Trustees, Teachers, Community Members and most of all graduates – thank you for the invitation to share in the joy of your commencement here tonight.
It is always an honor to be here. This is a place where I have returned from time to time over the years to reflect on the values this institution and this community instilled in me.
It was nearly a quarter century ago that I sat on this very stage – full of optimism and certainty that this place had given me the tools I needed to achieve any goal I set. I hope and trust that these are the same emotions you are experiencing.
Commencements are milestones – a time to reflect, but a time as well to renew our hopes and dreams – to stop and think about who we are and what we want from our lives.
As I was considering what I thought you should know, I was reminded that in the wake of World War II General Marshall outlined his plan for Europe’s recovery in just 1,442 words and in less than 12 minutes. Surely, if the General could outline a plan to save a continent in so little time, I can share my thoughts for your lives in less.
Though, Mrs. Sally Kreis, my favorite teacher who is here with us tonight, would tell you that I’ve never said anything in my life in less than 1,442 words – so I have my work cut out.
Whatever path you choose for your life, you possess an advantage over most people on our planet – you come from Montana.
This is a remarkable place – a place of dramatic landscapes, hardworking people and lasting values.
Life here is different from other places. Through the fertile valleys, across the magnificent vistas and under a breathtakingly Big Sky is a sense of place removed from the out-of-touch and overly-complicated world around.
History and tradition seem to be forever whispering here. This gives Montanans clearer thoughts, calmer spirits and more nourished souls. The people are better here; humbler and more centered.
I learned this most vividly when I left for the first time.
There is a single day in my life – a single four hour period on my first day alone outside of Montana – where I learned four important lessons that you need to take with you as you begin your journey with greater independence and more freedom than you have known within these walls.
I was 16 and had just flown to Washington, DC to move into a dorm on Capitol Hill to serve as a page in the United States Senate.
Washington, as you may know, is built on a swamp. And the consequence is that August is like a 31-day steam room from which there is no relief. I did not know this until I stepped out of the airport carrying three enormous suitcases and a sense of anticipation matched only by nervous energy.
A member of the senator’s staff was supposed to transport me from the airport to the capitol. I carried all my belongings to the median of the pickup lanes and began to wait in the hot, sticky sun for my ride.
I did not know what my car and driver looked like. There were no such things as cell phones in those days (unless you were on Miami Vice) and Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the internet.
So I did the colossally stupid thing and just hopelessly waited…and waited….and waited. Two hours later – dripping with sweat, hot as can be no idea what to do next, I carried all my belongs back across 3 lanes of traffic to consider my options and to find a pay phone.
I decided to do what every lost boy does in a time of crisis. I called my mom.
My mom reassured me that there was an answer and told me to call the page dorm directly.
So I did. The director of the page dorm answered and I told her that I had landed, no one was there to get me and I had no idea how to get to the dorm. With the impatience of someone who lived in the city all her life, she replied tartly, “just catch a cab.”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
A long pause ensued followed by, “you mean you don’t know how to take a taxi?”
“No,” I said sheepishly, “we don’t have taxis where I’m from.”
Through the muffled giggles she began to speak to me as if she were my kindergarten teacher. “Do you see a…man with a hat…and a stack of papers…standing by yellow cars…with signs on them…that say taxi?”
“Yes, I do!”
“Tell him…you want to go…to 400 New Jersey Avenue…and he will help you.”
I did this and twenty minutes later I pulled up in front of the dorm and began a chapter that would forever change the trajectory of my life.
That day, I learned four important lessons I would like to share with you.
First, never, ever be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.
The easiest thing to do in life is to settle for what we know. It gives us comfort and security.
Yet it is when we step beyond the bounds of our securities that we see the world in new ways – that we learn more about ourselves and our passions.
Where we see what inspires us.
I could have just as easily walked back into that airport that August day and been on a return trip home, but I wanted to know what I was capable of.
When I asked Cooper Huckaba what the biggest mistake she has made in her life, she replied with a statement that will no doubt give her parents great pride. She said, “When I didn’t try. It got me nowhere.”
Take it from Cooper – try new things. Take reasonable risks. Spread your wings and you will be amazed at how far you can fly.
Second, rely on others when you need a helping hand, but never forget that the best helping hand is your own.
I needed to place a call that August day to help me find my way, and by asking what I didn’t know I learned more about what I did. This will be true in your own life. Seek the counsel of others, rely on your friends when necessary – but know that there is no problem you will face in your life that can’t be solved when you follow your own heart. Brandon Hehn this is especially true for you.
It is in times of tragedy that we often learn the most about ourselves. Weeks before a recent tragedy in his life when I asked Brandon who his hero was, he wrote simply: my dad. His answer, it seems, was fate’s way of helping him prepare to find his own courage for renewal.
In the face of losing his dad, Brandon will need to find himself — in his own time and in his own way. But this community provides a safe place for him to not only be helped by others, but to learn also how to help himself.
Third, always be proud that you are from Montana.
It may have been slightly embarrassing not to know how to catch a taxi – but growing up in Montana gave me knowledge far more valuable: how to treat people with kindness and compassion; to live with purpose and values; to work hard and value others who work hard too.
Montana’s first woman governor, Judy Martz, used to say that there was nothing more heartbreaking than watching Montana’s young people board the first plane, train or automobile out of Montana to get a good education and a good job. That is heartbreaking.
But the world seeks out Montanans. Everywhere I travel I find them because employers appreciate and need their work ethic, honesty, good natures and their stick-to-it-ive-ness.
If you choose to leave Montana to explore the world, be proud to be from here and use it as the advantage that it is.
Most importantly, wherever you go, do something that inspires you. Chance Lamb is wise beyond his years. When I asked him his biggest hope for his life he told me “to be successful in a job I like instead of just making money.” We would all be well served to heed Chance’s words.
And the fourth thing I learned that August day was that mom is always just a phone call away.
No matter where you go or what you do, the people here in this room – first and foremost your moms – will always be by your side. Time and time again whether in triumph or heartbreak your family will be there to protect you.
Some calls home for help will be harder to make than others. But make them.
In fact, I think Aubrey Simon needs to get the ball rolling on this one. When I asked her what one thing she wanted her parents to know she replied, “that I’m secretly in the CIA, on the road to success – so get ready.”
I think you may have some things to share with mom over cake when we’re done here.
Mrs. Simon, as long as she’s not waterboarding anyone, Aubrey’s got the right the spirit.
If you don’t believe me that moms know best, just listen to my 5 year old Jack. Last weekend when I was negotiating with him – as I often must do at this age – I told him in a moment of exasperation, “Jack, I’m your dad. I make the rules.” He looked straight into my eyes, began to laugh and said, “Dad. Don’t be silly. Mommy makes the rules.”
These four truths – stepping beyond the familiar, seeking helping hands while relying on yourselves, being proud Montanans and never being afraid to call mom – have made all the difference in my life. I know they can for you.
The challenge of every young person – every human for that matter – is to stretch ourselves just beyond what we think we can handle so that we are rising to every occasion while ensuring that we never go beyond our breaking point.
Make good choices and great decisions in the coming years by never forgetting the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of success or the hurt of failure.
The good news for all of you is that you have in this community a safe place for you to practice and explore your independence. It is here where you can see yourselves as you are so that you might imagine who you want to become.
The one thing that I hope above all else can be said of you is that your lives will be extraordinary.
These people here tonight believe in you. Find yourselves. Explore your passions. Pursue your dreams. Inspire the people around you. Hope with everything you have. This will make your lives extraordinary.
Thank you for the privilege of being here with you tonight. Good luck in all your future endeavors.