Robert E. Leestamper shares a well outlined speech that follows all characteristics of a traditional commencement address but added to it is the whimsical yet courage-provoking story of King Arthur and Camelot that aims to inspire the graduates to live up to the Richmond College virtues.
Welcome parents, relatives, friends, colleagues, distinguished guests and the very reason for our presence - the members of the Class of 1989. Let me begin by stating I have two firm convictions about commencement speeches: first they should be brief; second they should have some direct connection with the occasion. They should be brief because the graduates are eager for the ceremony to move swiftly and by doing so they will have center stage. After all, we are here tonight to see the graduates, not to listen to a speech. But graduation from college is an important occasion; a ceremony is in order; and to witness it you must pay the price of admission - listening to a commencement speech.
I'm honored and pleased to be here - but if I have any right to address you, the graduates, it is because I am older, because I have already graduated, because I have worked with college-age students most of my adult life and I have been a husband, a father and a counselor for over 30 years. Therein lies my claim to speak to you tonight.
Ah, but what am I going to say? I see no reason to keep this a secret. What I have to say will come in four parts:
Part I. An introduction (this is what I am doing now and it is just about completed)
Part II. A lighthearted attempt to construct an all-purpose, generic commencement speech.
Part III. The body of my speech.
Part IV. The conclusion with an allusion to King Arthur's Round Table and Camelot.
As an aid to you the listeners, I'll tell you when each part is over and another part is about to start. There is no reason to hide my structure and it may even keep you alert. To keep faith with you, I now announce: Part I, the introduction is over.
Part II, a lighthearted attempt to construct an all-purpose, generic commencement speech is about to start.
I know you'll share my pleasure in learning that I have solved a problem that has puzzled higher education for generation. I refer to the problem of devising a commencement speech that is timely, memorable, brief and inspiring. This problem, which recurs every spring, has frustrated the best efforts of scholars, scientists, scribes and statesmen. I discussed this problem with a friend of mine, a veteran of many years of writing television ads. He said, "Commencement speeches are easy. Just do what any good advertising man does. Take several quotes and brief passages that worked in the past, rearrange them and offer them to the public as a wonderful new creation." With his advice in mind, and help from Shakespeare, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kipling, Churchill and various unnamed contributors, I offer the following: A timely, memorable, brief and inspiring commencement speech of which no one word is mine but I do claim authorship of structure. The challenge in this for you is to try and recall the names of the actual authors of the following brief speech.
Members of the graduating class, lend me your ears; these are times that try men's souls, but tell me not in mournful words that life is but an empty dream for when in the course of human events it becomes necessary to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield, then we must summon up remembrance of things past, recalling that our forefathers brought forth new nations, and asked not what they could do for them, but said instead 'we have nothing to fear but fear itself.' In this our time, ask not for whom the bell tolls, for ours is not to reason why, ours is but to hand together or we will all hang separately! I want to make one thing perfectly clear: the world will little note nor long remember what I say here, but generations yet unborn will hold this truth to be self-evident: to thine own self be true, for no man is an island. Fear not the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you - and then, like a bridge over troubled waters, from sea to shining sea, a brighter day will dawn and bring your finest hour, and never before will so many have owed so much to so few.
Well, I'm quite sure that's enough facetious rhetoric for one day, and you'll all be satisfied if I confine the rest of my remarks to plain English. The bit of nonsense I've just shared with you, however, does make an interesting point. So many familiar quotations, so much of the great prose of the past, deal with a common theme: that times are tough, that we need courage to face the future. Perhaps that's why commencement speakers have such difficulty in coming up with a fresh approach. The situation is almost always the same: every graduating class faces an uncertain world, and because they are the graduating class, they are asked to take up the challenge of the future leadership and to succeed where their elders so often failed.
I'm afraid that tonight is not going to be much different. These are trying times, the future is full of uncertainty - and yes, like many of my predecessors, I'm going to suggest that you can do something about it.
Herein ends Part II and I'm about to begin the body of my speech. If you are already restless, bear in mind, we are already half finished.
