Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald
Commencement Exercises, University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
May 7, 2015
Thank you, President Pershing—Dave—for that kind introduction. It’s good to see you again.
Members of the Board of Trustees and President Pershing, thank you for inviting me to share this important evening.
Let me begin, first and foremost, by congratulating the graduates. You’ve labored long and hard—done excellent work. And we’re here to honor you and wish you the very best as you continue life’s journey.
But equally as important are your faculty, family, and friends here this evening. They’ve supported you. Encouraged you. They are a large part of the reason you’re here, now. They often sacrificed in ways you never knew about to give you opportunities you would not otherwise have.
So, graduates, decide tonight to make a similar difference in the life of someone else.
I applaud the University’s new tradition—the red, white and blue tassels and cords for graduating Veterans. To all the Veterans graduating tonight, congratulations and thank you. Thank you for volunteering to serve. Thank you for your and your families’ sacrifices. I’m honored to be your Secretary.
I gladly accepted this opportunity—not only because of the respect I have for Dave Pershing, but also because of my love of the University of Utah. It’s been nearly four decades since the University granted me my M.B.A.
I was a young man then. To you, ready to graduate, it might seem like time passed slowly to get to this point. Well, hang on, things are about to start moving at light speed.
So, a first takeaway: don’t waste a moment. Live every day with a clear purpose.
Fast forward with for me for just a moment. You’re at your life’s end. You’re surrounded by people you love, and who love you. They ask you, “Did you accomplish your purpose in life?”
It would be a sad moment if your response was, “Well, I don’t know. I never decided what my purpose would be.”
Purpose is first and most important.
My life has had continuity of purpose. For me, it’s always been about improving lives. That’s why I became a Boy Scout. It’s why I chose to be a West Point Cadet and officer in the United States Army. It’s why I joined Procter & Gamble. And it is why, when President Obama asked me, I didn’t hesitate to seek Senate confirmation to serve as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. My whole life had been leading to this privilege of serving Veterans.
The power of institutions like the University of Utah and the Department of Veterans Affairs is that they help us discover and pursue our purpose, help us begin to bring meaning to our lives and to our work. They bring people together who share a sense of purpose, and they provide opportunity to be part of something greater than ourselves.
The core of Utah’s mission is to serve—“serve the people of Utah and the world through the discovery, creation and application of knowledge.” Veterans Affairs’ mission is derived from President Lincoln’s charge in his Second Inaugural Address. As the bloody Civil War was drawing to a close, Lincoln directed us to serve and care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” and their families.
It’s the best, most inspiring mission I know of.So, both Utah’s mission and VA’s mission reflect core beliefs that call on us to make a difference in the world. But how do we make a difference? In the world? Sounds like an intimidating proposition, and I can’t tell you exactly how.
There’s no formula, no road map. There are no sure-fire steps to follow. But there is a North Star to guide you. That North Star is a sense of purpose, a commitment to make a difference with your life in the lives of others.
And that’s the sole message I’d like to leave you with tonight.
Many of you may have heard Loren Eiseley’s story of the starfish. Let me repeat it.
There was a young man walking down a deserted beach, just before dawn. In the distance, he saw a frail, old man. As he approached the old man, he saw him picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea. The young man gazed in wonder as the old man, again and again, threw small starfish from the sand to the water . . . from the sand, to the water. The young man finally asked, “Old man, why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?”
The old man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun. The young man replied, “But there must be thousands of beaches and millions of starfish. How can you make any difference?”
The old man looked at the small starfish in his hand, and as he threw it to the safety of the sea, he said, “It makes a difference to this one.”
In 1966, Robert Kennedy told the starfish story, but in a different way. He said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. These ripples crossing each other form a million different centers of energy and daring, build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
One person can’t do much? Gandhi did in India. Martin Luther King did in the United States. Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.
But we don’t need to be a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, or a Nelson Mandela to make a difference in the life of just one person.
Let me tell you about one of the best days of my life. It wasn’t when I graduated West Point.
It wasn’t when I graduated from here. It wasn’t when I was given the opportunity to serve as CEO of Procter & Gamble or Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
One of the best days in my life was when I saw a paralyzed Veteran walk—get up from the wheelchair he’d been in for 40 years and walk.
Some might call it a miracle. In a sense, it was miraculous, but not in the way you might think. His name was Billy, and he could walk because some good people trained him how to use a device we call the exoskeleton. It wasn’t so much about getting someone to walk.
That is important. But it’s important because of what happens when you don’t walk. When you don’t walk, you’re muscles atrophy. Your bones become brittle. And your gastro-intestinal system stops working the way it should. So an important aspect is getting the human body to function properly again.
But to Billy, the most important thing was this – he could look you in the eye again. It was that simple. It was about being able to look another person in the eye. It was about his sense of human dignity.
The miracle wasn’t Billy standing. The miracle was the sense of purpose, that guiding light that drove some very good people to make a profound difference in the life of just one person. Others will follow.
Tonight is a great moment to dedicate or re-dedicate ourselves to this quest, finding our purpose, making a difference in the life of just one person.
Don’t wait for the one big decision. Don’t wait for that one big opportunity. Start right now. If you get in the habit, the rest will follow.
If you’re worried about no longer being a student after this evening, don’t. Be a student every, single day of your life. Life has a great deal to teach you.
God bless you.