University of Illinois Springfield
May 15, 2010
"When I think about commencement speeches, I think about one of the most famous ones that was NEVER given. It started in 1997 with a Chicago Tribune column written by Mary Schmich. She described in her regular column what she would say in a commencement speech if given the chance.
It was titled “Wear Sunscreen.”
She started by writing, “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”
Then she continued with a series of cute one-liners, such as “Floss.”
“Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.”
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
She concluded by saying be careful where you get your advice, “but trust me on the sunscreen.”
Within two or three months, those words were flying around the Internet. The trouble was, everybody was relaying it as the commencement speech delivered at MIT by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. But it wasn’t Vonnegut. It was the work of Mary Schmich, and it wasn’t even a speech. Given the nature of the Internet, where nothing ever dies, I would bet that some people are still saying Kurt Vonnegut gave a wonderful speech at MIT in 1997, even though he wasn’t even there. Well, today I AM here, not really expecting you to remember much of today’s ceremony except that you are each receiving a wonderful award – a college degree from a great university, and no one can EVER take that away from you. It is yours to look at and enjoy its benefits forever.
What a great privilege it is for me to stand before you today. I already have brought the official greetings of the Board of Trustees, but this will be more personal.
I want to tell you a part of my own story, which connects with yours,
And offer one just piece of advice.
I grew up in Springfield. I remember when there was no university here. There were some great farm fields on the southeastern edge of the city, out of which sprung the dreams of local leaders, some who are still with us, still full of pride in what they have helped create. They convinced the legislature to create an upper level university in the capital city. They called it Sangamon State University, and SSU’s establishment was a great moment of pride in Springfield.
I truly believe this school has changed our community for the better more than any other event of our time.
In 1970, I was twenty-nine years old when they announced we could sign up for classes at the new university. I had four children ranging in age from two to eight, and I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I was so excited, and it turns out I was the second person in line to register for classes. My life would change for the better forever.
My family helped a lot, and there I was, in the first graduating class in 1972, having earned my degree in psychology. I mention that because I think it’s helpful to take you all the way back to the beginning. Commencement is, after all, a beginning. We had the ceremony outdoors on the grounds of the Highway Administration Building – now called the Illinois Department of Transportation better known to us as IDOT -- on South Dirksen Parkway.
Let me fast forward. Since getting my degree:
I did indeed become a teacher and I loved it.
Then I got interested in politics, and I was appointed to the Sangamon County Board. I was the only woman among the twenty-nine county board members at the time.
Five years later, I was elected Sangamon County Circuit Clerk, and later, as a state representative. In my first big race, big geographically, that is -- they’re all big emotionally when you’re running for office -- I used to hear people say, “Here come the girls” when I would be on the campaign trail. That’s how unusual a woman in political office was around these parts!
While serving in public office along the way, I worked on my master’s here, too, and was able to connect what I was studying to my work as a clerk of the court and a legislator. I had a big interest in the adoption issue, which I researched for my master’s thesis, and I fought to get adoption reform legislation passed.
Then the people of this area voted me in as their state senator.
Then mayor of Springfield.
In my first month of holding office as mayor, I was also able to serve as Senator, and there it was again -- my life intertwined with our university. I proudly voted for Sangamon State to become the University of Illinois-Springfield before the legislature adjourned.
I was mayor during those first years of transition after Sangamon State University became the third campus of the University of Illinois in 1995. That’s a connection that has worked out very well for all of us. I watched with great pleasure as then-Chancellor Naomi Lynn skillfully got UIS on its feet fifteen years ago.
Last year, when I was retired, the governor appointed me to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. What an honor –not so much to get appointed, but to be able to serve the university that has done so much for me and my hometown community.
I feel blessed to be, so personally, somehow connected to almost every step of the development of UIS in the past forty years. Now I feel as if I’ve come full circle – from being that second person in line, and then in the first graduating class, and now to this day, when another one thousand two hundred people are earning their degrees from UIS. I am one of you, and I take great pride in saying that.
That’s my story, and now I want to leave you with just one piece of advice. Something that HASN’T changed in forty years is that we want our students and alumni to be very active in the world.
The first president of Sangamon State University, Bob Spencer, was a political scientist. After he retired and had some time to reflect, he concluded that you cannot be a good citizen and a cynic at the same time. Why NOT? Because our form of government depends upon the conviction that we can indeed govern ourselves. That we can work with each other and take care of ourselves. To govern well – and I would also say to live well -- we have to be able to listen and compromise. But the cynic is usually self-righteous and smug, and the cynic has given up on other people. So you CAN’T be a good citizen and a cynic at the same time.
How do you avoid cynicism?
Again I turn to President Spencer, who was there on my first college graduation day. He taught that in our free society, with so much diversity, it’s best to believe that even our adversaries have a basis for their argument or opinion. So we ought to listen to them, and we owe them the presumption of decency.
We owe everyone the presumption of decency, and I fear that’s more and more lacking on television and in much of our public commentary today.
UIS prepared me to have the presumption of decency when working with others, and I trust it has done the same for you. I know it has for the two students here whom I have had the pleasure of working with this year -- trustee Derik Felix and next year’s trustee, Charles Olivier. I have watched both of them work with others with decency and dedication. I have a sense that you all do, too.
I always thought that former Congressman Ray LaHood from Peoria got it right when he organized summits on civility for members of Congress and their spouses. He got people together for the sole purpose of learning more about each other so that they could work with each other better.
Now it’s your turn.
Be alert for opportunities to apply what you have learned, and to treat one another with the presumption of decency.
I am, literally, proof that you are standing on the shoulders of all who came before you at UIS.
All of our experiences are the foundation for your future: those that you plan for and those that you can’t even imagine yet.
It’s your time. Enjoy the ride, and best wishes for a wonderful life.
One final thought: I think you should trust Mary Schmich about the sunscreen."
by Karen Hasara