You May Not Know Where You Are Going Until You Get There
So Don’t Be Surprised If You End Up Somewhere Else
E. Bruce Heilman
May 5, 2007
President Carter, Chairman Morris, members of the Board, faculty, staff, family and friends of graduating seniors, and especially to you who are graduating…
There once was a man to whom all respects must
He never smoked, nor drank, nor kissed a pretty
Then one day he passed away and his insurance was
They said a man who had never lived, never could
If my introduction suggested otherwise, be assured that I will surely die and that won’t be as far into the future as it once was due to the fact that I am in my eightieth year.
To you graduates I am ancient, but to your grandparents, I am simply in advanced youth. But with age in mind, you graduates won’t walk out on me, as you will want to see whether I’m still standing when I finish my address.
Some say that with age comes wisdom, but for some, age just slips up all by itself. But irrespective of my age and with all my years of learning, there is still a lot I don’t know. In fact,
“Absolute knowledge have I none,
But my aunt’s washerwoman’s sister’s son
Heard a policeman on the beat Say to a laborer on the street That he had a letter just last week Written in the finest Greek
From a Chinese coolie in Timbuktu
Who said the peasants in Cuba knew Of a Mexican in a Texas town
Who heard it from a circus clown
That a man from the Klondike had got the news From a gang of South American Jews
About a gentleman in Bamboo
Who saw a man who claimed he knew
A high society female rake
Whose mother-in-law would undertake
To prove that her second husband’s sister’s niece Had stated in a printed piece
That she had a son who had a friend
Who knew when our troubles were going to end.”
Even with all these sources to draw from, I still don’t know when our troubles are going to end. But I do know that if the problems of the world are to be converted to opportunities that will happen as a result of leadership on the part of those of you who are graduating today. That fits Aristotle’s proclamation that “men who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends upon the education of youth.”
With these words to challenge you and in a world changing more rapidly than ever, I have titled my address “You May Not Know Where You Are Going Until You Get There So Don’t Be Surprised If You End Up Somewhere Else.” I reinforce my message with advice from Robert Frost, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”
I grew up on a Kentucky farm, the son of a tenant farmer. Our house had no electricity, no telephone, no indoor bathroom, no running water, and no central heat or air. In fact, the air conditioning came from cracks in the floors when air blowing under the house (which had no foundation and no insulation) found its way into the rooms. Mice and rat holes in the baseboards were covered over by tops of tin cans to discourage re-entrance.
There was no radio or television or refrigerator or washing machine. We cooked on stoves heated by wood and carried oil lamps to light our way from room to room. Because the upstairs was a converted attic, we four children slept under a hot tin roof.
My father's $30.00 a month didn't have to cover the cost of electricity or gas or water or telephone. Our refrigerator was a deep well in which to lower our milk to keep it cool. We raised our vegetables and meat and made do with chickens and eggs from the back yard. We hunted and ate squirrels and rabbits.
My parents didn't go to high school, but were very much leaders in the church and community. There was no one I knew, until I was grown, who had been to college except the preacher, who was a struggling seminary student, because the church couldn't afford a regular, full-time minister.
In this setting, there was little expectation for children growing up to do anything other than perpetuate the life around them. I could, however, observe the trucks passing on the dusty highway and visualize how wonderful it would be to become a truck driver. Having to wake at four in the morning to milk twelve or fifteen cows and to labor in the hot summer sun in the tobacco and corn fields was not what I envisioned as a desirable future.
So with that background to guide my ambitions, I saw no reason to do more than I had to do in school. Thus, I failed algebra twice, and did so poorly otherwise that I didn't qualify for a diploma after four years. I was truly a failure.
With a background such as this, how could I have spent my entire adult life in the profession of higher education as a senior officer, including twenty-one years as president of a college and a university?
It all resulted from a happenstance in history. Some might call it fate. Others might interpret it as divine providence, but surely it was unplanned, and unexpected, and unpredictable. When World War II intervened, I joined the marines after the high school principal gave me a certificate at age seventeen, suggesting that the marines could do me more good than high school.
Following combat on Okinawa and occupation duty in Japan, where I walked in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and before I was twenty-one, I was promoted to sergeant-full of ambition, self-confident, and observant of the fact that I needed to get an education. I was discharged and applied to a senior college, where I discovered that I did not qualify for admission.
Because of my abysmal high school record, I had to settle for a small, unheralded junior college where, for the first time, I made good grades and graduated with a 3.8 average, and was elected the best all around male student. That junior college was the forerunner to the university from which you are graduating today, Campbellsville Junior College. Here I met and married my wife in my freshman year, and fathered six children before finishing graduate school.
I was now beginning my long journey in higher education, even though a few years earlier I had written to my mother that I would not go to college because I had had all the education I could stand. Over the next 50 years I would hold every functional position in higher education.
