Remarks by President William R. Brody
University-wide Commencement Exercises
The Johns Hopkins University
Thursday, May 26, 2005 | Homewood Field | 9:15 a.m.
[Note: Prepared text. Not checked against delivery.]
To our honorary degree recipients and our new members of the Society of Scholars, to our trustees and alumni, faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, but most of all, to our brand new graduates, I bring greetings on behalf of all of Johns Hopkins University.
The cartoonist Garry Trudeau once commented that the tradition of having commencement speakers was predicated on the profound belief that brand new degree recipients should not be released upon the world without first being properly sedated.
I suppose the fact that I have a medical degree makes me fully qualified in this regard.
Every year on this day, as I go out the door in the morning, my wife gives me a kiss and says, "Now remember, Bill, there's not one person in the audience coming to hear you." Thus, suitably chastened, let me be the first to acknowledge that this ceremony is all about imminent departures, not interminable speeches, and so we will celebrate the former and try, today, to dispense entirely with the latter.
I would just like to take a few minutes here to speak to the graduates. In particular, I would like to offer some thoughts of my own about a subject that was very much in the news over the past couple of months.
More than 20 years ago, when I was a faculty member at Stanford, I went on sabbatical. Together with my wife, Wendy, and my two children — who were, at that time, ages 3 and 8 — we traveled to Poland. I had a good friend who was a Polish expatriate living in the United States, and he was always asking me to come to Poland. So in 1983, my friend, and one of his friends, who were both Polish-speaking, and my wife and our two children went to Poland and traveled around the country in a motor home.
Now at that time, Poland was under martial law following riots having to do with the emerging Polish Solidarity movement. Russian and Polish tanks had come in to quell the riots, and it seemed at that time as if they had successfully crushed the opposition.
Not only was the country under martial law, it was also extraordinarily poor. Poland had been oppressed by decades of Communist rule. It had graying and decayed buildings. Basic items like soap and toilet paper were in short supply — and we soon discovered that it's amazing how much you need toilet paper and soap when you don't have them. Lines to get food staples like bread, milk and eggs were literally blocks long, and when you finally got into the grocery stores, the shelves were mostly empty. It was a very, very grim time indeed.
I can't begin to tell you how sobering it was for my family who had come from the United States, this land of plenty, to see these sights of abject poverty. One would think the spirit of the Polish people would have been incredibly demoralized and destroyed by all of this. Yet that is not what we found.
One day we were out traveling in the countryside of Poland — and if you are ever lucky enough to go there, it is an extraordinarily beautiful country — when we saw from the highway what looked like a black line moving across the landscape. As we came closer, we realized it was a line of people. Now, we were on a two-way country road, but a fairly busy road, and these people were walking in a long line down the middle of the road. The closer we got, the clearer it became that there were thousands and thousands — literally tens of thousands of people — walking on this road. And at this time, we were miles from any city. Yet here were men and women of all ages — fathers, mothers, children and babies, grandparents, and even great-grandparents — walking on this road.
We were dumbfounded. I asked my friends what this was all about. They told me that nearby there was a sacred shrine to the black Madonna of Czestochowa, and each year thousands and thousands of Poles would journey from their homes to visit the shrine. Some would travel one or two hundred miles from their homes on foot. Remember, Poland at this time was a Communist country, and the Catholic religion was officially frowned upon. Yet the processions continued, year by year. And when we visited our friends' relatives in their homes, where we stayed, without exception every home would have a cross, and behind it a framed picture of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, as he was known in Poland.
By this time, 1983, all the rest of us in the world knew him as Pope John Paul II. Traveling around Poland at that terribly difficult time in their history, you could not help but feel that in some important way the spirit of the Polish people was maintained by their faith and their belief in the leadership of this one man.
