"Dreams from My Grandfather" Commencement Address

Commencement address given by Rev. Charles Brock on May 15, 2010:

Thank you Chancellor Burke for your introduction. Jack and Candy, heartfelt thanks to you and all that you have meant to us for these 29 years at Penn State Behrend. Your creative ways have been life-giving to this place and your smooth handling of business and love for the college have put us all in good heart –students and faculties. So thanks for all you have done and happy retirement to you and Candy. Thanks too for the jokes. He could have been a comedian. Now for one on him – he almost didn’t get the job. With all the alcohol problems colleges have, we don’t want administrators promoting it. His middle name had to go – Jack Daniel Burke. So it went.

Hello Graduates! You made it! Congratulations! You are commencing a new life, and you will be starting to live and recast your dreams as you go into the – as we used to say in economics – the cruel nonlinear world. Some aren't entering that world easily with the job market as it is, and that isn't your fault. Times are tough and broken dreams are the rule now for many. The big economic world can be very nasty out there and let’s not be in denial about it. Predator corporations and some banksters ripped us off and there is a new song about this: ‘We’re going to bet against the American Dream, we’re going to be on the winning team - Purchase risky debt on a massive scale, then place a bet that the debt will fail. Hundreds of millions for executive bars, the economy collapsing like a dying star.’ (Bet Against the American Dream)

But there is no need to abandon hopes all ye who enter here. Recessions – they come and they go. Not many of you want to do a Goldman-Sachs on us. Sure, we are in it for #1 but most want to make the American Dream a reality for others as well.

Historically those who value the American Dream the most are the immigrants, refugees, and migrants who work very hard. This college is named after a German immigrant and most of you had grandparents or great grandparents who came or were forced to come to this country to start something new, and what a fine kaleidoscope that has made Erie and Pennsylvania life. You gotta love those Polish pierogies with Italian pasta and black beans and Greek sauce with a little bit of sauerkraut all wrapped up in a Mexican tortilla. My great-grandfather was an Austrian immigrant who found Erie a tough place, but his son my grandfather got lucky and worked hard and lo and behold – he created Zurn Industries. He was one of the four businessmen who approached Mary Behrend with the idea to turn her farm into a college, and there we are. That place is now a way to find dreams realized for many thousands.

So what is the dream for you? Here is where the fun begins, and the more I look at this central concept for America that has to a large extent made us the nation we are, the more I find variability and dissension. Let me make it as simple and clear as I can. We have two major conceptions of what America is for – 1) for individual self-fulfillment and 2) for communal self-realization. Yes there are both sides in all of us and it is hard to find a pure libertarian or a total communitarian as such, although you can spot where the emphasis lies by just having a short conversation with another person if you know what you are looking for.

Let me simplify even further – what might a pure self-fulfillment person look like? They would say life is made for them – so is college, families, businesses, and nation. It is for me! And the pure communalist? They would claim that they are only put on earth to serve others so that the whole society might flourish economically, politically, and spiritually. It is for you! I suspect there are no such persons on the planet – because we always are a mixture of both. But I'm sure that you have already asked yourself: where is the emphasis in your life?

Many years ago two presidents that exemplify both motifs passed through Erie Area. Both were ambitious, and knew how to work hard. George Washington was sent to Ft Le Boeuf (now Waterford) at the young age of 21 to tell the French to go no further into the woods. He was actually given a warm welcome by the leader of the French group at Ft LeBoeuf - Sieur Legardeur de Saint Pierre de Repentigny - and they even filled up his canoe with food and good French wine to accompany him back to Virginia. Thanks heavens Welch Grape Juice wasn't invented yet. But when George pressed them for their decision on whether they would leave, he replied firmly, 'Oui, cher Monsieur W - très bien​ s'il vous plaît, regardez-vous mon ami - NON!' No new immigrants here s'il vous plaît​. Get out of our woods.

