What George H.W. Bush had to say to Cheltenham grads in 1989
President George H.W. Bush spoke to the Class of 1989 graduates of Cheltenham High School about public service and becoming known as a global We Generation that "rejects a new gilded age of mindless self-gratification."
The following is a transcript of remarks given by President George H.W. Bush at Cheltenham High School’s 1989 commencement ceremony on June 19, 1989.
Thank you for that introduction and that welcome to this wonderful school. And thank you all for that very generous reception. Mr Secretary. Dr Stefanski. Mr Roger. Mr Bell. Members of the board. Faculty and administrators. Parents. Grateful parents. Students. I am delighted to be here. And Jeffery, I can see they elected you president. You did a first class job there representing your class in that word of welcome. Thank you very much.
And I’m delighted we have so many distinguished guests. But I want to single out one, my friend of long standing. Congressman from this district Congressman Larry Coughlin, your own, who came here with us tonight from Washington. Larry - delighted he’s here.
Last night under the able leadership, you might say, of John Denver at the White House we had a program, goes on four times a year and this is called in performance at the White House where they had some real musical talent and you'll see what we saw last night in live, you'll see it I think on July 5th on P.B.S. But I think they can all take a lesson from the vocal ensemble over here, who did a - oh, they're gone. They were great.
So I’m here from Washington, a privilege to be at the magnificent success that is Cheltenham High School. And to say, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that reports of your reputation have not been greatly exaggerated. You know, as Marine One flies it's about one hundred twenty miles from Washington to Philadelphia. And on the way up here Secretary Cavasos, my friend and that ardent champion of American education, detailed for me your superb record of achievement, social services and music and the academics in the humanities. Now that I've seen you, a little bit of you, up close and personal, I can say that Mr Trimble is right. Cheltenham, you are beautiful. And I am enjoying my first visit here.
And I want you to enjoy today. And it's hot in here. And I promise I'll be relatively brief. After all you’ve worked and studied and struggled for four years and now comes the hard part, listening to a commencement address.
I'll never forget at Yale University, graduation speaker, a minister got up, my old college, and said, “And now I will give your commencement address.” He picked Yale. “Y is for youth.” Went on about twenty five minutes on youth. “A is for altruism.” Took about eighteen. “L is for loyalty.” Thirty seven minutes on loyalty. “And of course E for excellence.” Finished in seventeen minutes. So the whole thing. When he finished there was one person left praying. And he said, “Oh how lovely that you're praying. Were you giving thanks for my words?” He said, “No I'm just thanking God that you didn't speak at my high school graduation at Cheltenham High School.”
Let me assure you I do remember how it feels for it seems like, seems like only yesterday that I too was listening to a commencement speech at my graduation. Believe me I wish it were only yesterday but nevertheless. In school, I loved History and English. Major League Baseball. Not necessarily in that order. But most of all, I loved the possibilities and horizons of the rainbow called tomorrow. A rainbow that here at this magnificent school, you color blue and gold.
And today I'd like to talk about your possibilities as individuals and our horizons as a great nation. I do so believing that you can enrich the world, charitably and courageously, through your choices and your deeds and through a few things that I've learned that I would like to share with you. Things about America. Things about her people. And I've learned for instance that we are not black and white, rural and urban, the privileged and the poor. We are, we are as Dr Stefanksi said, we are Americans. And I have learned that any definition of a successful life insists that we help those for whom the American dream seems like an impossible dream.
And I’ve learned that for different generations this help may take different forms, for conditions vary. Challenges change. And yet what does not, must not change is our capacity, responsibility to assist society at large. Two centuries ago, for instance, our forefathers banded together to secure independence. Their challenge was to found the colonies and then push back the wilderness. And ninety years later, the challenge for many of your great great great grandfathers was to preserve the republic so that united we stood.
Timeless is this spirit of 1776. It embodies what President Eisenhower meant when he said, “We must be willing individually and as a nation to accept what sacrifices may be required of us.” As Americans, we’ve made those sacrifices eagerly, selflessly, for over 200 years. Think of Bunker Hill, where we upheld the tenets of democracy or the Marshall Plan where we rebuilt postwar Europe. Or groups like the Peace Corps or the Salvation Army or UNICEF.
You know a student told me a while ago that high school is a great place to learn about personal risk-taking. I asked him, “How do you figure?” And he said, “Have you ever tasted cafeteria food?”
Well, friends I ask you today to take a risk for a cause larger than ourselves. It's the cause of Clara Barton and the Red Cross; Raul Wallenberg who helped refugees escape oppression; Mary McLeod Bethune, who made higher learning a bequest. It’s the cause of helping others and thereby helping America. It’s the cause of democratic ideals abroad. This cause insists that we help, by word and by deed, the young people who demand such rights as assembly, religion, press, free speech — the rights our ancestors secured for us. And that we too often take for granted in this country.
