Proposed Remarks for
The Honorable Jim Nicholson
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
University of Denver
Sturm College of Law Commencement
May 20, 2006
Thank you for that nice introduction.
It’s wonderful to be back in Denver. Just a few weeks ago Suzanne and I were privileged to travel half-way around the world to represent the United States in New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Guam. It was a whirlwind tour – but we did make time to enjoy the sights and sounds of those nations.
And as impressive as they are – as colorful and dramatic as they can be – when we flew back into Washington and I saw, once again, the Capitol Building, the monuments, and the White House all spread out below – I am not ashamed to say that my heart rose with gladness that I am an American.
We are truly blessed, my friends, to live in a nation of such bounty and beauty. Here on the Front Range, just a little north of Pikes Peak – the inspiration for America the Beautiful – we are safe and protected and free to exercise all the rights of the Constitution you as lawyers will uphold throughout your careers.
That would not be the case if it weren’t for the selfless duty of Americans in uniform.
I am so darned proud of the citizen-soldiers who are on front lines of the war on terror, raising up democracy above the mud of tyranny, giving Afghans and Iraqis new hope for a future they can control. And I’ll tell you this … our allies around the world are glad we’re there. I heard that over and over on my trip.
I thank Dean Ricketson for inviting me to speak. In the invitation, she said I had warm personality. I’m not sure how to take that, Dean. At first I was touched by your words … but then I though about the word “warm.” Look it up. It means “not so hot.” But I came anyway.
When I was thinking about today’s remarks, I asked Suzanne for her advice. You know, she’s with me during many of my speeches, so I rely on her to critique me. I asked her how I could make this speech different – she just looked at me and said, “There’s a first time for everything; you could try being funny and brief.”
She also told me that I should not overdo my preparation for these remarks … I suppose she’s right: I once rehearsed for two weeks just to deliver a silent prayer.
In my life, I’ve attended four of my own graduation ceremonies. I remember only one commencement speaker: Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson who spoke at my graduation from the U.S. Academy at West Point.
I don’t have a clue what the president said, but I remember that my dad fell asleep during the speech.
So, it won’t surprise me that today you’re thinking about parties, packing your apartment, or your new job with a law firm.
But, I have just a few key thoughts I hope you’ll remember.
First of all: A special salutation for you graduates and your parents. I know the excitement in your hearts today, knowing this task is behind you. When I graduated, I was 34-years old, married, with two kids. The only people happier than I was were my wife and children.
As a once-poor kid from Struble, Iowa, who was never sure I would ever be able to go to college myself, I remember the thrill and a more than a little anxiety at completing my law degree and wondering what the future would hold.
That was a pretty natural feeling that comes with growing up in a family seven kids, at a time in our lives when household luxuries would have been electricity of indoor plumbing. We learned quickly to appreciate the simple gifts God blessed us with every day.
Gifts like a mother, filled to overflowing with unconditional love, and who, in spite of our dire conditions, would not let us lose hope or dignity. Although we were always without plumbing, often without electricity, and sometimes without food, she continually admonished us to study hard, work hard and pray hard. She was right – all seven of us went to college and four of us have post-graduate degrees.
My dad did not go to high school; my mom did not go to college – but she was the valedictorian of her high school class, and knew her Latin, and she would literally correct our grammar while we huddled around a kerosene lantern with hungry stomachs.
We had other gifts too, like neighbors who helped us when times were the toughest, and teachers and coaches who encouraged us to never give up.
We also had gifts like the veterans from the First and Second World Wars. I remember watching them stand up tall and salute when the flag passed by on Decoration Day. I relished their stories – when I could get them to talk.
Those veterans reminded us, in their mostly silent eloquence, that more than a million Americans from hometowns just like Struble, Iowa, paid the ultimate price for Americans to enjoy the greatest of God’s gifts on earth: what President Franklin Roosevelt called the “Four Freedoms.”
The first is freedom of speech and expression;
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way;
The third is freedom from want; and
The fourth is freedom from fear.
Standing here this morning … in the bright light of the Four Freedoms … in the heartland of these United States … surrounded by friends and fellow citizens … I am grateful to God that He has guided me to this day.
But, I want to talk to you folks getting your degrees today – the hard way – you worked for it. This is your day. First and foremost – Congratulations! You have made it…you are about to join the profession of Jefferson, Lincoln, Holmes, Bryan, and Brandeis.
You are armed to take on the future … and to make of the future what you will. I firmly believe that we have an incredible power to control our destiny.
You’re a perfect example of this. You set a goal for yourself to get through law school. You’ve worked hard and you’ve learned a lot.
On a daily basis, you are a constant example to others that our actions have generally predictable consequences.
