‘But you will bring joy to a world in need of it’
Mike Brown

Quick. Who spoke at your high school graduation. If you’re lucky, or have a good memory, you may know.

If you’re exceptional you may even remember a couple lines from the speech he or she delivered.

But most of us, I suspect, do not. I’ve heard more graduation speeches than most, 40 of them, and I remember only a handful, more for the personalities than for what they said.

There have been some notable exceptions, like Rockdale native Jason Brown two years ago.

Jason (no relation), a fantastically talented musician, now lives in Maryland where he directs a church youth program and runs a barbecue restaurant.

“ That’s because everybody needs Jesus and, boy, does Maryland need good barbecue,” Jason said.

Now, there’s a line you can’t forget.

Another I remember well was the late Congressional Medal of Honor winner Roy Benavidez who held an audience of 1,200 breathlessly silent as he described his almost superhuman actions which saved the lives of eight fellow soldiers in Vietnam.

So many graduation speeches, not just in Rockdale, mean so well but cover so much of the same ground “you (graduates) are our future, you will do great things, all of you have gifts you can use, this is the turning point in your life....”

Well, yes. Nothing wrong with any of that. But as for life, well, isn’t there a little bit more to it?

The best graduation speech I’ve ever encountered was given by a man named William McGurn to a class of graduates at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

I don’t know much about Mr. McGurn except he was once a speechwriter for the second President Bush.

He sure took a different tack on a graduation speech. This is some of what he said that night:

As a professional speechwriter, I am painfully aware of the forms common for this occasion.

The clichés fall into a familiar pattern: Dare to be different … do your own thing … and don’t be afraid to be a “rebel.”

“There is something false and cheap about all this. It is well not to be afraid of being different, and it can be a form of courage.

But if we aim to be different only for different’s sake, the likelihood is that we end up as the ultimate cliché—rebels without a cause.

Then McGurn went on to list what he felt were the three greatest life lessons he’d observed, and they’re a far cry from the “you can do anything you want, so go for that earth-changing career” line that seems to be a staple of most commencement addresses.

Here’s what he said:

First, who you marry is far more important than what career you choose. Over the course of a life that has taken me across three continents, I have met many accomplished men and women. And I have always been astonished by the number who give more thought to choosing the job they may hold for a couple of years than to choosing the spouse to whom they will pledge—before God and their friends—to remain with until death they do part.

Second, no professional achievement—no matter how extraordinary—can match the thrill of seeing the absolute love and confidence reflected in the trusting eyes of a child who calls you Mom or Dad.

Finally, you will not find lasting happiness by pursuing it. Happiness is the byproduct of a contented life. And the surest path to a contented life is to put the needs of others before your own.

There was a day when such words would have been unspoken because their wisdom was unquestioned.

Wow. Then he closed with the kind of charge to the graduates you might not hear much any more in commencement speeches.

Where you see innocence, protect it.

Where you see longing and loneliness, be the outstretched arm that breaks through the pain...

If you do these things, you may not end up rich or famous.

But you will bring joy to a world in desperate need of joy.

You will love and you will be loved.

And amid the noise and muddle and disappointment of whatever life throws your way, you will know what it means to hear the angels sing.

I’ll bet those graduates remembered that speech.

I certainly have.

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2013-06-06 digital edition

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