Thank you so much for that overly generous introduction. It’s great to be back in Kingston again — and on this beautiful campus that I fell in love with so many years ago.
President Dooley, distinguished faculty, members of the URI staff, my fellow alumni members and, most important: parents and family members and to all of these great graduates, now perched on the launch pad to great professional journeys. Good morning and thank you again.
I’m a trained observer so I was watching carefully during that introduction. And correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s what I saw in your eyes; here’s the vibe I was picking up from all of you just now.
Something like this: Let’s see, somewhere on some other campus, the commencement speaker is Oprah or Ellen. Or Tom Hanks or Jennifer Lawrence. Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.
And we get this random newspaper guy from Boston!?
I feel your pain. Here’s what I can promise you: Maybe I don’t bring 15,000 watts of celebrity candlepower with me this morning, but I intend to more than make up for it with something even better: the kind of beautiful bliss that comes with brevity.
So let me begin.
When URI called me to ask whether I would give this speech, I was so dumbfounded – and perhaps too hydrated because I happened to be in Key West at the time – that I immediately accepted. And then I did what I suspect most first-time speakers do. I headed straight for Google. Big mistake.
Because the guidance you get from the Internet intelligentsia is all over the map: Here’s a good one: Be funny. Be brief. Be seated.
You’re advised to be profound and fully recognize the import of this milestone moment. Or to be whimsical. Or philosophical. Or clever.
And whatever you do, avoid commencement speech clichés. No one wants to hear that this is the beginning and not the end. Don’t tell the graduates that this is their day or that the future belongs to them.
And, apparently this is the commencement speaker’s First Commandment: Whatever you do, DO NOT tell the graduates how humble and proud you are.
So let’s get this over with: I’m humble and proud.
I’m humble because I’ve done what any good newspaper reporter would do. I’ve spent some time learning about you. And here’s what I learned: Everywhere I look this morning there is a great story.
I spent some time in Washington just before I got hired at the Globe. And in those days the Washington Post ran a great feature that was based on this premise: Give three reporters a hammer and a nail and the District of Columbia telephone book. (You know: telephone book; it’s sort of like the contacts in your iPhone on steroids). Have them drive the nail into the book. And wherever the tip of that nail ends, go find that person and write about them.
What that produced were wonderfully written vignettes of everyday people with powerful stories about their lives of achievement or despair; about courage. About love and jaw-dropping generosity.
I could do the same thing with you. Look around. Because in the next seat or the next row there are great stories, too.
Stories like these:
Seated here with us today is a single mom who juggled statistics analysis AND first-grade homework help. She got her degree and got her child to school on time. And she always remembered to make sure he got there with a lovingly packed lunch.
Or the woman, whose grandmother in Martinique was unable to finish high school, but lived long enough to see her granddaughter earn a degree in fluid dynamics. Her mom has come here from Paris this morning to cheer her success.
Or the young woman who will receive her master’s in speech-language pathology this morning. And, boy, did she earn it. She was able to afford grad school, in part, by camping out all summer in nearby campsites, where she weathered thunderstorms and somehow managed to show up each morning, a polished and engaged professional.
Or the stories of all the military veterans in caps and gowns this morning, including an environmental science and management student – a lifelong Rhode Islander – who has served our country in multiple deployments to the Middle East. He earned his degree, in part, by writing his major paper in a desert tent in a place far from home.
When you’re in the presence of greatness like that, humility comes naturally.
Here’s why I’m proud.
I’m proud because I’m a product of URI. I learned the fundamentals of my profession right here on this campus from professors and instructors who — believe me — were no cookie-cutter classroom drones. They were true characters. They bled journalism. To me, they were giants. In my mind’s eye, they are painted in Technicolor.
Let me tell you about two of them.
Jack Thompson was a former newspaper reporter who brought a wit and a zeal into his classroom that I have never forgotten. In 1976, Jack took a bunch of us up to Manchester New Hampshire were we proceeded to “cover” the New Hampshire primary. And on that trip Jack underlined for me what I always loved about him. Yes, journalists carry a serious responsibility. You must be fair. You must be fast. It’s absolutely imperative that you get your facts straight. But here’s what he also taught me: Journalism is so much fun. And, boy, was he right. I’ve had a blast.
