President Lech Walesa of Poland
Middlebury College Commencement Address, May 21, 2000
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, I have prepared well for the meeting with you, therefore I have about 100 different speeches in my Palm Top, one more in my pocket, and, as it turns out, not one of them is properly appropriate for today's ceremony. Therefore, I have to put all of those speeches aside, and take into account the fact that it might start raining at any moment, and to have a briefer speech. Therefore, let me just say a few words, bearing in mind all the conditionings.
First of all, let me express my gratitude that you permanently included me in the history of your college. I started thinking what we could have in common, me, being a revolutionary, and you young people. However, I was surprised myself, realizing at the last moment that there are many things that we have in common. You are entering your grown up, mature life in the third millennium, whereas I had the honor and privilege of closing up a certain stage of our history. Of course, to you, Lech Walesa and my Solidarity movement may be as distant as George Washington and his struggle for freedom, however, the two names are associated with a great fight for a very important cause.
Let me recall one thing, very briefly. After the second World War, the world divided into two opposing blocks, two zones of influences. One of them was very tightly closed, it wouldn't let people out, it was based on censorship and security police, whereas the other was based on freedom and democracy. It was a very difficult situation, and I think the struggle against that difficult system that was closed was really hard because, for example, you have here a very close neighbor that still has the system, and you still haven't won the battle against that neighbor. Of course, my problem was even harder because the Soviet Union was bigger than that neighbor that I refer to, when, in fact, I have my suspicions that you want to keep that country as a kind of a "Jurassic Park" of Marxism and Leninism. Perhaps that's sensible from one point of view, I don't know. Right now the situation seems as if you were having a mosquito biting the United States on the nose.
But since it has actually started raining, let me add just two more sentences.
In fact, the struggle that I led and that we won opened up tremendous opportunities for you, and in fact the United States has remained the only super power in the world, which is a great responsibility. Today's world differs completely from the one I lived in, in my era. In fact, it's opened up for a new order that needs to be put in it, and it is up to you educated people to put this order in the world.
It is a very pleasant ceremony, but remember that apart, next to the opportunities that you have, you also face great dangers and challenges. I am deeply confident that you-having such high education, having been so well trained-that you will be able to cope with those challenges. And in fact, if it suddenly occurs to you that you are fed up with being the super power of the world, just give the position to Poland and they will know what to do with it.
And to conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I call you the generation of the Internet, the generation of globalization, and the generation of almost limitless opportunities and chances. You only need one thing to be successful: just believe, like I did believe in my life. Because, I was merely an electrician and the only things I had were my belief in God, and my belief in what I was doing, and look, here I am addressing myself to you, to you young people and all the faculty members, and to you highly educated people, now having been awarded with almost 100 honorary doctoral degrees, medals and awards-I don't know whether you remember what Leonid Brezhnev looked like, but I think I have 10 times as many as he had. If I wanted to put them all on, you would need a crane to lift me out from my chair. Just imagine what I could have achieved had I had your education, and your background. Just imagine what things would look like had I lived in the territory of the super power. That's why I am so confident about your future, and I am hopeful that you are going to cope, and face all the challenges. I hope that you are going to be successful for very big, important reasons, and also for very minor and personal ones-because then my old-age pension will be better if you are successful!
Thanks very much again for the honor I have been awarded, and congratulations to you. I hope you are going to have a good and prosperous life, and God bless you.
-- end --
President Walesa delivered the commencement address in Polish. It was translated into English by Magda Iwinska.
Citation for Honorary Degree
Lech Walesa, Doctor of Letters
Lech Walesa, former President of Poland, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, leader in bringing democracy to Eastern Europe. An electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, you were an antigovernment union activist in the 1970s, and lost your job as a result. In 1980, during protests over high food prices by the workers at the shipyard, you climbed over the fence to join your comrades inside, and were elected head of the strike committee to negotiate with the government. Within weeks, you had signed an agreement allowing workers the right to organize free and independent unions, and for sixteen months you led the federation of unions known as Solidarity, which had grown to ten million members by the end of 1981. In December 1981, Solidarity was outlawed, the government of Poland imposed martial law, and you were detained for nearly a year. Fearing that you would not be allowed to return to your homeland, you remained in Poland while your wife traveled to Oslo in December 1983 to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace on your behalf. In 1988 and 1989, as a new wave of unrest swept across Eastern Europe, the government was forced to negotiate with you once again, and you signed an agreement restoring Solidarity to legal status and permitting free elections for some of the members of the Polish parliament. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you won Poland's first free and direct presidential election, and oversaw the transition of the economy from a state-run to a free-market system, as well as the establishment of responsible and accountable parliamentary democracy in Poland. Since the end of your term as president in 1995, you have traveled widely, under the auspices of the Walesa Institute, speaking on the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. You have truly been one of the significant figures in world history of the past two decades, and we are honored that you have been able to join us at Middlebury College in this, our Bicentennial year.
It is therefore my privilege, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of Middlebury College, to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, with all the rights, honors, privileges and responsibilities here and everywhere appertaining to this degree.
