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1991 Commencement Speech: Barbara Bush, First Lady of the United States

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

Thank you very, very much, Mr. Price. And thank you all very much. I certainly want to thank Christine Wood for the beautiful anthem and Rev. Leahy for that lovely, moving prayer.

You know it's humbling, indeed, to share this stage with your other awardees. As I sat here, I thought every single one of them would be better equipped to give all of you the graduation speech, but… and certainly deserved the honor more than I. Now I'm going to accept it. And I'm going to give the speech too. But I want you to know that I know that you know that they know more than I do. And I certainly want to thank Father DiUlio and the Board of Trustees for the honor of this degree. And it is a great honor.

But I would have come today, degree or not, because I love commencements. I love seeing you, new graduates, preparing to get on with the next phase of your life, which no doubt includes one last patriotic beverage at the 'Lanche. And I also love the look mixed with enormous relief on your parents' faces. You parents all look to me like Clair and Cliff Huxtable at Theo's graduation.

Now I have a deep admiration for Marquette and for many of your traditions, though I hope before the day is through someone will explain Sheepshead to me. And please hold the ping pong balls.

Actually, the real traditions of Marquette are the Jesuit traditions of service to God and man through education. Here at this fine university and in your host community, you live these traditions everyday. These traditions live in the sixty thousand hours of volunteer service you've given to your community, and in your tutoring programs for children and adults at local schools and libraries. And these traditions live especially in your ambitious Campus Circle Project which will build crucial bridges between town and gown by creating new housing, commercial development and jobs right here in Milwaukee.

I've thought about this building bridges and about my visit here a lot over the last few weeks. You've been on my mind as I read and watched the reports of the tragic events in Los Angeles, and I thought what in the world can I say to you – America's best and brightest – about your future and your nation's future in the wake of that tidal wave of resentment, fury and violence. Well, if I were your superb alumnus T. Michael Bolger, president of the Medical College of Wisconsin, I'd probably talk about the important link between lifestyle and productive lives. Or if I were alumnus Robert Byrd, member of the 1977 NCAA Championship Team, and mentor and friend and role model to thousands of children, you'd hear about keeping your eyes on the prize and honoring commitments. And if I were Dr. Richard J. Ludwig, winner of your 1989 Community Service Award, who left a lucrative dental practice in Racine to help the Sisters of Charity provide health services in impoverished Haiti, I'd talk to you about building your own success and reaching back to help others build theirs.

These are vital messages. But you invited the mother of five and grandmother of twelve here today. So as people join together to rebuild their shattered communities, I want to talk to you about the one thing I know can sustain them and make those communities even stronger. I want to talk to you about family. And I mean your own family – parents, siblings and children.

And, the larger family we share – our communities and society as a whole. Life can be rough. And we all cope with it in our own way. A lady who had raised eleven kids was once asked, knowing all she knew, what was the one piece of advice she could give new parents. And she thought and she said, “If your child wants to lick the beater on the mixer, shut off the motor before you give it to him.” So I'm under no illusions about the nature of family life. You've got to have a sense of humor because it's hard work. It's aggravation. And right now most of you are probably as interested in family matters as those two guys in “Wayne's World.”

Yet, I believe your true happiness in life will be determined by the fulfillment you receive from those who need your love. For those who need your love, it is crucial that you put success at home first. Listen to these statistics. I know, we all hate statistics. I feel exactly the same way as Mrs. Robert Taft who said the only one she could remember was that if all the people who fell asleep in church were laid end to end, they'd be a lot more comfortable.

Fortune Magazine ran a piece a couple of years ago called “Why Grade A Execs Get an F as Parents.” The article was about a survey of large corporations, which found that 36% of the children of executives undergo outpatient treatment of psychiatric problems or drug abuse versus only 15% of the children of non-executives. If you have a child, you must make a commitment to that child as if your job performance review depended on it.

There's a very popular little book out called The One-Minute Manager. Well, there's no such thing as a “one-minute parent.” There are no short cuts. For many of you mothers and fathers, there will be hard choices. You're going to be busy. You're going to be tired. You're going to be torn in different directions, but your children must come first in your lives. You must make that same commitment to your own children.

Our families taught us respect for ourselves and others. How to love and be loved. How to accept responsibility, and how to feel joy and bear pain. This sense of family carried over into the community where we shared our lives with friends and neighbors and even strangers, helping and accepting help. Well, along the way we've lost some of that. Today life is faster, more complex and certainly more dangerous. In a tragic irony just a few months ago, Tom Bradley and other big city mayors told George that at the root of so many problems in our cities was the breakdown of the family.

Now consider this: fifty years ago – this is my crowd over here, they'll remember. But fifty years ago in a California school system, the top seven problems were talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the hall, cutting in line, dress code violations and littering. By the 1980s, in the same school system, the top seven problems were drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, r*pe, robbery and assault.

Ironically, it was also in Los Angeles seven weeks ago that I met a young man who provided hope in the face of these hopeless statistics. It was there I met and heard Romulus Johnson – one of the most articulate, amusing and inspiring young people I'd ever met – deliver perhaps the most important message of all.

Romulus is a freshman at Lewis and Clark College; and what he had to overcome to get there. When he was three, his half brother shot and killed his mother. His alcoholic father moved what was left of the family so often that Romulus attended seven elementary schools and lived in more homes than he could recall. Including the back seat of a car and a trailer that had no electricity or running water. All of life seemed to be stacked against him.

Romulus said he couldn't give us the magic formula that saved us. But he told us three things he learned along the way. No matter how tough the situation he found himself in, he learned that this, too, will pass. Romulus had also learned to trust himself. But most difficult, and according to this remarkable young man, most important, he learned to trust others. Other people had become family for Romulus. Teachers and mentors and friends along every step of the way. But what if no one had been there to inspire and return his trust? What if no one had been there as he reached out to create his new family? That really will be your life's challenge. To be there for those who need you whether it's people you know best or the people you don't know at all.

You'll have to reach out, but never very far, because there are people like Romulus everywhere.

Just ask the people in Los Angeles who put aside their own anger and frustration to fight fires and save their neighbors' shops and homes. And ask the business owner in Houston who broke his own rule and didn't fire the illiterate worker who cheated on the job application, but instead helped the man learn to read. Talk to the businesswomen in Dallas who spend lunch hours tutoring at the local elementary school. Or in Palm Beach, Florida – ask the volunteers at the home for abused and AIDS-infected babies who change diapers, make lunch and hold those children close to them. Or ask a blind man I saw in Boston, patiently teaching two little boys to read. Ask them how they found each other. These are ordinary people being part of our larger family. And this feeling of family, this ability to care about and for those who need us most, is in each of you.

Remember, at the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a spouse, a child, a parent or a friend.

George Bush says – now you didn't think I was going to come all the way out here and not mention the finest, most decent man in the country, did you? George Bush says that any definition of success in America must include service to others. And that's the successful life I wish for each and every one of you.

Thank you again for letting me be part of this wonderful day. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.


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