Commencement 2005: Address by Brian Williams

Presented for Doctor of Humane Letters by David O. Boone ’62, P’87, Trustee

unedited transcript

Thank you so much Madame President, members of the Board, and most especially Peter Gomes. On this great day, members of the Class of 2005, I have three admissions as I come before you:

No. 1, and quite obviously, I am having tassel issues [laughter].

No. 2, like many of you, I have spent the last hour or so trying to figure out how to comfortably go on about my day wearing this cap to avoid hat-hair issues [laughter].

As of today, my third admission is this: What you are receiving today, I don’t have: a college degree. And luckily for me, there are no academic qualifications to appear on the Daily Show [laughter].

Allow me please before we send you on your way, one story — a bit of background on a story you just heard moments ago. It’s about Bates, so it’s about you. At the height of the U.S. Depression in the mid-1930s, at a time when steady work was a badge of honor and having a child in college was a staggering financial burden, a high school senior in South Orange, N.J., was convinced by a high school teacher, a Bates grad herself, to come to Bates. This high school senior was effervescent; the life of the party. Talkative, popular, dramatic. She could play any role on stage and sing like a bird on cue. And she loved Bates College.

At about the same time, a high school senior in Framingham, Mass., was convinced by his high school teacher, also a Bates graduate, to come to Bates himself. He was taciturn, serious, a physics major. At the time, he figured that’s what the folks who did the hiring at New England Telephone wanted — physics majors. He was frugal. He was the product of a New England home where paper towels were rinsed out, wrung out, hung up to dry and used again. Sometimes twice. He was solid and steady and well-read and he knew then what others would learn later. He was a provider, an old New England term for those who spent a lifetime making sure everyone had everything they needed. He loved Bates College.

Before too long these two people met at Bates College, and they quickly figured out that they loved each other. I was the last of their four children. The woman in this story, and in our family’s story, Dorothy May Pampel Williams, Class of 1940, is gone now, and we miss her today. Their first child, David Allen Williams, Class of 1965, and roommate of a young man named Peter Gomes, is also gone. He loved Bates College, and we miss him today.

But the man of this story, Gordon Lewis Williams, Class of 1938, is still with us. He still loves Bates College, and we love him. And if you’ll indulge me: Gordon Williams, my father, Bates Class of 1938 [Mr. Williams stands; applause]. So you see, I wasn’t kidding, and it’s not hyperbole. I would not exist if it weren’t for Bates College [laughter].

Just as I was fortunate to inherit the very best from the two people who formed me, you are products of all those who have loved you, who have taught you, who have cared about you, and those who today send you on your way. One more personal note: You may find it best on your journey through life to have a partner. Choose your partner wisely, as I did. It will give you unmitigated joy, and if you can be blessed with children as I have been — this is tougher than I thought — it will define a life well lived. If you will forgive me: the members of my family [they stand; applause].

One final note. It’s been mentioned already today, and of course top-of-mind with all of you, that you will forever be known, in a way, as the class of 9/11. The world has changed so much since you arrived within these walls. Your parents were always able to protect you. You were safe within these walls. Your government will try its hardest to protect you, but the fact is the rules have changed since you’ve been here. As much as we would like to hold you all and cradle you in our collective arms and guarantee your safe passage into that American ideal of job and family and prosperity and happiness, that no longer, sadly, comes with the diploma you will receive today. But I’m not altogether sure it ever did.

The Class of 1938 saw their world transformed in a way they could not have known, and many of them strapped on rifles and headed to Europe and the Pacific. Your equipment will be your minds, your smarts, your talents, your love of country. You are the products of greatness. Things will be asked of you, and lives may depend on you. And you are ready. We are ready to watch you lead.

In our society, which is now so full of noise, listen only to the voices you’ve come to trust. In our world, which is so full of uncertainty, remember who you are and what you stand for and keep steering straight. In our nation, founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty, step up and say so if and when we go astray. In our culture, which is so badly broken, remember there are real heroes for you to worship who will never break your heart.

As of today, you can say you went to Bates. Someday, if you are lucky, perhaps your child will return to this place and be as proud as I am today to say, “It wouldn’t have been possible without Bates.” It all starts right here and right now. Thank you so much for this honor. God bless you. Go get ’em.