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Knox 2015 Commencement Address by Bill Whitaker


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Commencement Address by Bill Whitaker

Knox 2015 Commencement Address by Bill Whitaker

Watch Bill Whitaker's Commencement Address.

Wow. Thank you. Well, good morning! Good morning to all of you. President Amott, Dean Behling, faculty, staff, and graduates. Thank you for inviting me to share this special day with you on this beautiful campus. You know, there are some societies where rain falling on an event like this is good luck. It cleanses the air, it's a blessing, it's a fresh start. I think that's kind of fitting for what's happening here today.

This campus is so steeped in a rich and proud history, and, as you just heard, I was an American history major in college and I actually get goosebumps knowing that Lincoln and Douglas debated right over there. To which my kids would holler: "Nerd alert!"

But graduates, today is your day. You're making history. We've all come here to salute you; getting to this lawn and those caps and gowns is a tremendous accomplishment. And nobody knows that better than your parents, and I think they deserve a round of applause, don't you? Because parents, this is your day too. I know how proud you must be. You got them potty-trained. You got them past skinned knees and braces. You survived the chauffeur years of driving them to soccer and dance classes. You got them through high school and now through Knox College. You did it.

But not so fast. You got them out of Knox College, but have you gotten them out of the house? Statistics show that 100 percent of you will move back in with your parents. I'm sorry. That's the percentage of my kids that moved back in. Statistics show that 14 percent of you will move back in with your parents. But parents, don't worry. By age 35, most of them will have moved out.

I am truly honored to be here and I see that I follow in some distinguished footsteps. Past Commencement speakers have included Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Stephen Colbert. I have one question. Class of 2015, who did you tick off? Are you being punished? You expected Forest Whitaker maybe.

I'm not a movie star, not an ex-President, Secretary of State. I don't have my own TV show. But then again, I have spent 30 years interviewing Presidents and Secretaries of State and people with their own TV shows. And now that I have this honorary doctorate from Knox College that I share with Abraham Lincoln. Really guys, Abraham Lincoln? Wow. Class of 2015, you hit the jackpot.

Like past speakers, I'm not just here to congratulate you, but to try to impart some words of wisdom as you step into the world. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to tell you. I mean, we live in the same country, we breathe the same air, but we might as well be from different planets.

When I was your age, Amazon was just a river. The first cell phone CBS gave us was so big we had to carry it in briefcases. They weighed a ton. In my youth, we would twist and shout. You guys tweet and twerk. It's a different world. I'm going to suggest CBS change the name of the show I work on from 60 Minutes to 140 Characters and maybe some of you will watch. My kids have asked me in all seriousness: How'd you live before the internet and smartphones? And I've told them: Frankly kids, I don't know.

I'm not a techie, I'm far from it. I still worry that I'm revealing way too much to too many people on Facebook. I would call Uber and Uber wouldn't come. My son pointed out that I was in "trial mode." I had to get a primer from one of my young friends on how and when and what to tweet. And I still can't imagine why anyone would care where I am, what I'm doing, what I think, but apparently about a dozen or so people do. So... By the way, I tweeted that I'm here this morning and if you were following me, you would have read it on Twitter first.

So I'm learning. Not a day goes by that I'm not on Google, on Youtube. Like most of you I'm on my phone all the time. I once walked out of my house without my phone. I panicked. I don't remember phone numbers anymore. I need Google Calendar to know what I'm doing. I don't know where I am without GPS. I was lost, literally. I realized I can't live without my phones and my apps and my pods and my pads, at least I don't want to. I love these devices.

You know one of the best things that our devices have done? They've put an end to a lot of stupid conversations. In the past, someone at the dinner table would ask: Who was that actor who was in that movie about that thing? You know who I mean. No, we didn't. And a stupid conversation would ensue; it could last for hours. Now you just use a few thumb strokes, or you ask Siri and you've got your answer. No more stupid conversations.

Our devices have made us smarter. Case in point: I knew I would have to impart some words of wisdom, so I went online and typed in "words of wisdom." And I found some pretty good ones. Like this: "Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." That's pretty good. This one from Abraham Lincoln: "Whatever you are, be a good one." Who could argue with that? It's brilliant. Then there was this one: "Never argue with an idiot, they drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience."

