of this day that you will carry with you across the years, the sunshine glistening on the lake, the pride in your families’ eyes, the touch of a friend’s hand as you said goodbye – if in the bittersweet kaleidoscopic montage of those memories the name of you commencement speaker slips your mind, not to worry. For me, it is more than enough to have been able to share this day with you. You have bestowed upon me an honor few people ever achieve.
I wish you health, happiness, success, love, and the time to enjoy them all. And I wish for each of you that some time in your life will come a moment as wondrous as this one is for me.
Congratulations, God bless you, and from the bottom of my heart, I do thank you.