Barbara P Bush

Commencement Address at University of Pennsylvania - May 14, 1990

Barbara P Bush
May 14, 1990— University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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Thank you very, very much. Thank you very much, Provost Aiken, President Hackney, my very good friends Walter and Lee Annenberg. You know, like Ben Franklin, both Walter and Lee served as distinguished American Ambassadors. And like Franklin, both are great patrons of Pennsylvania. And like Franklin, half the things on the Penn campus are named after them.

I want to congratulate also the families and the friends and the fans of all the students, and most of all, the University of Pennsylvania Class of 1990. I'm thrilled to be with you at Pennsylvania - the first university in America, and one of the greatest universities of the world. And I'm thrilled to participate in a tradition that began when George Washington was invited to speak here in 1783. Now Washington never did get to Pennsylvania that year, but you can see his hair finally did.

Walking through this tree-lined campus, it's hard not to think about Benjamin Franklin. Marching with you down Locust Walk this morning, I looked up at Franklin's statue and could almost believe the campus legend - that sometimes late at night during finals, old Ben takes pity on a student and offers up a lucky wink. Even better is the statute over by the compass. Ben sits there on a park bench life-size reading a newspaper. You almost feel you could slide down next to him and invite him out for a beer at Smokey Joe's. Sounds like one or two of you may have spent a little time at Smokey Joe's.

Where George Washington is a distant figure larger than life, almost God-like, Ben Franklin is alive, accessible, human and wise - very wise. The ancient Chinese, who probably knew more about wisdom than anyone else, designated the wise by a combination of ideograms for wind and lightning. Wind and lightning. Years before the revolution, Franklin seized lightning from the skies and brought it to earth on a kite string, a school beholden neither to king nor clergy.

Designed to educate the hearts and the hands, as well as the head, it was wind and lightning. It was a university inventing itself. Penn is not a place, but an idea - an experiment of excellence and diversity - a continuing experiment that has produced Nobel Prize winners, Supreme Court Justices, astronauts, doctors, and teachers. Today, Pennsylvanians come from every corner of the world, linked only by this- an idea- a university that invented itself. And today, it's produced you-the Class of 1990.

It's said that if you want to launch great ships, go where the water is deep. Well, the water at Penn is deep- very deep. ·And it reminds me of the most memorable commencement advice I've ever heard. It came from an 80-year-old Rear Admiral - the oldest commissioned officer in the United States - a woman not much more than five feet tall - and it consisted of just two words. She threw back her head and belted them out - set sail. College, she said, is like a shakedown cruise where every new ship is tested to make sure everything works. Well, everything works, so set sail.

Graduating from Penn is no small thing. You are young and gifted and well-educated. Though in the world that awaits you beyond Locust Walk, each of you can make a difference, and your years here have prepared you well for your next great adventure. In setting sail, don't worry if the future appears uncharted. You need not - cannot have a game plan for life. Decisions are not irrevocable. Choices do come back.

At various turns, Franklin was a printer, educator, journalist, diplomat, scientist. He even invented bifocal eyeglasses - a great gift to all who love to read, and a special help to George and me - you know, the vision thing;

And of course, George Bush couldn't hold a job either. You know, when he proposed marriage to me, he promised to really move me. I didn't know he meant we'd be relocating 29 times in 45 years.

Like Benjamin Franklin, nearly all of you here have ancestors who were liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal, setting sail with little more than a dream - the hope of building a better world for their children - and so they did. The dream they sought - the American dream - was not a two-car garage and a white picket fence, or even that their children become rich on Wall Street. Their dream was much simpler-that their children, or perhaps their children's children, could learn, grow healthy, worship freely, and live in a land where life could be chosen.

In this sense, you yourselves are the American dream. You are their American dream. You have first-rate minds, a world-class education from a world-class school, and as you set sail, I hope that many of you will consider three special opportunities.

The first is to believe in something larger than yourself - to get involved in some of the big ideas of your time. Let me tell you about one. It's called illiteracy. It affects as many as one out of five Americans, and it is part of the drug problem, part of ignorance and AIDS, part of homelessness and alienation.

When Ben Franklin was dining in Paris, one of his companions posed a question. What condition of man most deserves pity? [inaudible 00:07:49] His pleasure in reading is obvious in the status on Locust Walk. Ben is leaning forward, a smile ready on his face, a book crumpled in his lap, and more books -piles of books heaped and tossed beneath his chair. Franklin loved words.

Robert MacNeil of TV's MacNeil Lehrer Report writes about it in his best seller Word Struck. The U.S. he says was founded on words-words that weighed heavily. Words that carry the deepest convictions of thoughtful, daring men. I know the only thing many of you remember from his address was that he was quoted-that he quoted that summer's favorite movie about America's most admired truant, Ferris Bueller 's Day Off. And that's okay. Five minutes from now, you're not going to remember anything about this talk but set sail.

Four years ago, President Hackney also spoke to you about lifelong learning. He told that for Franklin and his circle, there was no distinction between learning and living. They led full, rounded lives with learning naturally at the center of it. And there was a point to it. Franklin's great aim and the end of all learning was to serve. One of the best ways to serve is-suggested in the final chapter of Word Struck. He says if you love the language, the greatest thing you can do to ensure its survival is not to complain about bad usage, but to pass on your enthusiasm to a child. Here at Penn, you're doing just that. Over 1,500 students gave time to community efforts, many involving tutoring kids in West Philadelphia. And Penn's George and Diane Weiss recently promised the Belmont School entire sixth grade class - 112 strong -that if the kids say yes to education and graduate from high school, they will pay their tuition at the college of their: choice. And they know and you know what we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others remains.

Now I didn't mean to bring up tuition. You are now finishing four years of college, and to the delight of many parents in the audience, you are perched on the brink of gainful employment. Let me say before I go any further that I am really proud to share this platform with so many distinguished men and women. [inaudible 00:10:43] talks about his oldest daughter - when his oldest daughter went to college - the tuition bill had already reached $13,000. And he looked hard at the bill and then he said to her, $13,000 -will you be the only student? •

Earlier I said you have three special opportunities - getting involved in the great issues of your time is one. And the second opportunity is to have· some fun. Okay? Because whether you're talking about education, talking about career, or talking about service, you're talking about life. And life is supposed to be fun. [inaudible 00:11:35] good opportunity is the most fun of all - the opportunity to be a successful parent.

During these past four years, you have had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work. I hope that in making that point, another has not been neglected. As important as your obligations as a graduate student or future doctor or lawyer or business leader may be, you are a human being first - a husband or a wife first - a father or a mother first - a son or a daughter first - a friend first. How sad it would be to fail at one of these positions.

Whatever success in your career, relationships honestly are the most important investments you can make. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test - won one more verdict - closed one more deal. You may regret not having spent more time with a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter, a parent or a friend. In the final analysis - a busy career cannot compare with their companionship and love. My friends, you've worked hard and studied and struggled for four years. You've earned the right to celebrate and I salute you for the talent and the courage and the commitment - for the wind and the lightning that brought you here. Seize the day. Seize the lightning. Seize the wind and soar. Set sail. And who knows- somewhere out in this audience today may even be a future President of the United States. I wish her well.

And as you leave Pennsylvania today, take with you my deep thanks for the marvelous honor you have conferred upon me - not just an honorary degree, but an honorary degree with the Class of 1990. May your future be worthy of your dreams. Thank you, God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Penn Archives. 2019. “Commencement Address 1990: Barbara Pierce Bush.” University Archives and Records Center.