Sunday, January 25, 2009

A FEW WORDS TO THE GRADUATES

On January 17, 2009, it was my privilege to address the 100th graduating class at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Here's what I said:

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I never thought I would live to see this day.

If Cooley had been like all the other law schools… if Cooley had only one graduation a year, I’d have to be 147 years old.

The privilege which President LeDuc has afforded me … to speak at the one hundredth Commencement Exercise… is another of the many advantages of Cooley’s unique three semester system. And I am truly honored and grateful for his invitation.

Graduation ceremonies,Commencement Exercises…are very special occasions.

The first speech I ever gave at a Commencement ceremony was 62 years ago.
I was the valedictorian at my graduation from Detroit Catholic Central High School in June of 1947.

I had memorized my speech…rehearsed it over and over, but when the day came, I was scared to death. I kept pacing around the cafeteria repeating the first line. It was all I could remember.

Suddenly, Bob Barson, a two hundred fifty pound tackle on the football team grabbed me by the collar and said, “Keep it short, Brennan.” I said, “Don’t worry, Bob, I can only remember fourteen words.”

The Basilian Fathers invited me back to my high school alma mater to speak to the graduates in 1952. By this time I was an old married man of 23, father of a three month old son and a recent graduate of the University of Detroit Law School.

My dear wife, Polly, went along to hear me that day, just as she has come here today to lend her support and encouragement.

That graduating class back in 1952 consisted of about 200 eighteen year old boys who were facing possible conscription for the Korean War. I thought I gave them a pretty rousing call to arms.

Last summer I discovered that a golfing buddy of mine was also a alumnus of Detroit Catholic Central High School. I asked him when he graduated and he said, “1952.”
So I asked him if he remembered who was the commencement speaker at his graduation. He didn’t remember. Did he, by chance recall anything the commencement speaker had said? He didn’t remember. Did he remember anything at all about that commencement speech? “I think..” He said. “I think it was too long.”

We both had a good laugh when I told him I had been that very forgettable guest speaker at his graduation. I told him I still have a copy of the speech, if he’d like to hear it again. He didn’t seem to be interested.

The truth is that commencement speeches don’t usually have a lot of shelf life.
Graduates are always very focused on their own part of the ceremony, relatives and friends are focused on the graduates and faculty are so eyesore from correcting exams that they can hardly focus at all.

But once in a while, serendipity strikes and somebody remembers. I gave a commencement speech at the University of Detroit High School in 1969. The school liked it enough to have reprints made and send them out to their alumni.

Sometime in the late 1990’s, I got a phone call from a woman in Livonia who was looking for a copy of that talk. It seems that her older brother had graduated in the class of 1969, and she had attended the ceremony. Now, thirty years later, she was the mother of a teen age daughter, and she wanted her daughter to read my speech.

I have to admit that I was flattered by that. Thirty years is a long time to remember something that somebody says.

It isn’t easy to look thirty years down the road. We live in a world of constantly accelerating change. When was the last time you saw a typewriter, an ash tray or a pay phone? Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, the proliferation of cell phones, Ipods, and blackberrys that we see today?

Thirty years from now, you will see changes that are hard to imagine today. In the year 2039 there will be no network television. Television and the Internet will have merged to the point that every broadcast will be stored for convenient retrieval when, as and if a viewer is interested in seeing it.

Newspapers will be as archaic as the village crier of the 17th century.

If the postal service is still in business, it will be primarily to deliver packages. Email has already begun to supplant snail mail.

I would expect that thirty years from now DNA scanners will be as common as bar code scanners are in 2009. Credit cards will be extinct. You’ll just touch the screen and your account will be charged.

Some of the changes will be even harder to believe. I predict, for example, that by the year 2039 there will be a Division One college football playoff.

The practice of law will evolve slower than society in general; it has so far. We lawyers can be stodgy, hide bound traditionalists. Still, I would expect that thirty years from now court documents will be paperless, pleadings will be filed by email and displayed on the Internet; trials will be conducted piecemeal and recorded on video to be played to the jury after all extraneous and objectionable matters have been edited out.

It’s intriguing to speculate on the changes that will be wrought by science over the next three decades. But it’s not all just speculation. There are a number of things we can say about 2039 with some degree of certainty.

First of all, of course, you know how old you will be. If you are 26 today, you’ll be 56 in 2039.

And y’know, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you will be sitting in the audience at the 200th Cooley Commencement watching a son or daughter receive the same diploma you are receiving here today.

In that day you will know how your life and your career will have turned out. Most of you will be practicing lawyers in big firms and small firms, as partners, shareholders or solo practicioners.

Some of you will use your legal education in other ways. You’ll be business men and women, bankers, brokers, teachers, artists, writers, sports agents, legislators, lobbyists, and clergymen.

One of you may well emulate Mary Coleman, after whom your class has been named, and become the first woman chief justice of your state’s supreme court.

Other Cooley graduates have gone on to become Congressmen, judges, prosecutors, governors, corporate executives, leaders of the organized bar and law professors.
There is no reason to believe that you won’t do the same.

