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Public Papers - 1989 - June

Remarks at the Cheltenham High School Commencement Ceremony in Wyncote, Pennsylvania

1989-06-19

Thank you, Hang Nguyen, for that introduction and that welcome to this wonderful school. And thank you all for that very generous reception. Mr. Secretary, Dr. Stefanski, Mr. Rodgers, Mr. Bell, members of the board, faculty and administrators, parents -- grateful parents -- students, I am delighted to be here. And, Jeffrey, I can see why they elected you president. You did a first-class job there representing your class in that word of welcome. Thank you very much. And I'm delighted we have so many distinguished guests. But I want to single out one: my friend of longstanding, the Congressman from this district, Congressman Larry Coughlin, your own, who came here with us tonight from Washington. Larry -- delighted he's here.

Last night, under the able leadership, you might say, of John Denver, at the White House -- we have a program that goes on four times a year, and it's called ``In Performance at the White House,'' where they had some musical talent. And you'll see what we saw last night live -- you'll see it, I think, on July 5th on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service]. But I think they could all take a lesson from the vocal ensemble over here who did a -- whoops, they're gone, but they were great.

And so, I'm here from Washington -- a privilege to be at the magnificent success that is Cheltenham High School and to say, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that reports of your reputation have not ``been greatly exaggerated.'' You know, as Marine One flies, it's about 120 miles from Washington to Philadelphia. And on the way up here, Secretary Cavazos, my friend and that ardent champion of American education, detailed for me your superb record of achievement in social services and music and the academics and the humanities. And now that I've seen you -- a little bit of you -- up close and personal, I can say that Mr. Trimble is right: Cheltenham, ``you are beautiful.''

And I am enjoying my first visit here, and I want you to enjoy today. And it's hot in here! [Laughter] And I promise I'll be relatively brief. After all, you've worked and studied and struggled for 4 years, and now comes the hard part: listening to a commencement address.

I'll never forget at Yale University, a graduation speaker, a minister, got up at my old college and said, ``And now I will give your commencement address.'' And he picked Yale -- Y is for youth -- went on about 25 minutes on youth. [Laughter] A is for altruism -- took about 18. L is for loyalty -- 37 minutes on loyalty. [Laughter] And of course, E for excellence -- finished in 17 minutes. And when he finished, there was one person left praying. [Laughter] And he said, ``How lovely that you're praying. Were you giving thanks for my words?'' He said, ``No, I'm just thanking God that you didn't speak at my high school graduation at Cheltenham High School.'' [Laughter]

Let me assure you, I do remember how it feels. For it seems like only yesterday that I, too, was listening to a commencement speech at my graduation. Believe me, I wish it were only yesterday, but nevertheless, in school I loved history and English and major league baseball -- not necessarily in that order. But most of all, I loved the possibilities and horizons of the rainbow called tomorrow, a rainbow that, here at this magnificent school, you color blue and gold. And today I'd like to talk about your possibilities as individuals and our horizons as a great nation. I do so believing that you can enrich the world, charitably and courageously, through your choices and your deeds and through a few things that I've learned that I would like to share with you -- things about America, things about her people.

And I've learned, for instance, that we are not black and white, rural and urban, the privileged and the poor. We are -- as Dr. Stefanski said -- we are Americans. And I've learned that any definition of a successful life insists that we help those for whom the American dream seems like an impossible dream. And I have learned that for different generations this help may take different forms, for conditions vary, challenges change. And yet what does not, must not, change is our capacity -- responsibility -- to assist society at large.

Two centuries ago, for instance, our forefathers banded together to secure independence. Their challenge was to found the Colonies and then push back the wilderness. And 90 years later, the challenge for many of your great-great-great-grandfathers was to preserve the Republic so that, united, we stood. A later generation helped pull us out of the Depression, and still another placed a man on the Moon. And at times, we've been ragged in goods, but we've always been rich in spirit. Even in 1933, with 25 percent of America's work force out of work, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could say, surveying the Republic: ``Our troubles concern, thank God, only material things.''

FDR knew then, as we know now, that life is measured not by what's in our bank account but by holding ourselves to account for the well-being of our community. And this belief is as timeless as the spirit of 1776. It embodies what President Eisenhower meant when he said: ``We must be willing, individually and as a nation, to accept what sacrifices may be required of us.''

As Americans, we've made those sacrifices -- eagerly, selflessly -- for over 200 years. Think of Bunker Hill and Bastogne, where we upheld the tenets of democracy, or the Marshall plan, where we rebuilt postwar Europe, or groups like the Peace Corps, the Salvation Army, or UNICEF.

You know, a student told me a while ago that high school is a great place to learn about personal risktaking. I asked him,``How do you figure?'' And he said, ``Have you ever tasted cafeteria food?'' [Laughter]

Well, my friends, I ask you today to take a risk for a cause larger than ourselves. It's the cause of Clara Barton and the Red Cross; Raoul Wallenberg, who helped refugees escape oppression; Mary McLeod Bethune, who made higher learning a bequest. It's the cause of helping others and, thereby, helping America. It's the cause of democratic ideals.

