Keynote address delivered at Chatham University
May 21, 2012
I want to thank Chatham University for this wonderful honor and I want to particularly thank President Barazzone, the Board of Trustees, the faculty and the graduates. When I was a college student it would have been very unusual to actually meet and talk to the President of the University. You would only do that if you were in trouble—serious trouble. But there is nothing remote about Dr. Barazzone. Her warmth and her graciousness pervade this University and she has made this a very special occasion for Sheila and me. Actually it’s a little late for me at the age of 86 to get a college degree but I’ve always regarded myself as a student, and I hope to continue to study the ever-changing landscape of life for as long as I can or at least until I get it right.
This degree will be cherished by me. I especially value it because it honors public service, what one does for others as well as one’s personal achievements. Further, this occasion is particularly satisfying because it is an honor shared with Sheila. We’ve had a strong partnership in all aspects of our lives and she has taught me a great deal about giving. We approach public service with different points of view. I tend to be analytical, with an emphasis on ideas, theories and concepts. Sheila can certainly understand this approach, but her emphasis is on people, their feelings and their needs. She of course will speak for herself.
When I got word of this event I started to think about public service, what it meant and why it mattered to you the students and graduates. Clearly public service and philanthropy make a huge difference in our society, including what goes on at Chatham and other universities but it can also make a huge difference in our own personal lives.
When you, the graduates, leave this ceremony you will probably go home or perhaps to some gathering of friends and family, and people will congratulate you. You will probably hear some toasts and words of praise and good wishes. People will probably say something about your future and their hopes for you. They probably won’t say they wish for you a lot of good times and fun or a lot of parties to go to or a lot of laughs in your life. Actually all of those things would be welcomed, but I think it’s more likely the toasts that are offered will make reference to a life of achievement, meaning and significance.
As we get along in life and we look at ourselves and our children and family and people we care about, what we wish for ourselves is a life that counts for something. All of the fun and pleasures of life are important and even necessary, but when we look at the score we want something more: We want to make a difference and we want to earn the respect of ourselves and others. If we live just for ourselves, we won’t get these things. The great Hebrew scholar Hillel, a sage who lived around the time of Christ, said:
“If I am not for myself who will be for me and if I am only for myself what am I?”
I believe public service is about reaching out to others and helping them as they try to improve their own lives. We do this not for recognition or honors, but to gain self-respect and to be able to say to ourselves that we are making the most of our lives. We also do this to leave a worthy legacy to our family and others we care about.
After graduation you will have much of importance to deal with: career, family, finances, gaining independence and making a place for yourself in the community and in your profession. But as time goes on, your legacy and how you fit into a larger picture will be more and more important to you. I think it might be useful to you to know how I came to value and care about public service and my own legacy.
My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and they never learned to read or write English very well. My father was a tailor and he made his living fixing peoples clothes. They had little education and no substantial means. They did, however, give me a perspective and a framework which I could use to shape my own life. My parents left Europe because of poverty, injustice and persecution and as a result, my father came to believe that some form of socialism offered the best hope to mankind for a better life.
When I was growing up, my father and I had long discussions about what was going on in the world and about the need to overthrow despotic regimens. I was an enthusiastic listener; I began to care deeply about overcoming poverty, oppression, war and human exploitation. When I dreamed of the future, it was a future of revolution and change when good would triumph over evil. As a result, at an early age I became intensely interested in current events and in history, and that led me to become an avid reader of books and periodicals on philosophy, history, economics, psychology and many of the great classical novels. I sought to know and understand political and economic systems and what motivated people so that I could help to bring about change. I also liked football, baseball and girls so I wasn’t a total nerd.
Through my service as a soldier in World War II and my careers in law and business, I came to understand that life was not as simple as a contest between good and evil. I learned through experience that we all have some good and at the same time, we all tend to be self-serving and strongly in pursuit of our own interests. I came to understand that there was no easy solution to the problems of the world; neither communism, socialism, fascism nor some other idealistic and simplistic formula could make all of us peaceful, prosperous and content. I became increasingly aware of the failure of communist regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere and of the vast scale of persecution, murder and punishment occurring in those countries. My early dreams of fairness and justice for all through revolution were gradually eroded by my increasing understanding of the nature of man and the governing systems he has created. I came to believe that one found meaning in life by using our abilities and our passions to do what each of us could do best, or in Voltaire’s words to “work in our own gardens.”
I continue to this day to have a strong and abiding interest in the public good and in attempting to help others. This interest is the residue of my early infatuation with utopian and radical ideas. Since I once thought I could solve the problems of the world, normal challenges in life don’t seem that daunting to me. Consequently, I have overcome barriers and have created business opportunities, which led to thousands of jobs and careers for many people. Through philanthropy, I have been able to help the community in many ways including making art and culture available to more and more people.
All of the early wrestling with big ideas put me on a path of learning and discovery. This inspired me to be a player and not just a student. My dreams changed over time, but I never stopped dreaming. Many of our ideas may not in the long run be realistic, but ambition, hard work and flexibility will always get us to a good place. In the end, what will determine the quality of our lives more than anything is the ability to cope with frustration and disappointment and turn that into the engine of success and accomplishment.
Economists believe that there is a great divide in America between those who have an education and those who don’t. With today’s graduation all of you are on the fortunate side of that divide. But I believe that there is another significant divide between those who live just in their own neighborhoods and those who live in the world at large. Civilizations advanced dramatically when trading vessels began to travel to far away locations; and new ideas and new understanding about how others lived, worked and thought began to be absorbed.
By opening my eyes to the problems of the world, my parents turned my attention outward. I believe that limiting our horizons can lead to a life that is lonely, empty and meaningless. Our effectiveness and our capabilities improve substantially when we see life through someone else’s eyes and not just our own. Our achievements and satisfactions come from caring, learning, sharing, helping and doing what we are capable of doing. These perspectives and actions are what make our lives count. If you respect yourself and are far-sighted, you just might change the world. As students you spent a lot of time in college listening, and that’s a vital skill, but now it’s your time to be a player.
I spoke earlier about the various toasts and congratulations that you will probably hear later today. I would like to pretend that I have a glass of champagne in my hand as I offer my toast to each of you:
“I hope all of you make it to wherever it is you want to go, and I hope you can say along the way, ‘my life has purpose and meaning and what I am doing matters.’”
Congratulations to all of you. Thanks again for inviting me to share this wonderful occasion with you.