Student Speech by Blake Rutherford ’00
Middlebury College Commencement, May 21, 2000
Today, we are fortunate to experience one of the great accomplishments in life. Like thousands throughout America, we are gathered at the beginning of a new millennium, a unique time in our nation and in our world. But unlike thousands we have come together in a very special place- nestled between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains--a place where we worked hard, played hard, made lifelong friends, and have spent some of the best years of our lives. Paraphrasing the legendary Bob Hope, “Middlebury: Thanks for the Memories.”
I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Class of 2000--individually and collectively--for your achievements. I also want to thank the Board of Trustees, the administration, faculty, and staff for providing us the very best. And I especially want to thank our parents and families for paying for it.
At our centennial celebration one hundred years ago, the Middlebury Register characterized it as the “day of days for the undergraduate.” Today, a century later, is most certainly our day of days and one that we will celebrate and remember forever with great pride, for as Emerson noted, “The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.
”Middlebury College began in 1800 under the direction of President Jeremiah Atwater in a small building with only seven students. As we see almost 200 hundred years later, more than 2000 students larger, under the direction of President John McCardell, much has changed.
Built for only $8,000, Painter Hall, constructed between 1814 and 1816, is currently the oldest building on campus. Although it stands the same today, the environment and the atmosphere around it do not.
Admittance into Middlebury in 1815 used to consist of a forty-minute oral examination in Latin, Greek and arithmetic. Remembering back four years ago, I could only wish the process was as simple.
But today, thanks to the efforts of many, Middlebury is blessed with a stronger, more diverse student body than it has ever had.
We have seen the number of applicants to Middlebury grow steadily over the past four years.
We have seen the number of minorities on campus grow over the past four years.
Most importantly, we have seen Middlebury's reputation grow and spread all over the United States and to dozens of countries across the world.
Our accomplishment and our experiences have taught us a lot about ourselves and about Middlebury College. As we strive to promote a more diverse environment, we find ourselves struggling to come to terms with many difficult questions and issues. In answering these, let us turn to the lessons taught to us by three prominent Middlebury graduates.
Roswell Field graduated from Middlebury College in 1822. Upon his departure from the College, he became a lawyer, and is most famous for arguing to the Supreme Court on behalf of a slave named Dred Scott. Although the Court did not rule in his favor, his case has taught us that intolerance and bigotry cannot and should not be permitted against any group, at any level.
Alexander Twilight received his Middlebruy diploma in 1823, and in turn became the first African-American to receive a college degree. Today, several minority students will walk across this stage as members of the class of 2000. No doubt, Mr. Twilight would be encouraged.
Ron Brown graduated from Middlebury in 1962. Upon his arrival here, which at the time was almost all white, one campus fraternity objected, saying they only permitted “White, Christian” members, Brown and other members of his fraternity chose to fight. In time our local chapter was expelled, but because of his efforts, Middlebury, more importantly, made it college policy that no exclusionary chapters would exist on campus.
Ron Brown had an exemplary professional career serving as Secretary of Commerce until his death in a tragic plane crash in 1996. Jesse Jackson once said of him, “He learned to be a bridge between the cultures.” I hope we all can remember that lesson here today. A lesson, no doubt, Ron Brown learned at Middlebury College.
We've come a long way since these individuals were here, but we still have a long way to go.
I am a son of the South. I came a far distance to go to school here. Acceptance to Middlebury was my own impossible dream. I graduated from Little Rock Central High School where 43 years ago nine African-American students were denied admittance prompting a constitutional crisis our nation had not seen since the Civil War.
While much progress has been made, today in parts of the Mississippi Delta region of our own country--just a couple of hours from my home--there is poverty at its very worst.
Several years ago the late Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois was speaking at a ceremony at the Gettysburg Battlefield where he said, “Men died here and men are sleeping here who fought under a July sun that the nation might endure: united, free, tolerant, and devoted to equality. The task was unfinished. It is never quite finished.”
He was right. It is never quite finished.
With our Middlebury foundation, we're now going to embark on a world full of many wonderful opportunities and also of many grave problems. If we can remember two important lessons, our lives and certainly our world will be a much better place. First, the future can always be better than the present. And second, we have a responsibility to ensure that that is the case. It is a responsibility we have to ourselves, to our communities, to Middlebury and most importantly to those who are not as fortunate to be here, among us, today.
This afternoon we leave Middlebury with a greater knowledge of various academic fields, the world and ourselves. We also leave Middlebury young and energetic, bound closer to one another more than we probably ever will be through our friendships, our relationships, and our experiences. And with that we now have the opportunity to help and serve others.
Robert Kennedy said, “This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite of adventure over the love of ease.”
Today, we make history as the first graduating class of Middlebury's third century. It is an accomplishment that I'm sure makes our families, our friends, and those close and important to us very proud as well. So let us always remember this day, May 21, 2000 as our day of days--our historic day. And very soon will all embark on separate journeys and begin a new and exciting chapter in our lives.
In doing so, let us not forget the famous words of Tennyson who wrote, “That which we are, we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
And for the class of 2000, the world now awaits and the best is yet to be.
Good Luck and Congratulations.