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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks at the Mississippi State University Commencement Ceremony in Starkville

1989-05-13

Congratulations to you. Thank you all very much. President Zacharias and members of the board of trustees, members of the distinguished faculty, administrators, friends, soon to be graduates, I can't tell you how much I appreciate that warm Bulldog welcome. Before I get too far into these remarks, I don't believe I've ever heard a more beautiful or remarkable rendition of the ``Star Spangled Banner.'' Richard Gaddis -- just wonderful. And thank you all for the warmth of this welcome here today. And I am very honored and privileged to address your commencement.

I was at Alcorn State, another part of this great State, earlier on. And I told them that I was reminded of my own graduation, because I could see on the faces of some of these kids the apprehension about the President coming here and how long they might have to endure the message. And I was reminded of a graduation at Yale, and the speaker got up and went on and on. He finally -- at the beginning he said, ``Yale -- Y is for youth.'' He talked about that for 20 minutes; ``A is for altruism'' -- 18; ``L is for loyalty'' -- 32 minutes; ``E is for excellence.'' Finished his speech -- there was only one person left, head down in prayer. And the speaker said, ``Were you praying for those values?'' He said, ``No, sir, I was giving thanks that I didn't go to Mississippi State University.'' [Laughter]

I want to say what a great honor it is to see a long-time family friend, one of the great patriots of this or any other era, the Honorable John Stennis, who resides right here on this campus. Judge Stennis, Senator Stennis, call him what you will. He doesn't merely hail from Mississippi: He is Mississippi. And his service to the United States of America will not be forgotten. Now, I wondered whether we could ever fill those big shoes. But I say this not as a partisan but as an observer of some time, as President Zacharias said, of the public scene. And you have two great United States Senators in Thad Cochran and in Trent Lott, and I'm proud to be with them here today.

And I salute the two Members of Congress that are with us today. One of them, Congressman Montgomery, and I were elected to Congress on the same day. I'm delighted he's here. His great-grandfather, Colonel W.B. Montgomery, was instrumental in rebuilding Mississippi after the war, and he played a major role in founding this university. And so, this afternoon I want to recognize those pioneering efforts and to salute my dear friend, the colonel's great-grandson, your own Congressman, Sonny Montgomery. He always kids me that I win only when I'm wearing my Mississippi State shorts. I brought them along today with a plea: Can't we do better than this? [Laughter] Twenty years. If you don't do better than that by me, you're going to get this. [Laughter]

[At this point, the President held up an old, worn pair of Mississippi State exercise shorts and indicated that if they were not replaced by something better that he would wear shorts from the University of Mississippi, a rival school.]

You know, I come from a State where we like to sing ``The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.'' Well, today, my friends, the eyes of America are upon Starkville, Mississippi. For we meet, to begin with, at a special school, special because for 109 years MSU has made education a lasting legacy and opportunity its bequest. We gather, also, in a very special State, special for its people. You realize that who we are matters more than what we have. And you value home and family and tradition and service to country.

I thought of that today as Air Force One brought me to Mississippi, and of how, for me, this afternoon also marks another journey, back to some of my own pivotal years, the years I spent as an undergraduate. It was 41 years ago next month that I, too, received my degree, 1948. In 1948 there were only 172,000 television sets owned in the entire United States of America. Milton Berle was ``Mr. Television,'' taking pies in the face. Harry Truman was Mr. President, giving 'em hell. And in many ways, it was a different America: less congestion, less pollution, less high tech. Pac Man was a camper, not a video game. [Laughter] And we had problems, sure: at home, gas shortages and housing problems and veterans adjusting to domestic life after World War II. Abroad, the Cold War had turned frigid. The Communist bloc was solidifying. China and the Middle East were rent asunder by war. And in a Europe torn by conflicting ideologies, the Soviets were blockading West Berlin.

And yet, with the end of World War II, America was unified as few could have imagined. I'm sure many of you have seen that famous Life magazine photo that captured the spirit of those times: the sailor in Times Square embracing a woman in the mass exultation of V - J Day, a victory for freedom that came after so much sacrifice. Like the woman swept off her feet, the spirit of rejoicing, and more importantly the limitless possibilities of America, swept us all. And I, too, felt that sense of idealism and opportunity and headed on out with Barbara -- headed out to Texas to make the most of the American Dream.

But today I look back upon those times, and I am struck by the wonder of how much this country has achieved. What newly married vet in his early twenties could have envisioned just how wide the golden door of opportunity would swing in four short decades? And I ask myself, what made this achievement possible? What caused America's technological and scientific advance, a prosperity and power unprecedented in world history? One thing, I believe, is what Mississippi's own William Faulkner called ``the old verities and truths of the heart.'' My friends, it is these verities that in 1948 allowed us to meet our problems together. We took pride in our identity as a nation and solace in our faith in God. And above all, we believed in the simple, the basic truths like kindness and civility, self-sacrifice and courage, compassion and concern for others, timeless values which span the generations, values which show that America is great because America is good.

