Commencement Remarks at St. John's Military School, (Salina, Kansas)
9 MAY 2009
Mr. England, Bishop Adams, President Lysell, members of the faculty and staff, members of the Corps of Cadets, parents and friends. It is a pleasure to be here today and I thank you for your kind invitation to speak to you on your commencement.
In a few days, I will participate in the commencement ceremony of another Corps of Cadets: the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. In many ways, the two occasions will be similar, and the significance of the two ceremonies is much the same. The major difference, of course, is that at VMI, our cadets are completing four years of college classes and are about to launch into careers in the wider world. Here, on the other hand, you are completing your secondary education and are preparing, many of you, to begin your college experience. Despite the slight differences in the ages of our cadets and the academic levels of our two schools, both Corps shares a common experience: members of each Corps of Cadets have developed and matured within a military environment…a structure and environment that places as much emphasis on honor, character-building, and self-discipline as it does upon academic attainment and career preparation.
Both you and the graduating cadets of the Virginia Military Institute have completed a distinctive educational program … one that is demanding both intellectually and physically … one that is aimed at producing honorable and useful citizens of intelligence, talent, and … above all .. of character … one aimed at producing leaders for our communities and our nation. The uniforms may differ, but the graduating cadets from this and most of our nation’s military colleges, junior colleges, academies, and schools are members of a very “special community” … a very proud community. You have taken the road “less traveled”. I salute you on having accepted the challenge of this very special educational experience, and I salute you on your success. Warmest congratulations!
Graduation is a time of great joy…and yet sadness saying farewell to friends but, it is also a time of reflection…and as I reflected on this day and your special education, the following “random thoughts” came forth. First you have had many opportunities to develop your leadership skills within a military organization. One of the main features a military school offers is that cadets (at a young age) are given responsibility for much of the day-to-day operations of the Corps. Invaluable lessons are learned through this “active” process that will remain with you throughout life. In a disciplined community, each of you has had to develop self-discipline. And, infused throughout the experience has been a sense of honor and acceptance of accountability for your actions and decisions. The experience has instilled in you character traits of personal responsibility, caring leadership, respect for others, dependability, courtesy, orderliness, and promptness. You have also improved attentiveness and good study habits. As you have often heard in these historic halls, these traits set St. John’s Military School cadets apart from others and certainly will strengthen you as you reach for your potential in life. America needs these characteristics…America needs you.
Second, the close and rigorous life of a military school requires a cadet to be an active and contributing part of the community. It requires you to be part of a team and to work with the team and remain loyal to the team. Contrary to what some on the “outside” may think, the special life of a military school promotes the development of the individual, but the individual cannot live an isolated or self-centered life in such an environment. Because a cadet lives among other cadets, every individual has an influence on other cadets, either directly or indirectly. You will find that this unique experience of living in a group, working with a team, being part of a community, and upholding its ideals and standards is an excellent preparation for life – for family life and for careers. Furthermore, you will draw often on your experiences and your ties to your school and your classmates…, your instructors, coaches, and administrators, in the days and years ahead.
Third, as a graduate of this military school, you will find that much is expected of you… not only by your family and friends, but by complete strangers who might learn that you were once a cadet or attended a military school. Throughout your life, you will be held to a higher standard… it comes with the territory, as people say. As a graduate of a military school, people will expect you to be a team-player, they will expect you to have a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility, they will expect you to take pride in your appearance, in your health, in your strength, and in you intellect. People will assume that they can count on you and that you will not fail them. Above all…most importantly… they will assume – without question – that they can trust you… that you live your life with honor and integrity.
Sometimes we may be surprised and even annoyed when people criticize us for our lapses, our mistakes, or our wrong turns. Surely everyone makes mistakes, we say to ourselves. But, as former cadets, as graduates of a military school, we cannot escape our heritage and what the world expects of us. Graduates are expected to live a life of honor, integrity, and excellence. The memory of generations of “old school boys” expects this. Today’s school expects this. You cannot let them down. Wherever you go, wherever you are, whatever you become, you will be forever identified as a “St. John’s cadet.”
As I continued to reflect, a fourth thought came to mind. A few years ago we heard much of “the Greatest Generation” that grew up in the Great Depression and won victory in World War II. But I say that every generation has an opportunity… and the responsibility… to become a “Great Generation.” Each moment in the history of our great country, each new development in our society, each turning point along the way requires greatness. But what is greatness? Greatness is achieved by action – taking a stand and leading – and not by sitting back and leaving it to others. Greatness is knowing how to work with others and, when the opportunity arises, how to lead people to great accomplishments. Greatness is achieved by men and women of character, conviction, and honor. And…in the days ahead, it will require courage to take a responsible stand and not waiver.
You are entering a complex world environment today – a world filled with opportunities and dangers …equal to those of the past. Some have even begun speaking of our time as the time of “The Great Recession.” I do not agree. You are well armed: You are well educated, you are young, you are confident. The future --- yours and the nations ---“lies before you.” You have a wonderful opportunity to make a difference because the education you have received here at St. John’s has prepared you well for such a life filled with challenges. St. John’s is dedicated to developing full-rounded young men, and by all measures it is succeeding wonderfully in this mission. Above all, it has taught you the importance of honor and integrity… and of faith.
Because your school was founded by Episcopal Bishop Elisha Smith Thomas, religious education has been an essential piece of the St. John’s experience from the very beginning. Although VMI is a non-denominational state college, it was founded by a man … Francis H. Smith … who was a devout Episcopalian. And in the early days of the Institute’s history, General Smith held a voluntary Bible session every evening for the cadets in a special room reserved in the VMI Barracks. He began our tradition of presenting each graduating cadet with an inscribed Bible, a tradition that continues today for those cadets who choose to receive a Bible or other Holy Book. In a small town (Lexington, VA), that was primarily Presbyterian in faith, most of the early VMI faculty members were Episcopalians, and Smith was one of the founders of the first Episcopal Church in town, then known as Grace Episcopal Church…, but now known as Robert E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, named for the Confederate General who spent his last years as the President of Washington College, in Lexington, and who is buried in the town. So, you see, here is another similarity between our two schools.
As you graduate today… seize the day – use every day that you have… fully, productively, and creatively. Pursue your life’s work with passion and commitment. Work hard! Care deeply about your family, friends, and associates. Care deeply about responsibility, honor, and duty. Be a role model. When you look in the mirror, always see “a citizen armed with virtue.”
This is a proud moment for you, your parents and friends, your instructors and coaches, and your school. You have earned that pride, and I congratulate you on your splendid accomplishments.
I wish you all the best in life.