I've also come up with a few of my own. Vote. That's it. Vote. With all the pressing issues facing us; climate change, income inequality, ISIS, terrorism, roads and bridges falling down, only 36 percent of us voted in the last midterm election. That's just a little more than a third of us. Were the rest of us too busy? Too satisfied? Too cynical? To blatantly steal from Abraham Lincoln who once graced this campus, "That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth." Vote.

And diversify. Not your stock portfolio. Your friendships and your relationships. According to the Census Bureau, by 2044, no one racial group or ethnic group will dominate the U.S. population. So get to know your neighbors. As one of the most diverse colleges in the country and one of the first to enroll women and people of color, that seems to be in the Knox College DNA. Make it part of yours. Build connections like this when you leave this campus.

And also, rake a little muck. That's also a Knox College tradition. At the time where there was a great disparity between the haves and have-nots, when the poor were corralled in urban slums, when Americans were threatened by pollution, not today, that other gilded age back in the 1890s, an illustrious grad of Knox College, Sam McClure, started a magazine and triggered a movement. His muckraking journalists exposed waste and corruption in politics and industry. He changed his world. We could use a McClure today.

Which leads me to my last words of wisdom: Embrace your mass media. I know I work in the media, so that might sound self-serving, but think of it. The media covers everything, from the National Enquirer and TMZ to People Magazine and Entertainment Tonight. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, Wired magazine, Frontline, Buzzfeed, political blogs, comedy talk shows, the BBC -- they're all the media. And take it from someone who's on the inside, we're not all pushing one agenda.

There's more information available to us today than any time in human history. Five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred cable channels. The internet. They bring the world to us everyday. Instantaneously. The trouble is, most of us just watch or listen to the shows or read the papers or surf the sites we agree with. Yeah, we just watch and read and surf the things we agree with -- it makes us feel smart, I guess. Those bloggers, those people on TV, they agree with me. But, sadly, I think it's making us narrower and shallower and less tolerant. So that my sense of community doesn't atrophy, I try to get out of my media comfort zone as much as possible. I read and listen to other points of view even if they make my blood boil. I need to remember there are other ways of seeing this world.

The truth is, I get reminded of that just about every day on my job. I have a fantastic job, I have to admit -- 30 years reporting the news, the last year at 60 Minutes, it's always interesting. It's always challenging. It's always full of adventure. I went sky-diving once with the Army. My job has taken me to 49 of our 50 states -- and I will get to North Dakota some day. It's taken me to every continent, except Antarctica,  and I'll make it there someday, too. I could be deluding myself, but I think what I do matters. Just this year, I did stories about millionaires and billionaires who are stashing their money in Swiss banks to avoid paying taxes. About strained relations between police and the inner-city Black communities they serve. On Colorado's experiment with legalized recreational marijuana.

My job is to tell Americans about the world and important issues. My hope is it helps us become better-informed participants in this vibrant democracy. I know that sounds highfalutin, but that's why I do it. I love it. And I wish that, for all of you, you find that thing -- that job, that relationship, that makes you happy to show up every day. I think the best thing about my job is that I'm always learning. It's like an advanced course in human history and human nature. I have seen humans at our best; I've seen us at our worst. I saw the People's Liberation Army crush the student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square exactly 26 years ago. I saw the people of Kabul, Afghanistan, weary and fearful and suspicious after decades of war. I've seen Central American immigrants hop a train to cross the length of Mexico two thousand miles to the U.S. border. They sit on top of the cars, they hang on the sides. It's almost impossible to make it without being robbed or raped or assaulted by bandits or arrested by police, and they do it all for the chance to slip illegally across the U.S. border to wash our dishes or park our cars or pick our fruit and vegetables. It's hard to imagine, but that harrowing journey represents hope for them. I saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, and I will never forget the haunted look in the eyes of survivors surveying the wasteland that used to be their homes.

