Commencement Speech
Frederick D. McClure '76
Former student body president and Vice Chairman Emeritus, TAMU Board of Regents
May 15, 2004, 9:00 a.m. Reed Arena

Isn't it strange
That princes and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And common people like you and like me
Are the builders for eternity?

Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
And a book of rules.
And each must make 'er life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.

Whenever I think of commencement exercises, I am always reminded of Bob Hope's legendary commencement speech. As he warned of the dangers and disappointments of the cold, cruel, hard world outside, he gave his audience just two words of advice - "Don't go!"

Well, I won't go quite as far as Bob Hope this morning. Since you have no choice but to go, you may as well go prepared. Within the hour, you will have received your degrees. With that you will be beginning the experience that counts and means the most in your lives. I guess you could say that the real final exams start tomorrow, and they will go on and on and on for the rest of your lives.

So this morning I plan to give you a little peek at the test. You might call it a "help" session. Now to pass the test doesn't require an "all-nighter." At the outset, let me say that neither have I mastered the test, nor have I completed it. I'm really just on page nine or ten, and thus can only share what I have learned so far. In the final analysis, you will have to provide your own answers; and only you will be held accountable for them.

As individuals about to enter the professional world, here's answer number one - there is always an obligation beyond self. That's the case in virtually everything we do. It's not the selfish view of "what's in it for me," but instead is a constant consideration of "we."

I guess I'm supposed to say that you need to go out and change the world, to make it a better place to live for you and your offspring. That's my job during your culminating hour of learning here at Texas A&M University, or at least that's what every commencement speaker says. And every graduating class just sits there, hoping the speaker will be brief so the champagne can be uncorked and the beer kegs tapped. At the same time they are thinking - "well, if the world has to be changed, why in the hell doesn't he do it?!"

Here's my invitation. No, let me put it another way. Here's my outright challenge ... a challenge to each of you! Join me ... Join me in doing what is necessary to make sure we are not stumbling blocks, but stepping stones as we fulfill our roles as the builders for eternity. We owe it as a part of our obligation beyond self, as well as to ourselves. We owe it to those sitting in the audience this morning - your parents, perhaps spouses, maybe even your children - who made sacrifices so you could get to this very important day in your lives. And, most importantly, we owe it to those who will follow in the paths we have trod.

A few years back, an item was circulating on the Internet called a "Summary of the World." According to the summary, if we could - at this time - shrink the Earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look like this:

  • There would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 people from the Western Hemisphere - both North and South - and eight Africans
  • 70 would be nonwhite; 30 would be white
  • 70 would be non-Christian; 30 would be Christian
  • 50 percent of the entire world's wealth would be in the hands of only six people. All six would be citizens of the United States
  • 70 would be unable to read
  • 50 would suffer from malnutrition
  • 80 would live in substandard housing
  • And only ONE - just one - would have a college education.

Now, if you think about it, what does this say about the very special privilege you are about to be afforded? First of all, it says that you are among the luckiest people on the face of this earth. Sure, you have worked hard, and you and your families have made financial and other sacrifices to get to this place. I certainly don't intend to minimize the tremendous efforts that go into attaining a college education.

But, by comparing yourselves to your fellow human beings in such areas as Southeast Asia, much of Africa and the former Soviet republics - the majority of whom are illiterate and live in substandard housing, and half of whom suffer from malnutrition - you have been blessed - blessed - with a tremendous amount of advantages. So, what are you going to do with it?

Well here's answer number two - with blessings come expectations. You have been given much and, in turn, you are expected to give back. Along with these blessings come responsibilities: Responsibilities to be contributing citizens as long as you live.

Put another way, you all know that the education and training you received here were not free. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Whereas some of you may think the bill is paid, I say you're dead wrong! You're wrong because you still owe a part, if not all, of the bill. Indeed the first payment is due just as soon as you begin pondering the first question on your final exam.

As you strive for success, remember first and foremost that it will not be measured in dollars and cents. Although your niche in life may not be chiseled in gold or studded with diamonds, if you are willing to forego many of the easier and nicer things in life; if you are willing to endure hardships and sacrifices just to give a little bit more of yourself - more than is expected of you - your niche in life will be engraved in the hearts of those who know you. And that, my friends, is the real measure of success. It is also the core of obligation beyond self.

Here's answer number three. If there are successes, there will also be failures. Indeed, those failures will be hard to take, just as your successes might be difficult to manage. Have no fear of failure because often out of that uncertainty something is salvaged, something that is worthwhile comes about. There is no progress without failure, and each failure is a lesson learned.

Time, however, is your ally. If you have a gift, a sense of worth about yourself, and you persist at whatever it is you choose to do or be, time will give you another chance. Calvin Coolidge said, "Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful."

You must have a sort of power within you; not the affirmative directness of the achiever who must win, but the simple tenacity - the simple stick-to-it-ness - of a man or woman who has never won and thus does not really even think about winning, but rather who sees life as a daily refusal to be beaten. You think the competition was tough here at school - you ain't seen nothing yet! When you're in for life, the only way to do your time is straight ahead.

You see, life is sort of like a freeway. You get yourself seven lanes. You get enough room to go right and left, and YOUR direction - but then don't be afraid to take the exits. It's fun to get lost along the way even, as long as you remember which direction you're going.

