Northwestern State University Commencement Address 2016

Today, you stand upon the precipice of the rest of your life. Precipice – “a very steep side of a mountain or cliff; a point where danger, trouble, or difficulty begins” – is not often used in this context. More often, one would choose threshold, which means “the point or level at which something begins or changes.” In actuality, both precipice and threshold apply to commencement.

“Threshold” speaks of opportunity while “precipice” warns of the risk of wrong choices, but it is from the precipice that you can see the clearest and the farthest. At this moment of your commencement, I adjure you to choose wisely. I challenge you to cross the threshold with the solemnity that it is also a precipice, as this day foreshadows great promise but also harbors great risk. Today, your number includes you who are just beginning your journey, but it also includes many of you who are in the autumn of your lives, as you began your journey, in this same place, 50 years ago.

Remember the words of Minnie Haskins’ poem, which states: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.” (The Gate of the Year, Minnie Louise Haskins, 1908)

In this setting, I place before you four admonitions:

1. Make a life.

2. Pay your debt.

3. Join a team.

4. Prepare to be measured.

Don’t forget that those of you who begin today will tomorrow join those who are in their autumn years. Without thoughtfulness, you will then lament, “Where did the years go?”

Make A Life

Some of you chose a degree program in order to make a “living”; you may be at the greatest risk as your ultimate task is making a “life.” Sir Winston Churchill is credited with having said, “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” Sometimes, we are so focused on the former that we fail to achieve the later.

“Giving” is not just related to money. And the impact of what you “give” is not judged by the monetary value of the gift; it is judged by its cost to you. The commendation of the widow’s mite was not assessed by its economic value, but by the fact it was all that she had. Second, don’t wait until you have wealth in order to learn the art and the discipline of giving. Begin now, today, and maintain that “giving” spirit as long as you live.

When I was a sophomore at Northwestern State College, I was 18. I met a freshman who was shy and never smiled because his teeth were rotten and filled with cavities. I went to a dentist in Natchitoches and asked him what he would charge for a full-mouth extraction and to fit this young man with dentures. He gave me a price, and I asked if I could pay him in the next summer when I would have a job. He agreed. I saw this young man’s life transformed and I took my first serious step toward making a “life” out of the “living” I earned that next summer.

My wife and I taught school in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, our first year out of Northwestern. You would not believe how little we earned. The brightest young girl in my class was very poor and only attended school irregularly but always made a hundred on tests. That year, Carolyn and I took Vivian shopping and bought her clothes including a red dress. That was 1965; in 2005, I was given her current address and I wrote her. I did not hear from her for a year.

When her response arrived, it brought tears to my eyes. She said, “It has taken me a long time to write back. I have had a difficult life but things are better now. My children are doing well. When I was in the seventh grade a teacher and his wife bought me a red dress. Was that you? I wore it until it fell apart. It is the only dress I ever had.” Be a giver.

Third, give more than your resources; give your heart. A smile, a greeting, or a handshake often will do more for others than money. Recently, I entered a nursing home where as a physician, I have a prominent role. As I rounded a corner, I encountered a new janitor. I greeted him, stopped and shook his hand. This small gesture, done as a genuine affirmation of the value of our contribution to the health of the residents, was a great gift to him. But as always, the giver receives the greatest return.

Opportunities to be a “giver” will abound in your life. Several years ago, my wife and I were having lunch at our regular Friday restaurant. A new waitperson took our order and served us. She did a poor job, but we were kind to her. And though her performance did not warrant it, we gave her a gratuity. Ten days later, we saw this young women walking down the mall. She had two children with her. They looked at their mother as if she were the Queen of England. I said to my wife, “Aren’t you glad we were kind to her?” Always treat people the way you would hope they would be treated by their closest loved one.

Pay Your Debt

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul counseled, “Owe no man anything but to love one another, for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” Throughout your life, you will incur “a debt of love” to others. In the context of your college graduation, you may say, “But I paid my tuition and my room and board; how could I owe a debt to Northwestern State University?”

First, your education cost more than you paid, and second, your professors gave you more of themselves than their salaries required. In addition, your fellow students invested in your life each day of your education. In the past four years, you have accumulated a “debt of love” toward the institution and the individuals of NSU.

A year ago, when my wife and I endowed a Distinguished Professorship and two scholarships at NSU, I asked the university not to announce the cost of the endowments. Why? Because more than a gift, they were installments paid upon a “debt of love” owed for 50 years and because the example was for others to be motivated to become “givers,” and the monetary value of the endowments was not the point.

Let me tell you that there is an alumnus of NSU, and it is not me, who has a vision of soliciting two pennies from every person in the United States of America for healthcare. What value could that be, you ask? It costs more to mint a penny than the face value of the penny. If two pennies cost two and a half cents to produce, how can a gift of two cents be a gift of value? It is the power of geometric progression. The reality is that if everyone gives two cents a day, $1 billion dollars a year would be collected.

Continued next week.