Address by David McCullough

Presented by James F. Callahan Jr. ’65, trustee, for the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters

unedited transcript

President Hansen, distinguished fellow honorees, Professor Garber, Dr. Ho, Mark Morris, accomplished faculty, proud parents and grandparents, friends and ladies and gentlemen of the graduating Class of 2006. The great Class of 2006 [applause]. And, I might say, after passing by you this morning, the great looking class of 2006 [laughter/applause].

I am tremendously pleased and complimented by this high honor and the privilege of taking part in your day of celebration, and in the time-honored tradition of commencement speakers I would like to offer a few observations to you of the graduating class:

Be assured that you are needed. Your talents, your vitality, your ideas and idealism, and your proven capacity for hard work are all greatly needed.

Prize honesty and common sense. And remember that common sense has never been common. But then, you might help change that.

Choose work you love. Work hard. Take your work seriously, not yourself. Don’t let setbacks or skeptics get you down. And, when as is bound to happen, some supposedly all-knowing somebody says to you, “Well, welcome to the real world,” remember that Bates College too is the real world. Remember that Shakespeare and Cervantes, Botticelli and Tchaikovsky, are the real world.

How ever little television you watch, watch less [laughter/applause].

Read. Read for pleasure. Read for happiness. Read the works of the great poets, John Adams advised his young son, John Quincy. It was the boy’s happiness that the father was thinking of. “Read somewhat in the English poets every day,” he wrote. “You will find them elegant, entertaining and constructive companions through your whole life. You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”

Maine’s own Edwin Arlington Robinson is a choice I recommend. Read where your interests lead you. Read biography. If you haven’t already, read William Bunting’s A Day’s Work, one of the best of all books ever written about Maine. Read Willa Cather and Flannery O’Connor and Wallace Stegner. Read books that have stood the test of time. For your summer list let me recommend just three, none long, all marvelous: Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, about the pioneer days in aviation and about responsibility as the core of morality; The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, which is about fish and bats and social insects, birdsong, and the miracle of language; and read the funny, very wise essay on the devil and his ways called The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

Read history. History, history, history, for insights into human nature and as an aid to navigation in turbulent times. If you are to be leaders, which surely many of you will be, you must read history. And if you are anything like your contemporaries, all across the country, you have a lot of catching up to do [laughter] and a lot of wonderful reading ahead of you.

If your experience is to be anything like mine, the most important books of your life are still ahead of you.

See as much of the world as you possibly can, and keep your eyes open, soak it all up. And wherever you go, when stopping at a hotel or motel, make it a rule to always tip the maid [laughter].

Take care of your health, count your blessings as Americans, and sometime, some way, do something for your country.