Just like in college, the final exam you're starting tomorrow also has some inherent flaws. That is to say, the world you are getting into is far from perfect, and once you get the hang of it, I think you'll agree that it needs more change. Satisfied people change nothing. Only those who are dissatisfied, or who get angry - even mad sometimes - can change things. Now this is no invitation for you to put a chip on your shoulder. Neither is it an invitation for you to approach your final exam with skepticism or criticism. It is, instead, an invitation for you to challenge conventional wisdom if you conclude that conventional wisdom has placed us on a path not conducive to the well being of our nation. Indeed, that might be the answer to question number four.

No one wants a "yes" man or woman around. You should have the courage to venture an opinion if you think you're right. Your idea may please one person, bore another, or be a threat to a third. The important thing is that you will have made full use of one of the most precious gifts given to us by our forefathers. This nation did not become the greatest democracy in the world because of "yes" men or women, or those who were not committed enough to ideas, ideals and principles to share them with anyone who would listen. Our nation has become the democracy that it is because of Americans who have realized that part of their birthright is to change things, and to change things for the better. If you don't believe me, just go back and review the circumstances surrounding the Revolutionary or Civil War, or the civil rights movement in this country.

Answer number four - You must be unafraid of change. Indeed, as Charles Kettering once said, "The only thing constant in America is change." You must be insatiable in your intellectual curiosity. You must develop and pursue an interest in big things. Sir Winston Churchill had this to say: "You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth."

The core of your character, as an individual and as a professional, will be the development of a high set of values, personified by honesty, by loyalty and by responsibility. You must look for the good in others and in yourself. You must keep a positive attitude that thrives on finding solutions to problems and ways to improve a situation.

There is a scene in the movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" where a father is very angry with his son, and he says, "Son, I carried that mailbag for 40 years so you could go to college and to medical school. You owe me for that."

And the son responded, "I owe you nothing, Dad. If you carried that mailbag a million miles you did what you were supposed to do. You owed me everything you could ever do for me, just as I will owe my kids."

Contrary to how it may seem, those were not the words of an ungrateful son. He loved and respected his father. But, he also understood how civilization is supposed to work. One generation making things a little bit better for the next. Fathers and mothers sacrificing everything for their kids.

And, my friends, that is how we got to where we are today. That's the way our predecessors answered portions of their final exams. Now, however, some of the remaining questions have changed, and the new questions demand different answers. Just as every generation inherits the unfulfilled dreams of the one that came before, every generation inherits its own set of challenges. Be unafraid of change.

Here comes answer number five: Just because you're graduating from college, don't leave with your arms outstretched like some giant silver platter and saying, "Here I am world! Lay it on me!" I'll let you in on a little secret. This could even be described as cheating on the exam. My English teachers in San Augustine and here at Texas A&M would not be pleased with what I'm about to say, but ain't nobody gonna give you nothing! I'll say it again: Ain't nobody gonna give you nothing! There's not a single individual on the face of this earth who's going to be willing to give you something for nothing. You must give of yourselves. It's that simple.

You must be dedicated to assuming your full share of responsibility for this world in which we live. What you contribute after leaving Texas A&M University bears directly on this great institution. Further, the acceptance of responsibility and the determination to make a difference on your part will be the impetus that will allow us to fulfill the unfulfilled dreams and meet the inherited challenges of those who have gone before.

Commit yourselves to the lifelong struggle for excellence. The great philosopher, Aristotle, put it this way: "With regard to excellence, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it." Graduates, find a way to make yourselves indispensable. Decide today that you are going to take a chance and be the best something - whatever it is - the world has ever known.

Here's the final answer -- number six: It's not your aptitude, but your attitude that will determine your altitude in life. It's not your aptitude, but your attitude that will determine your altitude in life. Don Shula, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins, put it this way: "The whole idea," he says, "is to somehow get an edge. Sometimes it takes just a little extra something to get that edge. But you have to have it."

You have been given that edge. You have been given the tools ... and the rules ... to meet your own set of challenges. Indeed, you have more than enough to pass the final exam in flying colors. Your education is as good as anybody can get anywhere, remember that. And as I mentioned at the outset, when the world is reduced to a village of 100 people, only one - just one - would have a college education. That makes you special indeed. You are smart enough to compete with anybody in the world. And you deserve the chance to be the best.

Even more so than just yesterday, you represent the future - the future of not only Texas A&M, but of this great beacon State and our beloved Nation. Who knows? Twenty or thirty years from now, one of you may have the great honor and privilege to stand where I am now standing, sharing your thoughts with an Aggie graduating class as a former member of its Board of Regents. Or as President of the Association of Former Students like my classmate, Chuck Ellison. Or as President of this great institution. Who knows?

Let's recap.
#1 - You have an obligation beyond self.
#2 - With blessings come expectations and responsibilities.
#3 - Each failure is a lesson learned.
#4 - Be unafraid of change. Indeed be catalysts for change.
#5 - Ain't nobody gonna give you nothing!
#6 - It's not your aptitude but your attitude that will determine your altitude in life.

Graduates, your "help" session has now come to an end. It's now time to punch your tickets, but remember, when you do, people are going to expect more of you, and rightfully so. The individuals who pass the test with honors are the ones who pay the greatest price and run the greatest race. In short, we are not here to congratulate ourselves on what we have done, but to challenge ourselves to finish what has not yet been done.

The world, albeit far from perfect, awaits you with a rather unprejudiced view. You have to show the world that you are ready for it!

You know, it is strange. Common people like you and like me are the builders for eternity. We've each been given our shapeless mass, our bag of tools, and our book of rules. And each of us must make a choice - will we be stumbling blocks or stepping stories?

Your computers are on. Please enter your user name and password. You may begin. Now, Class of 2004, let's see what you're made of. Let's see if you'll pass the test.

Gig 'em and God bless!