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1985 Commencement Speech: C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Being the surgeon general can often be a thankless job. With few rewards and much headache. But over the past few years, I’ve received a very important reward in this job.

I discovered Milwaukee. And just as important – I'd like to think – is the fact that Milwaukee discovered me.

I've come to this city – and I've come onto this campus – for a number of very important events:

  • A conference on biomedical ethics
  • A meeting of national significance on cocaine
  • A conference on help for handicapped infants
  • A new drive to stop smoking
  • And to present a citation from the President to the longest serving volunteer in America.

And two years ago. On a lovely Sunday morning much like this one. It was my great pleasure to receive an honorary degree – Doctor of Science – from this university. With that ceremony i was admitted into a very special group within American society: They are men and women who've been educated – cared for – wept over – and cheered on by this extraordinary institution. Marquette University.

So here I am again. It's Sunday morning. And this must be Milwaukee.

And since there’s potential chaos all around me, this must be graduation day.

On thousands of campuses this spring commencement speakers are extolling graduates on the theme of “onward and upward”. But in my life and in the lives of those I call my protégées the negative twist to the pursuit of excellence has kept me and them on track.

That twist is the avoidance of mediocrity. Mediocrity is defined as being of middling capacity – not approaching superiority.

It is no easy task to be a professional climbing the ladder while assuming some of the civic, community, voluntary, and religious activities that your peers convince you cannot be done as well by anyone else.

Life can become a little like walking a tightrope. My contention is that with the avoidance of mediocrity as a guiding principle. A sense of balance is struck that seems easier to attain than with the goal of the “onward and upward” pursuit of excellence which just may lead to a parochial singleness of purpose.

As we avoid mediocrity we tend to confuse vocation with occupation. Vocation – these days – a summons, a bidding, an invitation.

Originally and to many of us today, the call is of divine origin.

Occupation not only means “an activity in which one engages” but sadly enough also “a way of passing the time.” Those of us who lead the satisfying life mysteriously combine vocation and occupation.

You see. In addition to being called to do whatever and becoming obligated to all these extraneous works as well – most of you will be called to be spouses and parents.

Mediocrity is not avoided as a spouse and parent just because your profession becomes all-consuming and you are an acknowledged leader.

And you should not become an outstanding churchman while being something of a fraud in your family life and your occupation.

“Is there life after graduation?”

Yes, you can see. I believe, there definitely is. I'm sure you're all delighted to hear that. And I can add that life is going to continue to be every bit as mysterious after graduation, as it has been for you up to now.

  • And every bit as challenging and rewarding
  • And as frustrating and as stunning

  • And it's every bit as precious.

However, – from today on, you have the right and you have the responsibility and you must have the commitment – to be its guardian.

Try to understand life – always do that.

Enjoy it. Of course.

Defend it – absolutely – because it needs defending.

Some of the history majors among you may take issue with me, but I happen to think that there's never been a time in human history when so many real, living human beings – and the concept of life itself – have been under such threatening pressures as they are today.

Each evening the television news shows report to us in full color the level of homicide that mankind has achieved in the previous 24 hours – and it is awesome.

We are given the numbers of dead and wounded for that day in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In Africa. And in Central and South America.

We are hounded and we are haunted by this barbarous arithmetic, this “Dow Jones report” on the absence of mercy. This daily, inexorable computation of man's humanity to man. His capacity for dismissing and extinguishing life.

Did I leave out North America? I shouldn't do that because here on this continent – here in Wisconsin – right here in Milwaukee, we have our daily “body counts” as well.

As a nation, the United States has an average of more than 50 homicides a day. That's about 10 times the homicide rate of most other modern, industrialized nations of the world.

Is there really life after college? For many Americans, the answer is – unaccountably and disastrously – “no.”

Homicide is rather “sensational.” Let's not talk about that. Let's talk about some more mundane events – with even higher statistics.

Driving the family car, for example. Americans have turned this innocent pursuit into one of the deadliest activities in our society. We're killing twice as many people in highway accidents as are killed in flat-out homicides. And the majority of those lost lives are lost young lives. Why do we do that?

