Commencement Address – River Forest c/o 2020

Greetings and congratulations, Class of 2020. Here we are, you made it! Graduating high school is a major accomplishment, and one of the first of many milestones in your life.

I must, however, also offer my condolences. For the rest of your years, wherever you may go, you will have to explain to people what an Ingot is…. and hopefully they won’t ask what the school colors are. They say its red and gold but is it, Vegas gold, orange gold or mustard yellow? I guess it depends on which sport and what year we’re talking about.

Thank you to administrators, faculty, staff as well as parents, family and friends, for allowing me the honor and privilege to speak to you.

When I originally wrote this speech last fall, we were living in a different world, one with an economy flying high and opportunities abound. While Class of 2020 slogans included “Perfect Vision” and “The future is clear”, I think a more appropriate one now is “Hindsight is 2020”. Because as time goes on, you will look back at this year, and know, despite the adversity that was endured from this pandemic, you came out as a stronger person, class and community.

It is the sacrifices and support over the years, by the families here today, that helped you reach this point of accomplishment. It is the faculty and staff that put in more than just a 40-hour work week, as they also served as coaches, mentors and sometimes, just a person that was there to listen. Some staff have actually been here since the time of Abraham Lincoln. I’m looking at you Burton, Cullison, Thompson, Weitzel. But seeing as how they still have some hair on their heads, it looks like the jokes on me. In all seriousness, your investment in these young leaders cannot go without appreciation. Please give yourself a round of applause.

Many years ago, when I first started my career, a family member of modest means from rural-Kentucky, left me with two points of timeless wisdom that I would like to share with you. He said “Robert, never be ashamed of what you do for a living and never forget where you came from.”

Number 1. Never be ashamed of what you do for a living. The education you received here at RF should lead to a life of service, action and leadership. My generation was told that college was the only path to success, but there are many ways to pursue your passion. At the end of the day, there is dignity in all work, whether you’re white-collar or blue-collar or somewhere in-between. It takes all kinds of kinds to make the world go round. One of my mentors said there are five pillars to a strong community: That is, education, business and labor, non-profits, government and faith-based organizations. While your job will fall into one of these buckets, I encourage you to participate in another. Whether its running for public office or volunteering at a local soup-kitchen, serving others is a very rewarding experience, and a great way to make your community a better place to work, live and play.

Number 2: never forget where you came from. That’s why I’ve returned from Washington DC for such a great event. When you leave RF this evening, always be proud to be an Ingot. As a bedroom community to US Steel in Gary, this place was never home to silver spoons much less trust-fund kids. You might have started on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, but being from the working-class is a real badge of honor. Despite minimum resources, I can see from test scores, sports teams and other accolades reported in the media, that you’ve outperformed all expectations set by the experts. As the story of David and Goliath reminds us, some disadvantages, may actually indeed, be advantages.

Speaking of advantages, when did River Forest get air conditioning? Hard to believe the school didn’t even have AC when I graduated. But really, the advantage RF has, is the diversity of its student body, which is now minority-majority. That strength is something few schools in the Region, much less state, have accomplished. While others talk about integration and inclusion, you actually live it. As our historical challenge with race relations moves to the forefront once again, you are uniquely positioned to advocate for the values of liberty, freedom and justice as espoused by our constitution. I challenge you to take action in a positive and thoughtful way, to help build a more perfect union.

To do this, it starts right here, by being present… and off your phone. Social media profits through the addiction to manufactured outrage. And while it’s a great source of entertainment at times, very few of society’s problems will be figured out on the internet. Finding solutions requires us to live outside our comfort zones, by engaging others in an authentic way, which takes time and can only happen in person.

Now that I sound like an old-timer ranting about the ills of technology and the internet, let’s finish this on a high note, which means for some of you, you can wake up now. I wish the Class of 2020 all the best in your endeavors. Maintain humility in your successes, learn from your failures, and always pay it forward. Thank you.