That started the so-called French and Indian war, and most of the Native Americans joined with the French because they were fur traders, whereas the Brits wanted to grab Indian land and did so without reparations or even conscience. Washington later went on to become the hero of the Revolutionary War, paradoxically with help from the French at Yorktown. He is now the father of his country, and considered the Marquis de Lafayette his adopted son. His dream for America was for a non-hierarchical way of life but he didn't take it out personally on his English forefathers leaving his Bible to an English lord though his pistols went to Lafayette. He even freed his slaves. And the Native Americans? They said – "When the English came they had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and they have the land.‟

Abraham Lincoln passed through this area by rail when he was on his way to the inauguration and the train was draped in flags and bunting - he had lunch at Union Station - and then on to Westfield NY where he wanted to meet Grace Bedel, a 9 year old who wrote to him during the campaign and told him that if he grew a beard he would have a better chance of winning. He later did just that, and when he met her at the station he swept her up in his arms and planted some beardy kisses. He would be run out of town for that today. Tragically 4 years later his funeral cortège came through Erie and Westfield draped in black and not bunting. He was ambitions – memorizing the Bible, Shakespeare, and studied law by candlelight. And that log cabin wasn't a myth – it was real live poverty – but he had a fine step-mother who believed in him and kept encouraging him. I'm not sure his father ever did.

His biggest reason for fighting the Civil War was the American Dream. He always hated slavery, but the main reason for the quarrel with the South was that blacks were not allowed that Dream as whites were – and Lincoln said that was all terribly wrong. Each person should start with a level playing field in life – and he had that notion of equality right out of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence – and you couldn't live that equality or that dream as a slave.

Nor can you do that today without an education as Harvard lecturer in rhetoric and later president John Adams said and printer Benjamin Franklin agreed as he founded the University of Pennsylvania. We are fortunate that Lincoln had the vision of the land-grant colleges, and not just because agriculture was the main study which was crucial for the nation, but he wanted competition with the Ivy League originally created for the sons of the rich who also thought practical education unnecessary. It was Lincoln who signed our Penn State Charter. He wanted the American Dream for farm boys and girls, refugees and immigrants and slaves who needed help to get on. He wanted a level playing field for all. And that has paid off - for you, for me, for America! And we want and need that to continue here and all over the land – education for the poor as well as the rich.

So our two greatest revolutionary Americans had that balance of individual ambition and love of the community and they pushed hard radical and sometimes unpopular equality programs. What a difference their spirit made, and not only for us but for all the world. People like them are our finest exports. We have to change our prevailing ideology of business and to bring this back and I was delighted to find that two Harvard Business School professors have stated that excess executive pay is destroying our sense of community and causing injustices. I quote – ‘the prevailing paradigm regards managers as relentless, self-interested free agents ready to ... sacrifice long-term for immediate gain. That view has largely displaced earlier views of managers as professionals with obligations to various “stakeholders” and to the broader society.’1

At Penn State we strive to create balanced and humane people, not preparing people only for jobs but we want realistic and tender people with ideals, not self-centered narrow opportunists. Is it strange to ask you today to be new models of Washington & Lincoln and to have a spacious view of your job and role in society? I don't think so. And you can do it. We want you to realize your individual dreams but also have that wider vision that we try to promote in this college and in all good academic institutions, and churches, and civic institutions.

So that is what we want – for you to be a person who makes sense for yourself, for your family, but for all of us too. Live that huge dream for yourself, but also attend to your town, and the whole wide world! That wide world needs you to care for it, and needs you to do it now.

Graduating today is a relative of mine who is a great-great-great granddaughter of Austrian immigrants, and they would be full of pride that she is living their dream too. It goes without saying but I want to say it loud and clear to you all – that today your immigrant or your slave ancestors would be proud of you too.

Two of our greatest literary figures help sum all this up: Walt Whitman: ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find’ & Henry David Thoreau: ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams – live the life you’ve imagined.’ Congratulations!

1 Lorsch and Khurana Harvard Magazine April 2010 p 35