And smoking. You didn't really expect me to forget about smoking, did you? But how can I, when I know that this year, between 300 and 400 thousand people will die before their time because of a disease condition aggravated by – or actually caused by – their habit of smoking cigarettes.

Then why do some 52 million people still smoke? Why do they endanger their own lives as well as the lives of others: their friends, their husbands or wives, their co-workers – their own children? Why do they do that?

I don’t know the whole answer. I'd like to think that I know some parts of the answer and I have a few suspicions about other parts. But that's the best I can do.

But I'm not alone in my quandary. In a sense, I’m standing here speaking to you as the representative of millions of people who graduated just one year ago or 50 or 60 years ago.

People who have had excellent education and training, just as you've had–

People who've enjoyed the same kind of benefits you've enjoyed up through today–

But they are people who feel shamed by the persistence of the historic enemies of life: not just hate and anger and prejudice.

But also the enemies of spite – malice – and indifference.

Of all of them, indifference may be the most dangerous enemy for all living things – if not for life itself.

And so, on an expectant morning such as this, when the air is flavored with optimism and promise and hope – when two and three and even four generations hold hands in a prayerful bond –

On a rewarding morning such as this, when “the best that we have been” is set upon a journey of our “becoming even better” –

On a decent morning such as this, when toleration at last grows up and becomes love –

On this kind of – best kind of – morning, we need to affirm our devotion to not only to the abstract concept of life – but to the reality of the living.

Let your generation affirm the life that is in every person, even that person who struggles on the other side of the world. Who looks different and sounds different, whom we only know through a second's worth of television, but who is nevertheless our constant companion on this gently spinning planet. We must not be indifferent to that life.

And please let us affirm the life of the elderly person. The man or woman with a past full of contributions – a present of little more than observation – and a future of nothing but rest. However, much life is left for that person to live, please let us not be unconcerned or indifferent. Let us affirm it.

And for the tiniest one among us – someone with no past, who is all future – the newborn child with no debts and no way to say “thank you,” let's affirm life for that person. Too – regardless of his or her social or physical condition, let us affirm all the life to which every child is entitled.

And let's not forget the tiniest and most defenseless – the unborn.

Let's not be indifferent to the lives of our children – any of them.

There is one more group we cannot overlook!

Today about 1 out of every 7 Americans is handicapped or limited in some way from living a life that is normal for his or her age group. That's something like 35 million Americans.

Life is very precious to these people. But many times it is satisfying and productive in spite of the attitudes of society that are barriers to acceptance.

You have to change those attitudes to give the handicapped the quality of life they deserve.

Does not the sense of divine calling need to be reintroduced as motivation in the care of those who, for one reason or another, cannot care for themselves.

John Ruskin said there is no wealth but life. We can build a treasure for the handicapped by insuring that all the living they have is high quality living

On this commencement day, I suppose some of you were hoping I'd pass on a few marvelous tips on how to get rich and famous by working from 10 to 4 with 2 hours for lunch.

But honestly – I'm not really worried about you. Despite all the alleged adversity, you've made it to this very important day.

We agree that for four long years, Marquette University simply did not understand you – but could it be pure luck that they managed to give you a marvelous education anyway?

And your parents have been wrong about almost everything – we all know that – but they've also been very supportive and – given the circumstances – they've been unbelievably kind.

And your brothers and sisters have been silly and they've often embarrassed you – but apparently they still love you and that's something to consider right there.

And some of your best friends have turned out to be only half as smart as you – and they – once they thought they were, but they're absolutely loyal. You have to say that for them.

So, all in all, it's been a wonderful few years. It’s a triumph. I think you're ready for it.

There are other good things in store for you and your friends and family today. So let me close this little message with a sentence out of the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the great sages of New England. Emerson wrote:

“There is properly no history, only biography.”

And I agree with him. The real story of this world is the aggregated life stories of every man and woman who has ever lived.

Today each of you will complete an important chapter in your own personal biographies. I wish for each of you all the very best for the future … that you will complete more and more fine chapters highlighted by impressive and satisfying experiences, such as this. For, after all, your biographies will be our history.

Thank you.


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