Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey’s commencement address this weekend at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Bob Kerrey delivers the commencement address. Undergraduate Commencement in Pinnacle Bank Arena. December, 15, 2018. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

“Thoughts of Home”

Chancellor Green, faculty and friends of this University: Thank you for inviting and welcoming me home.

To you graduates let me confess: I was going to title this address “Why you should not listen to me” but my wife wisely talked me out of it.

It seemed appropriate because other than respiration, other bodily functions, and the shared experience of attending and graduating from this great University we have little in common. The comedian Martin Mull was recently asked what it was like to be 75 which happens to be my age. He answered: “Well, it really doesn’t feel much different than 35 between my ears but when I get up in the morning it feels like I am living in a used car.”

Me too. I am running out the clock in the fourth quarter of my life. You are entering the second quarter with a very good lead.

When I was invited to speak today I said yes because I owe a lot to my alma mater. I didn’t say yes because I was brimming with great ideas that I was anxious to hand to you this afternoon as you are about to discover.

Like you I graduated in the middle of the academic year. I was working at the time and finished the last three hours required for my bachelors of science through a correspondence course. I couldn’t get a day off to attend the ceremony. Shortly thereafter thanks to a Federal law called mandatory Selective Service I was offered a free physical examination in Omaha. Afterwards I was told by the government that they had decided they had a better use for me than practicing pharmacy. I ended up serving in the Navy’s SEAL Team One and was sent to Vietnam.

Like so many of the turning points of my life serendipity played a much bigger role than long term planning. No doubt that conquering the fear of saying yes is the most difficult thing all of us have to do when an uninvited opportunity suddenly arrives. No doubt learning to ask for help is every bit as important. Rugged individualism works in a John Ford movie but it has never worked for me. I like the power of a team, of unselfish collaboration.

The best example of this is the moment I saw that my two older children were very good parents. That was the day I realized my life was worth while. It is my single most important and enduring accomplishment. And the team that made that possible included their mother, their friends, their college professors, and adult mentors they trusted. You cannot buy a road map from AAA that tells you how to travel the long winding road of parenting.

That’s why you should stand and applaud those remarkable parents and other loved ones who are here today and who contributed to this impressive moment of your accomplishment.

I do admire you and congratulate each of you and sincerely hope for your happiness.

I hope you will have the courage to ask uncomfortable questions, to seek answers that may cause you to discover that something you have believed for a long time is not true. I hope you will be the one when everyone is saying “no” will stand and say “yes!”

I hope you will fall in love with Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wallace Stegner, and Ted Kooser. All four and others knew this place: the dry semi-arid high plains. They knew the myths and the realities of everyday life here. Their stories and poetry will make you grateful to have gone to college on the prairie.

I hope you know that some losses are not explainable. They can only be endured through faith, friends and a determination to go on.

Life is worth living. The miracles around us are easy to miss but wonderful to discover. Close your eyes and listen to music you love. Get up before the sun and watch the magic of the color coming back into view. Plant something and watch it grow. Buy a Number Two Ticonderoga pencil and use it to sketch something you see. Write a letter to someone you haven’t seen for a long time. Surprise someone with the nourishing and priceless gift of unexpected kindness. Don’t be so certain you know the answer; store a little doubt in a safe place to keep you honest and healthy.

Be a good friend by being there when someone needs you. It’s more likely they will be there when you need them.

One more poetic thought, the first stanza of Miller Willams’s “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”:

“Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home/ A dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time/ To keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come/ To be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes/ The way it went once, where nothing holds fast/ To where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fall to.”

The poet’s advice is mine as well: Hold on fast to thoughts of home. And think of the words chiseled into our capitol building here in Lincoln: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.” When it comes to watchfulness of our government, none of us gets a pass. The dog cannot eat our homework.

And now: I need to stop. I may have violated the promise I made to myself not to stand up here like an old fart talking about the good old days. They were good. But I believe the days ahead of you will be better. At least that is my fondest wish.

Thank you.

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