And sometimes journalism can be poignant, and powerful.
A few years ago I followed a young woman – who at age 6 had been diagnosed with a brain tumor – through her first year at Harvard.
I chronicled the post-war life of veterans who were together in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle outside the Baghdad airport when a roadside bomb exploded, killing their friend, a young man from New Hampshire named Jeremy Regnier.
An incredible story which underlined the lessons of war and the enormous human toll it exacts. I’ve covered the death of a princess, and presidential press conferences.
I’ve covered criminals, con men, and charlatans. I worked with a team of great reporters on The Globe Spotlight Team to help uncover what has been called the most important story in the history of the Boston Globe, the betrayal by Catholic priests. They had sexually abused young victims who had given them their unquestioning trust.
I’m talking about hard-fought, tough investigative journalism. Stories that you have to claw out of the dirt with your fingernails.
Not a sentence of it was fake news.
It’s been important work. I’m proud of it. But Jack was right: It’s been a lot of fun.
When I was studying my craft, I had the privilege of learning from a guy who was a legend on this campus. His name was Wilbur Doctor. That’s right: Doctor Doctor. But there was nothing whimsical about Wilbur.
Until he retired in 1983, he struck fear into the hearts of journalism students like me. Wilbur had worked for the Newport Daily News and then at the Providence Journal, where he earned a reputation as someone who could turn fragmented facts into prose that was lyrical and sweet. There was nothing lyrical and sweet about Wilbur though. He was gruff. He did not suffer fools gladly.
I once brought him a piece I was especially proud of. It was a profile of a friend of mine, John Murphy, a 6-foot-8 inch forward at the University of Massachusetts with a sweet jump shot and a sweeter disposition. I gave it to Wilbur. I sat. I watched him read. Silence. He read some more. Silence.
Finally, with hope and pathetic desperation in my voice, I achingly asked: “It’s good isn’t it, Wilbur?”
He looked up at me, his brow furrowed, and without a trace of pity he said: “No, it isn’t.”
Wilbur made you want to do better and that’s what I tried to do. He also taught me to learn from my mistakes. It was advice that would come in handy just a couple years later, when I was working for my small hometown newspaper.
I was the news editor in that tiny newsroom. One winter’s day, I think it was 1979, my boss was out sick with a bad back and I put together the front page that day. And I used a large photo, depicting a wintry scene behind the local high school. I thought it looked beautiful. A pristine, snow-frosted field. Turns out I didn’t look closely enough.
If I had, I would have seen what was very clearly there in the lower right-hand corner: It was a two-word obscenity that someone had stamped out in that frosty field.
The second word was “you.”
The first one rhymed with “duck.”
I called my boss and said, ‘Bill, we’ve got a big problem on page one today,’ There was a pause. I explained the problem.
And then Bill said, ‘Tom, this is not good. But let me tell you something. The paper is going to come out tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Learn from this and you’ll be OK.’
I’ll never forget that. I had messed up and his message to me was: We all make mistakes. Don’t repeat them. Get better. Move on.
That’s not a bad message for all of us. If you’re the person delivering the bad news like I was that day, you will be fortunate and always grateful to find a person like Bill on the other end of the line.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t heard a word I’ve said so far, I would now kindly ask for your undivided attention.
I am about to deliver this speech’s most important line – three words that have thrilled the hearts of commencement audiences down through the generations. They are words that have been known to make strong women swoon — and grown men weep.
AND IN CONCLUSION.
We’ve arrived at the point in the speech, where the Internet handbook suggest you make your major point, underline your big message. One suggestion is this: Go out and change the world.
Go out and change the world? Please. Perhaps some of you will do that. I’m sure there are some Bill Gateses and Hillary Clintons out there. But most of us will take bites that are smaller – bites that are just as important.
Change your neighborhood. Change your school. Change your City Council, your house of worship, your day care center, your local library, your senior citizens center, or your local parks and rec department.
Light a fire and watch it spread.
Whatever you do, don’t stand on the sidewalk and watch the protest or the passing parade.
Get in there and march.
I want to thank you for honoring me today by inviting me back to the university I love, the university that has shaped who I am today.
I wish you an afternoon of hugs and handshakes and high-fives.
I wish you nothing but blue skies and bright horizons.
Congratulations! And Go, Rams!