That impression was so strong, and the faith of the Polish people so resolute, that when we arrived back home I found myself telling my American friends that despite all the depredations, in the long run I thought the Polish people were going to be fine — unlike those in the neighboring countries of East Germany and Russia, who I thought were going to face much greater difficulties. That's because the Polish people had a spirit, and a will to live by the lights of their own faith and belief. And that will was in no small part fed by their dedication to the works of one man.
Just six years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
The very next year, in 1990, I was asked to speak in Rome. It was a medical meeting, and I was one of five guest speakers, three of whom were from the United States, the other two from Europe. As always, the Italians were incredibly hospitable, and at one point the organizer of the conference said, "Bill, one of the pope's physicians is here at the meeting and he can make arrangements for the guest speakers to have an audience with the pope. Would you like to have an audience?"
Now, I'm not Roman Catholic, but I certainly thought it would be interesting to meet the pope. I assumed that this would be an audience of 10,000 people or something, but still very interesting. So I said, sure, I would love to have an audience with the pope. He said, "Great! Be in the lobby of the hotel at 8 a.m. and we'll take you."
Now, of course, being that this was Italy, we showed up at 9:00. And we waited, and waited, and at 10:00 someone came out and said, "The pope can't see you today. Come back tomorrow."
So we did this for three days, and, by the end of the third day, I decided that this was all just a fantasy. But on the fourth day, sure enough, this big bus rolls up and takes five of us and our spouses over to the Vatican. When we got off, we were ushered into the papal palace, down this long corridor and by the entrance to this enormous room. It was a beautiful auditorium with several thousand people in it, and we could see the pope way up in front speaking to the people assembled. So this was the audience with the pope. I assumed that we would be ushered into the back of the room, but our host said no, we should continue. We were taken on to a very small room, about half the size of a classroom. And there we sat, and sat, and sat.
We all expected that we were going to be taken from there into a larger room to be part of an audience with the pope. But all of a sudden, in marches the Swiss guard, and with them, the pope. And we had a 20-minute conversation with John Paul, who was — and there is no other way to describe this — just a magical person. He was just incredible. His face radiated. And of course, he asked us where were we from, and we said Baltimore, and he talked about Johns Hopkins and being in Baltimore. So I said hello to him in Polish, but he didn't seem to understand. But that's OK. We had a wonderful conversation, and I walked away feeling like I was 10 or 20 feet off the ground. His personality, his faith, his belief, were awe-inspiring.
Regardless of whether one is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or agnostic, I think it's very difficult not to admire this man — especially when you met him in person, and experienced that force firsthand. He was someone who gave over his entire life, and dedicated it to service and uncompromising commitment to his beliefs. He was doing well by doing good. He was giving back.
Around the same time you all read about the death of John Paul, you may also have seen an article about the death of a man named Sol Linowitz, who was a Johns Hopkins University trustee. Sol Linowitz was one of the founders of Xerox Corp. We all know about Xerox, because we all make copies. Well, Sol was the lawyer who negotiated the rights to get the patent on the first Xerox machine. Eventually, he became chairman of Xerox and built it into a multi-million dollar corporation, and made a lot of money.
At age 52, he retired, and moved to Washington at the request of then-president Lyndon Johnson. Sol went on to serve every president from Johnson through Bill Clinton. He negotiated the transfer of the Panama Canal; he was the ambassador of the Organization of American States; he was Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the Middle East, and negotiated the first Middle East peace accord with Menacham Begin and Anwar Sadat. He gave an entire life, after his business career, of dedicated service.
Some years ago, Sol told me this story. One day, his daughter came to him because she was having some problems, and she asked him what he thought about his life. He said to her, "In all frankness, I can't tell you if what I'm doing has done any good, whether my being founder and chairman of companies, starting an industry, negotiating a Middle East accord, or if any of these things will have a lasting impact." He said there is just no way of knowing.
But then he told his daughter something else. He said, "For my entire lifetime, every day I try to do at least two things for somebody, or some people. It may be going to visit somebody in a hospital, writing a note, making a phone call, touching base with someone. That's the way I know I have meaning to my life. Because in some ways the big things we do may or may not have lasting impact. But the small things that we do are extraordinarily important."
