Commencement Address – Thom S. Serafin

Prepared Remarks
University of Illinois Springfield
May 16, 2015

When I was given the honor to speak here today, I asked friends, what I should talk about. The general consensus was: “Just tell your story.” But then I thought: If I tell my whole story, I might just ruin my reputation.

Then I considered where I would be standing, as I gave this address; here in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. I thought, perhaps I can glean some wisdom from some of Honest Abe’s writings. So I read up on Abraham Lincoln and this quote jumped out: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

That doesn’t seem to be an option when you’re invited to speak at such a wonderful celebration as this, so I will just have to take my chances.

I have not always followed that advice in my journey from the inner city of Milwaukee, to founding my own communications firm in Chicago. We do a booming business in crisis communications (some people in the media call us “Spin Doctors”) — and in a world where knowledge is power, I believe in KNOWING everything I talk about … and NOT talking about everything I KNOW. But it is my privilege to share with you a little of what I’ve learned along the way, as we celebrate the accomplishments that have earned you your seat here today.

I am honored to share the stage with your distinguished university leaders. And, as one of America’s Best Colleges, it’s no wonder that this university has been able to attract the excellent leadership represented here with us. Over the past four years, Chancellor Susan Koch, through inspiring hands-on leadership, has dramatically increased resources for the University and has brought new growth and diversity to your student body. Thank you Chancellor.

We also say thank you, and bid farewell, to our current President Dr. Robert A Easter. Dr. Easter’s distinguished international career in the field of Agriculture and Animal Science has been matched by his dedication in furthering the mission of this University. Please join me in expressing our gratitude to President Easter.

And very soon, Dr. Timothy Killeen will become our university’s 20th President. Dr. Killeen earned his doctorate in atomic and molecular physics from University College London at the tender age 23. He’s a leading researcher in geophysics and space sciences, — in other words , a rocket scientist. Now, we’ll have the opportunity for this dynamic leader to propel us to new and uncharted realms. Welcome Dr. Killeen.

You are graduating today from the University of Illinois. Your degree is your ticket to get into almost any room in this country. But then, it’s up to you what happens. The world you are entering, and for some of you RE-entering, needs you,to confront and help heal the divisions that have become all too common in our public and private institutions. It is your fresh approach, your energy and the special talents you each bring to the table that will shape the future for all of us.

Our university’s motto is Leadership lived. UIS builds leaders.

And now that you are graduating, you need to start living your leadership. But what does that really mean?
In my life, leadership has been a personal mission, built on one-to-one relationships. I come from a humble background, stumbling along the way; but each time I ventured into deep water, someone gave me a hand, and helped me to find my path.

I am a product of Milwaukee’s inner city. I attended three colleges before I found this institution. The first was Milwaukee Technical College, where I did not excel during my four month term. The administration suspended me for not attending classes. I wasn’t really banned from the school … They just wouldn’t readmit me. (And that, my friends, is what folks in my business refer to as “Spin.”)

Next, I thought I had found my true calling and entered St. Francis Seminary on Milwaukee’s south side.
During my 18 months there, I became student body president, spending a lot of time asking challenging questions, demonstrating for civil rights, and against the Vietnam War. According to some school officials, I was a disruptive influence to the larger community, language that was included in a letter to my parents when I was not so politely asked — not to return.

So by traditional standards, I was NOT a success in the seminary. But it was there that I developed the values that would define my life’s journey: A passion for politics and community service, and a desire to take a stand with people who are marginalized by their life’s circumstances.

After the seminary, I relocated with my parents to Peoria and drove a truck while attending night classes at Illinois Central College.

One of the lessons I learned is we never know who will “see” us – really see us – along the way, and I count my blessings that my advisor at ICC, Mrs. Vaughn Frisk, saw something in me. She encouraged me to take my three years of accumulated credits and pursue my education here, to UIS. I was particularly impressed when she told me the University was experimenting with a NO GRADES policy – a pass fail grading system. That was very appealing to me, since I had always struggled in a world of standardized testing.

Eventually I would earn my bachelors’ in Communications with a minor in Filmmaking. I ran for student body president on the platform of ‘Love’. That’s right-love! My campaign literature simply said, Vote for Love, Vote for Thom. I lost by a few votes but, the consolation position of Vice President offered me the chance to keep working on issues affecting our school.

When it came time to graduate, I was invited to say a few words and afterwards, found myself at a reception at the home of the University’s President, Bob Spencer. I recall the president asking me, what are you going to do now, Thom? I was bar-tending at the time. President Spencer, one of those persons who would really see me – offered me an opportunity. There was a new professor on campus who needed what he called, a “Girl Friday,” — a right hand, an assistant. Did I want the job? The new professor was coming here to start a graduate journalism program. That man was Paul Simon, who would later become United States Senator Paul Simon, and run for President in the late ‘80s.

