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Jim Lehrer's 2012 Commencement remarks

  • Commencement speaker
    Commencement speaker
    Jim Lehrer served as William & Mary's 2012 Commencement speaker.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

The following are Jim Lehrer's remarks from the 2012 William & Mary Commencement ceremony. - Ed.

Thank you very much.

I am honored to be with you, to be in your company. This is a special day for you, where in every respect, no matter who you are, if you are here, this is a special day for you—and that certainly includes me.

{{youtube:medium:left|iB9NKE9DrLE, Jim Lehrer's Commencement speech}}

I have some personal reasons, some very personal reasons, for particularly enjoying being here today. That includes, first of all, this distinguished Chancellor and honored alum, the fancy dressed-up man, Robert Gates.

Robert Gates and I have something very unusual in common. We were born at the same hospital, Wesley Hospital in Wichita, Kansas. Let’s hear it for Wesley Hospital!

I went there 10 years before Bob did. You might say that I prepared the delivery room for him, and I thus bear at least some of the credit for the fact that he’s turned out as such a superb public servant for the people of the United States of America.

Another personal reason: I first came to Williamsburg and to William & Mary in the 1950s. I was an officer candidate at Quantico, just up the road from here. I was being harassed, abused and otherwise trained to be a second lieutenant infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps. Hey, hey! Semper fi!

I took a weekend day excursion with some of my fellow candidates to Williamsburg, to see Colonial Williamsburg.

I still have some photographs of me in my Marine uniform in the stocks—you know like this—there in the Historic Area. I assure you those pictures are not available on Facebook or on YouTube.

Most importantly, on that trip, I walked around here. I walked around the campus of William & Mary, the College of William & Mary, a college I had heard of and never seen, obviously, before that day. And I had a little vision as a result of that walk. I had already decided that in my life’s work, I was going to be a novelist. I was going to be a writer. And I thought, “My goodness! Some day I might go to William & Mary.” It would be the perfect place for this. I would come and live the life of a writer-in-residence. I would smoke a pipe, and I would wear a tweed jacket with leather, ah, whatever-they-call-that on the elbows.

But look: That didn’t happen. But from my perspective, receiving an honorary degree from you all today pretty much settles that dream. Thank you very much.

I know some of you are concerned, so let me say this: You can relax about the speaker part of my duties here today.


I have been present during the delivery of hundreds—thousands, it seems like—of commencement addresses, as a student, a graduate, proud parent, grandparent, as a friend, and as a reporter.

I can assure you that I cannot remember what any of the speakers said. I fact, I can't even remember what any of them looked like, with one exception.

Nobody comes to a commencement to hear the speaker, only to cheer and applaud a happy graduate.

And with that in mind I hereby promise not to keep you long. That one exception was my very own college graduation from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

The commencement speaker was Homer Croy -- a name, I know, that does not leap to your mind when you hear it. He’s a western novelist that nobody even then had known very well or read much of. He said pretty much what I just said that day. He said “You’re not going to remember me. You’re not going to remember anything that I’ve said.”

And then he had on a gown, just like this, only it zipped down the front. He had this red tie on, and he pulled this bright red tie and he pulled it out to the front, so that everybody could see.

And he stopped, and he said, quote: "Take a good look, graduates! You'll remember me because of this tie. I'll bet you anything on that!"

Well, he was right—and I just proved it.

Well, I am now going to follow his example. I am going to do something right now—no, no, not that. What I am going to do will at least increase the chances of your remembering today's commencement speaker.

I am going to call a bus, a bus to Houston, something I have been doing off and on regularly since the 1950s. That's because I was a ticket agent at the Trailways bus depot in Victoria, Texas. Show of hands! How many of you have heard of Victoria, Texas? Hey!  It’s a small Texas city halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast. Anyway, I was going to a small junior college in the daytime and worked as a ticket agent at night.

And one of my duties was to do this: "May I have your attention please! This is your last call for Continental Trailways, a.m./p.m. Silversides air-conditioned thruliner to Houston... now leaving from lane one—next to the building—for: Inez, Edna, Ganado, Louise, El Campo, Pierce, Wharton, Hungerford, Kendleton, Beasley, Rosenberg, Richmond, Sugarland, Stafford, Missouri City and Houston! All aboard! Don't forget your baggage please!"

Now, you may be asking, what in the world is the relevance of all that.

Well, I have done that bus call and figured out a way to make it relevant in just about every commencement address, and as matter of fact, just about every speech, that I ever made. So it’s become kind of a good luck thing for me. But it's also extremely relevant because I am being honored today for what I have done on television.

Well, calling the buses on the P.A. system in that bus depot was the first time I was paid money to speak into a microphone. So, it is terribly relevant.

Look, I come with only a few commencement-like messages for you Class of 2012 graduates.

Number one, and it relates to what Chancellor Gates was saying a while ago: Be civil; be fair. One of the most serious losses we as a society have suffered in recent years, in my opinion at least, is that of civil discourse. We are a civilized people; we should disagree in a civilized manner. We should acknowledge the right of other people to disagree with us. We should acknowledge the possibility that, sometimes—yes, maybe rare times, but sometimes—we might even be wrong. Strange as it may seem, also, we might learn more from listening, at times, than from talking—and more from talking than from shouting.

Next point. I’m sure the Chancellor knows a lot more about it than I do, but I’m sure that you've noticed the ages of most of the young Americans who are doing the fighting in Afghanistan now, and Iraq before. They’re about 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old. Your age, in other words.

