Commencement Speech: Civility & Community Under Siege

Ray LaHood

Former Congressman and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (Photo by Clare Howard)

(Excerpted from the commencement address Ray LaHood delivered to the graduating class at Illinois Central College May 19.)

It is a great privilege to deliver a few remarks this morning. By the way, you might be interested to know that the longest commencement speech on record was given at Harvard College in the early 19th century. It lasted more than six hours and was delivered first in Latin and then repeated in Greek.

Rest easy—I’m not conversant in either language.

I have been blessed in my life to have achieved some success. Let me assure you, however, that no one who knew me at Canton Community College in 1963 could have predicted that I would become a member of Congress and the Secretary of Transportation in President Obama’s cabinet.

Our classes took place in four rooms in the back of Canton High School. The entire college would have fit in this room. During the week, I lived with a family in town, going home on weekends to work in the Jewel/SuperValu grocery store in Peoria. Undecided about a career, I took general education courses during my two years at what is now Spoon River College. I left in 1965 without a degree.

At that point, I knew only that my next step was to enroll at Bradley University. Beyond that, I had no idea.

What you may not know is that I began my career not as a politician but as a teacher. I had the good fortune to spend six years teaching social studies in classrooms at St. Joseph School in Pekin, Holy Family School in Peoria and Oak Grove West near Bartonville. Working with those students stimulated my own curiosity and interest in government and politics. Without knowing it, they helped chart the course for my 35-year career in Washington, D.C.

Twenty years ago this weekend, I offered my thoughts to this school’s 1998 graduating class about two themes that were then, and still are, familiar to all of us but whose importance in our public life cannot be exaggerated.

The first is civility. Now in a strict dictionary sense, civility is nothing more than everyday politeness and courtesy. But in a larger sense, civility means treating each other with respect in our public as well as private lives. By this standard, civility is on the decline as is all too clear in the language of politics today. The most consequential leaders conduct themselves with civility—in victory and defeat. Successful public service in a democracy does not require the destruction of one’s adversaries.

The second concept is community. Men and women, singly or as parts of larger families, living their lives in decency and love, working hard, being honest, quietly attending to their duties, are the very cornerstone of community life. I believe we take for granted the work most folks do, day in, day out, without complaint and without public recognition. They gain strength from some valued heritage that is different from that of one’s neighbors.

My generation has not done a particularly good job of fostering civility and community.

But I do take inspiration from those of you about to receive your diplomas. I am confident that the keys to progress and to your own achievement lie in your experiences here at Illinois Central College.

Let me explain by telling you the stories of three of your fellow graduates.

When Haley Wisner came to ICC the first time, she didn’t make a connection with her chosen career path and quit school. Now 33 years old, Haley says the second time around at ICC has been different. She is now a busy stepmother to 10-year-old Trinity and assists her husband Kyle, who is disabled.

She works at Neighborhood House delivering meals for seniors through the Meals on Wheels program during the day, five days a week, and then works a job four evenings a week. That’s about it for her “spare time,” since she also attended ICC full-time.

Haley credits Professors Brent Goken and Megan Ames for helping her realize her potential. They told her not to settle but to strive. Haley took their advice. She was accepted into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and plans to transfer to Illinois State University to major in communications. One day, she hopes to work on a fundraising team for a non-profit and serve as a motivational speaker for the National Eating Disorder Association and the National Humane Society.

Congratulations, Haley. Your story reminds us of the value of perseverance, of thinking long term and of compassion.

Derek Henningsen hails from DeWitt, Iowa, and chose to come to ICC because of its high academic standards. Derek is one of those students who embraced the extra-curricular activities here to further his career. He is involved in Future Farmers of America, the ICC Ag Business Club, livestock judging, 4-H, Phi Kappa Honor Society and St. Anne’s Youth Group, among other activities. He plans to transfer to Iowa State University to major in Large Production Animal Veterinary Sciences.

As one of his professors put it, “Managing the time commitment required for these activities while maintaining an impressive GPA with an arduous academic tract requires drive, dedication and intelligence. Derek possesses all these qualities.”

We wish you the best, Derek. Your time at ICC teaches us that volunteering serves not only to broaden one’s education but also to serve your fellow students and the college admirably. That is what community is all about.

One final story.

Ruben Moro –– along with his mother, two brothers and a sister –– immigrated to the United States from Mexico to flee physical and emotional abuse when he was just five years old. His mother came into the country legally, but the rest of the young family did not. As a result, his oldest brothers were deported a few years later. As you can imagine, this was hard for the family, especially for his mother.

Although Ruben had always been excited about school and excelled in his classes, he says he didn’t think college would ever be in his future because of his legal status. That changed when he became a permanent resident, and with that came the privilege of furthering his education.

Once enrolled at ICC, Ruben joined the TRiO Student Support Services Program. At first, Ruben said it was an uphill battle taking many math and physics prerequisites and juggling life, a full-time job and school. It wasn’t easy, but he worked his way up from Math 98 to Math 224, and on to Physics 212 and Engineering 251.

Through it all, Ruben says what kept him going was his mother. Because she worked so hard over the years providing for him and his siblings, he wants to show her something for her sacrifice.

Today, Ruben is graduating with an associate’s degree in engineering science. He plans to transfer to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in the fall.

Congratulations on your inspiring journey, Ruben. You have faced and surmounted many obstacles. You will face more, but you are well equipped by experiences here at ICC and by your character, thanks to your mother, to overcome them.

The college’s mission statement reads: “Through learning, minds change. We believe by changing minds, we can change the world.”

As you watch the graduates accept their diplomas, know that each of them has the potential to change the world. Nearly 47 years ago, as I sat impatiently waiting as you are now for the commencement speaker at Bradley University to finish, I had absolutely no idea what life had in store for me.

As you look ahead, I hope you take your inspiration from your fellow students: the Haleys, the Dereks, the Rubens, the folks sitting beside you. In the midst of today’s national turmoil, with civility and community under siege, I see the promise of our future in each of you.

Ray LaHood

1 comment for “Commencement Speech: Civility & Community Under Siege

  1. Diane F. Brown
    June 2, 2018 at 12:32 am

    Using storytelling to make his points, Ray LaHood did a lovely job. I’m glad Community Word made his commencement speech available to read.

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