I'd like to close with one last story that I think you will especially understand, because today you are receiving a degree from what you know firsthand is a very competitive school. All of you, I am sure, have along the way felt pressure from your peers and perhaps from your parents to get good grades and become accomplished, so you can go on to even greater achievements later in life.
Today, I want to turn those expectations on their heads. Today, I want to encourage you to do well by doing good. The trick is not to fall into the trap of thinking that the way you do well is to do so at the expense of others. It's not a zero-sum game. And I'd just like to relate this story to make my point.
There is another trustee of Johns Hopkins who I'd like to tell you about. His name is Sandy Greenberg. In his youth, Sandy was a very good student, but he came from a poor family. And so he went to Columbia University on a scholarship, and there he met his roommate, who also was receiving financial aid.
Now while he was a sophomore at Columbia University, he contracted an eye disease that eventually proved to be glaucoma. But the trouble was, it wasn't detected early enough, and as a result he became legally blind, while still a student at Columbia. I ask you all to imagine for a moment having been sighted all your life, and then all of a sudden being faced, in a very competitive school, with losing so much sight you could no longer read. This is what happened to our trustee, Sandy Greenberg.
But something else happened to Sandy that may surprise you. Sandy said that when he lost his sight, his roommate began to read his textbooks to him, every night.
So I'm going to put you in that position, in a competitive school like Columbia, or Johns Hopkins. If your roommate had a serious disability, would you take the time to read textbooks to him every night, knowing the more you spend time reading textbooks to your roommate, perhaps the less well you might do with your other activities? That's not as easy a question as it first appears.
But luckily for Sandy, our trustee, his roommate did. And as a result, Sandy went on to graduate with honors. He got a Fulbright Scholarship, and he went off to study at Oxford. He was still quite poor, but he said he had managed to save about five hundred dollars as he went along.
His roommate, meanwhile, also went on to graduate school. One day, Sandy got a call from him at Oxford. And his former roommate said, "Sandy I'm really unhappy. I really don't like being in graduate school, and I don't want to do this."
So Sandy asked, "Well what do you want to do?"
And his roommate told him, "Sandy, I really love to sing. I have a high school friend who plays the guitar. And we would really like to try our hand in the music business. But we need to make a promo record, and in order to do that I need $500."
So Sandy Greenberg told me he took all his life savings and sent it to his roommate. He told me, "You know, what else could I do? He made my life; I needed to help make his life." So, I hope you'll remember the power of doing well by doing good. Each of you, in your own lives, will be faced with challenges, with roadblocks, with problems that you didn't anticipate or expect. How you are able to deal with adversity will be influenced, to no small extent, by how you deal with others along the way. What you get will depend a lot on what you give. And that's the end of the story of doing well, by doing good.
Ah! I almost forgot. You probably are wanting to know who Sandy's roommate was. I think you've heard of him. Sandy's roommate was a fellow by the name of Art Garfunkel, and he teamed up with another musician by the name of Paul Simon. That $500 helped them cut a record that eventually became "The Sounds of Silence." Recently, we had the pleasure of going to Sandy's daughter's wedding, and it was Art Garfunkel who sang as Sandy walked his daughter down the aisle.
When you get to be my age (which, for some of you, is really old — though it doesn't seem so old to me anymore), you will find yourself beginning to ask, did my life make a difference?
That's the day of personal reckoning. And I think the only way to face it is to consider, every day of your life: How can I do something for somebody else? How can I give back to others? It may be teaching, it may be becoming a doctor, you may be successful in business — no matter what your career path, there will always be the opportunity to give back. The chance will present itself to be giving of your time, giving of your money — but mostly, to be giving of yourselves, of your own heart and soul.
My hope today, as you commence to new beginnings, is you will always keep your eyes open for those opportunities to give and embrace them as your best sure way of doing well.
I wish you all good luck, and God Speed. Thank you.
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