Abroad, this cause insists that we help, by word and by deed, the young people who demand such rights as assembly, religion, press, free speech -- the rights our ancestors secured for us and that we too often take for granted in this country. Look to the Soviet Union, where brave people press for religious, intellectual, and political liberty. Look to Poland, where Solidarity's long struggle has borne fruit in the results of free elections. The free election process in Poland makes me count my blessings for the free election process that we take for granted right here in the United States. And, yes, look to China, where students have demanded freedom -- a demand that will not, and must not, be stilled.

Who will ever forget the picture of that young Chinese, solitary and vulnerable, facing down an entire column of tanks? That vivid, unforgettable image illustrates how precious is the freedom that underlies everything that we stand for. We don't have to stand in front of tanks in America, thank God, but we do have to summon the same courage to confront the evil that exists in the world. We have to stand in front of the forces of cruelty and violence, and confront the dark powers of poverty and despair. We have to summon the courage to face down the scourge of drugs that stalks and harms our young people. And fortunately, we Americans have an advantage. We have a heritage of bravery, of faith in God, of liberty and human dignity, and the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In recent weeks, at college commencement speeches, I've spoken of these values and called for the right of peoples everywhere for free expression. Well, those values also guide our challenge at home not merely to ensure free expression -- for the most part, that war has already been won -- rather to win the struggle not yet decided: the fight for justice, equality, and hope. To win that fight will require you and you and you and others enlisting in our crusade. And it will demand the little-noted deeds that make headlines not in the national magazines but in the local weekly, deeds that once moved Lafayette, in his early twenties, when he led Washington's troops at Yorktown, to write of America: ``What most charms me is that all the citizens are brethren.''

And we term these deeds voluntarism, or community service, and they're central to our fabric as a nation and as a people. And, no, they aren't as dramatic as the profiles in courage of Warsaw or the gulags or of Tiananmen Square, but they reflect the same sense of sacrifice and of concern -- concern for country, decency, and our fellow man. This concern uplifts voluntarism groups and individuals, groups like the Youth at Risk Program; the Boy Scouts; and your United Way Youth Council chapter; individuals like Anneke Cooper, who assists a neighborhood nursing home; or Keithe Damsker, translating materials into Korean for the American Cancer Society; or two Jennifers, Payes and Lowe, who serve at Moss Rehabilitation Center and Holy Redeemer Hospital.

And the thing is, at Cheltenham that's just a partial reading. The list is endless; their deeds go on. And another thing: Across America we need to expand this roll of volunteers, for they can combat -- nationally, as you are doing locally -- issues like hunger and health care, drug abuse and homelessness. To achieve that aim, our administration recently created the Office of National Service. And this week we're going to take another step. For by announcing our administration's new YES, or YES to America initiative -- Youth Entering Service -- we will refute those who speak of the ``me generation.'' Instead, this program can build a cathedral of the spirit and help yours become a global ``we generation.''

Let me tell you a story about that generation and its spirit. One day a man stepped aboard a train. And as he did, a shoe slipped off and landed on the track. Unable to retrieve it as the train was moving, the man calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track in the direction of the first one, and his fellow passengers were amazed. Smiling, Mahatma Gandhi explained his action: ``The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair that he can use.'' Gandhi knew, as we must, that the ``we generation'' rejects a new gilded age of mindless self-gratification. But only we -- not me -- only we can define a successful life both for the individual and the Nation.

Remember those beliefs and treasure them. And remember, too, two signs which I'm told are posted right here in this gym. One suggests that ``Success is a journey, not a destination,'' often perilous, even cruel, but possessed of the challenges and values linking the students of this high school with the students of the world. And the other sign reads, ``If a man never fails, it may be because he never tries.'' My friends, some of you may try for President. I hope you do -- great; but whatever, do something truly inspiring. Become a doctor, like your alumnus, Michael Brown; become a teacher, like Lew Shaten, retiring tomorrow after 32 years, committed to broadening the minds of thousands of young people; an artist, like Edward Hergelroth, who has painted my own house up in Kennebunkport; or writers, like Levinson and Link.

Whatever you decide, whatever, you will act not for yourselves alone but for a larger community, whether in Cheltenham or China. And in that spirit, let me close with another story, a story about the most famous Pennsylvanian of them all. Two hundred and two years ago, Benjamin Franklin looked at the President's chair on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, and addressing a friend, he made a confession. Often, Franklin admitted, he'd wondered during Philadelphia's long, hot summer whether the Sun painted on the chair -- remember -- was rising or setting. But at last he said he had the pleasure to know that it was a rising, not a setting, Sun.

For America, for this high school, for you as individuals, our Sun is rising too. In coming years, expand America's possibilities; enlarge her horizons as a people. Say yes to liberty and to the dignity of man. And as you do, remember that your inheritance is the future -- guard it, cherish it. And together, let us shape tomorrow in the image of our dreams, not merely for this generation but for the generations to come.

Good luck to each and every one of you graduating here this evening. My most heartfelt congratulations. And God bless you, and God bless your parents, and God bless this wonderful school, and God bless the United States of America.

Note: The President spoke at 7:07 p.m. in the school gymnasium. In his remarks, he referred to Hang Nguyen, an honors student; Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos; Charles F. Stefanski and James Bell, superintendent of schools and president of the Cheltenham Township School District, respectively; Joseph W. Rodgers, principal of the school; Jeffrey Schwarzschild, president of the graduating class; and Robert Trimble, teacher and director of external education at the school. Following his remarks, the President returned to Washington, DC.

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