Commencement Address 2008

By Justice Anne Burke (Illinois Supreme Court)

Good afternoon, graduates.

President White, Chancellor Ringeisen, distinguished members of the Board of Trustees; Deans, Department Chairs, members of the faculty, family and friends of today’s graduates.

I am exceedingly honored to have this opportunity of addressing you at such a profound moment in your lives. I am particularly delighted to be a part of the life of this remarkable Illinois educational institution and doubly happy to be here in Springfield – a place I have come to look upon as a second home.

Not far from here, my Supreme Court colleagues and I conduct matters of the court. Our imposing court building turned one hundred years old this past February. It is there that the six other justices and I reside when the Supreme Court is in full session in Springfield five times a year. I have come to know Springfield and appreciate its history and heartland significance.

Like you, I have come to know Springfield through the life and legend of its most remarkable citizen: Abraham Lincoln. Next year, 2009, America will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of this courageous American patriot from Illinois.

I hope that during your time here in our capital you have made some personal discoveries for yourselves about our 16th president. How remarkable it would be if you could carry home with you a piece of his American values and virtues. How important for what lies ahead for you would it be if some word of his — the man who saved the Union — touched your hearts. I say that because I believe his thoughts, some spoken in the most perilous moments in our nation’s history, might give you courage for the future and fuel for your journey.

I have my own favorite words of Lincoln — short, sweet and to the point. I have tried to remember and practice them throughout my professional life. He said, “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”

Springfield occupied a unique place in the heart of President Lincoln. He arrived here just as the city was made our third state capital in 1839. I suspect much of what he relied on for strength in his later life had its origins here along Springfield’s dusty streets. It was, after all, the home of the love of his life, Mary Todd.

Here was his home, his work, his finest family days, his worthiest friends, and his final place of rest. Here, today, (just down the street from here) is his extraordinary Presidential Library and Museum.

I am so pleased that you chose to come here to this special place so tied to President Lincoln’s life, for your college education. Even if you did not go looking for him while you have been here, maybe he has been looking for you. Perhaps his spirit and energy was at work as you made fresh discoveries yourselves; about the future; about government; about our heartland capital and about what lies ahead for you.

There’s an old Irish saying: You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.

This is good advice in any family; but it also is a good assessment of what you have been about these past four years.

All of us come to our life’s work shaped and guided by the lives and loves of many people. But no matter what gifts or challenges we are given in life, what we encounter in the pathways before us must be tested on our own. Guided by the good will of others, we must still live life as we find it. I suspect that is what makes today’s celebration one of such hope.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

It is that “fire” in you that we have come to celebrate today. It is the fire of bright intelligence; remarkable accomplishment and wide excitement for the future. Remember the words also of another poet, Seamus Heaney, who wrote, “There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you.”

Out of such “risk and truth” can come your confidence, your hope and your direction. I hope that “risk and truth” will become the twin pillars of your success and happiness. Be idealists without illusions. Be generous to others; quick to forgive and easy with understanding. It will make you trusted and popular wherever you go.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say that the most essential thing we could do in our lives was also the scariest: the task to simply begin. Take the first step in faith, he would say. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.

Is that not what you have come to discover here at the University of Illinois? I’m a grandmother, and I am not sure how often in my life I have ever seen the whole staircase. But I have always been able to find the first stair and I think that was always enough.

Years ago this led me to organize the first Chicago Special Olympics; and then led me back to college after having four children; then to law school; and still later to start a family law practice and a lifetime of child advocacy. I will be honest with you: Never in a million years did I think the staircase I was on would lead to the Illinois Supreme Court.

That came about not through one great decision on my part, but rather in response to thousands of moments of risk and truth in my life. It unfolded in the countless opportunities and decisions, usually involving hard work, which led me into the lives of others, many in very vulnerable places in their lives.

I believe it is like that for all of us. Our commitment to our professions comes about in many ways – failures and successes – but always most clearly demonstrated when we do things for others. Your excellence always is best when it opens up good things for others.

“Do not pray for an easy life,” John F. Kennedy was fond of saying. “Pray to be a stronger person.” That is my great wish for you today: you will know the direction of your journey by the effort and commitment you make to others; and that you will always have your eyes on that first stair.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished.

I wish you well in all that lies ahead. Most of all, I encourage you to make risk and truth a part of all you do. Remember what President Lincoln said: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

Thank you for the honor of [having me] speaking today. I cherish this with all my heart.