I was hired, and assigned to work for Paul Simon. For minimum wage, I ran his errands, wrote for him on his Olympia typewriter, and became totally immersed in his program and all its details. For minimum wage, I was graced with a wealth of wisdom from this storied and learned man in a role that literally changed my life.
He eventually convinced me to pursue a Masters in Public Affairs reporting, and as a PAR graduate student I interned at the state capitol. I worked under Bill Miller, an icon in Illinois news broadcasting circles – in the Capitol Information Bureau, now called the Illinois Radio Network.

Here I was, a pretty good bartender and a marginal truck driver, each day mingling with the state’s elite Correspondents and public officials in the Capitol press room. Then, halfway through my internship, Professor Simon resigned to run for Congress. The University wisely selected my boss Bill Miller to take over for Professor Simon, then Bill Miller recommended me for his job!!  Suddenly a two-time college drop-out was now the legislative correspondent for a network of 35 radio stations.

I left the world of reporting in 1978 for political campaign work, which gave me a different kind of front row seat to history. I’ve shared campaign offices with a young Rahm Emmanuel, now Chicago’s mayor, and Dave Wilhelm, who would go on to become Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign manager and chairman of the national Democratic Party.

I ran, or worked on, several history-making campaigns, including Senator Dick Durbin’s first run for Congress, and Carol Mosley Braun’s general election race to become the first female African-American Senator. I was honored to serve as press secretary for US Senator Alan J. Dixon, and learned a lot about spin control as spokesman for the powerful and controversial Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. I was the Illinois campaign manager for Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s ill-fated run for president, which was derailed by his extracurricular adventurers on a yacht named Monkey business, (but that’s another story!) I was privileged to accompany my old friend and mentor Paul Simon on a humanitarian mission to CUBA where we had a 6 hour luncheon meeting with President Fidel Castro. A front row seat to history …built on a personal relationships. One at a time.

It’s been almost 30 years since I opened my own media and public affairs consulting firm, Serafin and Associates, Inc. in the River North district of Chicago. We have run campaigns of every stripe. We specialize in an area known as crisis communications, utilizing the lessons learned over those many years on the political trail. Basically I run an ER Unit for businesses, unions, and non-profits who have been victims of communications disasters. (Sometimes the injuries are self-inflicted.) We have advised local, statewide and national political figures, as well as others such as Wal-Mart, Morgan Stanley, the Carpenters Union, Ameren Power Company, Arlington Park International Racecourse and Dynegy. But even with the biggest of corporate and political clients…the relationships I have learned must be personal; a face to face meeting is better than a phone call. A phone call is better than a letter. And a letter is better than an email.

I help my clients understand the sophisticated science of communications in today’s world. Although I no longer do campaign work, I stay in touch and involved. I am constantly on the air as a political analyst on TV and radio in Chicago. My longtime personal relationships with members of the media and my business partners and clients are the foundation for every success I’ve enjoyed.

So I guess I have told my story after all, and I hope Honest Abe’s words of wisdom have not applied in this case.

Today you receive your degree for the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois – that’s a big deal. As you leave the safe haven that has been your stomping ground over the past few years, and for some of you leave your family home as well, you enter a world where you no longer have people scheduling your time and making decisions for you. There is so much in store for you, much of which you cannot even imagine now as you hit the highway to your future.

With the speed of information flow, innovation and technology, you need to constantly be reading and educating yourself, but this isn’t new — it’s just more accelerated. Our new age will make it easy to overlook the human relationships I have been emphasizing this afternoon. Do not make that mistake. Know who you are. I know who I am…I am an average guy, who works harder than most folks at work worth doing. (Teddy R)

Most of you will not travel a straight road. There will be detours along the way; not everything will work out for you. You’re not going to win every issue you encounter. But if you understand you are building bridges, you win the respect of those you encounter. And in today’s world of the Internet, this knowledge will travel swiftly creating your story to the world – your signature.

I hope you will accept the hand that reaches out to help you, and I hope when you’re able, you will extend your hand to another. You need to keep your eyes open for those who truly see you…and open them even wider to truly see others along the way. One to one.

I encourage you, every one of you, to place your faith in something much greater than yourself. Whether an organized religion or a spiritual practice — find it and let it guide you on your journey. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is also a best-selling author, recently wrote an OP ED piece headlined, The Moral Bucket List, a thoughtful account of his search for what makes a person good. His list really resonated with me, as I considered that I would soon be standing here today, trying to inspire, to encourage, and to challenge you as you take this leap from academia to the realities of life.

Brooks wrote: “Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is vision of life the begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

And he said: “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.
The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

How will you build your virtues? The answer to this question will develop over the course of your entire life, one person at a time.

I wish all of you – success – but more importantly, a joyful, meaningful and productive life of Leadership lived.

Thank you.