Delivered at the annual state government luncheon on April 21, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio
Mark Weinberg asked me to speak at lunch today—yes, you have him to blame…and I was more than happy to do so, because I am a fan of Mark’s and a fan of the great work that the Voinovich School does for the people of this state (and the Appalachian region). He is truly our unsung hero. None of this great work would happen without him. Period. Ronald Reagan had a sign on his desk, I’ve been told, that said, “There is no end to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” Words that Mark Weinberg lives by. So let’s show him how much we appreciate what he does each and every day.
You didn’t think I would quote Ronald Reagan, did you? Didn’t see that one coming…
President McDavis…whose first words to me were, “I want to own economic development in southeastern Ohio”…and he has lived up to those words…the impact that Ohio University has on the SE Ohio region has never been a side matter for him, it has always been at the core of his vision and mission. And the health care and the economy and the entrepreneurs and the children of the region have been the beneficiaries of his efforts.
“The act speaks for itself”…there is a Latin phrase for this, but I don’t know it…the fact that we are assembled here today…the 26th annual luncheon of a group of people who have chosen to dedicate themselves in some way to a career in public service…all graduates of Ohio University…this is an act that speaks for itself.
Because the State Government Alumni group is a truly extraordinary group…a group that is a unique asset for the university, a source of power and influence…but much more important than that, it is a reflection of…it exemplifies those things that make Ohio University special.
So this is what I want to talk about. Why this group? And why is it such a natural outgrowth of our alma mater, Ohio University? Here’s my premise—all of you are an integral part of the Bobcat brand. You help define in everything you do what it means to be a Bobcat.
First, graduates of Ohio University are leaders. Leadership is in our DNA. It's in our blood. It's part of our culture. We study it. We embrace it. We live it. Our alumni hold way more than our fair share of the nation's seats of influence and power.
CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Bobcats. The host of the "Today Show." A Bobcat. The manager of world series champions. A Bobcat. The CEO of Fox News. A Bobcat. The chief of staff to the Governor. All of you…or most of you…Bobcats. We're everywhere. Like locusts. Or maybe rabbits. I'll spare you the whole list, but suffice it to say that there isn't a soul on Earth with whom a graduate of Ohio University can't compete.
Now I have a theory about Ohio University's extraordinary tradition of producing the nation's leaders. It has been said that we Bobcats have a little wild streak in us. I sense President McDavis wanting to ask, "Little? What do you mean, little?" Rest assured: there is nothing new about this wild streak. It's been a part of the culture of this place for as long as I can remember. Look, we Bobcats are not natural bureaucrats. We choose the road less taken. We take risks. We blaze trails. We don't automatically respect authority in all its forms. We possess the capacity for independent thought. And yes, we know how to have a good time.
This is the raw material from which leaders are made (and poets are made and entrepreneurs are made). It's our competitive edge. So get out the Maalox, this is who we are. And it is for the best.
Here's the second big thing that makes us special: graduates of Ohio University have what is called high emotional intelligence. We are well grounded. We are not arrogant. We are not selfish. We are not spoiled: we are the children of people who have worked hard and played by the rules to make this day possible.
And so, we play well with others. We know how to laugh. We are willing to work and do whatever it takes to get the job done. And when we get knocked down, we get right back up again.
Why does this matter? It's simple, really: great things are never achieved by cynics. To do justice, to lead, to stand in favor of an unpopular idea requires unrelenting optimism and superhuman energy. Yes, doing justice involves matters of political philosophy that learned men and women have debated for eons. But justice is also about attitude. You see, it's not enough to know what is right. You must do what is right. You must have the courage of your convictions. Justice is about attitude. And we Bobcats have got attitude to burn.
The sworn enemy of justice is cynicism. All too often, cynicism and high levels of education seem to go hand in hand. No doubt this is what Gandhi was thinking when he said that the greatest disappointment of his life was the hardheartedness of educated people. There may be hardhearted graduates of other institutions; but not here. No way. No how.
The third distinguishing feature is this: graduates of Ohio University cannot help but be shaped and changed by the rich sense of place and history that comes with attending this campus nestled in the Appalachian foothills.
