Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., '64: Commencement address 2003
Thank you, General Grinalds. Senator Hollings, General Grimsley, General Watts, distinguished honorary degree recipients, Chairman Jenkinson, members of the Board of Visitors, your Commandant of Cadets, General Emory Mace (my former Company Commander of the Foxtrot Company), members of the faculty, proud parents and relatives and friends of the Class of 2003, and most important, you young men and women, who soon after my speech is over will become Citadel graduates, and ladies and gentlemen.
As Mayor of the City of Charleston and most especially as a Citadel graduate, I am greatly honored to have the opportunity to address you on this most special and memorable day in your lives. I remember so vividly this moment for me 39 years ago. I remember General Mark Clark handing me my diploma, later tossing my hat high in the air and then going over to my dear parents and seeing my mother, a beautiful and very reserved lady of solid German stock, with tears flowing down her face. I saw her cry only a couple of times in my life. She was just so happy and proud and fully understood the bittersweet significance of this life-changing event with my classmates and I soon going off in many different directions to a myriad of challenges and opportunities. To the mothers and fathers here, I understand. Hearty congratulations to you.
To the graduates, I know that this address, your commencement address, might normally be given by someone more famous than the Mayor of the City in which you have lived for four years. You were so gracious to give me this opportunity, for which I am very thankful. But since it may be reasonable that many years from now you might not remember the name of the person who spoke to you today, I feel an extra challenge to leave you with heartfelt thoughts that will serve you and frame this occasion in your minds. This speech, I promise, will be brief; the graduation ceremony belongs to the graduates and not the speaker.
Suck that gut up! Grind that chin in! You call those shoes shined? What did you use, sandpaper? Your brass looks pitiful, was there some kind of scratching contest? Is this a lint factory in your gun barrel? That bed is not made up. It looks like an elephant slept in it! Hold your rifle straight. You have ruined every parade for our company. You think you are going out this weekend with a room looking like that? Hit the floor – more pushups.
A year or more later: Cadet, your knobs look pitiful. Who’s in charge here? Your platoon looks ragtag. What a sloppy looking company in parade. Cadet, your grades seem to be slipping a little bit. Trying out for the Summerall Guards is no excuse for this paper you handed in.
Shined shoes, polished brass, shirt tucks, chins in, cadets under your control, making sure they are marching well, eating well, studying well, your grades intact, athletic teams, cadet leadership, Summerall Guards, tests, exams, being on time and having your cadets on time, the Honor Code, so many responsibilities at one time.
What in the world did all of that have to do with the meaning of success and happiness for the rest of your life? Everything.
You have learned, perhaps unknowingly, and mastered a discipline at a very young age that many never learn in a lifetime. It is the essential skill of attending to and being responsible for many things at the same time. And that is life in its wonderful complexity – to handle it well you must do just that. Whether a soldier, physician, mayor, congressman, senator, business executive, teacher, preacher, husband, wife, dad, mom, you cannot succeed or fulfill your dreams without the ability to be responsible for many separate, important responsibilities at the same time and to do it with equilibrium and peace of mind. Courage has been described as grace under pressure. At The Citadel you had to exhibit that every day. And you have thus been given a very valuable key to the door of success and fulfillment in life.
And what will you do with it? This golden key to success – what must you do with this very precious treasure that is your Citadel training?
The answer is, you must serve.
Let me tell you a story.
One morning a somewhat elderly and prominent lawyer came by my office at City Hall just to chat. He was still actively engaged in his profession and he was just about to die. I didn’t know he was about to die. He didn’t either. He was in apparent good health but moments after he left my office, while sitting in his office just down the street, he collapsed, and soon was dead. What did he want to talk to me about in what was the last conversation of his life? He wanted to talk philosophically about service. He said, “You know, Joe, there are two kinds of people. Givers and takers.” And then, because he was disappointed about someone in our community who had great potential to be a giver and sadly who was not, he talked about this person’s missed opportunity to be a giver and serve his community. But then his conversation became much more positive and he went on for quite sometime about his experiences in giving and helping people and serving and that in essence that was what life well lived was all about. It was such an uplifting discussion of the value and joy of service. Then he left my office and I never saw him again.
I have often wondered if his spirit knew that his life was about to end and there was a need to report to someone about what is really important in life, the worth and value of service.
Alexis deTocqueville, the French philosopher came to America shortly after our Revolution to study how our, the American, experiment in human freedom would work. What would happen he wondered when the human spirit was freed. Free to own and build, free to become resourceful and rich, what would happen? He discovered something amazing, that newly freed people with their successes and riches, rather than selfishly hoarding their resources, would observe a community problem, a group of citizens would come together, form a committee, seek to devise a solution, voluntarily give of their time and resources to address it. This wonderful American ethic of community service is played out in my community and in communities throughout our country every day. It is what has differentiated America, it is what marks and shapes communities. Whether it is mentoring our children, caring for our homeless, leading United Ways, rebuilding after disasters, creating great arts festivals, building Habitat houses, the Scouts, Little League, the list is endless. But I assure you that from my vantage point, there is nothing more powerful or more important to the success of our country, or our community than citizen service. And I am not talking about prominently and publicly observed service necessarily. The other day I saw a retired business executive quietly enter an inner-city school for his weekly reading and tutoring of a third grader. He mentioned to me that in a few short months, this third grader’s reading level had increased by three grades. Then he left this inner-city school and returned to his suburban home.
But what does this service ethic have to do with The Citadel? Everything. The brass, the plaque that I passed in the sally port in Padgett Thomas Barracks everyday with the wonderful words of Robert E. Lee, “Duty, then is the sublimest word the English language.” For duty is service and service is duty. You learn that here and perhaps unknowingly as well. This ethic of service stems from basic fairness – human fairness. The Citadel is profoundly about just that. You start off the same way – the same uniform, the same haircut, the same room, same clothes, food, duties and at times the same hell. It is fairly administered and it is equal and so your instinct is thus shaped in fairness. And service is fairness in action, the basic sharing of life. A month ago, 8:00 sharp on a Saturday morning, I attended an event for Youth Service Charleston, a program created to give young people the ability to understand the value of and participate in community service. I was there at this early hour on Saturday with the founder of this program in Charleston, former Citadel President James A. Grimsley, Jr., Citadel Class of ’42, now in his 81st year. Among other things, General Grimsley is the quintessential community leader and servant. What comes after G? H, and the Class of 1942, Hollings, Ernest F., 50 years public service to our nation and country. Fifty years that could have accumulated great wealth with his ability, has been given in extraordinary service to the public. The examples of service of Citadel graduates abound. You can go down the roster in every class. Looking at my class, I was in Tennessee six weeks ago. The head of the School of Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was telling me she needed a leader in Knoxville to make something happen and who did she go to but Bill Sansom, my Regimental Commander. My roommate is the go-to guy in Beaufort. Bill Robinson, head of the United Way, Boys and Girls Club. You name it, he has done it. He serves and you will too. And in doing so your life will become richer, as these wonderful words remind us:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy,
I awoke and found that life was duty,
I acted and behold duty was joy.
That in essence was the message the unknowing dying man gave me in my office.
In the end it is not what we have gotten, it is what we have given, it is how well we have served.
Here at The Citadel at such a young age, you are taught how to lead, how to balance life and how to serve. Today, we send you off with your treasured Citadel Diploma to a life of achievement and success that I know is within your grasp. I know that because I know how you were trained. But even more I challenge you to leave here to a life of unending service, a life that will enrich you and all you touch. And that challenge, the challenge to service is one I know you will accept. You ask, how do I know? I know because you wear the Ring.