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1996 Commencement Speech: Tommy Thompson, Governor of Wisconsin

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

Father Diulio, distinguished faculty and staff, honored guests, parents, friends and class of 1996.

What an appropriate place to hold a graduation ceremony….

The floor of the Bradley Center ….the national championship banners hanging from above….the retired numbers of Marquette’s greatest players…..

Dean Memminger, Butch Lee, Bo Ellis, and my favorite, George Thompson……all symbols of a successful university. A university with proud alumni, who have left this institution to achieve greatness.

People such as James Keyes, chairman of Johnson Controls … Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annanberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania … William Burleigh, Chairman of Scripps Howard newspapers … John Neumeier, Director of the Hamburg Ballet in Germany … Bob Harlan, President of the Green Bay Packers … And Edward Brennan, former Chairman of Sears Roebuck, who is with us today.

Without a doubt, you are part of a bold, rich and grand tradition at Marquette University. A tradition of excellence and humanity.

And although I’m a University of Wisconsin graduate, I am well aware of a renowned Marquette graduation tradition….. Sneaking out of the ceremony to hit a few bars while the speakers are on stage, then sneaking back in when it’s time to hand out the degrees.

Well, I just want to warn you. I thought ahead. And came prepared.

My speech is being carried live via satellite on big screen TVs that I had set up at the ‘Lanche, Heggarty’s, Major Goolsby’s and Legends… I wouldn’t want you to miss anything.

As I sought advice on an appropriate topic for this presentation from my friends and colleagues, I had anticipated receiving suggestions that I should be witty and profound … That I should lift you out of your seats and exhort you to future greatness.

Unfortunately, the only consistent piece of advice I received was that I should be brief … As most commencement speakers are remembered not for what they had to say, but for how long they took to say it.

So if you do sneak out – order a tap, not a pitcher.

We live in a world overflowing with opportunity. But it is not a world without challenges, complexities and obstacles. I have always found that the best way to deal with life’s complexities is to keep it simple.

If you choose to take the road less traveled, as Robert Frost suggests, let common sense be your guide.

The basic tenets of life that we learn as a child are the same tenets that guide us as adults… the knowledge and maturity we gain in college, and throughout adult life, help us to more wisely apply these lessons and lead a happy, successful life. Author Robert Fulghum makes a similar observation in his best-selling book, “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” in which he challenges us to remember the simple lessons learned in early childhood as we deal with the challenges that face us as adults.

Lessons such as: share everything, play fair,
don’t hit people,
put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

And finally, remember the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – look!

Now I admit there’s a certain irony in telling a group of college graduates – who have spent nearly 20 years of their life in school – that everything they really needed to know was taught in the very first year.

But as Fulghum explains, you can take any one of those lessons, extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms, and apply it to your family life…your work…your government…or your world….and it holds clear and firm.

It is in that same vain that I would like to share with you some of my own simple advice for dealing with life’s challenges – advice that has always served me well.

The first comes from my father, who told me: “Tommy, you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion and you’ll do just fine.”

It is probably the most profound piece of advice I have ever received….advice rooted in good ol’ Elroy common sense.

Listen to people. Be open to their ideas. Their opinions. Their concerns and their fears.

By doing so, you learn so much about yourself….about people…about the world around you.

And more importantly, you learn to respect yourself and others.

Before I ever open my mouth on a major issue, I first sit down and listen to the hopes and fears of those affected…..and I let that be my guide.

Second, be bold.

Kindergartners operate on a simple principle – if they can think it; they can do it.

There’s no tree too tall to climb.

No dream too big to pursue.

No idea too silly to try.

Nothing is more bold than a child’s imagination.

As we grow into adults, it’s easy for us to let our curiosity and wonder fade – and our boldness with it. It becomes easier to choose a safe harbor rather than set sail across a rough sea.

But you simply cannot succeed in life – and truly be happy – without being bold. Without taking risks. Your Campus Circle project is a great example.

Marquette set forth a bold vision for a vibrant new campus. And in doing so, you reached out to your neighbors….formed partnerships….tackled tough challenges.

As a result, you are not only building a stronger Marquette campus, you are rejuvenating an entire neighborhood. Marquette, the surrounding community and the city of Milwaukee are all better off today because this university was bold enough to pursue a dream.

Continue to be bold…..and don’t stop until you complete the circle.

Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of pursuing what you know to be a great idea.

That brings me to the next tip: your greatest loss can be your greatest victory.

Being bold means being willing to fail.

No matter how hard you try…..no matter how good your intentions….no matter how skilled you are….each and every one of you is going to fail somewhere along the line.

And when you do. Get back up and work harder.

The key to victory is most often found in defeat.

Many of you may not know this, but many years ago, as a young state representative, I ran for Congress. I ran hard and I knew I could win.

But I didn’t…I lost to Congressman Tom Petri. It’s the only race I’ve ever lost.

But I learned from that defeat, re-evaluated my priorities and worked even harder at serving the people of Wisconsin. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I had not lost that race, I would not be standing before you today as Governor of this great state.