In my memoirs, about to be published, I stated I entered at the second quarter of the year and moved into a wooden barrack, reconstituted to serve as a dorm for sixteen veterans. It had a potbellied wood stove in the center and an outside shower and toilet facilities. Things were a bit primitive, but I was happy to be accepted in college. The successful reconstruction of my educational background began almost immediately.
While on a weekend to visit my folks, I received a telegram that simply said, "Boys' barracks destroyed by fire. Total loss." I lost all my clothing and every item I had purchased since leaving the Marine Corps. My English professor granted me an exemption from the paper I had written which was destroyed in the fire.
I met Betty Dobbins, also a student at Campbellsville, when she was serving as a waitress in the college dining hall. She happened to walk past me just as I was finishing my chocolate pie. I asked for another slice. She told me later that the staff had been instructed to allow only one piece of pie per student, but she brought me the one that would have been hers.
Just a few weeks after we started dating, I drove Betty to the small nearby airport, which was inactive at night, but a quiet place to "pop the question." It really wasn't a question. It was a declaration--my approach was that unless she agreed to marry me by fall, I was leaving college and moving to California. Before the evening was over, she accepted.
The war surplus trailer in which we would begin our marriage rented for the grand sum of $16.00 per month. Ours was one of several, arranged around a bathhouse that all the tenants shared.
I worked in the college woodworking shop for twelve cents an hour. On Saturdays, I worked from 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. in the meat department at the A&P supermarket. On Saturday nights I was allowed to take home any meat and produce that was too limp or aged to make it through until Monday. Supplementing these handouts, Betty and I set up a budget of a dollar a day for food.
The most important educational experiences of my life took place at Campbellsville Junior College. For me, this was the right place at that time in my life to receive the encouragement, direction, and enlightenment necessary to stimulate and motivate my ambition toward important goals. Here, I was given the opportunity to make up for my years of squandered educational opportunity. It was here that I received a solid foundation in my class work. But equally important, the knowledge and understanding that I gained during these years enriched my appreciation of solid Christian values. At Campbellsville College the faculty and administration demonstrated the highest qualities of character.
Here I discovered that education involves giving attention to the spiritual, as well as the academic, physical, and social aspects of the individual. I learned that "success in life is determined by the character of the journey, by impeccable and rigid standards and an unwillingness to settle for anything less than enduring principles."
With new confidence in myself, I entered Peabody College, now a part of Vanderbilt University. Following completion of a master's degree and three years in public accounting, I was employed by the college that had turned me down as a student, to become the second highest paid person next to the president. I was the chief financial officer at twenty-eight years of age at Georgetown College.
Emerson said after a banquet speech, "the louder he spoke of his honors, the faster we counted our spoons." So by now, if you had spoons, you would be counting. So what is my point? It is that anyone can be anything they set their mind to if circumstances are conducive, even if they had had something else in mind. So don't be surprised, as I was, "if you end up somewhere else," a place other than you presently anticipate.
According to Taylor Caldwell, "the purpose of education is to enlarge the soul, to widen the mind, to stimulate wonder, to excite the intellect, and to awaken dormant facilities for exaltation of the possessor."
Plutarch said, "a mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited."
So, as seen in the context of these definitions, education is exciting, inspiring, stimulating, and exalting. I am here today speaking to young people because I enjoy the life of the campus and of the mind. I continue to engage in youthful things like riding my Harley, while reading and remembering that age is only a place on the calendar.
Yet, I seek to be realistic and take seriously Robert Frost’s poem, What Fifty Said:
“When I was young my teachers were the old.
I gave up fire for form till I was cold.
I suffered like a metal being cast.
I went to school to age to learn the past.
Now when I am old my teachers are the young.
What can't be molded must be cracked and sprung.
I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.
I go to school to youth to learn the future.”
The lesson here is that at whatever age, we continue to learn if we have an open mind. And learning is the best medicine for deferring old age.
Some years ago when flying out of Montreal, Canada on an Alitalia jet, our flight was aborted about halfway down the runway. We returned to the terminal and after a flurry of activity, we again headed down the runway and lifted off. As a flight attendant passed by, I asked what happened. "The pilot didn't like the way the right engine sounded," she said. When I asked what they did about it, she remarked, "We changed pilots."
In this day and time we must learn to expect the unexpected. I never dreamed that, with 198 students at the time, Campbellsville College would become this university, or that I would serve on its board, or that a building would bear my name, and another, the name of my wife, or that I would give this commencement address with a granddaughter in the graduating class, or that I would be honored with a distinguished alumni award and an honorary degree.
Certainly, if it could happen to me, it could happen to any one of you. So don't be surprised if you end up someplace other than you anticipate, even if you didn't intend or expect to be there.
But irrespective of where that is, my challenge to you is to keep on learning so that you will be prepared to accept what god-given opportunity may come your way. Above all, do something of which you will be proud and which serves mankind, so that you will know, with Edwin Markham, that...
There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
none goes his way alone,
All that we send into the lives of others,
comes back into our own.
Thank you, and god speed.