Sen. Susan M. Collins
Thank you, President Kennedy. Trustees, faculty and alumni, families and friends, and, most of all, graduates, it is an honor to be with you today.
When incoming President Paul Ferguson was asked what drew him here, he said it was “the spirit of the place.”
I would like to take a moment to thank someone who has exemplified that spirit, President Robert Kennedy. I applaud his countless contributions to our University and our State, and I cherish our friendship.
I am deeply honored by the degree that the University of Maine bestows on me today. You see, I am the black sheep in a Black Bear family. Both of my parents graduated from the University of Maine, as did my oldest sister and my youngest brother, my grandfather and all of my uncles. To compensate for going to college elsewhere, I have had to work extra hard to help the University with federal funding. I hope that this honorary degree will transform me once and for all from black sheep to a full-fledged Black Bear. I am very grateful.
But now it is time to turn the spotlight to the true stars here today – the Class of 2011. Congratulations to the members of this outstanding class. You did it! And I am delighted to be part of your special day.
Over the years, I have learned two things about giving commencement speeches:
The first is to be brief. I am well aware that this ceremony is the last thing that stands between you and a celebration with family and friends.
The second is to try to leave you with a message that I hope will be part of your graduation day memories and possibly even somewhat helpful in your journey through life. But I approach this goal mindful of the fact that I remember nothing about the speaker for my own college graduation – not even his name, much less what he said. So here goes.
America has a maritime tradition of branding each ship with its own motto. One ship in our nation’s fleet bears this distinctive motto: “Find the Good and Praise It.” That ship is a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter named in honor of Alex Haley.
You may recall that Alex Haley wrote the historical novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It told the story of his ancestors who were kidnapped from The Gambia in Africa and brought to this country as slaves. His book was made into a landmark television mini-series that taught many of us much about the African-American struggle for freedom and equality.
“Find the Good and Praise It” was the personal motto Alex Haley, this grandson of slaves. My Senate colleague Lamar Alexander, who knew Alex Haley well, calls him the most positive person he’d ever known.
But you may ask: Was the guiding principle of Alex Haley’s life the notion that his only obligation was to recognize what is good and to say something nice about it?
Certainly not. Mr. Haley realized that recognizing what is good and praising it encourages others to join in “the good.” To Alex Haley, “the good” wasn’t simply what is pleasant. It is what is worthwhile, what makes us better people, better citizens, a better nation.
Alex Haley was not a bystander, a mere observer. He experienced life to its fullest. He exuded joy – that is how he lived his life.
That is one of the most important choices we all can make in our lives. We can spend our time criticizing everything that is wrong with society or our government.
Or we can follow the example of Alex Haley, who acknowledged our country’s shortcomings and experienced racism first-hand, but who would not join with those who were constantly finding fault with America. He constantly sought what was good and praised it.
Alex Haley would urge all of us to devote ourselves to finding and advancing – praising – that which is good and to join in the cause.
This grandson of slaves made the right choice. Yet too often today, people choose not to pursue the positive but make the choice to attack, to belittle, and to accuse.
We see this in our coarsened political discourse. In Congress we have heard a Republican yell “You lie” at the President, while a Democrat described the Republican health care policy as wanting people to “Die quickly!”
Citizen rallies too often become shouting matches rather than civil debates over difficult issues.
Historians would tell you that the degree of civility in Congress has ebbed and flowed over the years and would point out that at least we don’t have one member caning another into unconsciousness as happened in 1856 when Representative Brooks of South Carolina flogged Senator Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor. But in modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in Washington. The weapon of choice today is not a metal-topped cane, but poisonous words.
And we see this same trend in society, from bullying in schools to the anonymous, crude insults that fill the vast expanses of the Internet. Whether the decline of civility in Washington has led to the decline of civility in the rest of the country, or vice versa, is irrelevant. We all have a responsibility to turn back this destructive tide. We all have a stake in a society that can work together to solve problems. We all must do our part to elevate the tone and respect one another as part of our greater community.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize evil in the world or speak out against injustice and wrong-doing. But we must not lose sight of what is good.
So my challenge to you, adapted from Alex Haley, is to “Find the good, praise it, and join it.”
“Find the good, praise it, and join it” reflects the UMaine spirit. Some express this spirit through service to others. This year, more than 80 UMaine students joined in the Alternative Spring Break Program and devoted their precious and well-deserved vacation to serving others. To Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Virginia they went, not to bask in the sun, but to help disadvantaged children, the homeless, the storm-ravaged, and the sick.
Peter Vigue, who will receive an honorary degree this afternoon, also embodies that spirit. As a visionary business leader determined to create more jobs here in Maine, Pete praises all that is good about Maine and strives to make our State even better.
Sometimes the good is defined through sheer determination. Back in 2003, a 13-year-old boy from Lamoine entered a painting in the Helen Keller International Art Show for young people with visual impairment. I was honored to have his painting hang in my Washington office. Today, that artist, Steven Nickerson, graduates with degrees in Education and History.
Ashley Drew, Class of 2009 and now a graduate student, fights cystic fibrosis with courage that is exceeded only by her optimism and love for this university. Like Alex Haley, Steven and Ashley praise the good by choosing lives of joy and by inspiring others with their optimism.
So often, those who face the greatest difficulties teach us the most.
Time does not permit me to cover all, or even a significant part, of the many ways UMaine is part of what is good. I will cite just a few examples that suggest the whole. While some choose to merely complain about environmental degradation and our dependence on foreign oil, our university is a global leader in developing the technology to harness the powerful offshore winds and usher in a new era of clean, renewable energy.
Then there is music professor Philip Silver, who is undertaking the challenging and, I am sure, often heartbreaking work of rediscovering the composers who were persecuted and silenced by Nazi Germany. Through his work, their voices will be heard again.
From the earliest civilizations, humans have looked to the heavens for inspiration. Today, we look there for knowledge. It is a great tribute to our University that NASA built its inflatable lunar habitat here – the only structure of its kind in the world – and entrusted UMaine researchers and students to conduct the experiments that will help ensure the safety of astronauts undertaking extended missions to the moon, Venus, and Mars. And just last Saturday, UMaine students launched their first two high-altitude balloons to study the highest reaches of the earth’s atmosphere. Increasing our understanding of our home planet, and of the moon and other planets, is a great good, and our University has joined it.
In a 1978 commencement address at the University of Virginia, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said the privilege of attending college brings with it, and I quote, “an unceasing responsibility to use your knowledge and training for improving the lives of others.”
This does not require travel to distant states to help those in need. You can find what is good in your own community and join in. Whether it’s joining the volunteer fire department or ambulance crew, helping out at your local school or food bank, serving on your town council or planning board, or participating in a service club or scouting, your community needs you to volunteer, to get involved.
The diplomas you receive today represent a great deal of hard work on your part, but they also represent a great debt you owe those who made it possible. To quote another of Alex Haley’s favorite sayings, “Anytime you see a turtle up on top of a fence post, you know he had some help.” Many of you undoubtedly feel a bit like that turtle today. You wouldn’t be here without that help. Don’t forget to thank those who helped you achieve this accomplishment. And I urge you to apply your talent, energy, and enthusiasm right here in our great state.
Whether you grew up in Maine, or came here from another state or country, whether it is at the beginning of your career or later on, Maine needs what you have to offer. We need the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the risk-takers who will create the businesses and jobs of the future. We need the engineers, teachers, and artists who improve our quality of life. So please: stay in Maine.
There is so much good at this University, in our State, and in our country. Find it, praise it, and join it. Class of 2011, let that be the choice you make, let that be the way you are remembered. Congratulations and good luck.