I would urge each of you, as well as everyone else in this audience and everyone else everywhere to keep in mind that those young men and women are risking their lives, and they’re doing so in your name, in my name, in our names—in the name of our country.

So, cheer them when they come home, no matter what your view may be on Afghanistan or anything else that may be related, just cheer them when they come home.

And I would also add, please help them reenter civilian life. I was absolutely appalled to read a story in the Friday Washington Post, just two days ago, that said the nation's overall unemployment rate right now is 8.1 percent. The unemployment rate among military veterans from action in Afghanistan and Iraq is a staggering 29 percent!

That means one out of three of those veterans does not have a job. That is outrageous and every one of us, everyone within the sound of my voice and every other voice, I feel very strongly has an obligation to do something about it.

And I would also urge each of you graduates to also serve. Chancellor Gates, when he was secretary of defense, made a terrific speech to students at Duke University, which I quote all the time. He made the point about how few Americans are truly involved in meeting the military obligations of this country right now, and he urged Duke students to consider military service before going off to their chosen professions or lines of work.

I would say amen to that. But I would add to that amen that service does not have to just mean joining the Marines, to fight in Afghanistan or in the next war, or two. 

I mean no matter what you decide to do with your life, also find a way serve. Serve your neighborhood, your town, your city, your state and our country. Serve a common purpose beyond yourself and your immediate family and/or interests.

And one way to do that open to us all is to stay informed -- by expressing, forming opinions. By questioning the opinions of others, particularly those others who hold public office or who otherwise exercise public office, including those who write and edit the newspapers and magazines, report on and produce the radio and television programs you listen to and watch, or websites and blogs you read.

Complain about things you do not like. Praise those you do. Ask questions about matters you do not understand. Be part of the dialogue, in other words -- the debate, the decision-making in our democracy. They are decisions that could literally set the course for our nation and our society for years, if not centuries to come. They are too important to be left to the experts as smart as most of them are, and too important to be left to our public officials, as dedicated and honest as most of them are.

We must all serve, with our minds and our voices and our hearts. I hereby implore you to do so, not just between now and Election Day, November 2012, but always.

I can say without any fear of misstatement that for you, having been products of the education here at the College of William & Mary, this will become a natural act for you, but some things need to be said that are even natural acts.

Speaking of being informed, let me say something about journalism, my life's work and the reason -- aside from my skill, my extraordinary skill, at calling buses -- that I have been awarded an honorary degree today.

I want you to know that I know that this honor is not so much for me personally as it is for the kind of journalism I have had the opportunity to practice on PBS.

And for the record, a few years ago, I was asked by an Aspen seminar – there were a bunch of journalists there – and each of us was asked if we had our own personal guidelines for the practice of journalism that we used, and, if so, would we mind sharing them.

Here, in part, is what I sent as my guidelines for practicing journalism:

•    Do nothing I cannot defend.
•    Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
•    Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
•    Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and as good a person as I am.
•    Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
•    Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
•    Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
•    Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
•    And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

As I say, those guidelines and our efforts on the NewsHour to follow them are what you honor this day with your honorary degree.

And now, let me tell you what I tell all graduates of every college or university I have or have had the pleasure of addressing. Again, I think you may be way ahead of me on this, but, again, for the record: Please don't mistake what is happening here today. The fact that you are receiving a diploma from one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated.

Some of the dumbest people I know received diplomas from esteemed institutions of higher learning.

They took that diploma in their hot little hands and never read another book, never considered another fresh or new idea, and -- most tragically for their society and country -- never again paid attention to much of anything other than themselves, much of anything that wasn’t happening around them or to others.

Please, please, please do not do that. It goes back to what I said about serving. And, as I said, I say that for the record because I’m pretty sure you folks are way ahead of me.

And, finally – that’s the magic word you’re listening for. People listening to speakers, particularly Commencement speakers, that’s the word they want to hear: “finally.”

My "finally" comes in the form of the ultimate recycled quote. It relates to a conversation, a private conversation, I had with Bob Gates here last night.

It is what a fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma said in a commencement speech to a fictional graduating class at a fictional state college in the fictional town of Hugotown, Oklahoma.

He said, and I quote:

"As you search for your place in life I hereby advise you to take risks. Be willing to put your mind and your spirit, your time and your energy, your stomach and your emotions on the line.

"To search for a safe place is to search for an end to a rainbow that you will hate once you find it.

"Take charge of your own life. Create your own risks by setting your own standards, satisfying your own standards.

“Congratulations to you all. It is unlikely that any of you will have occasion to remember either me or my commencement address. I don't blame you. But if by chance something does linger, I hope it's just that there was a lieutenant governor guy up here who kept saying, ‘risk, risk, risk.’ The way to happiness is to risk it. Risk it."

End quote.

It is the ultimate recycled quote because it is from a novel published in 1990 called "The Sooner Spy" – “Sooner” as in the “Sooner State,” Oklahoma, get it? Okay.

I wrote that novel.

I stole those lines almost verbatim from a real commencement speech I made myself in 1984 to the college graduating class of our oldest daughter, Jamie.

So, it's a quote of a fictional quote that began as a real quote -- like I said, the ultimate recycled quote.

But I mean it as much today as the first time in real life.

My fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma asked me to tell you he still feels the same way, as well. He also joins me in congratulating each and every member of the College of William & Mary, Class of 2012.

He also joins me in adding the word "serve" to the word "risk." Serve and risk.

I'll see you at our 2012 class reunions, and I look forward to that.

And please, remember what I said at the very beginning.

Whatever you do and wherever you go, never, ever, ever forget your baggage.

Thank you very much!