We have a great capability to choose our interactions and our reactions. As an attorney, your clients will seek your advice on what options to choose; they will expect you to counsel them on the outcomes of their actions – ultimately they will have to choose their own course, but you will have a very important role in laying that course out. It’s a huge responsibility.
You’re not just putting a law shingle out – you have, today, become counselors, confessors, judges of character, receptors for the pains of life and, from time to time, bearers of good news.
I dwell on this a little bit because I think it’s often easy to get discouraged about the world. We face significant challenges around energy resources, environmental impacts, economic stability and the ability for people to live in freedom. But remember, the future is not pre-determined.
As human beings, we are endowed by our Creator with the great gift of free will. You get to choose how you will live your life, whether you will squander your talents or put them to use to make a world where justice, peace and love are commonplace.
I hope you will remember these three suggestions to help guide your lives: Persistence, Prayer, and Service.
For some of you, the idea of running a corporation, negotiating contracts, or arguing a case before the Supreme Court – or running for public office – is what drives your ambition and helped you get through the rigors of law school.
And if that is your vision today, fine. Hold on to it, build on it, and go for it.
But, on your path toward your own well-earned success, don’t ignore the good things that the Lord puts just to the side of the road to slow your pace and make you look out for others who are not so fortunate, or who have become marginalized or disenfranchised, or who are in dire need of help.
Maybe, for some of you, that will mean stepping off the career fast track to serve in soup kitchens or hospices or clothing distribution centers. For others, perhaps it means teaching the poorest children in the remote corners of the world.
It could mean standing up for the rights of the victims of human trafficking, or taking a stand against genocide or ethnic cleansing.
You may find your niche in pro bono legal work.
And maybe, for a few of you, it will mean putting on the uniform of America’s Armed Forces and fighting evil wherever it threatens to consume the liberties of the weak and oppressed.
Serving in the military was a natural for my family; I served in Vietnam as an Army officer.
My father served in World War II, my father-in-law served in both WWII and Korea. One of my sons is a veteran, and four of my nephews are Colonels in the Army and Air Force. Service to country is our way of continuing the blessings of liberty for today’s and tomorrow’s generations.
Now, my service to country is devoted to helping America redeem the debt we owe to our veterans. I am so privileged to serve as President Bush’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and to be responsible to provide medical care and benefits to those among our 24 million veterans who need our help. While I know we are a “great” Department, I also know that our greatness is a result of VA’s 230,000 employees who are accomplishing, ever day, countless small, but important “good” things for our citizen-soldiers.
Our nation is blessed with young men and women who believe in the Four Freedoms, who cannot cast a blind eye toward injustice, and who are prepared to lay down their lives on the altar of freedom so that others may live in peace and tranquility.
Their commitment is great; their sacrifice, greater still. But in the end, they are not motivated by visions of greatness; they do what they do because they are good people, seeking to do good in war-torn worlds.
Every day they make it possible for students like you to attend this great school … to practice the law founded on the greatest constitution known to mankind … to enjoy the bounty of this great country as free citizens … and to aspire to your own personal greatness. That is the good they do for you, and they do it selflessly, and all too often … with the greatest sacrifice.
For you, armed with a law degree from Sturm College and ready to take on the next challenge in your lives, you have been blessed with God-given abilities to learn, to grasp, to analyze, and act on any number of issues.
Everything we do is connected to a purpose greater than ourselves. Sometimes you may think what you do doesn’t matter. But it does.
When you apply your knowledge of the law with ethics and integrity, when you make commitments to personal and professional relationships and keep your promises, you add to the power of goodness.
As you create your future, and help shape the future of your family, your community, our nation and the world, I encourage you to embrace the notion of servant-leadership.
Simply put, this is the idea that the essence of leadership is to serve one another, to serve something beyond ourselves. In a world of relationships, where connectedness is the organizing principle of the universe, the idea of the servant-leader is a potent and natural way to think about leadership.
I’ve been blessed in my life to have learned at an early age how much difference one person can make – either for good, or for bad. I could never have imagined as a scrawny kid from Iowa that I would someday travel the globe, represent our great nation to world leaders, and have the opportunity to create positive changes for people repressed by brutal governments, exploited as human traffic in a modern-day slave trade, or discouraged by the cruelties of malnutrition and AIDS.
I was able to do these things because the world needs servant-leaders and is hungry for those who will share their talent and energy toward positive change.
You can choose such a path, and I encourage you to it. Your life will be deeply enriched and the world will be better for you being in it.
I congratulate you. I will keep you in my prayers that you will be blessed with optimism and wisdom – and prosperity. Good luck! Do well!