The following post is the text of a May 31 high school graduation speech I delivered at the Landmark Academy in Kimball, Michigan.
Good evening, Members of the Class of 2014, parents, family, and guests:
Maya Angelou passed away on Wednesday. One of the most gifted poets of our times, Ms. Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
My goal is to make you feel proud, happy, and hopeful! Congratulations, Class of 2014!
It is a pleasure to be here tonight, especially on this date, which has great meaning to me. May 31 is the birthday of my late mother, Jacqueline Douglas. Mom passed away two years ago. She would have been 87 years old today, and I must confess I miss her each day.
More about Mom a little later.
It is also near the 44th anniversary of my graduation from Concord High School, the Class of 1970. Concord High School is a small school about 150 miles from our location here tonight.
Visualize a small, lazy farming community just off Interstate Highway 94, midway between Ann Arbor and Battle Creek. That is Concord.
At my graduation, I actually gave a speech that night. It lasted two minutes and thirty seconds. I was scared to death, and wondered if I would run out of breath. I was proud to have used two quotations in the speech, one of which I will use again tonight. My speech tonight, by the way, is 14.4 minutes.
So my roots are in Michigan, and truly, my heart is with you here at Landmark Academy.
Let me say once again, Congratulations to you, Members of the Class of 2014!
To prepare for my speech, I asked you, our graduates, for insight. You see, the speech I make is for you; this is your night.
This is what you told me you wanted to hear: What advice would I now offer to me back then, as I graduated?
It is an interesting concept: a take on “the time machine” idea, or “back to the future.” What would I say now, in 2014, back to a kid like I was, back in 1970?
Graduates, you have made me think about a lot of things in preparation. Thank you for motivating me in this direction.
So here it is. This is what I would say today, May 31, 2014, to a graduate in 1970: I would say, “I am third.”
I am third.
I would say follow the “I Am Third” framework, something I would actually read about in 1972, in Gayle Sayers’ book by that same title, I Am Third.
Without doing a book report for you, let me say it is a sports book written by Sayers, who is considered one of the most gifted professional football players ever to play the game. In his era, he was like Barry Sanders was in Detroit, or like what Adrian Peterson is now in Minnesota.
Sayers’ Hall of Fame career was stopped short due to a knee injury.
Sayers’ book was so well done that it was made into a movie called Brian’s Song. Sayers had a teammate named Brian Piccolo, who had cancer. Very young, Piccolo fought it bravely, but sadly ended up dying. Sayers’ loyalty to Piccolo and his family was at the core of the story.
Brian’s Song was just on cable TV two weeks ago, so it is on still quite a bit. If you have not seen it, ask your grandparents. They likely will remember it. It was very big back in the day.
Back to the framework “I Am Third.”
Sayers promoted it this way, as I recall: “The Lord is first, my family is second, and I am third.”*
It is a simple, yet powerful concept that underscores an unselfish way of thinking. I don’t know about you, but many people I see in leadership roles switch this around: it may be more like, “I am first.”
Therefore, I propose “I Am Third” as a framework for living. Let’s spend some time on each part.
In Christian faiths, this is Christ. For other faiths, it may be God, Father, Yahweh, Lord, Buddha, Messiah, Allah.
The point is, faith guides a path.
Faith gives us the Ten Commandments and guidelines for living.
Faith gives us stability, gives us a vision and targets to aim at.
Faith helps us cope with challenges, tragedies, storms, and cancer.
Faith helps us cope with death.
Faith can be a set of ideal standards.
“Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them.”
— Carl Schurz
This is the quotation I used that night, and it has stuck with me ever since because it is very important to me to have a faith, a belief in God, to chart my course. It is Sayers’ first framework — “The Lord is first” — in his “I am Third” approach.
Family is huge, yet it has not always been that way for me.
I am an only child, and as such, I was spoiled. Therefore, I took “family” for granted as a kid, and at my high school graduation, I was embarrassed when my mom gave me my diploma, because she was secretary on the school board at the time. She kissed me in front of everyone, and that was what she wanted to do.
How foolish and short-sighted of me to have felt that way. How self-centered of me! It saddens me, and I cannot go back and undo it.