Some of you will make a lot of money, and some won’t do so well, but I can safely predict that all of you will be able to support yourselves and your families in reasonable circumstances.

After all, you have already demonstrated by your success here at Cooley that you have the perseverance and the work ethic to achieve any reasonable goal you set for yourself.

No doubt by 2039 many of you will have lost your mothers and dads. Certainly all of your grandparents will be dead by then.

So, if you will indulge me, I would like to speak to you for a few moments in the role of a grandfather.

When I was a child, my most serious sin was to disobey my mother and father. Ultimately the lesson sunk in that it was their job to teach me right from wrong and my job to learn and to follow.

My dad’s most memorable sermon was short and to the point: “You know what’s wrong and you know what’s right. Do what’s right.”

Obedience to authority is the forerunner of self control and self discipline. No one becomes a general who has not been a good soldier, nor a teacher who has not first been a student. Only a team player can be the captain. True leadership is built on a foundation of followship.

You came to Cooley Law School three years ago to get an education.

You came to Cooley to listen and to read and to think and to learn.

You came to Cooley three years ago, hoping that someday, somehow, you were going to be somebody.

Well, I’m here to tell each and every one of you ladies and gentlemen that you are somebody. The diploma that President LeDuc will hand to you on this stage this afternoon will attest to all the world that you are a member of the ancient and honorable profession of the law.

By subordinating your time, attention and energy to the faculty; by getting down into the trenches, following orders, obeying the rules, and taking all the flak this distinguished faculty has thrown at you for three years, you have not only fulfilled your own personal dream and ambition, you have accomplished the larger achievement of making yourself one of the keepers of our sacred tradition of ordered liberty.

As a lawyer, you will be a leader in your community. What you do will reverberate. What you say will echo. Your life, your career in the law will have impact far beyond your expectations, far beyond what you will realize.

In a few days our nation will enter upon a new and exciting era in history. A man of African descent and heritage will assume the highest office in the land.

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for him because I disagreed with his stance on some very fundamental issues.

But as I watched him address his followers in Grant Park on election night, and as the cameras panned across the kaleidoscope of smiling, tearstained faces in the audience, my heart swelled with pride to think that the people of this nation had made such a bold and historic choice.

That night I called my old friend Charles Farmer, a black judge with whom I served in Detroit, and who was later a member of the Cooley Board of Directors. When Charles Farmer graduated from law school in 1948, he was refused admission to the American Bar Association because of his race. Later, he became one of the first black judges in Detroit. He served for many years and was universally respected and admired.

I congratulated Judge Farmer and I told him that the presidential victory had come to his people because he and so many others had patiently and courageously paved the way through dedicated and responsible public service.

Mary Stallings Coleman, the patron of your class, was a colleague of mine on the Michigan Supreme Court.

It was Mary Coleman who shattered the glass ceiling in Michigan’s legal profession. She was the first woman elected to the Supreme Court and the first to serve as Chief Justice.

Mary Coleman was a lady.

She wasn’t one of those bra-burning, man-hating, publicity-seeking, potty-mouthed militant feminists. She was a real lady.

She was a gracious, warm, charming, thoroughly feminine, and strikingly beautiful woman. And a damn good lawyer.

Her legacy abides in the capital city of Lansing. Today, the majority of the justices of the Michigan Supreme Court are women.

None of us ever knows the great oaks that will grow from the seeds we plant with our lives.

When I retired from the Presidency of Cooley, the school presented me with two bound volumes of letters from alumni thanking me for the opportunity to study law and telling me of the many ways in which their lives had been affected by their legal education.

It was a touching and humbling gift. Names I didn’t recognize. People I didn’t know. All expressing heartfelt thanks.

And it will be the same for each of you.

The people who make a difference… the people who leave this old world a little better than they found it…are not measured by their celebrity. The talking heads on TV and the paparazzi pestered entertainers leave no special imprint on society.

It is rather the men and women like yourselves, who by their commitment and example, by their constancy and personal responsibility, day in and day out, year in and year out, build the communities that shape our nation, protect our democratic republic, and preserve our American heritage of liberty and opportunity.

You will accomplish great things in the next 30 years.

Not all at once, and not without the kind of grinding perseverance you have shown here at Cooley.

The rocky road from the womb to the tomb is strewn with setbacks and obstacles, delays, disappointments and difficulties.

I’m sure you have heard of Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law teaches us that whatever can go wrong, does go wrong.

By now you should know about Cooley’s Law. Cooley’s Law is that no challenge, no accomplishment, no goal is beyond the reach of the man or woman who is truly committed.

And that, in the final analysis, the definition of success is nothing more nor less than getting back up again.

All of which brings me around to one final bit of grandfatherly advice. If there is anything I will have said to you here this afternoon worth remembering and worth passing along to your children and grandchildren, this is it:

If you drop it, pick it up.
If you spill it wipe it up.
If you forget it, go back and get it.
If you break it, fix it.
If you destroy it, replace it.
If you owe it, pay it.
If you did it, admit it.
And always remember that most of the forward progress we make in the game of life is getting back to the line of scrimmage.

Congatulations, Coleman Class.

This is your day.

You earned it, now enjoy it.

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