Valedictory to the Class of 2007
Washington & Jefferson College
May 19, 2007
And now we come to the time when it is traditional for the president of the College to offer a valedictory to the graduating class—that is, to say goodbye and, of course, to offer a few words of advice in parting. I have known you all for three years, watched you grow and change, and your leaving will be truly painful. What will we do without those of you who have led our cheers, provided glorious music for our ceremonies, led the philosophy club and the J-walkers, spearheaded the renovation of the lounge in Dieter-Porter, brought national attention to the hockey club and the baseball team, bolstered the Black Student Union and the Asian American Student Association, and shared with us your tales of travel in Costa Rica and China? You have brought honors to the College by publishing your research in prestigious journals, demonstrating outstanding athletic ability, and winning national awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship—only the second we have earned in the history of the College. You will be sorely missed by those of us who have taught and guided you. You will leave a hole in our hearts.
But this is a natural transition, and we must let you go. You are destined for great things, and we look forward to following your future success. And we'll be here, waiting for you when you want to return to meet old friends, to reconnect with those faculty who have prepared you for the world that lies ahead of you, when you want to come home.
In the meantime, as you go forth I want to leave you by way of advice with the story of a man who graduated from W&J in 1949, a man from Charleroi just down the valley here. When Mel Bassi died earlier this month, the entire valley mourned. Among the more than 3,000 people who waited in line to offer their condolences to his family were day laborers, country club leaders, doctors, housewives, grocery store check-out clerks, childhood friends, construction workers, and bank presidents. What had Mel done during his life that drew so many people to praise him in death? His life is a parable for us all.
Mel was, in his own words, a simple country lawyer. But, first in his law practice and then through his direction of Charleroi Federal Savings Bank, he fulfilled his mission—which was not to accumulate wealth or to become well known (both of which he achieved), but rather to help people. Over the years, Mel gave struggling businessmen loans when no one else would take the risk, given their shaky credit. One of his sons said that some days they would find home-grown zucchini and tomatoes on the office doorstep and they would know that their father had been paid. Mel guided his friends and neighbors through the tangled and often confusing legal system. He helped people buy homes, get married, manage their estates, manage their businesses, manage their lives. He inspired high school students to dream and to reach their full potential by assuring that they made their way to one of the local colleges, most often W&J. He knew that education was a ticket to a richer life in every sense of the word. Mel embraced his community as he embraced his family and this College. He opened his arms wide, gave a twinkly eyed grin, and loaned you his strength.
Just last night, I learned that while traveling in Colorado many years ago, Mel once rescued a young woman stranded on the side of a highway. She had been abused and abandoned by a truck driver. Although he was late for his flight back to Pittsburgh, he not only took her to a shelter, missing his plane, but he also sent a check to ensure that the shelter could afford to give her the help she needed to get back on her feet. This was a chance encounter, but a typical one for Mel, one in which he made a life-changing difference for someone else.
Mel's skills had many talents. He was analytical, well read, and had common sense. But it was the choices he made that made him so loved by so many. It was the choices he made. At his funeral, one of his four sons said that Mel "chose passion." I think that sums up Mel's life. He chose passion. He chose to engage fully with everyone he met. You never saw him glancing over your shoulder to see if someone more interesting had entered the room. He listened with passion—he cared about what you said and made it important to him. He chose to be passionate about the community around him, to engage in the lives of his neighbors.
These days it is all too easy to choose complacency and not passion—to protect oneself from pain and also from joy by not caring, by not taking risks for others, by looking out only for yourself.
My hope for all of you is that you will have the courage to choose passion. This is not the same as "finding your passion" as if your life's calling were a set of long-lost car keys waiting for you to find them under a sofa cushion. I am talking about choosing passion in everything you do. Do your job with passion. When you confront a problem, look at it head-on. Embrace your families, your children and grandchildren. Embrace your neighbors. Do not look only to your own success—for you will truly succeed only when those around you succeed as well. You will not enjoy your food when others around you are starving. When you face conflict in your marriage or your profession or your neighborhood, do not turn to hate. Turn to compassion. And if you do so, maybe when you pass from this earthly realm thousands will gather to learn from your example and to remember the ways in which you have made the world a better place.
Our speaker and our honorees have all done that. They have embraced life with passion, singing its praises through poetry, caring for a city, helping to curb our energy drain on the planet, devoting their lives so that others may have dignity and health and a safe place to live. Follow their examples. Choose passion.
And so we come to the end of our commencement ceremony. But, as you know, "commencement" does not mean "end" but rather "beginning." You are about to "commence" on your life's journey after college. We hope that you have learned a few things in your time with us. Not just the history of great ideas, the principles of organic chemistry, the beauty of poetry, or how to read Picasso or listen to Bach, but that you also have learned some "life lessons"—how to live in a community of diverse individuals, how to negotiate conflicts without verbal or physical violence, how to discipline yourself so that you can work hard even when there are temptations to play, and how to take time to play when you've worked long enough.
And so, thanks to the magic of language, you are all transformed today from college students to college graduates. You are the same people who woke up this morning and yet different. I want to thank you for sharing your lives with us, for allowing us the inexpressible joy of seeing you learn. During the reception that follows this ceremony, I hope you will take time to thank the individual faculty who guided you—pushed you, prodded you, ran to keep up with you—as you made your way through W&J.
On behalf of the entire Washington & Jefferson College community, it is my great pleasure to extend congratulations and heartfelt best wishes to each and every member of the Class of 2007. We are proud of you—proud of your accomplishments and proud of what you have become here. I hope that you will always remember this commencement day with a sense of fulfillment, pride, and thanksgiving.
President Tori Haring-Smith