So never be afraid to fail. And always find a way to turn your most difficult defeat into your most startling success.

Give more than you take.

In everything you do – at work, at home, in your community – make sure you contribute more than you receive. Always strive to leave things better than you found them.

Remember your university’s motto, those two Latin words on the banners along Wisconsin Avenue: Cura Personalis, the Jesuit theme for providing care to others.

There are no better examples of this motto than two of your fellow graduates and a longtime friend of this university.

Sara McGinnis earned the 1996 Ignatian leadership award for making community service an important part of her life. Sara served the needy through the midnight run meal program, volunteered at the Highland Community School, delivered care at Casa Maria, and served people with mental and physical disabilities at the Grand Avenue Club in Milwaukee. All while working toward degrees in Psychology and Theology.

Sara is proof that there is always time for others – no matter how busy you think you are.

Then there’s Michael Lamahieu, an English and Spanish major from Oostburg.

Michael is graduating summa cum laude today, with a long track record of volunteerism. He provided meals to homeless families, assisted in special education at the Curative Rehabilitation Center, worked in the poorly developed areas of the inner city through the Marquette Hunger Cleanup campaign, and he tutored freshmen.

But no one sets a better example of a lifetime commitment to service than Marquette’s very own William Geisheker. At 85 years old, Bill is still giving back to his beloved Marquette.

Known to students as Mr. G, he has spent the past 30 years climbing the 23 steel stairs to the loft of Marquette Hall’s tower to play his beloved carillon.

Mr. G has dedicated a great part of his life to making the Marquette campus a special place for students and faculty. Bill and Sara and Michael each got involved. And they are leaving their school and their community in better stead than they found it.

Be optimistic as you go out in the world.

Although this advice makes common sense, following it can be a challenge in today’s cynical world.

We have too many people in this world who always find the negative in any situation – and unfortunately, they’re often the same people who get the headlines.

Suppose, for example, Father DiUlio were walking downtown and he decided to bypass traffic by walking on the water across part of Lake Michigan.

If a Jesuit priest saw Father DiUlio doing this, he would fold his hands, bow his head and proclaim: “It’s a miracle!” And if a student jogging along the lake were to see him, she wouldn’t even break stride as she thought to herself: “That Father DiUlio is really special.”

But if a reporter for the Journal Sentinel caught the scene, the headline the next day would read: “Father DiUlio can’t swim!”

Everywhere you turn, there will be someone saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that.

Ignore them.

Each of you has wonderful talents and a first-class education – put them to work in a positive manner.

Find the good in every situation and emphasize it…don’t let the cynics deter you from your dreams.

There’s a saying: “If seeing is believing, then cynics won’t even take a look.”

But always remember that basic lesson from kindergarten – “look!”

Have faith
this is a must, especially in such a cynical world.

Your years studying under the Jesuits here at Marquette have surely helped you develop a deep faith – in God and in yourself.

Believe me, when times are bad and they can’t get any worse, you may feel as though the entire world has abandoned you.

It is in those times….those times of loneliness and discouragement….that you will need a strong faith – faith in God and

Jesus….faith in yourself.

The two go hand in hand…..and as long as you have a strong faith, you’ll never meet a challenge you can’t face and you’ll never be alone.

Cherish your family.

When all is said and done, the part of your life that will always matter most is your family.

As a child, your entire life centers around family….your Mom….Dad….Brothers and Sisters….Grandparents…

As an adult, you must continue to keep family at the forefront of your life.

Of all that I have accomplished and achieved, there is nothing I cherish more than my family.

There has never been a speech I have struggled with more than the one I am delivering today.

As I’ve told my staff for some time now, of all the speeches I have given – the State of the State addresses; the National Press Club lectures; the convention speeches – this is by far the most important.

For today, I am speaking not as a Governor, I am speaking as a proud father who is watching his daughter graduate from law school and set out in pursuit of her own dreams.

There’s nothing that matters more to me – or makes me more proud – than my daughter Kelli, her sister, and her brother, who is graduating today as well from the University of Wisconsin.

Without a doubt, my most brilliant accomplishment won’t be nearly as thrilling to me as the first time I see my daughter successfully defend someone who is not guilty.

The same will hold true for you.

For down the road – and it will come sooner than you think – you will be sitting in those seats proudly watching your children cross this stage.

As you go through life don’t ever forget where you came from, and don’t ever forget that family is what really matters in life. Take a moment now, and join me in thanking your family for their support….their encouragement….and their love.

As one of a thousand proud parents in this arena today, I want you to know that we will always be there for you. Don’t ever be so proud as to think you can’t turn to your parents when you need help.

We send you off today armed with the knowledge you have gained during your education at Marquette University, the support of a loving family, and the hope that you achieve your every dream.

In closing, I would like to share one final piece of advice. It’s one more lesson from kindergarten as recalled by Robert Fulghum, with a small twist by Tommy Thompson.

When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic; hold hands; and stick together.

But be bold! Look! And never be afraid to cross that street.


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