Hampton University Commencement Address 2004

May 9, 2004
by Dr. William R. Harvey

Thank you, Mr. Fountain, for that wonderful introduction. Thank you also for your leadership and guidance as Chairman of Hampton’s Board of Trustees. I also want to thank Dr. Haysbert for her leadership as Acting President during my sabbatical. She has done an outstanding job.

To the parents and extended families of the graduating classes of 2004, I extend to you my congratulations and my highest appreciation for the level of sacrifice and support which has placed these young people in the seats of honor which they occupy today.

To the members of the faculty and staff who help create and sustain the vision of Hampton University as an institution dedicated to preserving what is the best of the past and to inventing boldly, the future, my thanks for your steadfastness.

To the alumni, who are the keeps of the flame, thank you for always being there. In that regard, I want to acknowledge Mrs. Anne Baird Bridges for a job well done as President of the National Hampton Alumni Association, Inc.

To the members of Quintessence V, the Class of 2004, please know how special you are to me. In my capacity as President of Hampton University, I have been invited to deliver speeches literally all over the world. But I want you to know that, I have never been more honored and pleased to deliver my first Commencement Address at Hampton University. Thank you for inviting me. And I want you to know that I love you madly!

As a point of personal privilege, I want to acknowledge that my daughter Leslie is graduating today with a Masters in Early Childhood Education. Leslie, please know how proud your mother and I are of you.

The Commencement exercise has been described in many ways, but I like to think of it as that brief intermission between the act of formal academic study, and the act of real life. As your participation in this Commencement exercise attests, during the last act of four or more years’ those of you in the 2004 graduating class obviously performed your parts well. You learned your lines; you mastered the meaning and significance of your subjects, the subtleties and nuances of your parts. In the process, you came to a new awareness of intellectual exchange, of social interaction, of human relationships, and of human understanding.

Moreover, you played out your chosen parts on the stage of Hampton University against a larger backdrop of national and global change. Change which could not help but alter the interpretation and rendering of your performance. You have witnessed terrorists attack our country by flying airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. You have witnessed our country going to war to rid the world of a tyrant whose evil was matched only by Adolph Hitler. You have witnessed a national recession with unprecedented job losses and a recovery in the making with almost 900,000 new jobs becoming available since January. Closer to home, you have also witnessed tragedy in your own Senior Class, as just last month one of your classmates was killed. Our thoughts are with his family.

This national and world stage in which you are a part, is moving so fast until there are days when a person who says it can’t be done, is interrupted by someone who it doing it.

As you worked hard to master your parts, I am sure that at times you were disheartened. You experienced a fallen prop, a miscued line, an unsuccessful audition. On occasion, you may have been like an ailing actor struggling to survive a performance, yet you knew that the show must go on.
Despite these obstacles, you triumphed. You triumphed because of your own innate intelligence and skill. You triumphed because of your own discipline and perseverance. You triumphed because of the knowledge and experience of your parents, ministers, faculty, and administrators—those artisans who produced and directed your magnificent performance. You also triumphed because you are a Hamptonian—and that makes you special. And don’t you ever forget it.

And now, during your commencement exercise, the curtain has come down. We pause for intermission between the end of that four-year act of academic study and the beginning of a life-time act on the stage of life. We will use this moment of intermission as a moment of rest from the challenge of the past and a time of reflection and preparation for the demands of the future.
When the curtain rises on the act which is to follow this day, you will discover that your stage is no long Hampton University, founded in 1868 by Gen. Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Just as the stage changed for your soon to be alma mater—from two teachers, 15 students, little money or equipment—to a strong faculty and staff, a great physical plant and, stable finances, your stage will also change. Yours shall become the world’s stage. And it is how you perform on that stage that your performance shall be ultimately judged.

When the curtain rises on the act which is to follow this day, not only will the stage, the cast, and the crew be larger, you will also discover that the audience, the targets of your performance shall be very different. At Hampton University, the primary object was to master the subject—mathematics, biology, English, pharmacy, business, nursing, physical therapy, education, sociology, or whatever your chosen discipline. Now, you must rely on your own performance, on your faith in the power of your own potential, and on your determination to carry out strategies of self-help and to gain self-sufficiency and economic independence.

When the curtain rises on the act following this day, you will not cast yourselves into the permanent role of pupil. You will become the master. You must not be content to forever serve as the employee. You will be the employer.

It’s wonderful to work for a major corporation, but one day, I want someone out of this class to run a major corporation, to run PepsiCola, or IBM, or Bank of America. Instead of merely working in a daycare center, I want someone out of this class to own a string of daycare centers. To the newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenants, I want to see some of you one day replace those shiny gold bars with a General’s shiny silver stars. Instead of being a legislative assistant to a Senator, I want someone out of this class to be a U. S. Senator. It is not too far fetched for someone out of this class to one day invite Mrs. Harvey and me to visit them in the Oval Office of the White House.
Now, let me tell you that these things do not just happen. It requires a good work ethic, sacrifice, and responsible actions on your part. It has been said that the only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary.

Quintessence V, I do not want you to leave the education and guidance of your destiny to those who have their own agenda and really care nothing about yours. Rather, in your individual neighborhoods, in your social organizations, and church groups, you will nurture them yourselves.

