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2005: Speaker Arnold Palmer

Full text of Arnold Palmer commencement address

May 16, 2005

Arnold PalmerAnd I thought making a two-foot putt was tough…

Reverend Clergy, President Hearn, fellow members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, and administration, family members and guests and, most importantly on this day, the members of the graduating class of 2005, as I stand here before you today, I feel very humble and almost disbelieving. More years ago than I’d like to admit, I left my small hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in western Pennsylvania, and the modest home of a country club golf pro, to begin my college education at old Wake Forest College. I was able to do so only because of an athletic director by the name of Jim Weaver who thought enough of my abilities as a young golfer to give me a scholarship.

And here I am now, granted this wonderful opportunity to speak to this group of accomplished young people preparing to enter the working years and, for most, the parenting years of their lives.

It seems to me, that the most important role of a commencement speaker is to inspire-to play the role of the football coach in the locker room just before the opening kickoff-exhorting the players to be winners in the game that follows. Perhaps what has happened to me in my lifetime can provide such inspiration for you.

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As I said before, I came from modest circumstances, and I was determined to be successful in my adult life. I didn’t know then that golf would be my life and that the talent I had, coupled with dedication and hard work, would take me to the heights of my profession.

Each one of you, realize and understand that you are now in a position to make a difference — make a difference — in the world you are entering. It can and will happen, provided you have confidence in yourself and work at it with dedication and determination every minute of your lives. You owe this to yourselves, to your parents and to the families you will have in the years to come.

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You might wonder how somebody my age, whose greatest success came many years ago, can still be in tune with what works in the world which has changed so very much in my lifetime. Certainly, there are many things that I cannot fully comprehend, but there are still the absolutes that transcend place and time:

Hard work will always yield positive results.

Be fully aware of the world around you.

Act purposefully on your strongest perceptions, and then with no regrets.

Don’t pass up opportunities that you perceive to be something of a gamble. I ran across a brief essay on that subject by a Chicago school teacher, who said: “Risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, IS nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love and live.”

Or, as Bill Gates once said on a similar occasion as this: “Life is not fair. Get used to it. The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. If you mess up, don’t whine about your mistakes. Learn from them. Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off, and few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.”

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Once I was talking about improving one’s golf game, but it struck me afterward that what I had just said applies to life as well. I’m talking about self-confidence. There is no way you can focus your mind and your efforts to succeed if you’re brimming over with self-doubts. Your level of performance has a way of living up to prior expectations and, if you start off believing you’re going to have a bad day, you will. Errors tend to multiply and, if you have a bundle of self-doubts, you won’t be able to cope with the problems and the failure that will follow.

You must know that many adults of my generation despair of your generation. All too often in my primary field of endeavor-sports-the headlines go to the players who defy authority and misbehave on and off the field, players who showboat and show up others.

Instead, those who should be recognized more often are the fine athletes who are also fine citizens and role models for the youngsters following in their footsteps.

One of professional football’s finest players who is just retiring from the game is a prime example of this. Emmitt Smith, the brilliant running back of the Dallas Cowboys, left the University of Florida early to pursue his pro career, but he promised his mother he’d go back to school in the off-seasons and earn his degree.

He fulfilled that promise years ago and here’s what he had to say at the time: “I plan to help others with my degree. If I can reach just a few kids and let them know that education is a wonderful and necessary thing in today’s workplace, then I have been successful.”

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I have had a love affair with Wake Forest since my undergraduate days, but I didn’t realize until many years later what I had truly learned at Wake Forest, both in and out of the classroom, about the meaning of a productive and meaningful life.

I have so many memories of my college years, so many happy days yet some of the saddest of my life. I must say that I was not a budding Rhodes Scholar during my undergraduate years, (and you don’t need to giggle at that) but, thanks to some of my professors and the young man who quickly became my best friend when we entered Wake Forest together, I acquired my education — an education that has played an important part in the success I have had in life.

Bud Worsham was that friend. Many of you do not know who he was. He got on my case from time to time about tending to studies and not spending all my time hitting golf balls. We were almost like brothers, and that is probably why the shock and grief I experienced during our senior year was so profound and lasting.

Bud and another roommate in the dorm went to a homecoming dance after a football game one weekend and never returned. They died in a horrible automobile accident on the way back to the campus that night. It hit me so hard that I just had to get away from it all for a while, and I decided to enlist in the Coast Guard. As it turned out, that three-year hitch became another stepping stone toward my maturity.

I did return to Wake Forest after that, still not completely certain of my plans, but sure that golf would be a major part of them. When the spring semester ended, I was still short of the credits I needed to graduate. But the lure of a good job that would include golf virtually every day was just too much to resist.

I have always regretted that I didn’t get that diploma. I know that many others encounter such tragedies during their college years and face similar decisions to the one I had to make. I know how difficult it is and suspect that there are persons among you who have persisted through trying circumstances and will receive your degrees today. You should feel particularly proud of that and can now understand what a special honor it was when the University conferred an honorary doctorate on me some years later.

I never lost touch with Wake Forest as it grew from its modest roots in that little town of Wake Forest, moved to Winston-Salem and, over the last 40 years, became the highly-respected institution of higher learning that it is today. I have been on the board and served with the trustees for many years. Through this long association, I have been privileged to know many extremely talented, dedicated and diligent men and women who have played parts in the exciting progress of Wake Forest.

Now, as the baton is now being passed, I want to personally recognize and salute the remarkable leadership Wake Forest has been privileged to enjoy during the past 22 years of the presidency of Dr. Tom Hearn. How appropriate it is that the University Plaza will be henceforth known as the Thomas K. Hearn Jr. Plaza.

As for the future of our great university…

Like everybody else who has been involved in the selection of Dr. Nathan Hatch, I have every confidence that the leadership role has been placed in the hands of a man who will protect and advance the high academic standards and traditions of the University. I’m sure we all wish him and, of course, Dr. Hearn, well.

You know, it pleases me a great deal that some of the things I value most about my education at Wake Forest are still valued today. We must continue to emphasize courtesy, integrity and compassion. We must maintain the traditions that have made America the greatest country in the world.

Some words from George Carlin express these ideas well. “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers; wider freeways but narrower viewpoints. We spend more but have less. We buy more but enjoy less. We have more degrees but less sense; more knowledge but less judgment. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life.”

I like to think that my sport-golf-exemplifies the higher standards and values that I’m talking about. In my mind, that is why we golfers are who we are and why the game is held in such high esteem and is so popular. We must not let these values slip away.

Audio Excerpt (mp3)

I don’t despair of today’s young people. I just ask all of you to seek your places in the world, to accept the responsibility that is being placed on your shoulders. I appeal to you to try to restore a more kind and gentle atmosphere to this world of ours. Greed should not be our goal. If we continue to tolerate cheating, stealing, lying and violence, we will be on a path to self-destruction. Only through an all-out effort to get back to the basic values and virtues of humanity can we give future generations the quality of life our forefathers worked and sacrificed for to give us the standards of life we now enjoy in our time.

Family, friends, neighbors, home, church and community used to be vitally important to most Americans. Perhaps it’s time to return to some of those core values.

You will soon be assuming parental roles, and I urge you to accept the responsibility that goes with it. Be the kind of parents who teach your children the basic traits and habits that make good citizens and good human beings. Teach them the common courtesies, good manners, politeness, and standards of behavior that will make each and every one of you proud.

So, please, go forth from your college careers armed with a determination to truly make our world a better place to live.

Tomorrow belongs to you.

Thank you.