Deval Patrick Speaks at Commencement

Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, speaks at Wheaton’s 174th Commencement and is presented with the honorary degree of Doctor of Law. In his speech, Patrick uses the recent election of Barack Obama to emphasize the importance of hope in our continuous fight for justice. Patrick affirms that “even in the bleakest places, young people still look for a reason to hope, and you graduates must offer that reason.”

Read his speech below:


Chairman Dluhy and members of the Board of Trustees, President Crutcher, and members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, proud family members and friends, and especially deserving graduates, I thank you so much for the very warm welcome to your special occasion and for this wonderful and generous honor. I hope one day to become the man you described, Ron.

I am very, very pleased to be here, even though I have few illusions that any of you graduates will remember a single word I say. I am due to address five commencements this spring–five–so I am facing the daunting prospect of five gatherings of smart and well prepared graduates, eager to get their degrees and go, who are paying hardly any attention at all to what any of us say from this podium. I know. I once sat where you are sitting now. I know your mind has already wandered off from this place and time to what’s ahead. And that is exactly as it should be. For there is a lot to think about. What an extraordinary time it is.

A few months ago Americans went to the polls and elected a young, gifted and black lawyer and community organizer to be President of the United States. It gives me such pride to see your enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of people around the country and around the world for our new leadership.

I don’t know how many of you were there on the mall in Washington on inauguration day, but the view from the platform where the governors get to sit out over the mall was a thing I will not soon forget. Two million people visited Washington for the occasion, and yet there was not a single unbecoming incident. Only joy and solemnity and hope. I think we will all look back on this time and recall in very personal terms where we were and what we were doing when it hit us that profound change was afoot.

One moment of my own that I will especially recall and enjoy was a dinner for governors at the White House in February. Now, it turns out that governors get invited to the White House every February for a very formal and elegant evening. Each of these occasions follows a certain pattern. First there is a reception in the foyer, then a receiving line through the Blue Room where we and our spouses have our photograph taken with the President and the First Lady, then a multi-course dinner in the State Dining Room, and then entertainment in the East Room.

The previous occasions with President and Mrs. Bush were no less elegant, but we tended to be through all that and back in our cars by about 9:15. This year there was a certain electricity about the occasion. This year after dinner, when we moved into the East Room, there was Earth, Wind and Fire. When the slow dance started, which we all know is the universal signal that the end of the evening is at hand, the President leaned over to me, while holding the First Lady, and said, “Deval, this is when we make our move.”

That’s when I knew things had changed. Yet, the real work has just begun because the truth is, the people on that mall in January knew that America did not change just because Barack Obama was elected president any more than Massachusetts changed just because I was elected governor. You know that, too. So, by the way, does the President.

The sweat and toil and setbacks and heartbreak of lasting change is just starting. The scope of the change we voted for and the nature of change itself guarantees an uneven and sometimes bumpy road ahead. So we had better be clear about where we are going.

I see that journey in very personal terms. Our youngest daughter Catherine graduated from high school a couple years ago. Sitting at her graduation, I couldn’t help but think about the difference between her journey to that milestone and my own nearly 35 years earlier.

I grew up on welfare on the south side of Chicago in my grandparents’ two-bedroom tenement. I shared a room and a set of bunk beds with my mother and my sister, who is here today, so we would rotate from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor–every third night on the floor.

I went to overcrowded, sometimes violent public schools. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t love to read. But I don’t actually remember ever owning a book until I got my break in 1970, when I came to Massachusetts on a scholarship to boarding school. To me, that was like landing on a different planet.

Now, our Catherine, by contrast, has always had her own room, most of that time in a house in a leafy neighbor outside of Boston where I used to deliver newspapers when I was in boarding school. By the time she got to high school she had already traveled on four continents, she knew how to use and pronounce the “concierge,” and she had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.

When Catherine was in kindergarten, her class was studying the changes in the seasons and her homework assignment was to describe to Mom and Dad the four seasons. So she proceeded, in accurate detail, to describe her several visits to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. She said, “First you drive up, and the doorman takes your car.” Five years old. One generation.

One generation. And the circumstances of my life and my family’s have profoundly changed.

Now, that story isn’t told as often as we’d like in this country, but it is told more often in this country than any other place on earth. That is the American story. That is who we are: the simple idea that through hard work, tenacity, preparation and faith each of us has a chance at the American story.

