The most badass commencement address I’ve ever heard

Two weekends ago, my brother Jeff graduated from St. Vincent College (congrats again, dude. Hope you read my blog – a Facebook comment, or lack thereof, on this post will be telling). Apparently a few years ago, St. Vincent landed the President of the United States – George W. “G-dubs” Bush – as their commencement speaker. This year’s speaker was some fat guy. I don’t even remember his name. But he gave one hell of an address, one I would be shocked if I (or G-dubs, for that matter) could ever write, and one which I am honored to share with you here.

As usual, my emphases in bold and comments in red. I’ll fill in the text’s holes with what the fat guy said extemporaneously as best as I can remember, though you can watch a video of the address here to see what he said exactly (and avoid reading, if you’re the audial type). If you don’t want to be bothered with my comments, you can read the unadulterated text on St. Vincent’s website here.




Saint Vincent College

Latrobe, Pennsylvania

May 7, 2011

(The following is the complete original text of the Commencement Address delivered by Bruce A. Antowiak at the 165th annual Spring Commencement of Saint Vincent College on Saturday, May 7, 2011 in the Robert S. Carey Student Center. View Video)

I begin with an apology.

SVC reunions in years to come: [the past commencement speakers people at the reunions will talk about]

  • President of the U.S.
  • Head coach Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Conductor of Pittsburgh Symphony
  • Head of Multinational Corporation
  • Fat guy that used to go here [Mr. Antkowiak]

I promise I’ll try to do something famous. [He said ideally the night after the address.]

One thing commends me as a commencement speaker, however. I fully understand the following principle: No one came here to hear me talk. So I won’t delay for long the important part of the program. Spend a moment with those we all came to honor.

You celebrate today a great achievement. You will receive a lot of congratulations, and you will answer one question over and over – What’s next?

Some of you think you have that answer figured out for the next five decades: the date of your first BMW, the moment when your investments top $1 million, you should book the flight to Stockholm now for the Nobel prize. I did – finishing my second term as President. But I got news for you. You are probably not only going to need a plan B but plans that run deep into the old alphabet. You like surprises? The future has more than a few waiting for you.

You will someday learn the wisdom of the observation of the Great old Yankee catcher Yogi Berra that the future ain’t what it used to be. It never is. But there is one thing for sure. A constant your parents and grandparents know so well. No matter what else you do, no matter what mountains you climb or fall off of, no matter if your name appears in lights or if a Google search of you comes up empty, you will have a profound effect on the generation that follows you, and, most particularly, that portion of the generation you have a hand in begetting. Since it is a mantle you can’t shake, a responsibility you can’t pass to another and since it will be here before you know it, you need to think about it even now. To do it right, you need to realize what has come before you.

“Commencement is a beginning” NO – it is part of a cycle of life. Look at the generations here today. Each of the ones that came before you have both profoundly affected you and helped define the challenge you will face when you have children of your own.

The generation of my parents were tough people indeed. They mined the coal, made the steel, did the paperwork for the wealthy few and raised big families all without much of a social safety net. Their lives were tough, hard and simple. For many of them, the worst part was that the education they so wanted to get was not in the cards for them. Mike Antkowiak, my father, he left school at 16 to work with his father. My mother, the valedictorian of her class found there were no scholarships for a girl from a poor Polish family and went to work as a legal secretary. How many great physicists and doctors and lawyers spent their lives in coal mines or secretarial pools because there was just no education for them to pursue.

What do you think that did to those people? Do you think their poverty made them forgot how valuable education was? Do you think they wanted their children to stay within the walls their poverty forced them in? No, what they passed to their children, to me, was the sense that education was non-negotiable, a given in your life. This was the way it was to be. That was how they broke down the walls of the hard and simple life that had been theirs.

But when we had children, many of us recognized walls of our own. We were landlocked. I may seem sophisticated. But I never left Com of PA until 8th grade. Philadelphia may have been Kabul, for all I knew. But as I and my generation grew older, we knew that had to change. Those walls were crumbling. Knowledge was too accessible and the world was just too interesting not to explore. We wanted our children to touch that world we never knew. We bought them globes and computers and got excited by the idea that study abroad meant more than going to school in Ohio.

And when I found myself one Sunday afternoon at Oxford University in England watching my son walk to his living quarters to begin his studies there, I knew that the rubble of those old walls lay all around me. The old walls that locked people into a narrow geographic place and limited what they could learn will not be erected again for your children. Your children will be off in far flung corners of the world, accessing knowledge in the deep morass of a cyberspace none of us can even fathom.

Your challenge, I’m afraid, will be different and even more profound than the generations that preceded you. The great challenge of my parent’s generation was to help their children secure the education they could never have. The great challenge of my generation was to help our children explore a world we never knew. The great challenge you face is to help your children find their way home.

You see, life inside the old walls did have one thing to say for it. It forced us to make an effort to hope, to dream and to have faith. But it rewarded us for that effort with a sense of not only who we were but that we mattered. That there were places we’d never been to meant that we had to imagine them in our dreams and hope to live out those dreams someday. We never had to face the hard reality that maybe those places might turn out to be not so much different or better than where we were already. And in the face of questions we couldn’t answer or the marvels we couldn’t explain, we were told that all we needed was a simple, deep faith that a kind and just God had brought us into a world of marvels and magic and wonder where we could feel, in a very real way, blessed, and home.

