What I Learned in the Hosie

Class of 2013 in an iPhone panorama
Thank you. Members of the community. Members of the faculty and staff. Members of the class of 2013 and their families. And all my Tamaqua friends on Facebook.

It is an honor to be here. I must admit it’s not an honor I ever expected. Some of you may recall that President George W. Bush addressed a commencement audience at his alma mater and said, in effect: Even a C student can become president. Well, I’m proof that even a C-minus student can be a commencement speaker. Who knows what future unexpected commencement speakers lurk behind me? 

When I was first asked if I would be your speaker, I started thinking about my own commencement speaker in this very stadium in 1961. I could not remember who the speaker was or what he said. I was going to let it go at that but then I remembered that the Tamaqua Public Library had microfilm of our former local newspaper, the Evening Courier. And so one day when my wife was visiting her mother in West Hazleton—yes, I am in a mixed marriage—I went to the Tamaqua Public Library and looked up the story about my commencement. 

And now I can tell you why I don’t remember who the speaker was. We didn’t have one. 

I can also tell you that the story seemed familiar to me. At first I could not put my finger on it and then it dawned on me. I wrote it. 

I don’t know that for a fact because there is no byline on the story, but I do know that if the Courier’s lead reporter had written it, it would have been a lot more interesting. It’s not a very good story. That’s how I figured out I wrote it. 

The Times-News has not asked me to write a story about tonight’s commencement. We know why.
In keeping with my background in journalism, I’m going to deliver some headlines and summaries. You may consider this the USA Today approach to a commencement address, although I will conclude with a longer piece of advice from my late mother. 

The title of my talk is What I Learned in the Hosie. It’s really more than that, but I thought by using that title I would acknowledge the many volunteer firefighters from the four companies in Tamaqua-- South Ward, East End, Citizens and the American Hose. As tireless volunteers, they represent much of what is good about Tamaqua and other communities where volunteerism gets the job done. 

Thank you, volunteers. 

Here are the headlines:

Expect the unexpected. Another way of looking at this advice is: Roll with the punches. In fact, when it comes to punches, get out of the way. Your life will not unfold as you expect it to and there will be days, months and maybe years, when you will have to deal with something unexpected. Be prepared for it.

Learn to listen. I used to give this advice to my journalism students. Some people have a habit of interrupting someone who’s talking and not hearing a complete sentence because they think they know what the speaker is going to say. I did it a lot in my newspaper days and now I know why I didn’t always get good stories. I had to learn to listen.

Read a lot. If I could list only one thing I am grateful for, it is that early in my life my mother instilled in me a love for reading. I didn’t get many toys for Christmas; I got books. And when there were no books, there were always cereal boxes. Today’s cereal boxes aren’t as interesting as they were in my youth, so I’ve substituted my local newspaper. And if it hasn’t been delivered yet, there’s always my iPad. But whatever, I read a lot.

Be a life-long learner. You probably think that your education has concluded. I know I did when I was your age. Actually, your education has just begun. What your teachers have done to date is prepare you to keep on learning. The most important thing you should have gotten out of high school is not a set of facts, but to learn how to learn. You can forget the facts, but if you have learned how to learn, you’ll be fine for the rest of your life. As the writer Joan Didion once said: “Time is the school in which we learn.”

Don’t be a hammer dropper. That’s something I learned from one of my former editors. He pointed to one of our reporters who at 5 p.m. promptly would stop typing, get up from her desk and go home. She didn’t stay the extra minute or two needed to finish what she was doing. She dropped the hammer. I am proof positive that a good work ethic will more than compensate for a C average. 

Live in the future. One of the habits I’ve noticed as a listener is that some people live in the past. That’s all they talk about. But as a colleague of mine used to say, the past is residue, or as it’s more elegantly stated: the past is prologue. Another colleague used to remind me that we were only as good as our next achievement. Or as Katherine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post, once said: “It’s dangerous when you are older to start living in the past.” She had quite a past, but she’s known for what she did later in life. Live in the future.

Learn from your mistakes. Perhaps there’s no greater sin than making the same mistake twice. OK, I’ll give you twice, but not three times. In fact, an even better path is learning from the mistakes of others. I’ve always considered one of the best questions you can ask of someone: What would you have done differently? Don’t make their mistakes. Learn from others. Learn from their mistakes. Another thing you should learn from your mistakes is to admit them promptly and to atone for the terrible ones. 

Be skeptical. I’m not suggesting you question everything, but in this day of instant publication on the Internet, you should be skeptical. As someone I knew back in State College used to say—and she was quoting her grandmother—“Paper lies still; you can put anything on it.” If something’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.  

Develop good habits. As you know, habits are hard to break. If your habits are nothing but good, that’s not a problem. Furthermore, as we get older we get set in our ways. Better to be set in ways that are good. Develop good habits. 

Along those lines … 

Say thank you early and often. I’m using that as my larger point to suggest that you should do good without any expectation of getting something in return. As the Chinese say: "Kindness in a bucket is returned in a barrel.” Do good because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect something in return. 

Along the lines of thanking people, thank your families for their help in making sure this day was possible. And your high school faculty and staff for their help and for working hard to give you this wonderful ceremony. 

Another group we’re always grateful for is our military, which brings me to my next headline: 

Serve your country. If you remember the introductory remarks about me, you will note that I served in the United States Navy. Those were formative years for me in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time. But one thing I realized early was how great this country is. Now that we no longer have mandatory national service, I believe that many have missed a wonderful opportunity to know this country better. And so I urge you to serve in the military or the Peace Corps while you’re young so you will appreciate your country when you’re old.

Finally, let me talk about my mother and Daniel.

My mother was for a long time the secretary to the principal of this senior high school. My parents separated when I was 5 and my mother, with help from her parents, raised three daughters and a son.

My mother died last year a month shy of her 98th birthday and just a couple of weeks ago we interred her ashes at the foot of her parents’ grave in Odd Fellows Cemetery. We also scattered some of her ashes at Still Creek Dam, where we lived with my grandparents for a few years.

My mother raised me mostly on Aesop’s Fables and the Old Testament. Every story, no matter the length, had a one-sentence moral, which my mother reminded me of when I was straying or which she would cite as a way of helping me find the right path in a sticky situation. 

Of all the stories my mother told me, the one I liked the best, the one I think shaped me above all others, was the story of Daniel in the Old Testament.

Daniel, you may recall, put his faith ahead of his loyalty to secular matters, ran afoul of a decree by the king and was thrown into the lions’ den. But rather than being eaten alive, Daniel was protected by an angel and was alive when the king came to check on him the following morning. The king spared Daniel and punished his detractors.

When my mother would finish telling me the story of Daniel, she would turn to me and say, “And what is the moral of the story?”

In the beginning, I was slow to answer and she would firmly tell me: “Dare to be a Daniel, Son; dare to be a Daniel.”

For many years to come, whenever it appeared I was running with the crowd instead of standing on my own, my mother would say to me, “Dare to be a Daniel, Son; dare to be a Daniel.” My mother’s one-sentence moral from Daniel in the lions’ den will be forever with me. It is something I have passed on to my daughters and I hope they pass it on to their children.

And that, ultimately, is the message that I want to leave with you.

Do good. Be safe. Dare to be a Daniel.
And don’t forget the good advice I just gave you. 

Thank you. And congratulations on your graduation!