Look to the Soviet Union where brave people press for religious, intellectual, and political liberty.
Look to Poland where solidarity's long struggle has borne fruit. In the results of free elections. The free election process in Poland makes me count my blessings for the free election process that we take for granted right here in the United States.
And yeah look to China where students have demanded freedom. A demand that will not and must not be stilled. Who will ever forget the picture of that young Chinese, solitary and vulnerable, facing down an entire column of tanks? That vivid, unforgettable image illustrates how precious is the freedom that underlies everything that we stand for.
We don't have to stand in front of tanks in America, thank God. But we do have to summon the same courage to confront the evil that exists in the world. We have to stand in front of the forces of cruelty and violence and confront the dark powers of poverty and despair. We have to summon the courage to face down the scourge of drugs that stops and harms our young people.
And fortunately we Americans have an advantage. We have a heritage of bravery, faith in God, of liberty and human dignity. And the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.
In recent weeks, at college commencement speeches, I’ve spoken of these values and called for the rights of peoples everywhere for free expression. Well those values also guide our challenge at home. Not merely to ensure free expression. For the most part that war has already been won. Rather to win this struggle not yet decided — the fight for justice, equality, and hope. To win that fight will require you, and you. And you and others enlisting in our crusade.
And it will demand the little noted deeds that make headlines not in the national magazines but in the local weekly. Deeds that once moved Lafayette in his early 20s when he led Washington's troops at Yorktown to write of America, “What most charms me is that all of us citizens are brethren.”
And we term these deeds “volunteerism” or “community service”, and they’re central to our fabric as a nation and as a people. And no, they aren’t as dramatic as the profiles in courage of Warsaw or the gulags or Tiananmen Square. But they reflect the same sense of sacrifice and of concern. Concern for country, decency, and our fellow man. This concern uplifts volunteerism’s groups and individuals. Groups like the Youth at Risk program, the Boy Scouts, and your United Way Youth Council Chapter. Individuals like, Aneca Cooper who assists a neighborhood nursing home. Or Keith Dampster translating materials into Korean for the American Cancer Society. Or two Jennifers — Hayes and Lowe who is serve at Moss Rehabilitation Center in Holy Redeemer Hospital.
And the thing is at Cheltenham that’s just a partial reading. The list is endless. Their deeds go on. And another thing, across America we need to expand this role of volunteers for they can come back nationally as you are doing locally. Issues like hunger and health care, drug abuse and homelessness. To achieve that aim, our administration recently created the Office of National Service. And this week we’re going to take another step. For by announcing our administration’s new Yes, or Yes to America initiative, “Youth Entering Service” we will refute those who speak of the Me Generation. Instead this program can build a cathedral of the spirit. And help youth become a global We Generation.
Let me tell you a story about that generation and its spirit. One day, a man stepped aboard a train. And as he did, his shoe slipped off and landed on the track. Unable to retrieve it, as the train was moving, the man calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track in the direction of the first one. And his fellow passengers were amazed. Smiling. Mahatma Gandhi explained his action. The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair that he can use.
Ghandi knew, as we must, that the We Generation rejects a new gilded age of mindless self-gratification. But only we, not me, only we can define a successful life. Both for the individual and the nation. Remember those beliefs and treasure them. And remember to, two signs which I'm told are posted right here in this gym — one that suggests that success is a journey not a destination. Often perilous, even cruel. The possessed of the challenges and values linking the students of this high school with the students of the world.
And the other side reads, “If a man never fails, it may be a cause he never tries.” My friends, some of you may try for president. I hope you do. Great. But whatever. Do something truly inspiring. Become a doctor, like your alumnus, Michael Brown. Become a teacher like Lou Shadon, retiring tomorrow after 32 years, committed to broadening the minds of thousands of young people. And artists like Edward Hergolroth who has painted my own house up in Kennebunkport. Or writers like Levinson and Link. Whatever you decide, whatever, you will act not for yourselves alone, but for a larger community, whether in Cheltenham or China.
And in that spirit, let me close with another story. A story about the most famous Pennsylvanian of them all, 202 years ago. Benjamin Franklin looked at the President's chair on the last day of the Constitutional Convention and addressing a friend, he made a concession. Often Franklin admitted he'd wondered during Philadelphia's long hot summer whether the sun painted on the chair was rising or setting. And at last he said he had the pleasure to know that it was a rising, not a setting sun.
For America, for this high school, for you as individuals, our sun is rising too. In the coming years, expand America’s possibilities. Enlarge her horizons as a people. Say yes to liberty and to the dignity of man. And as you do, remember that your inheritance is the future. Guard it. Cherish it and together let us shape tomorrow in the image of our dreams. Not merely for this generation, but for the generations to come. Good luck to each and every one of you graduating here this evening. My most heartfelt congratulations. And God bless you and God bless your parents. And God bless this wonderful school. And God bless the United States of America.