Today — well, I focus on my family, more than ever.
My wife, Joan, has made the trip with me. Joan, please stand. I love you and appreciate your love and support so much. We go everywhere together; we enjoy each other’s company so very much. I am grateful.
My three grown children, Katie and Chris and John: I love them and am very proud of them. Each has carved successful paths along the way. They are college graduates from CMU, Ferris State, Michigan Tech and MSU. They have their own professional careers: Katie designs accessories for Lululemon in Vancouver, B.C.; Chris teaches economics for the University of Michigan Flint; John is a rubber chemist at Armada Rubber Company.
I am incredibly proud!
A little more about family; my mom is gone, but Dad is 90 years old, has remarried a wonderful woman, Audrey, and Joan and I see them frequently. A big holiday is approaching — Father’s Day — where my sons and I play golf with my dad and then all of us go out to eat to celebrate.
Family is definitely important to me — far, far more important than me.
The actor Michael J. Fox put it this way: “Family is not an important thing. It is everything.”
Well stated, Mr. Fox!
“Self” is important, but it is in third place. This gets tricky!
A few comments about self. . . .
My priority the past two decades has been to strive for balance. Exercise and rest and diet. I try to watch my weight. I get a physical examination every year; I visit the dentist and eye doctor; and I set a goal to live as well as I can, as independent as I can.
These seem like common sense and not a big deal, but back to my late mom. She was a lifelong smoker — was proud of the fact she had not been to see a doctor in 40 years.
Well, smoking took its toll on her, and the last two years of her life she was pretty much sitting in a wheel chair or lying in bed, hooked up to oxygen due to her lungs being so bad from smoking. I am hedging against this happening to me by not smoking and by running daily, either at the YMCA of Saginaw or outside on the roads near our home. Last year I logged 1,902 miles, and so far this year, I have gone 853 miles to date, including 6 miles this morning.
Running is no guarantee, but it puts the odds in my favor.
I urge you to consider making a similar commitment not to smoke and to exercise. You do not have to run; you can bike, walk, or use a variety of cross-training machines to build up your cardio.
Some of you wanted me to mention to you things to strive for after today. Perhaps when you go to college, get a job, start a career.
This is what I believe:
- Do your best, always. There are too many who may settle for getting by; avoid that temptation and do your best.
- Be honest and polite. There is too little civility in the world — be nice and make others feel your love and support.
- Continue to learn. If you go to college, that is great and I support your decision. But put your best effort into it, and continue to learn each and every day. Be like a sponge; absorb everything you can. Grow, constantly, and do not stop. If you choose to work or a career in the military, that is fine, as well, and I support your decision. But it is the same thing: Grow, constantly, and do not stop learning. You can always sharpen your skills and develop your knowledge. It takes effort, and it always pays off.
- Avoid being afraid. Everyone has successes and failures. Grow from them and do not be afraid. John Wooden used this quotation with his basketball teams: “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.” So after today, when you begin college or work or military or whatever, have courage — because it is courage that counts.
As I conclude, please note “I am Third” says nothing about money.
Well, money is important, but it is far less important than all the other matters I have touched upon with you this evening. I think of Max Scherzer, the Detroit Tigers’ star pitcher. Scherzer turned down a contract offer of $144 million for six years because he wants to explore the free agency market after this year.
I love Tigers baseball and think Scherzer is a great talent. But Max, I am sorry, your logic is twisted; money is unimportant in the grand scheme of things. If we have enough money for a comfortable and safe life, that is what we need. The other things that matter, matter far more than money.
If I could place a call now to myself or a kid back in 1970, I would say this: adopt an “I Am Third” viewpoint, and stick to it.
The Lord is first, my family is second, and I am third. If I do this, other things will fall into place. The results will be a happy, rich, and fulfilling life.
Helen Keller once said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched — they must be felt with the heart.”
Class of 2014, I feel you with my heart tonight. Go forward and look for the most beautiful things in the world with your heart, placing you … third.
I am third!
* It turns out Sayers’ motto actually placed his friends second. I can certainly respect that view, but I’ll stand by my version.↩