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Quote of the Day - A life without love in it is like a heap of ashes upon a deserted hearth - with the fire dead, the laughter stilled, and the light extinguished. - Unknown
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We Didn't Start The Fire

James Madison University Commencement Speech December 12, 2009

Several regular readers found out that I gave the commencement speech at James Madision University this past Saturday for the December graduation and have asked me to post a copy of my speech.  Here it is:

This is a historic moment.  I've checked and done my research and I can say with conviction that this is the first time that anyone from Virginia has asked anyone from California what they think about anything.

But you should know that I am sympathetic to your plight.  30 years ago in 1979, I sat in your seats.  I listened to the commencement speaker and like you, all I wanted to do was get out of here and on to the party.  Just give me that piece of paper and let me be on my way.

Unfortunately, I can't remember what my commencement speaker said.  I hope to do better today even though I know the last thing you want to do is sit there and listen to what I have to say.

The good news is that I will talk for no more than 15 minutes.  The bad news is that I will talk for no more than 15 minutes.

I want to talk with you today about the past... and the future.  My generation's past and your future. 

My generation over the last thirty years has fought the fire that has been burning in all corners of the world, but I'm sorry to report that we've left you with a roaring bonfire.

We've got a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq and North Korea launching missiles at who knows what. 

We've got the worst economic recession since the great depression that happened back when my father was born.

We've not done well with the environment either.  You're inheriting some kind of global warming problem and we're still trying to clean up those 11 million gallons of crude oil we dumped in Alaska from the Exxon Valdez. 

The year before most of you were born a Russian nuclear plant at Chernobyl melted down and left the worst radioactive disaster in history.

We haven't done much better when we've reached for the stars.  Although we invented the Space Shuttle, we blew up two of them and lost fourteen astronauts, although that was not the first loss of life in the space program. 

We also flew a $90 million spaceship right past Mars instead of landing there.

Health issues are another failure of our generation.  Aids came into being.  Mad Cow disease was discovered.

We thought we would eradicate hunger - at least Henry Kissinger told us that - but we failed.

Terrorism has came into full swing with Al Qaeda, suicide bombers and the first attack on American soil since World War II in 1941.  We've also had one of our own citizens attack the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Sadly, we lost Princess Diana from the throne and the world.  And in an all-time low, we gave you OJ Simpson.

And finally, if all of that weren't enough, we've managed to squeeze 6 billion people onto this tiny little planet that's running out of room.

On the other hand, we've managed to put out a few of the fires...and they are no small accomplishments.

We eradicated small pox.

We've given you the Hubble space telescope, we successfully sent a spaceship all the way out to Neptune, we launched a privately owned space vehicle into space.  On the second try, we landed a vehicle on Mars.  The woman who ran the second Mars program, Michelle Judd, is a friend of mine and the high school classmate of the woman interpreting my speech into American Sign Language, Chris Bartley, herself considered one of the finest interpreters in the country.

But I'm getting off-track.

We took down the Berlin wall, reopened a city and reunited a country.

We ended the cold war and have done more to reduce nuclear arms than the prior generation.

We ended the war in Ireland and dismantled the Irish Republican Army.

We invented the internet, cell phones, DVD's, video cameras, compact disks, cable TV, and for all you guys out there; big screen TV's.

We implanted the first permanent artificial heart and we're in the process of curing cancer.

And finally, we gave you television that started out as an experiment Sesame Street, Star Trek, the book and movie series Harry Potter, a decent version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the big screen, and American Idol.

As Billy Joel said in his song: 

            "We didn't start the fire,

              It was always burning,

              Since the world's been turning.


              We didn't start the fire,

              No, we didn't light it,

              But we tired to fight it."


We've done a halfway job of fighting it.

We've made mistakes, but we've also made some huge strides.

In what I consider to be our biggest accomplishment with the greatest potential for your future, we made the world's knowledge available to everyone through the Internet.

It's the great equalizer.  Everyone can accomplish anything.

Achievements & accomplishments mean different things to different people.  For me, graduating from the school of communication arts here at JMU, success may have meant to become a lawyer or law professor, getting a writing award from the LA Press Club & publishing two books.

For others, it may mean living simply like my daughter growing organic crops and selling them in her local community.

Or something entirely different like being a ski instructor or a scuba instructor or someone who just rides a Harley around.

Or something like becoming one of the best sign language interpreters in the country.

Now let's pause here for a moment and change the focus from my past instead to your future.

What are you going to accomplish?

I'm not talking about the royal you - the "YOU" collectively.

I'm asking you. Each of you, individually -  Are you making plans or just wandering?

A man better known to my generation, John Lennon, who was one of the Beatles said,

            "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Instead, I want you to make a difference and decide to move forward BEFORE life starts just to happen to you.  I want to pass along two pieces of advice that I've received from dear friends who knew I would be talking with you today.

It's the same advice I've given my daughter as she travels along life's path.

First,  choose where you want to live .  Then, choose the job you want and go get it.

As long as you love what you're doing,  you will never work a day in your life.

In your life, be passionate.  Demand excellence.

In love, in friendship, in your life's work, in your life's play

            keep it all in balance.

No one on their death bed ever said,  "I should have spent more time at the office."

Instead, spend time with your friends, your family, your spouse, your lover.

Be spontaneous.  Take risks.


Expand your universe until you explode your mind.

Now let's think about what it is you can do to make the world a better place.

As deep as the oceans are and as endless as stars are, there are opportunities available to you. 

- Much of the ocean floor remains uncharted. 

- We need wind, solar power and renewable energy.

- We need to improve trade among nations.  Countries need to provide banking services and financing for their citizens and businesses.

 -We need to feed the world and improve nutrition. 

- We need to educate the citizens of the world. 

- Immunizations need to be distributed and medical care needs to be more than just a public option here in the US. 

- We need to put an end to violence around the world, especially in the Middle East. 

- We need to provide sanitation and clean water to the countries where it is not available. 

But there's one part left that my generation is going to ask of your generation.

Remember when I asked you what you intended to accomplish?

What did you think of? 

What did you decide? 

GOT IT..? 

Now, stand up.

Turn to your neighbor - the one you don't know because you're in A to Z order and never took a class with.

Tell your neighbor what you plan to do to make this world a better place.

Exchange emails - 30 years from now, follow up with each other and see how you did.  Make a new friend today and hold each other accountable.

Before I wrap up this talk, I've chronicled for you two lists - my generation's failures and successes.  You, your parents and grandparents may have different things you'd add to both of those lists because we all remember those events differently.  And  your generation - unless you're a history major here - think of it as the dark ages.

What we don't know, though, is what will happen next and how you and your generation will deal with whatever comes your way.  Will you turn a disaster into an opportunity or crumble under its weight?  Will you invent things that will change the world?  Will you save our precious planet or destroy it? 

What will you do?  I believe - along with everyone else on this podium, your professors - just like your parents, family and friends - that you can do anything if your simply try and put forth your best efforts.  In a manner of speaking, you can light the world on fire.

But at the same time, I want to warn you that your diploma is on fire too, an entirely different kind of fire - one on fire with the world's problems - that you have to put out.  There's a lot left for you to handle.  We know that you didn't light that fire, and my generation didn't either, but like me, you can pitch in and help fight the flames.

Now, go make a difference and make the world a better place.

- but first, come and get your diploma.  You've earned it.  Congratulations and go Fight the Fire..!

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by J. Craig Williams on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 13:29 Comments Closed (0) |
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