Bob Kerrey encouraged the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s December graduates to ask tough questions, say “yes” when others say “no,” take time to enjoy the little things in life and hold fast to thoughts of home.
The former U.S. senator and former Nebraska governor delivered the undergraduate commencement address, “Thoughts of Home,” Dec. 15 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Kerrey joked that the original title of his address was “Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Me” but that his wife talked him out of it.
“It seemed appropriate, I gotta say, because other than respiration and other bodily functions, and the shared experience of attending and graduating from this great university, we probably don’t have that much in common,” the 75-year-old said.
Kerrey said he is running out the clock in the fourth quarter of his life, while the graduates are “entering the second quarter with a very good lead.”
Kerrey recalled how he, too, graduated in the middle of the academic year. He was working at the time and finished the last three required hours for his Bachelor of Science in pharmacy through a correspondence course.
Shortly after graduation, his draft number was called and he ended up serving in the Navy’s SEAL Team One during the Vietnam War. He earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service. He was also seriously wounded and lost the lower part of his right leg in combat.
About getting drafted, Kerrey said that like many turning points in his life, serendipity played a bigger role than long-term planning.
“No doubt that conquering the fear of saying yes is the most difficult thing all of us have to do when an uninvited opportunity suddenly arrives,” he said. “No doubt learning to ask for help is every bit as important. Rugged individualism works in a John Ford movie, but it has never worked for me. I like the power of a team, of unselfish collaboration.”
Kerrey said he realized he had “done all right” in life when he saw that his two older children were good parents. The team that made this possible included their mother, friends, college professors and adult mentors. He prompted the graduates to stand and applaud their parents and other loved ones for helping them reach their accomplishment.
Kerrey said he hoped the graduates would have the courage to ask uncomfortable questions, seek answers that might challenge long-held beliefs, and say “yes” when everyone else is saying “no.”
He said some losses are unexplainable and can only be endured through faith, friends and a determination to go on.
“Life is worth living. The miracles around us are easy to miss but wonderful to discover. Close your eyes and listen to the music you love. Get up before the sun and watch the magic of the color coming back into view. Plant something and watch it grow,” he said. “Buy a Number 2 Ticonderoga pencil and use it to sketch something you see. Write a letter to someone you haven’t seen for a long time. Surprise someone with the nourishing and priceless gift of unexpected kindness. Don’t be so certain you know the answer; store a little doubt in a safe place to keep you honest and healthy.”
He closed the address with the first stanza of Miller Williams’ poem “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina.” He told the graduates to “hold on fast to thoughts of home” and keep an eye on the government.
“When it comes to watchfulness of our government, none of us gets a free pass,” he said. “The dog cannot eat our homework.”
Kerrey is managing director at investment banking firm Allen and Company, based in New York. He is also executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship. He represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2001 and was Nebraska’s governor from 1983 to 1987. Before that, he was a businessman who helped build a chain of restaurants and health clubs that employed more than 1,000 people.
The university awarded 1,551 degrees during commencement exercises Dec. 14 and 15.
Chancellor Ronnie Green presided over the ceremonies at the arena.
The graduates are from 48 countries; 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; and more than 175 Nebraska communities.
Gina Matkin, associate professor in agricultural leadership, education and communication at Nebraska, gave the address at the graduate and professional degree ceremony Dec. 14 at the arena. Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Stephanie Stacy spoke to the College of Law graduates Dec. 14 at Hamann Auditorium in McCollum Hall.
The December graduating class earned 327 new graduate and professional degrees and 1,224 new baccalaureate degrees. The university has awarded 290,103 degrees since it was founded in 1869.