Barbara Roberts

Portland State University Commencement Address - June 16, 2007

Barbara Roberts
June 16, 2007— Portland, Oregon
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Well thank you so much for this great honor. I am both elated and humbled to be recognized by Portland State University.

Many, many years ago I took my very first college night school classes at the Portland State Extension Center. Years later I fell in love with and married one of Portland State's founding faculty members, Dr. Frank Roberts. From Vanport College until his retirement, Frank taught 37 years for this wonderful institution.

Finally after my time as governor and at Harvard University, I came home to Oregon and to a position at the Hatfield School of Government at PSU. Today I feel is if I have come full circle and am now truly part of the Portland State family. Thank you so much. Thank you.

I have delivered thousands of speeches in my public career – sort of those "rah rah" speeches that politicians do; addresses to local Rotary and Chamber of Commerce groups; economic development presentations being translated into Japanese, Korean or German; eulogies; inaugural addresses; and convention oratory. I've spoken to high school classes and senior citizen groups, women's rights organizations and brand new American citizens. But for me the most challenging of all speeches is a commencement address.

Now think about it. Perhaps half of the graduates sitting here today are here to please their families and just want to get this whole thing over. Some of you may be focused on a big party tonight or a flight home tomorrow or a very long-awaited and deserved vacation.

Commencement addresses are notoriously boring and often very quickly forgotten.

So what can I say to you over 4,000 newly minted graduates that will be meaningful useful and perhaps even a slight bit memorable?

Well I have to start with this admission. I have a history of telling citizens what I believe they need to know rather than placating them with what they want to hear. Comments on issues like taxes, the spotted owl, prices, reproductive choice and personal civil rights are not usually designed for winning popularity contests.

However, such challenging subjects are often the testing grounds for leadership, personal character and courage, ethics, and the future. So for a few minutes today, I'd like to focus on the matter of personal courage.

Now don't must understand me – I am NOT referring to the kind of courage our troops in Iraq must demonstrate every day. I am NOT referring to running into a burning building or diving into a flooding river to rescue someone.

I'm talking about the kind of personal courage it takes to speak out when you stand alone on an issue. I mean being strong enough to refuse to laugh at jokes that demean minorities, women, gay, and the disabled. I'm talking about admitting your mistakes and not trying to bury them. I am referring to setting the record straight when the truth is being stretched, distorted, or just plain ignored.

And this nation has recently been privileged to see an extraordinary example of insisting on accuracy and truth.

Most of you will remember the national stories about Army private Jessica Lynch. In 2003, her American military convoy was ambushed in Iraq and she was badly injured and captured. Eventually she was rescued by U.S. troops and celebrated as a hero. But when Jessica Lynch testified recently before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she courageously set the record straight. She spoke openly and clearly to the committee, saying, "I am still confused as to why the military chose to lie and tried to make me a legend, when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were in fact legendary."

Think how easy it would have been for Jessica Lynch to accept the attention, the glory, the national fame. But her personal integrity would not allow her to accept the label "hero." It would not allow her to ignore the truth. Jessica Lynch has demonstrated her personal courage not only as a soldier and a prisoner of war but as an American committed to truth. She has honored her country and honored the families of her three fellow comrades who lost their lives during that ambush – personal courage in capital letters.

Sometimes personal courage comes in the packaging of political courage – and believe me when it does, we should all applaud it. In this category I am reminded of two amazing examples by former United States senators, one of each political party, both from Oregon.

Democratic senator Wayne Morse cast a markedly courageous vote in 1964 when he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, one of only two U.S. senators out of 100. Thank you. Two out of 100 to stand up against the vote that led America into the political and military quagmire of Vietnam. How different American history would have been if a majority of the U.S. Senate had been willing to join Senator Morse in that courageous stand, a personal principle, a stand that cost him his re-election.