An old saying notes how ``the world has turned over many times.'' It has since I graduated. The postwar period has given way to a new world, a world still perilous, but alive with prospects for peace and with the certainty of change. Yesterday at Texas A M in Bryan, Texas, I talked of that change, of a new policy that moves beyond containment of the Soviet Union. And the new policy seeks to bring the Soviet Union into the family of nations, a policy, if you will, of reintegration. And as the Soviet Union moves toward greater openness and democratization, and as they meet the challenge of responsible international behavior, we will match their steps with steps of our own. And if we succeed, the future of every graduate today is going to be safer. The world we know will be more free. We can dedicate ourselves then to helping others even more.

Yet there are some things that haven't changed since 1948. Our values haven't. We see these values everywhere: a church-based child-care center, choir practice, or the PTA. And they uplift American society, for they reflect the tenets of ``do unto others,'' tenets I respect and which I will try hard to serve as President of the United States. And they are the values of America's good, quiet, decent people, Americans who know that we are not the sum of our possessions but of how we conduct ourselves. And these people form the heart of our society, and they enrich its central unit, the family. Here these values play a special role, for they teach that life is not a celebration of self and our fate is not divisible.

As I mentioned to the graduating class at Alcorn, I will do nothing as President, nothing at all, to weaken our society by weakening the fundamental role of family in our society. Instead, I will do all I can to emphasize its importance and to reinforce its role. I've been very lucky -- a wonderful wife and five great kids. They're through college. And I remember receiving letters from them, and there would always be that ``P.S.'' at the bottom, those three little words, ``Please send money,'' that special bond between parents at home and kids away at school. I expect these parents have never, ever received a letter like that.

Five kids and 11 lively grandkids -- and by themselves, they could field the Bulldogs' entire pitching staff. And I understand you people with the earphones staying plugged in to the baseball game. [Laughter] If I were sitting up there, I'd be doing exactly the same thing. [Laughter] Never say that Mississippians do not have their priorities sorted out right. [Laughter]

But like all kids, ours provide a Rubik Cube of questions. And like most families, they supply that love and allegiance which make us more fulfilled. And, believe me, sometimes we need that loyalty. I'm reminded of the alumnus who sent his coach a telegram before the big game. It read: ``Remember, coach, we're all behind you -- win or tie.'' [Laughter]

The individual is important, but the family unit can be our secret weapon and our shield. And as President, I want to strengthen it. To help the family, we must keep America prosperous, strong, and free. We must stop the scourge of drug abuse, and we will. We must build an educational system which invests in our children. And for those who, for whatever reason -- sickness, poverty, the death of a loved one -- feel alone and isolated, let us become their family, not in a legal sense but in a human sense: helping, supporting, caring for our neighbor.

Today millions of Americans are doing just that: giving of themselves and helping others. And we term their work voluntarism, or community service. For they show how the definition of a successful life must include serving others.

The French writer Jean Cocteau was once asked what he would take if his house were on fire and he could remove only one thing. ``I would take the fire,'' he replied. [Laughter] He liked what worked. Well, so do I. Community service works because it's real, not abstract. It makes achievements feasible. Compassion helps one child escape heroin addiction. Generosity allows another to eat a decent meal. And through faith in God, still another overcomes the curse of bigotry and hatred.

And that's why I have created the Office of National Service, which will enlist new volunteers to help meet unmet social needs. Project Victory, or Mission Impossible? Look to the heroes of today for an answer -- look to David Pettry, an MSU agronomist who has traveled around the world to nurture soil management; or Steve Cooper, who works in Starkville's Help Find the Children campaign; or Donnie Prisock -- Dr. Donnie -- a quadriplegic who earned his Ph.D. and who counsels handicapped students right here at this school. Heroes? Every one; for they know that the private sector -- and individuals -- have the resources and the responsibility to confront issues like hunger and health care, drug abuse and teen pregnancy. A famous adage says that ``Luck is the residue of design.'' Well, America's luck can be the residue of voluntarism's design.

My friends, you've worked hard and studied and struggled for 4 years, and now you've endured the hardest part: listening to the commencement address. [Laughter] And I haven't even begun. Let's see, Y - M - I - S. [Laughter]

But let me leave you with the thought that Mississippi has given America some indelible leaders: in politics, John Stennis; in publishing, Eugene Butler; in entertainment, country's Jerry Clower. And always, you've treasured Faulkner's ``verities and truths of the heart.'' Community service -- national service -- reflects those verities: ``love and honor and pride and compassion and sacrifice,'' values which can ennoble the family and American society at large. So, let Faulkner's ``verities of the heart'' be our values, not merely for this generation but for future generations. And inspired by America's good, quiet, decent people, let us help enrich America so that America can continue to enrich the world.

Good luck to each one of you. My heart-felt congratulations! May your future be worthy of your dreams. And may you always say, as I do now, God bless the United States of America. Thank you for inviting me. Thanks a lot.

Note: The President spoke at 3:22 p.m. on Thurman field. He was introduced by Donald W. Zacharias, president of the university. Following his remarks, the President traveled to Lexington, KY.

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