May 18, 2007 — Distinguished honorees, distinguished guests, and the Class of 2007:
Before all else—congratulations! You finally made it.
Before you can begin to move on to the next phase of your lives, you must undergo the last grueling hurdle in your career here at Yeshiva University: the Commencement Address.
Let me be honest with you about my experiences with commencement addresses. I’ve been through several of my own and I’ve sat through dozens of others. And I can’t recall a single word or phrase from any of those informed, inspirational, and seemingly interminable addresses.
In preparing for today, I had thought about presenting a scholarly treatise on money and politics — but I thought better of it.
I guess I’m like that noted philosopher, Yogi Berra. I get it eventually. After Yogi had flunked his exam, his teacher came down the aisle, shook him and said, “Don’t you know anything!” Yogi looked up and said, “I don’t even suspect anything.” Yes, this is the same Yogi Berra who, when asked whether he wanted his pizza cut into six or eight slices replied “six–I couldn’t eat eight.”
This is the second most humbling day of my life. The first was in 1985. I was granted an extraordinary opportunity—a private audience with the Holy Father—the late great John Paul II.
I’ll never forget it. The door opened and there was the Pope, dressed in white. He walked solemnly into the room that at the time seemed as large as Yankee Stadium. I was there to convince His Holiness it was in his interest to appear on the Today show. But my thoughts soon turned away from Bryant Gumbel’s career and NBC’s ratings toward the prospect of salvation. As the Pope approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense hard-hitting moderator of Meet the Press begin our conversation by saying, “Bless me Father!” He took my arm and whispered, “You are the one called Timothy.” I said, “Yes, the man from NBC–yes, yes, that’s me.”
“They tell me you are a very important man.”
Somewhat taken aback, I said, “Your Holiness, with all due respect, there are only two of us in this room, and I am certainly a distant second.”
He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “Right.”
It’s not often you have a chance to meet and talk with people who share the same background and values.
So let me skip the temptation of lecturing to you.
Instead, let me take just a few minutes to have a conversation with you.
Like each of you, my life changed forever on September 11, 2001 at 8:46am.
The English language does not yet include the words we need to express our sorrow for what happened on that day when most of you were high school seniors. Only in our hearts can we give full and complete expression of our grief and the shocking sense of personal loss and agony of seeing our nation so violated. And yet we learned much about ourselves that day—about the fragility of life, about our deep love for our country, and about our real heroes.
I decided to write a book about my hero: my dad, Big Russ. He was a truck driver and a sanitation man. He worked two jobs for 30 years and he never complained—and that was after he nearly died when his B-24 Liberator went down in WWII. That is the story of his generation. He never graduated high school, but he taught me more by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, by his basic decency, by his intense loyalty. He taught me the true lessons of life.The response to the book was enormous. I received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails from daughters and sons who shared stories and lessons about their own dad. I used those letters to write a second book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.
I am the first person in my family to have the chance to go to college.
I attended John Carroll University, where I received a superb education.
And so, too, with you. You chose a school that was different and you made the choice deliberately.
The education you’ve received at Yeshiva University isn’t meant to be the same as you could have received at a score of colleges—public and private—in New York or across this country.
You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have a skill, not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts. Values really do matter.
It’s only justification for existing is because it has a special mission: training young men and women to help shape and influence the moral tone and fiber of our nation and our world. And that means now you have a special obligation and responsibility. President Joel says your mission is “nobility, excellence, Israel and community.”
Graduating from Yeshiva University has given you incredible advantages over others in your generation.
Yes – I have heard the sometimes dissenting views from Ivy Leaguers.
You think you’ve had it bad. You should try being a Buffalo Bills fan in Washington! I actually took Meet the Press to the Super Bowl a few years back. At the end of the program, I looked into the camera and said, “It’s now in God’s hands. And God is good. And God is just. Please God, one time. Go Bills!”
My colleague, Tom Brokaw, turned to me and said, “You Irish Catholics from South Buffalo are shameless.”
Well, as I moped back from the stadium after the Cowboys slipped by the Bills 52-10, the first person I saw was Brokaw. He yelled across the room, “Hey Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist.”
You have something others would give most anything for!
You believe in something—in your God, in your country, in your family, in your school, in yourself, in your values.
Remember the message our parents and grandparents and teachers repeated and repeated—and have tried so hard to instill in us—a belief [that] if you worked hard and played fair, things really would turn out all right.
And you know, after working for Senators and Governors, meeting Popes and interviewing Presidents, I know they are right.
It sure seems funny—the older I get the smarter my mother and father seem to get.
The values you have been taught, the struggles you have survived, and the diploma you are about to receive, have prepared you to compete with anybody, anywhere.
People with backgrounds like yours and mine can and will make a difference.
Like the past, the future leaders of the country and the world will be born not to the blood of kings and queens, but to the blood of immigrants and pioneers.
It is now your turn. You will now have the opportunity to be doctors, nurses, lawyers, bankers, accountants, social workers, rabbis, soldiers, journalists, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, teachers, and more. And in those vital professions, your contributions can be enormous. You can help save lives, provide prosperity, record history, prevent disease, and train young minds. Your family and education and values have prepared you for this challenge as well as anyone in this country.
And always remember it is your grandparents and your parents who defended this country, who built this country, who brought you into this world and [gave you] a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children?
You know you must. Every generation is tested and given the opportunity to be the “greatest generation.”
And so, too, with the Yeshiva University graduates of 2007. You were born and educated to be players in this extraordinary blessing called life.
But please do this world one small favor.
Remember the people struggling along side you and below you. The people who haven’t had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same Yeshiva University education.
Eight children a day are shot dead in the streets of America. Twenty-five percent of eighth-graders will never graduate high school. We have 35 million adults in our country without a high school education.
If we are serious about continuing as the world’s premiere military, economy and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We will need all of our children contributing and prospering.
We can build more prisons and we will, and put more police on the streets and we should, but unless we instill in our young the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values, we will be a very different society. We must motivate, inspire—yes insist—our children respect one another, yes, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
We must teach our children they are never, never, entitled, but they are always, always loved.
And we must do everything in our power to make sure schools are meaningful, skills are learnable, jobs are available, and that we protect our environment and make our world—their world—safe and secure.
No matter what profession you chose, you must try, even in the smallest ways to improve the quality of life of the children in our country.
No matter what your political philosophy, see if there isn’t a child you can tutor or mentor or just help—some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated. Most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand. Give them a chance. Give them their dignity.
The best commencement speech I ever heard was all of 16 words: “No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.”
That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is your opportunity.
That’s what I believe it means to be a member of the Class of 2007 of Yeshiva University. For the good of all of us, please build a future we all can be proud of.
You can do it. But please get busy…you only have 2,300 weeks before you’ll be eligible for Social Security!
Have a wonderful life. Take care of one another. Be careful tonight.
And for the rest of your life, “work hard, laugh often, keep your honor.”
Goodbye, Shalom, and go Maccabees!