I've attended quite a few commencements over the years and I realize there are only three words you're really interested in hearing from me: Not "I love you" but "And in conclusion ..."
I'll get to those soon, but first I want to congratulate graduates, their families and friends. You have persevered during one of the worst economic periods in our nation's history, and America is better as a result because it needs not only your educated minds, but your resolve and your toughness. Now bring that same determination and energy to finding the right job.
Both my wife and I are CSU graduates, as are three of our children. Conditions were much, much easier for Jan and me when we left that little gated community to the north, Oildale, for San Francisco State in 1961. We took turns working and put one another through school. It was easy then; tuition was $42 a semester. Those of you who've stuck it out in these hard times are heroes to us.
When I finished my B.A., my wife and I returned to our hometown so I could work one last summer in the oilfields. My first morning on the job, I was handed a hoe that had a notch carved into the handle. When I asked what it was for, the pusher said it was to hang my diploma on so everybody would know I was an educated man.
And I was. I had learned many lessons along the way, only some of them in school. For instance, I learned to respect the past, but not be bound by it. My military service taught me that the famous admonition that freedom isn't free is not just a cliche. We all need to find ways to give back to our country. How we do that is less important than that we give of ourselves: Coach a youth sports team; deliver food to shut-ins; teach at a senior center. Do something.
Now's a good time for you to think about how you define success, too. A few years ago I realized that real success for me was a lasting marriage, five kids, 12 grandkids, and a gang of old pals I would trust in any crisis. Let me tell you about one of them. Eight or nine years ago, a buddy revealed that he'd just sold his winery for $120 million. He also said, "No one needs this much money."
Normally I'd have offered to sacrifice and take a few million off his hands, but I didn't because he was genuinely troubled. He feared his family - especially his children - might be ruined by excessive wealth. He also said he wanted to give back to a country that had allowed a blue-collar kid from East Bakersfield to achieve such success. He finally created a foundation with the bulk of his estate, a foundation that has provided everything from scholarships for blue-collar kids here to micro-loans for farmers in Africa.
My pal understood that this country is only as good as we're willing to make it. He and I often disagreed about politics, but we actually listened to one another. Let me say that again: we listened. Each respected the other's right to differing opinions. Passivity can kill America, and so can closed minds.
Both of us had learned something else, too: the importance of asking why. One reason he had all that money is that when he was a young winemaker, he wondered why California wineries all seemed to offer so many varietals. He decided to make just one wine at the highest level. People told him he was crazy. He's now enshrined in the Vintners' Hall of Fame.
His accomplishment illustrates for me Albert Einstein's famous observation, "Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions." That's as true of little things as of large ones. For instance, if someone had told me in 1960 that my grandchildren would one day carry tiny telephones and ask "Where are you?" instead of "How are you?" - I'd have thought them nuts. That's why CSUB is such an asset to this community. It's a bridge to the unknown future.
The truth is that none of us knows exactly what might be possible, so leave room for your spirit to grow. Education is your springboard to new possibilities; you've got to be able to change as conditions change ... and they will.
Think, for example, about a Bakersfield boy named Earl Warren raised here when racial segregation was the rule. In 1942, as state attorney general, he had encouraged the internment of Japanese Americans. Twelve years later, though, as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, he asked why when told "There's always been racial segregation. It's the American way." He was given no good reasons, so in Brown v. Board of Education he voted to end segregation in this nation's public schools. Many old allies abandoned him as a result; "Impeach Earl Warren" signs appeared in his hometown; but a magnificent social revolution has followed, as this beautiful crowd illustrates.
Of course, imagination doesn't always have to lead you to difficult passages. Why not have fun? Imagine a life as free and enjoyable as is responsibly possible. Why not try new adventures while you can? My wife and I will never again kayak the Inside Passage or raft the Grand Canyon, but we're sure happy we did those things when we could. As William Saroyan, our neighbor from Fresno, once wrote, "In the time of your life, live!"
I last gave a commencement speech in Bakersfield in 1955. That performance was so successful, so memorable, so wondrous that I've been invited back only 55 years later. If I don't at last stop talking it may take even longer before my next invitation, so I'll at last say and in conclusion - this is not the end for you, it's a wonderful beginning. Keep learning and enjoy the journey.
Author, educator and historian Gerald Haslam delivered this commencement speech Saturday, June 12, 2010 at CSU Bakersfield. Haslam was born in Bakersfield in 1937, grew up in Oildale and graduated from Garces Memorial High School. After attending Bakersfield College, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at San Francisco State College. He later earned his Ph.D. in English at the Union Institute, and taught English at Sonoma State University for 30 years. California's Great Central Valley has been the setting of most of Haslam's books, in which he sought to bring his native state's image more into line with its reality.
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