Most graduation ceremonies include remarks from a notable individual. Commencement speakers are usually asked to share some life experiences and offer a measure of advice, insight, and wisdom for the graduates. It would be interesting to consider what some past presidents might say if they had the opportunity to speak to the graduates of 2019.
George Washington may tell them that being first at almost anything provides great opportunities and significant responsibilities. As the first president, he wasn’t confined or restricted by past practices. He wasn’t constrained by endless comparisons or scrutinized constantly by unrealistic expectations. He had the opportunity to set the bar, the initial bar, and develop precedents that have endured for generations. At the same time, he had no predecessors to look to for assistance, and he had no models of best practice to follow. Good, bad or indifferent, he became the first predecessor and the initial model.
The tombstone of Thomas Jefferson recognizes three achievements in his life. They include authoring the Declaration of American Independence, creating the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and serving as Father of the University of Virginia. No mention is made of his presidency. Jefferson might tell the graduates of 2019 that the true measure of their accomplishments in life will be determined by what they see as their real contributions in life rather than titles earned or positions held.
The Civil War opened during the second month of Abraham Lincoln’s first term, and it ended in the second month of his second term, less than a week before he was killed. Historians, military leaders, and those who study leadership yet today agree that Lincoln’s unwavering focus on preserving the union was the key to his success. Lincoln would probably tell the graduates of 2019 that unwavering attention focused on a goal supported by uncompromising determination can guide and sustain them even in the most difficult situations and during the most chaotic times.
His flamboyant and unconventional style made him a target for critics. Undaunted by his detractors and powered by his belief in government, Theodore Roosevelt opened an era of reform, the effects of which are still being felt today. He would more than likely remind the class of 2019 that they will all have their critics. He may also advise that their critics should never be permitted to weaken their resolve to do what’s right, or cloud their focus on the goals and aspirations they set for themselves.
Harry Truman is the only person ever to make a decision to use a nuclear weapon. The sheer magnitude of his decision is all but inestimable even yet today. However, the potential consequences of not making that decision were even more difficult to comprehend. Mr. Truman would more than likely tell this year’s graduates to make decisions wisely. He may suggest that to do so, one must gather as much information as possible, consider all of the options available at the time, then be driven by the goal of doing the greatest good for the greatest number.
If Dwight Eisenhower were speaking to the graduates of 2019 he may remind them that knowing your profession and being skilled at your life’s work is not enough. He would tell then that interpersonal skills, the ability to work with others, is all-essential. As he demonstrated during World War II and in the Cold War era of his presidency, bring people together, uniting them in a common cause, then inspiring them to work toward mutual goals, are the hallmarks of true leaders.
Richard Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate Affair are all but synonymous. From his resignation in 1974 until his death in 1994, his efforts to regain some measure of public deference and trust fell short of his desires. With the virtue of hindsight, the only president ever to resign the office may tell the graduates to openly accept ownership for their errors and earnestly apologize to those hurt by them.
When Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon and offered clemency to draft evaders from the Viet Nam conflict, he knowingly ruined his political career. He also knew that the country had to get past both of those divisive issues. In every generation there are those who are called on to make personal sacrifices for a greater good. President Ford would no doubt share with the 2019 graduating class that when faced with such a situation, there is only one noble and just decision.
During this graduation season, countless bits of advice and words of wisdom will be offered. Through the graduates of the class of 2019 those words, experiences, and nuggets of wisdom will help to inspire and power another graduating class, as they make their way into our collective future.
Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
Dr. Mike McGough is a York College professor who lives in Abbottstown.