But after the initial shock, the more powerful image is the look of determination in the eyes of those same survivors, determined to build back, to keep on living. I've met doctors who have found new ways to treat brain cancer and mend our hearts, I've watched NASA scientists in those final nail-biting moments as they land rovers on Mars and drop a probe into the crushing mist of Jupiter. If their calculations had been off by one degree, the Galileo spacecraft would have burned up on entry, and it didn't. You should have heard the cheers when it started beaming back data on Jupiter's atmosphere. I recently rode through Silicon Valley in a driverless car -- and, yes, that is as cool as it sounds.

I've seen humans in all our mess and all our glory, and we are endlessly fascinating -- and endlessly frustrating. Sometimes I can feel more dragged down by the mess than uplifted by the glory, but don't succumb to that. If there's anything I've learned through the years, from the students in China, from the people of Afghanistan, along the Gulf Coast, in Haiti and Japan, from the immigrants on the train and the NASA scientists, it's how similar we all are. There are connections that bind us, not just differences that separate us. We're resilient. We're risk-takers. We're builders. We're dreamers. Dreamers like all of you.

Now you might not think it to look at me, but I was once where you are now. I remember sitting in my cap and gown on a beautiful day, waiting to get my college diploma. I didn't have a freaking clue what I was going to do with my life. I didn't have A Plan; I didn't have Plan B. I only had my dreams. Now I'd like to stand here and tell you I got to 60 Minutes because I'm so smart, I made all the right choices, I worked harder than everybody else -- well, the "worked harder" part is true, but none of us makes it on our own in this life.

I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia -- Media, Pennslyvania -- yeah, M-E-D-I-A, so I guess you could say I've been in media my whole life -- but, really, it's kind of a wonder that I'm standing here today. When I was growing up, there was nobody who looked like me on TV. When a Black person would show up on TV, someone in my family would yell, and the rest of us would come running to gather around the TV to see, it was such a rarity. I don't know what made me think I could do this. My family was working class; we had no connections. My father was a welder, my mother a secretary. I was that proverbial latchkey kid. I would walk home from school with a lanyard around my neck with a housekey on it to let myself into an empty house when I was in kindergarten. Now, today, I think my parents would be arrested for child neglect and abuse, but, like I said, it was different back then. When my father died, my mother took on five jobs to put my sisters and me through college. So, like many of you, my parents made tremendous sacrifices so I could have this opportunity.

My senior year in college, my history professor saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. Just before graduation, he asked me what my plans were. I didn't have any. My professor contacted the graduate program at Boston University and said, "I have this student who seems to have some talent but doesn't have a clue." He literally opened the door to graduate school and pushed me in. He changed my life.

My wife has made it possible for me to have it all: a wonderful career, two wonderful children. The truth is, life, like TV news, is a collaborative endeavor. I wouldn't be at 60 Minutes without the help of producers, photographers, sound technicians, family, professors, mentors. I am standing on the shoulders of many, many people who helped lift me up.

Now, as I look out on all your young faces, I know you're going to make it -- whatever your definition of "making it" might be. You're about to get a diploma from one of the best colleges in the land. That certifies that you have a brain -- a well-educated brain. You'll go to graduate school, you'll go to Wall Street, you'll go to Silicon Valley, you'll go to Teach for America, you'll go to the Peace Corps, you'll start your own businesses, you'll raise children, you'll become doctors and journalists -- or the President, who will then come back and give the Commencement speech here. I have no doubt you're going to make it in this world, but when you do, please remember to stop every once and a while and thank the people -- your parents, your friends, your professors, who helped you along the way. Then, reach back and grab somebody else's hand and help them up. We all climb higher when we do it together. And that's been a mission here at Knox College for almost 175 years. 

The world has changed so much in my lifetime. I can only imagine what the years will be like after you leave this campus. But this I do know: Your future will be exhilirating and terrifying and wonderful. And it will be your life. Live it -- fully. The stuff that was science fiction when I was a kid, today is science fact. What's next? You're about to find out. Congratulations, Class of 2015, and thank you.

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Printed on Wednesday, July 28, 2021