And in 1995 Senator Mark Hatfield was the only Republican in the U.S. Senate to vote against the balanced budget amendment. The pressure to bring him back into the Republican caucus fold was tremendous. They begged. They cajoled. They promised. They even threatened. But Senator Hatfield didn't budge. He thought the amendment was bad public policy and dangerous political rhetoric. He voted no and tipped the scales that defeated that amendment. He took the heat and he took the guff for his choice, but Senator Hatfield calmly stood by his vote of principle. He was a model of both personal and political courage.

Courage can arrive as a surprise to anyone of us. Our own personal courage sometimes comes when we understand that our silence is too costly.

My entrance into politics began as a citizen advocate, a parent seeking educational rights for my autistic son. My older son Mike had been sent home from school in the first grade, not for the day but forever. His handicap meant he had no right to a public school education. The law at that time gave my son no recognition, no rights, no recourse.

But I could no longer accept the unfairness, the inequity, the fact that my son's disability would be exacerbated by his also being uneducated. I spoke out publicly about this injustice. I pleaded for help. I sought an advocate to champion our children's cause.

By the end of the 1960's, I was a divorced mother with two sons, no child support, and a low-paying office job. But I was unwilling any longer to be silent and to let these challenges shortchange my son. I realized I had two crucial assets – a cause and a mother's anger. My son needed my strength and my leadership and my courage.

So I took a day a week off work, traveled to our state capitol and began a fight for Mike's educational rights. I was totally inexperienced in politics and absolutely scared to death, but I marched right up those capitol steps determined to change the world for the disabled children of our state. Powerful lobbyists worked against me every step of the way, and I fought back on the grounds of fairness and equity. I carried my message to every senator and every representative. I pleaded for my son's future. Five months later our legislation passed both houses and was signed by Governor McCall. Oregon had the first such special education rights law in the United States of America.

That first political success for my son cemented my belief that if your cause is just and if you are determined enough and sometimes if you can be brave enough, one person can make a difference. I learned it then, I believe it still.

That experience led to my career in Oregon politics, where I tried always to remember the lessons I'd learned about speaking out, about standing up, and about a willingness to challenge the status quo for the good of others.

Now truthfully, truthfully most of us look at ourselves and we don't sense much courage buried within. But perhaps your demonstration of personal courage is waiting to test you just around the next corner.

Sometimes that test is thrust upon you. When President John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero, he answered, "It was involuntary. They sunk my boat."

Yet it is more likely that your personal courage challenges will come on a less spontaneous test of bravery or ethics.

Martin Luther King Jr. made reference on a number of occasions to those kinds of struggles. Reverend King said, "Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most," he said, "is to adopt of view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody." King added, "Even those who cherish lofty and noble ideas many times hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different." Reverend King went on to say, "The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy."

In 1984 I voluntarily put myself to such a test of personal and political courage. I was being sworn in in the state capitol rotunda in Salem as Oregon's newly elected secretary of state, the first Democrat to hold that position in the state for 110 years. I chose to have the Portland Gay Men's Chorus sing at that ceremony. I made that choice for two reasons. Number one, they were the most outstanding chorus in the state, and number two, I hoped and I believed if I took a stand of principle and courage on my very first day in statewide office I would never fear again to act with needed bravery as an elected official. Twenty-two years ago, that was a real tough choice. But for me it remains a personal milestone.

So today, today, I encourage you, I urge you, I beg you to be ready and willing to stand up and speak out and take a risk. Take a risk to create a community, a state, a nation, a world that is more humane, more safe, more open, more inclusive, and more honest. Don't be afraid to rock the boat a little. Don't fear to color outside the lines when necessary. Have the courage to stand alone and understand what it means to have history be your judge.

As I said in my inaugural address as governor, each generation has but one chance – one chance to be judged by future generations and this is your time. Make us proud. Make us proud.

Thank you very much.

Portland State University. (2016, Oct. 17). Barbara Roberts Collection: Portland State University Commencement Address (2007). Retrieved on June 18, 2020, from