Well, that American story is at risk today. More and more families are working harder and losing ground. Homeowners are losing their homes. Some 5.7 million people have lost their jobs in the last two years and many of those, their way and their hope. Every individual, family, business and not-for-profit in nearly every corner of the country is hurting or worried that soon they will be.

From mighty firms like General Motors and Lehman Brothers to small companies, plans are disrupted, dreams are broken. The poor are in terrible shape and have been for some while. But now the middle class is one month away from being poor. One serious illness away from being poor and deeply anxious about it. That is the world that all of you are about to inhabit. A society in many ways in anguish, and an economy in crisis. And I invite you to embrace it, because crisis is a platform for change.

Here at Wheaton you have been intentionally exposed to differences in thought and culture, to new ideas and new ways of looking at old ones; to wise and maybe sometimes odd professors and classmates alike, whose wisdom and oddities you may only come to appreciate on the eve of this graduation. You have been trained to value honor and integrity in others and to maintain your own above all. You have been encouraged to imagine better tomorrows, and then to work for them, to become what I call pragmatic idealists.

Well, the world needs pragmatic idealists today, in spite of the crisis around us, and perhaps because of it–because the world you will soon inhabit is filled, in the same instance, with breathtaking beauty and utter devastation, with glamorous comforts and abject suffering.

With your training and credentials you could, if you wanted to, spend your whole lives averting your eyes from the daily calamity of less fortunate souls and circumstances, focused exclusively on your own achievement or survival, or just lost, like so many impractical idealists that I have known, in that existential turmoil over why bad things happen to good people. Or, you could look clearly at what’s wrong, as pragmatic idealists, and set yourselves to make it right. And by the way, we’ve done it before.

An earlier generation facing dangers abroad and widespread suffering at home summoned American aspirations and answered a call to serve and to sacrifice. And that generation, what we now call the Greatest Generation, fought and won the war, rebuilt Europe and Japan, built the federal highway system, great public universities and other institutions, expanded the middle class and ignited the civil rights revolution. That generation, through their service and their sacrifice, made it possible for many of the rest of us to live the American story.

We need to answer that call again and renew our commitment to the American story. And I ask you, from out of this crisis, to make a change. Make an economy that expands opportunity out to the marginalized, not just up to the well connected. Make schools that ignite a love of learning in every child and that honor and support teachers. Make accessible and affordable health care a public good. Make streets and homes free from violence and a community that helps feed, clothe and house our most fragile neighbors. Heal the planet.

No challenge is beyond your capacity to care about or to solve, so long as you are pragmatic idealists, can imagine a better tomorrow, and then reach for it.

What I am asking of you, what I am hoping for and counting on from you, is not easy. But it is simpler than you might think, because I believe that Americans are ready, even in the unexpected corners of our country, to serve and to sacrifice.

The high school in Brockton, Massachusetts is the largest in our Commonwealth; 4,100 young people go to that school. Sixty-four percent are on the free-lunch program, for nearly half English is a foreign language.

I visited the school a few weeks ago to announce some of the federal stimulus funding for education and I arranged to meet beforehand with parents of special-needs students. I sat with about a dozen of them in the school library, surrounded by members of the student council who had come to observe. At first we talked about programs and policies and information. But the conversation got personal when one parent looked up and said, “I wonder if you can imagine what it is like to have your child in this high school who has no friends?”

As a parent myself, that comment was absolutely searing. Her child’s learning issues were so profound that other kids simply shunned him. At that point, one of the students from the student council, who was there just to observe, raised her hand and said, “I want to be your child’s buddy.” Another parent then said, “Well that’s nice, but my child is in the grammar school,” whereupon another student raised her hand and said, “Why don’t we make a program where students from the high school serve as buddies for special-needs kids anywhere in the Brockton Public Schools?”

The school superintendent had a natural reaction. He began to worry a lot about how we could pay for such a program. In these times of scarce resources he said he wasn’t sure he could, to which one student then replied, “We don’t need to be paid. This is our community.” His message was, If there is a need, send me. Send me.

My point is that even in the bleakest places, young people still look for a reason to hope, and you graduates must offer that reason. There is a new generation. For those of us who are ready to answer the call for service and sacrifice, that is the opportunity this crisis presents us all. Let’s seize it. For if we do, I am certain that our best days lie ahead. God bless you all. Good luck thank you for having me.