Commencement Speech 2004


I told President Eisler that if he used the word foshizzle in his remarks he would bring down the house. He politely declined.

Good afternoon. Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you Vice President Harris for the kind introduction. Greetings to President Eisler, members of the Ferris State University administration, faculty and trustees, family members, distinguished guests and, most importantly, graduates.

To the parents and guardians I say, thank you. Thank you for trusting us with the awesome responsibility of educating your sons and daughters. Know this: we take that responsibility seriously. To the graduates I say, well done. We are proud of you and you have every reason to be proud of your accomplishments.

I told Gabrielle, my youngest daughter, that I was today's speaker. She said, "Daddy why would people be interested in something you have to say?" Children. I explained that commencement is really not about the speaker, it's about the graduates, but it is traditional to have a speaker. She said okay but that I should "hurry back." Most commencement speeches are brief. I assure you that this speech will be shorter than it seems. To the audience I say, at times I will try to be funny. If you are not sure when to laugh please look at the people on the stage. They heard my speech at the 10:00 ceremony.

Humor is not the enemy of hard work.

I'm not going to give advice, not much. I am, instead, going to make some predictions. I should warn you that I predicted that Joey Harrington would lead the Detroit Lions deep into the playoffs -- in 2007.

You know that Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, our founder, was twice elected Governor of Michigan. You may not know that one of you sitting here will also be elected Governor of this state. And you will do an outstanding job. I do not know if you will be a Democrat or a Republican, and that hardly matters: you will be a public servant for all the people. Your decisions will not be based on partisan politics, newspaper polls, or a desire to be reelected. You will govern with conviction and integrity. You will know, and teach us, that intelligent people can disagree about politics without subjecting one another to ridicule, mockery, and slurs. Someone will be the governor of this state, why not one of you?

We need leaders; we need servants. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love." Self-aggrandizing politicians make themselves famous and wealthy -- we need servants.

One of today's graduates will develop an electrochemical process used to separate chemicals from waste streams, seawater, and other dilute liquids. I do not fully understand electroseparation and electrodialysis, but I do like to drink clean water, so thank you.

There are so many Americans making hateful things -- material objects that defame and belittle women and peoples of color. We need people who create objects that lift others, especially lifting those who have historically been mistreated.

Two of you will produce and direct a movie called "The Ferris Wheel." This quirky, romantic comedy will poke fun at young people falling in love in a small college town near Reed City, Michigan. This thoroughly enjoyable movie will achieve a perfect balance between comedy and drama. It will be nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

It will not win.

That is okay. We do not always win. We should not work for awards. If you are a writer, do not write with a desire to be famous, write because you have something that must be said; write because you need to empty yourself; write because if you don't write you will be miserable.

One of you will write a children's book that I will read to my granddaughter. It will express love with words that I do not have. And the person who writes that beautiful little book does not yet know that she loves writing.

Life is about living, learning and loving.

One of you will develop a biomonitoring device, worn like a wristwatch, that provides wearers with up-to-the minute data about their health status. You will sell the invention to a private company and you will be rich. Super rich. I am talking Donald Trump-rich, filthy rich, rolling-in-a-bed-of-dollars rich. Money changes some people, I know, I used to act like a jerk when I got my financial aid check. Not you. Yes, you will buy a nice car, American-made, but you will use your money to help others. First, you will buy your mother and father a new home. You owe them for the tuition. Then, you will use your great wealth to help others help themselves. You will be a good steward.

When I look at you I see myself two decades ago. I had the big Afro, a polyester shirt and platform shoes with eight-inch heels. I looked like Snoop Doggy Dog with a briefcase. Foshizzle. When I look at you I see the future: inventions, discoveries, strategies, plans for a better tomorrow. I see promise.

One day there will be a cure to AIDS, and that cure will come from some mind. I believe it can come from one of your minds. America has more animal shelters than women's shelters; that is wrong, you can fix it. You help rid this country of sexism, racism, classism and other cancers. You can sit at the table where war or peace is declared. You can write foreign policy. You can rebuild our cities. You can live your life the way Mr. Ferris lived his: reaching people, touching people, helping people.

For the next two weeks I want you to have fun, but do not use credit, you're in enough debt. Then I want you to find something you love to do, and do it well.

Do not let circumstances limit you.

On June 23, 1940, a girl was born in Bethlehem, Tennessee. Some people are born with Kings, Queens, and Jacks; she was born with deuces and treys. She was born prematurely and weighed only four pounds. She was born with polio. Before her fourth birthday she had been stricken with pneumonia -- twice, and scarlet fever. The polio left one of her legs weak and deformed. Because her skin was brown she was not allowed into the local hospital. Little matter, even if she had been allowed her family was too poor to pay for hospital care. Her mother took her 50 miles to the nearest Black hospital. She could not pay the doctors. In an act of kindness, the doctors gave the child a brace for her leg and taught her mother how to exercise the mangled leg. For a decade her mother, father, sisters and brothers took turns massaging her leg to keep the muscles from atrophying.

She wore braces until she was 10 years old. When she was 20 she earned the title the "World's Fastest Woman," by winning Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the 400-meter relay race. Her name was Wilma Rudolph and she is my hero, not because she ran faster than any woman but because she ran as fast as she could.

I want you to run as fast as you can.

When I look at you I see greatness. If no one has told you let me be the first: you can do great things. Greatness is nothing more than a vision, hard work, and service. The world is full of people saying, "You can't do this; you can't do that -- you're too black or you're too new or you're too poor or you're too old." Do not listen to them. They are not simply wrong, they are thieves. Anyone who tells you that you cannot be great has forfeited the right to advise you. Give them a piece of candy and walk away. There is a part of each of you that knows that I am telling the truth, a part that longs to make a difference, to take a stand, to touch greatness. I'm not talking about making money, anyone can make money, I need you, and the world needs you, to make a difference in the lives of others. When I look at you I see greatness, but you have to see it, and some of you will. You will you do great things; you will help us build that shining city on the top of the hill.

Commencement speeches are soon forgotten. I beg you to remember one thing: this man believes that you can find the greatness that is unique to you, a greatness that makes this nation better.

I have one final prediction. One of you will become the 19th President of Ferris State University. It will be 20 years from now. You will stand here and tell the graduates that you are proud of them and you want them to be proud of their university. You will tell them that they are forever members of the Ferris family. Amen to that.

Congratulations. Enjoy the day.

David Pilgrim
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
Date posted: March 30, 2006


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