When the curtain rises for your next act, you will also discover that your performance shall require a new sense of values. During the last four-year-act, you perhaps well afforded the luxury of limiting your values to a car, designer labels, a swank apartment, gold jewelry, and an occasional “A” to balance the “C” so that these items would be in easier grasp. On this new, large stage, you will be forced to value not only the material objects or grades. Rather, you will be forced to value good health, family, honesty, decency, integrity, responsibility, and other non-material things.

Hopefully, you will come to discover that self-fulfillment does not reside in immediate gratification of the appetites, nor solely in the extensiveness of material holdings. For whatever satisfies the appetite one moment may well repel it the next. You will discover that passion wanes. Money is bargained away; cars and houses erode; and jewels lose their glitter. You will discover that the only fulfillment worth valuing is that which emanates from faith in a power which is larger than yourselves, from the gratification of having reached the outer limits of your intellectual potential, from the satisfaction of a job well done, and from the knowledge that you have been of service to mankind.

Perhaps more importantly than any of the other changes in this drama—when the curtain rises on the act which is to follow this day, you will find that you roles have changed. You will no longer be the mere stars and starlets of the production which is to follow. Rather, you will have assumed the role of producers, directors, and leaders of the new stars of the next generation. The notion that the future of our race, our nation, and our world now depends on you, must seem to you by now, nothing more than an old cliché. And that may well be. But when the curtain rises for the act which follows, you will discover that it is also an inescapable truism. Like it or not, you will indeed be in charge.

You will no longer be able to cite the shortcoming of today’s parents as the source of your own shortcoming. You will be the parents. You will no longer be able to cite the inadequacies of today’s educators, corporate heads, and political leaders as the sole cause of our nation’s failures. You will be the educators, the corporate heads, and the politicians. As such, you will decide if we will continue to tolerate drugs and crime, hunger and suffering, injustice and inequality. You will decide the nature of our moral an ethical revolutions. You will decide whether we as a nation will resolve our differences through reasoned and informed dialogue and dissent, or whether we will be content to live with perpetual anarchy and chaos. And yes—you will decide the ultimate question—whether we shall obliterate mankind with nuclear weapons, or whether we shall lie together in harmony and peace. And this, graduating seniors, is the ultimate drama in which you shall participate.

During the course of this next act in the drama of life, what you will ultimately discover is that the play was not really a play at all. Rather, it was the real thing—real life—real people—real challenges—real actions—with real consequences.

Therefore, from your positions as producers, directors, leaders in this real life performance, make certain that you continue to prepare yourselves. Make certain that you continue to grow, personally and intellectually.

Learning should never be a static thing. It should continue throughout your lives, opening new doors, evoking new insights, expanding your horizons, and continually creating opportunities for good. Be mindful of the choices which you make. Make certain that the line cues which you give, the stage direction which you map out, and the examples which you set, shall be borne of an informed intellect, a moral sensibility, and a firm commitment to the preservation of our race, our nation, and our world.


You are the fellow that has to decide
Whether you’ll do it or toss it aside,
You are the fellow who makes up your mind
Whether you’ll lead or linger behind;
Whether you’ll try for the goal that’s afar
Or be contented to stay just where you are.
Take it or leave it. Here’s something to do.
Just think it over. It’s all up to you!
What do you wish? To be known as a shirk
Or know as a good person who’s willing to work.
Scorned for a loafer or praised by your chief
Rich man or poor man or beggar or thief;
Eager or earnest or dull through the day,
Honest or crooked? It’s you who must say!
You must decide in the fact of the test
Whether you’ll shirk it or give it your best.

~Edgar A. Guest

To me, the worst thing in life is not to fail, rather the worst thing is not to try to succeed; to live in that gray twilight that knows neither the brightness nor shadow; neither victory nor defeat. Really, it is up to you.

It is in this context that I challenge each and every one of you to make the most of your natural gifts; to build a richly satisfying personal life with room for laughter, but strength to confront sadness; to engage the community in order to make it a better place for yourselves and your neighbors; and to make a commitment to grow and continue learning the rest of your life.

Cherished graduates, our solemn hope and greatest wish, as you depart you “Home by the Sea,” is that you see the horizon not as a limit but as an invitation. The torch has been passed to you with the expectation that you will hold it higher and carry it farther than those who walked before you.

I urge you to do several other things: (1) Pay yourself first. No matter how small, save something from every paycheck. (2) Buy some property. I have brought property in every state that I have lived in since I got out of college. Property appreciates. That new car will not; it will depreciate when you drive it out of the showroom floor.

Two of the greatest evils in our society are racism and drugs. Fight racism every time it raises its ugly head. Remember, sometimes it comes from those who claim to be our friends. Stay away from drugs and drug dealers. If association with either does not destroy your life, it will make your miserable at some point in your life.

Remember always to support your alma mater—with your resources, with positive words, and with your prayers. As you leave your “Home by the Sea,” remember that you are responsible for sustaining the legacy of the Hampton Empire. So I now charge you—members of Quintessence V, Class of 2004—to don your shields of power, strength, and unity.

  • Be positive role models
  • Be leaders in your respective fields
  • In other words, be somebody!

I congratulate you on what you have already achieved, and I rejoice, for the world will be made better through your continued achievement.

Quintessence V, the world is waiting for you. Serve it and Hampton well. The time for talking is over. Let’s get on with it!