But that is not the world we passed on to you. The breaking down of old walls is a trade-off, you see. Clarence Darrow once said “I think progress is a man behind a cash register. When mankind comes up and says, We want to conquer the air, he says, yes, you may do so, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

Once your children visit all the places their grandparents used to just dream about and once it occurs to them that the things that prior generations had to embrace as matters of faith are things they will learn in 6th grade science class, they may see the world and their place in it very differently. They may lose the great art of dreaming and hoping. They may come dangerously close to equating faith with ignorance. They may find that, while they know so much, they have so little sense of who they are and less and less confidence that they matter in the grand scheme of things.

They may find themselves in a world Martin Heideigger, described as a time “between the Gods which have fled and the Gods which are not yet.” [Yes, the Heidegger reference was the moment I knew this was the greatest commencement address I’d ever heard.] They may lose the sense that they are blessed just to be here; they may lose that wonderful sense of being home.

You can’t pass that world on to your children. You need to help your children find meaning. You need to help them build a sense of home they can carry with them wherever in the world they may be or however far out into the universe they venture. [Perspectives Program, anyone???]

The tools are here; indeed, they always have been here. [Cognitional structure is incapable of revision, after all.] They are tools you have to show them in the way you live your life. Take the job that you please, but please, for your sake and that of your children, show them that, in its most important dimension, your life is: a search for poetry, a noble effort in the pursuit of justice and a journey to God. 

Searching for poetry [aka poetic dwelling] is not making silly rhymes. It is simply celebrating the idea that we all yearn to wonder, [Has this guy read Insight?] a yearning that neither the pervasive cynicism in the world nor the seemingly relentless demands of reason can ever fully suppress. Searching for poetry is simply showing your children that you understand that the world is a marvelous tapestry in which the revelations of science and the ordering power of mathematics are happily weaved together with the poetry of the earth that John Keats said is never dead.

Take them to the museum of science, but walk them through an art gallery, too, and show them the paintings that always moved you. Celebrate their awards from Math Summer Camp, but share with them the sublime joy of browsing in the poetry section of an old book store on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Buy them whatever the fanciest version of an iPod is, but, just once, ask them what exactly it was that led Mozart to hear what he composed before he put it to paper and the orchestra played it out loud. No matter what career you pursue in this life, let your children see you as a poet. But teach them that the life of the true poet is not one of indifference or of mere passive reflection. The true poet has a fire in the blood that commands them to undertake a noble effort in the pursuit of justice.

Take time every so often to set something right. No one expects you to stop acts of genocide singlehandedly or to right all wrongs. But let your children see you fight the occasional injustice, to risk something of yourself to right a wrong done to someone else. Fight without fear of failing; indeed, if you fail while in the pursuit of justice, fail gloriously. Your children will love you for failing for the right reasons. [Truth.] But, most importantly, they will learn that your passion to do justice reflects the last piece of the legacy you wish to give them – the final part of the inheritance that they need to find their way home. You will show them that regardless of what direction your life may take in that gloriously uncharted land called the future, the journey that is most important to you is the journey you take to God. [I.e., as long as it’s centered on and toward God, “success” and “failure” don’t that much matter.]

However you may conceive the image of God, and however it is that you seek to find Him, let your children know that in trying to stay within His presence and His grace, they will never be far from home. The Journey to God does not mean teaching your children to run from reason or telling them to close their eyes to the great scientific truths they will discover each day. It just means helping them understand that the tapestry of life is a marvelous and unified whole of which we are each a blessed and meaningful part. And that the only way to appreciate the whole of that tapestry is to embrace the truth that Faith is the rational belief that there is more to life than reason.

Do this, and you will help them find their way home. Can you do this? Sure you can. You have a little Bearcat in you. You have been to a place with people who believe in searching for poetry and fighting for Justice and who never abandoned their journey to God – a faculty who has stitched together for you that marvelous tapestry of life; a faculty who wanted you to explore the outer boundaries of what could be known, to touch the places your parents never knew, and to know the secrets of finding your way home; a faculty who is honored to say that they are a part of your life.

You have been in a place founded by a remarkable order of priests and brothers – men who built this place many years ago and who continue to build it and provide for your material needs as best they can. But they would tell you that this place was not built for material accomplishments. It was built as an outpost on the journey to God.

As their founder wrote in the Rule of St. Benedict, It was built, as “a school for the Lord’s service” a place where people can learn not to “fear and run away from the road to salvation” although that road is “bound to be narrow at the outset.” A place where all can have faith that if “we run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts [will be] overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” [Could you ask for any more?]

You have been in a place that knows the true meaning of home. And now it’s time for you to graduate from that place. It’s time for you to ready yourself for the great work of helping your children find their way home. [Here’s the key (my interpretation of it, at least): the old notion of our grandparents’ generation, that this world God created is home, is not annulled but transformed by the alienation modern people often feel. Feeling at home, though possible, is no longer a guarantee, which makes the feeling all the more meaningful and valuable when it is there. Ergo, despite the possibility of alienation, people in the current day and age are in a better position to live the divine life in an active, consciously participatory manner than ever before.]

It’s time for me to do something famous so you won’t be embarrassed at your next reunion. May God bless us both in our endeavors.

[For the record, my heart is stirring just rereading this and adding my comments this Sunday evening. Really quite a remarkable address, and a remarkable guy. I hope to be someday half the man Mr. Antkowiak is now.]

About Michael Williams

Ardent greater Clevelander. Brewing industry laborer. Future Theology teacher. Truth seeker. Beloved adopted son of the Father thru JC in the Spirit.
This entry was posted in commentary on pop culture, faith, life, philosophy, religion, theology, waxing philosophical. Bookmark the permalink.

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