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Text of Spring Commencement Speech

Thank you, President Marks, for that kind introduction... Distinguished members of the Board of Regents...honored faculty... staff... parents and friends... and especially, graduates of the class of 1998!

Thank you for this opportunity to address you. It is great to be back in Texas, where I have strong ties.... and it is good to occasionally leave Washington, D. C., which has been described by some as "a city surrounded on all sides by reality..."

Reality for each of you, on this day, must be sweet, indeed. I am honored to share with you, in this way, your impressive achievement. You truly represent the future of this great Nation. So, before I attempt the age-old tradition of dispensing commencement speech advice, allow me first and foremost, to congratulate you. I encourage you to revel in your hard-won accomplishment of the past four years.

This is a time of celebration for you, and I want to point out another occasion that we, in the military, are celebrating this weekend... it is the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the U. S. armed forces. As I look out on the diversity of this institution, it seems odd, indeed, that it took a presidential decree from Harry S. Truman, to end the segregation of blacks and whites in our military.

After all, as Secretary of the Navy, I know that we are successful today, as a TEAM, because of our commitment to recruit and promote quality people from all the diversity of this nation. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. As you graduate and enter the work force, you will also discover just how true that is in all aspects of the great American experience.

In a few minutes, you will officially become alumni. You are joining an elite group, indeed. Your fellow alumni are building a positive international reputation, around the world. Their contributions literally touch millions of people.

Several of your faculty have served in the United States Navy, and several continued in the Naval Reserves. They have assisted in very sensitive Naval investigations, and have served in military diplomatic posts. Dr. Marks, the nation appreciates the support that you have shown in allowing us to call on the citizen-sailors of your faculty and staff.

Sam Houston State University has a reputation as wide and grand as the state of Texas itself, and you should be very proud to become vested members of this great institution. Having said that, this would not be a commencement program without an attempt to add more advice to your pack, or as we say in the Navy, your seabag. Given what you have already learned, that is a large challenge for me. So, I asked my wife Margaret if she knew what I should talk about today. She replied in her confident way, "I know exactly what you should talk about... you should talk about 15 minutes, MAX!"

Let me begin, then, with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, one of our greatest presidents, and a lifetime supporter of a strong U. S. Navy and Marine Corps...

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

I believe those words are as appropriate for you today, as they were when Theodore Roosevelt delivered them in 1910. That is because you are truly entering, today, the arena that Roosevelt described. That great American's advice would be to enter it with vigor, energy, drive, and yes, unabashed ambition. "Carpe Diem," seize the day... Just as our nation leads on the world stage today, without apology--with the help of a strong Navy-Marine Corps team, I would add--the claim you stake for yourselves after today should also come without apology.

Good advice, no doubt. But, I will be presumptuous, and both qualify and temper Roosevelt's advice with three additional thoughts.

First, your aggressive entry into the arena would be well-served to come with a commitment to life-long learning. Here at Sam Houston State, you have demonstrated your willingness, your ability and your passion to learn. Your continued success will depend on building upon those traits. Your accomplishments will pile up, but it is the voyage that will count for you. I urge you to take time on your voyage to recognize those people and events that are trying to tell you something, and helping you to build as a person of value.

The degree you receive today is not, after all, an entitlement. It does not mean that you are a better person than one who does not have it. I am reminded of the humorous story of a Navy captain, commanding his ship at sea, who perhaps thought his title and position alone gave him more right-of-way than that to which he was entitled...

In the 1950s, a battleship captain operating in a dense fog sent the following message to a dim light seen in the distance, "Please alter course;" to which the response was, "Unable. You will need to change course." The captain, somewhat agitated, sent a second message: "I am the captain of a United States Navy battleship, and I demand that you change course." The response came back: "I am a petty officer, in charge of a light house." Guess who changed course!

Changing course is never easy, but the success of the voyage you begin today depends upon continuous adjustments to your course, and self-renewal on a daily basis.

