Speaker DeLeo's Commencement Address Offers a Window into His Mind and Heart

Friday, May 25, 2012

On Sunday, May 19, Robert A. DeLeo, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, gave the commencement address at the Salem State University graduation in Salem, MA.  Like the man who delivered it, the speech was modest in its stance and wise in its objectives.  Less than a thousand words, it consumed about six minutes of the graduation ceremonies. After reading it the other day, I found myself wondering about the thought processes that determined its contents.  The thoughts I had then about the Speaker’s possible thoughts as he was writing the speech can be found in italics below.  This is strictly speculation on my part.  Nothing in italics comes from the Speaker or anyone on his staff.  I have not discussed this subject with them.  The speech itself follows after the italics, so you’ll be able to make your own judgments.  

I want to keep it short.  No one wants to hear a long, windy speech from some guy they don’t know, even if the president of the school has built the guy up as some sort of big shot, somebody with juice.  They’re here to get their diplomas, take each other’s pictures with their cell phones, and get home to the graduation parties, kick back and have some laughs.  Hell, they earned it.   

It won’t hurt that Bobby Fennell’s daughter will be graduating, and that John Keenan will be there, too.  I’ll have to be sure to have my picture taken with them and their families afterwards.  Don’t want them to think I take them for granted.

Normally, I like to take it easy on Sundays, but I’m glad they asked me to be their commencement speaker.  I really am. These are my kind of people at Salem State: kids from hardworking families, families without a lot of dough, many of them immigrants and first generation.   A lot of these kids, like me, are the first ones in their families to go to college.  Never had any special advantages. They’ve got grit. 

I want to keep it simple.  No platitudes.  No bullshit.  No pompous advice.  I’m not a philosopher.  I’m no psychologist either, no Dr. Phil.  I don’t hold the key to the meaning of life.  If I took the highfalutin approach, like many commencement speakers do -- the guy who’s trying too hard to Explain It All to You, while at the same time trying to impress you with his vocabulary and wit -- they’d spot me for a phony a mile away.  Young people hate phonies, and they especially hate phony politicians.  Hell, I hate phony politicians.   I also can’t stand ass-kissers, so I’m not going to suck up to these kids and their parents. I won’t try to be cool.  That means no jokes.   Unless you’re somebody like George Keverian or Charlie Flaherty or Billy Bulger, jokes are tricky.  Too easy to fall on your face.  Anyway, this is a serious occasion.  I don’t want anybody to think I’m not taking it seriously, because I am.  These kids, their parents, they deserve a nice, dignified graduation. They deserve a commencement speech that’s on the level. I’m not going to disappoint them.  Or waste their time.

“I want to spend a moment to reflect on the importance of this day.  To receive a degree, in many cases in the face of obstacles and difficulties, is an extraordinary achievement.  It is something of lasting value that no one can take away from you.  You studied.  You sometimes struggled.  You had to balance a full work schedule with a full academic schedule.  You focused on education and persevered.  Congratulations!  Many of you have, like me, done something that you are the first in your family to do.  This is an achievement, one which will serve as the foundation for the rest of your life.

“I speak about myself only with reluctance.  This is, after all, your day.  But just four decades ago, I was you, now I’m just a few chapters ahead in the book of life.  I will speak briefly on a few memories and things I have learned over the years for you to consider.  Maybe not today, but someday.

“As you heard, I represent Winthrop and part of the City of Revere.  Both North Shore communities.  I spent part of my childhood in East Boston until we moved to Winthrop.  I lived in a three-family home with my aunts on the second and third floor and my grandmother in a house behind ours.  I like to call it the Italian version of the Kennedy compound.  Looking out and seeing you in your caps and gowns and your families watching you with pride, I can’t help but be reminded of the day I graduated from Northeastern.  My whole family was there to celebrate.  My older sister Carol was there and she is here today as well.  My father, a hardworking maĆ®tre d’ and restaurant manager, knew what graduation represented.  My mother, who had done so much to get me there, cheered loudly.  They had the same aspirations for me that your families have for you.  Neither one was a college graduate.  In fact, because of the Depression, work took precedence over high school.  But they understood the importance of education.  They knew that in America, education represented the path up, not a hand-out.  They demanded I focus on my schoolwork and pushed me to succeed.  They did not accept ‘no’ for an answer.

“The path my parents laid out was simple, with two basic components.  Education and hard work.  There are no short cuts.  There are no easy ways out.  I commuted to Northeastern and went to Suffolk Law School at night while working my way through both institutions.  I was proud to base my law practice in Revere and begin my life in politics right in my hometown of Winthrop.  Aided by this tremendous work ethic instilled by my parents, when I first ran for public office, I knocked on each and every door in my district.

“All too often in today’s world, we focus on the sizzle, the flash.  The victories and achievements I have experienced have all been products of the quiet moments – the times I have sat at my desk with a checklist running the length of two legal-sized pages, the moments I have spent personally writing correspondence, the hours I have spent on the phone, the kindness and respect I’ve tried to show to all, no matter their station in life.

“Such instances do not lend themselves to bold headlines but these are the building blocks that form a successful life.

“When I get a chance to speak with young people, I always talk about the importance of pushing through the routine.  Don’t just punch the clock.  Work through the scheduled conclusion of the work day.  Take advantage of opportunities.  If you have a chance to further your learning through classes and lectures, do it.  Push yourself outside of your comfort zone.  Grow.

“Every day make an effort to take a step forward.

“Even as the world goes through rapid change, you can rely on your own work ethic and education.  These are the qualities that will enable you to adjust and grow in a changing environment.

“I realize as well, that for many of you, other priorities may take precedence now, such as establishing yourselves professionally and beginning to pay off some of your student loans.  Understanding the financial realities you face, I want you to know that even now you can make a difference.

“For me, that meant leveraging my work ethic and education into other areas of life.  I want you to know that mentoring, participating in non-profit groups, even coaching are all meaningful ways in which a young person can impact the broader community; as a Little League coach, I tried to impart lifelong lessons on my team, the value of hard work, persistence and teamwork.

“No matter how local or how particular, by doing these things, you are touching other people in a positive way, and there is nothing more important that a person can do.

“Be positive.  You live in Massachusetts, the greatest state of the greatest country in the world.  On a practical level, as public officials, we are working relentlessly to bring jobs and growth to Massachusetts.  More broadly, your time at Salem State University has given you the skills to succeed in a competitive society.  Remember, each and every one of you is ready.

“You graduate at a time when your skills are needed and your talents are required, and your energy is necessary.  All your efforts, both large and small, not only make a difference but they are essential.

“I again wish you the heartiest of congratulations and the best of luck. 

“Thank you.” 

NOTE: The Bobby Fennell and John Keenan mentioned in the third paragraph of this post are State Representatives Robert Fennell of Lynn and John Keenan of Salem

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