Today's challenges seem so complex that it is virtually impossible to select any single one of them as the most important. Is it war, terrorism, hijacking, riot, famine, inflation or simply uncertainty. Time doesn't allow me to do any more than list ten headlines of the past few weeks:
1. Peru Suffers Economic Chaos: 10,000 percent inflation
2. NATO Alliance Under Stress
3. Drug Barons Control Columbia
4. Civil War in Kampuchea
5. Homeless Die in Washington D.C.
6. Children Killed on the West Bank
7. Afghanistan War Continues
8. Demonstrators Killed in Georgia and Armenia
9. Bombing continues in London
10. Vietnam Boat People Killed by Pirates (yes pirates in 1989)
But all is not despair, here are five hopeful headlines:
1. Elections in Russia
2. Solidarity Now Legal
3. Innocent Man Set Free
4. Forty Million Contributed for Food Aid
5. Major Retailers to Phase out Ivory Sales
You will note I listed ten troublesome headlines and only five hopeful ones. There are two reasons for this. First, it is easier to find troublesome headlines and secondly, I want you to realize the world is twice as bad as it is good and you must do something about this. You may reasonably ask, "Why me?" The answer is: Because you have had the opportunity to learn, to travel, to live in freedom, and you are also gifted, otherwise you would not be here tonight. In addition, you have lived in an international community and the troublesome headlines I have just listed are international in scope. You are also better prepared than most; you are distinguished from graduates of other colleges because are about to graduate from Richmond. Since you sample of colleges attended is small you may think all colleges are like Richmond College. Well, if not all, at least most. The facts are very different: few colleges have the mix of faculty and students that Richmond has. Fewer still have multi-cultural curriculum and no other institution has the same commitment to its mission. However, let me not seem too idealistic. Richmond is not perfect, everything here has not been to you satisfaction. But keep in mind, Richmond is an institution made up of people, and people are subject to error. This is not Utopia, Shangri-La is not here. So, reserve your judgment on our blemishes because from a distance of time and space your alma mater will be a very attractive woman. Even King Arthur's Round Table had flaws. And this leads me to the last part of my speech.
King Arthur and his Round Table have been evoked many times in the centuries since the balladeers of old England first told of the legendary king and the brief golden age over which he presided. To Lord Tennyson, Camelot represented the worldly environment in which the human soul must work out its individual destiny. To Mark Twain (in his Connecticut Yankee), Camelot was a place where religious and economic oppression had to be overthrown by individual integrity and ingenuity. To T.H. White (in The Once and Future King), Camelot was a place where one man's dreams of a better world were what really mattered - and mattered, even though the dreams crumbled, leaving only a memory. Twenty years a go, on the Broadway Stage, the musical, Camelot, by Lerner and Loewe, somehow managed to blend all of these themes into a rousing, popular entertainment that was also unusually thought provoking. Its imagery and its music seemed to be saying something to everyone about what they were, what they are, and what they yet might be.
I hope you know the full story. Time allows me only to focus on the ending. The climax of Camelot comes when Arthur realizes that his dream of a just and ordered society, under law, is crumbling, and the long night of the Middle Ages is descending again after "one brief shining moment." The dream is crumbling because human weakness - including his own - has overpowered the beauty and strength of an ideal of justice whose time has not quite come. He is on a battlefield, and knows he is doomed to defeat. Those whom he most loved and trusted have deceived him. His own death is a certainty. Camelot is about to end. But then, something wonderful happens. A young boy, Tom Warwick, unnoticed until that moment, suddenly comes forward to tell Arthur that he shares his dream of Camelot, that he has listened, and understood, and that he has the courage to keep the dream alive.
King Arthur suddenly realized his dream could still come true. His hope lay in young people like Tom Warwick who would carry the dream forward. Young people would believe that right, made might, not might made right, that justice was possible, that being reasonable was not a weakness, that a society under law was possible.
King Arthur called out, "Tom Warwick, if you believe, do not die on this battlefield because Camelot would die with you. As your king I command you, run! Keep the dream alive! Run Tom Warwick, run!"
Tom left the battlefield but he could hear in the distance King Arthur's commands:
"Ask every person if he has heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has not; That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory - called Camelot. Camelot. Now Tom say it out with love and joy - Camelot! Camelot! Run tom Warwick, run! Keep the dream alive!"
And now my conclusion and the most important part of this speech is directed to the graduates. You have a special responsibility. You must become the Tom Warwicks of Richmond College. The task will not be easy. Tom only had to run to every village and farm in England; you must run to every city and nation on this planet. Tom kept King Arthur's dream alive. You must keep Richmond College's dream alive.
Ask every person that you meet if they have heard this story:
That people must be judged by their intellect not the loudness of their voices.
That people must be judged by their character and not the color of their skin.
That women must be judged by what they can contribute not by sexist standards.
That people of different religions can respect the convictions of others. That people of different nationalities can live together.
That cultures are not right or wrong they are simply different.
That we live in an inter-dependent world.
That to be fully educated one must have a global perspective.
Tell them you share this dream.
Tell them that you believe.
But you will meet doubters, haters, bigots and war mongers but tell them you lived life as it could be. Tell them that you shared at Richmond College the pride of your differences and the joy of your togetherness. Keep this dream alive!
Run Richmond graduates, run!
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