Let me tell you about a naval officer who has done this. Just last week I participated in a video teleconference, or VTC, focused on the opportunities for Hispanic Americans in the Department of the Navy. When a reporter asked me to detail what we are doing to ensure minorities are given opportunities, a Lieutenant Commander by the name of Burt Quintanilla took the microphone in Corpus Christi, Texas.

He stood up and said, and I will paraphrase here, "I happen to be of Hispanic descent, but let me tell you the point here... the opportunities are there, but I studied hard, I hit the books, and I made myself worthy to be here... As a result, l am now the commanding officer of a ship... and let me tell you, there is no greater experience than that!"

He "made himself worthy." What a great statement. He did not focus on his Hispanic heritage, or what the Navy could provide to him, following his own graduation in 1985. He focused on self-appraisal and renewal... what he could do, on a daily basis, to make himself the best naval officer the Navy could possibly have.

My second message to you, to temper the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, is to spend some of your time in the future--as much of your time as you can afford--in giving back to your alma mater, to your community and to your nation. The former Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, once said to a group of graduates like yourselves, "We've gone to special lengths to save a few problems for you!"

Indeed we have. This is a grand time in America, with an economy that is unrivaled anywhere in the world, tremendous opportunities and the promise of a lasting peace in the new millennium. But, rest assured, there is much to do, of such import that it cannot be left to "someone else." You are that someone else, and you are needed.

We are each free to choose, to think, to write, to act. I believe, however, that we are rightly limited by a recognition of the common good, and subject to the rule that the right to enjoy freedom is indistinguishable from the obligation to defend it... that obligation may come in the form of public policy debates that exist in so many forms, all around you. Your participation may appear insignificant at times, but however small, it is vital... It was Robert Kennedy who once said it so well...

"It is from numberless and diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends out a tiny ripple of hope, and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance."

And, I would add to that, it is from numberless acts of civility that human decency is shaped. I urge you to give back to your fellow man and woman, in some way, every day.

Third, and last, in my attempt to give you something else for your seabag as you enter into the arena today... I urge you to truly LEAD. As I mentioned, your degree does not make you a better person. But, what you have done to arrive at this commencement today, and the reputation of your alma mater, does make you stand out. You stand out as someone with the potential to lead. As America embarks on a new century in the unique role of global leader, your own leadership is not only an opportunity, but it is also, I believe, an obligation.

Your ability to inspire those around you to achieve great things, however, will depend upon your ability to lead ethically. I am urging you to set your moral compass, as you embark on your voyage. Without a compass, you will be adrift in the constant sea of change and uncertainty.

Several years ago, the Navy leadership recognized that our own people, from recruits to our senior sailors and officers, were missing something. We had high technology, a relevant mission and the support of the American people. But we had too many incidents where an individual's personal behavior was harmful to our overall mission. So, we began a transformation process, not just in technology, equipment and doctrine, but an equally exciting one that invested in our people... we began a strong re-investment in our time-honored values. In the Navy and Marine Corps, we refer to them as our Core Values of Honor, Courage and Commitment.

Our Core Values are, today, much more than buzz words... they are ingrained in all of our training programs, at every level, and they have become a compass for the behavior of our sailors and Marines. Our people are proud ambassadors, in peace and conflict, for the ideals they protect. As a result, we are today, America's "911 Force," ready anytime, anywhere.

Your own leadership, when guided by an ethical compass, in whatever organization and community you dedicate yourselves to, will have equal impact for the greater good. For I truly believe that life cannot be value-free. Public morality cannot be relative among us, lest we get on that slippery slope that will find us tolerating the lowest common denominator in standards of conduct. That would be corrosive to our stature as a people, both at home and abroad.

I hope that I have given you some useful advice... to allow you to keep learning and improving... to give back, daily, to your alma mater, your community and your nation... and, to lead, ethically, in the exciting arena that awaits you after this well-earned achievement in your lives.

At the very least, l have talked about... 15 minutes. So, I thank you again for your invitation to me. I truly envy you, as you pack your seabags--hopefully with some of my advice--and embark on an exciting voyage. In proud naval tradition, I wish you "fair winds and following seas."

God bless you... God bless this great institution... and God bless America.


Visit Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton's home page.
Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
May 16, 1998
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