Few can miss the sheer physical beauty here, but you have to look and listen a little more carefully to appreciate the extraordinary contributions of the people who have lived here. Just down the road from Lake Hope, there's an old iron furnace--one of dozens like it scattered throughout southeastern Ohio. And while it's hard to imagine today, there was a time about 150 years ago when there were no trees as far as the eye could see. They had all been chopped down to fuel these furnaces. The iron forged here gave the North the raw material it needed to win the Civil War. The nation was saved. The nation prospered. But this region was left behind
Then it was coal's turn. Next time you drive through Nelsonville, know that that train station once shipped more coal than any other in the entire United States. And if you come back some winter, drive over to Route 13 and check out the part of the road where the snow never sticks. Fires set over a century ago by miners who were tired of the abuse still burn underground. The people who lived and worked and died in these hills fueled the industrial age. The nation prospered; great wealth was created, mansions were built in New York and Chicago and Pittsburgh; but this region was left behind again..
I think it’s hard to go to spend four, five…even six…years in Athens and not take a little of southeastern Ohio with you. It’s hard not to take the sense of natural beauty with you. To take the sense of history with you. To take the realization with you that there are good people out there for whom the American dream is just that--still a dream. I think these lessons shape us in important and lasting ways…and cause us, in ways we may not even fully comprehend, to wind up at a luncheon like this one.
There is a fourth defining characteristic of Ohio University -- and that is our unique tradition of tolerance, civility, openness, and the pursuit of justice.
Mem Aud is named for John Newton Templeton -- the first African American graduate of Ohio University and only the fourth black graduate of any college in America. Booker T. Washington was married in Athens, to a graduate of the Enterprise Academy, the nation's first black-owned institution of higher learning -- once located just to the south of here. The Athens Messenger adopted an anti-slavery stance when it took courage to do so, well in advance of the Civil War. Today, African American graduates of Ohio University like Clarence Page and Leon Harris are among the most accomplished and respected people in this country.
And I remember when I was eight years old, watching President Lyndon Johnson drive down Richland Avenue on his way to Memorial Auditorium, where he addressed the college and the nation and first called for the Great Society.
I mention these things because for me, Ohio University has always been a place where big ideas have mattered, where the major issues of the day get played out. Whether it was civil rights and racial justice, the War on Poverty, or popular discontent with the Vietnam War, our alma mater has always been at the center of the debate, never the periphery; a place where students, faculty and Presidents from Lindley, Irvine and Wilson to Alden, Ping, Glidden, and McDavis have pressed the envelope in favor of greater justice and economic opportunity.
Graduates of Ohio University cannot help but reflect this attribute of their alma mater in the conduct of their own lives. Can there be such a thing as a racist Ohio University graduate? Are there actually Ohio University graduates completely disengaged from the current events swirling around them? I can't imagine it. Not here. Not us.
Which leads us to the fifth and final distinguishing characteristic of an Ohio University graduate: we are driven to do things that are in the public service.
The words engraved on the campus gate tell us: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." This has been our charge, our mandate, since our founding; those words have and always shall shape our character.
What idea lies at the heart of religion and morality? I think it is an unwavering, unrelenting focus on others. To be dedicated to some person, some principle, and some ideal larger than self. Isn't that what Jesus was trying to tell us? Isn't that the essential message of the great religious teachers from every tradition?
That's why year after year Ohio University is among the nation's leaders in the share of graduates who sign up for the Peace Corps. That's who we are; that's how we're different.
And that’s why we gather for this 26th annual luncheon of state government alumni…
Viewed from this lens, the people in this room stand squarely in the best tradition of what it means to be a Bobcat.
We come together at a moment of great uncertainty and great challenge…for our state and our nation. It is a time when people are hitting the reset button, reexamining their lives, reexamining their priorities…and guess where they’re landing…where Ohio University has been all along.
They’re landing at a place where principled leadership matters, where community matters, where religion, morality, and knowledge matter, where the words inscribed on our Campus Gate matter once again.
And so I guess that during a period when becoming an investment banker seemed to be the highest goal of human existence, Ohio University wasn’t the flavor of the moment. But those days are gone. And a university like ours that instills a broader sense of purpose and justice in its graduates will flourish in this new day.
There was a former Speaker of the House, who once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn; it takes a carpenter to build one.”
There are plenty of jackasses out there…several of them may make their way to Capitol Square from time to time…but, they are, I guarantee you, graduates of other universities. The obligation of a Bobcat is to be a builder. It is the more difficult path. But it is the more meaningful path. It’s the Bobcat way.
David Wilhem is a 1977 graduate of Ohio University