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Commencement Address 1998

Elizabeth Dole, May 17, 1998

Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Labor, was the speaker and an honorary degree recipient at Smith College's 120th commencement on Sunday, May 17. The text of her speech:

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your warm welcome. Thank you, Dr. Simmons, for your kind introduction. What a privilege to be with you — a woman for whom I have great respect and admiration. And that certainly applies to the other women you honor today. Heartfelt congratulations to the class of '98! And thank you for the honor of sharing this special moment with you, your families, friends, and instructors.

Let me say a word to parents, who have supported and encouraged and loved you, who have written checks without number and envisioned this moment for more than 20 years. You must find this celebration tinged with sadness as you launch your daughter — or, in the case of some male graduate students, your son — into the world. Let me offer some reassurance about how significant you will remain in these young lives: To this day, my own mother is a strong, wise force in my life, a reckoning star as I have charted my course.

A word as well to instructors and professors: You have challenged these graduates with exciting ideas and equipped them with the tools to make learning an unending process in their lives. You now move from center stage back to the chorus. But I know your voices will resonate in important ways for years to come.

Graduates, this is your day. How well I remember sitting in cap and gown and regarding my commencement speaker as the last obstacle between me and my diploma. Well, I hope to make some friends here today, so I will be brief — and speak directly from my heart.

With the fine education you have earned here at Smith, you are well-equipped for a wealth of opportunities and choices on the road ahead. Every one of you, I hope and expect, aspires to be a person of accomplishment and influence. To live a life marked by meaning. To contribute a chapter, not footnotes. To find that dream career that "blows your hair back," to quote Will Hunting. Of course, I have to remind you of the observation by Lily Tomlin, who said, "When I grew up, I always wanted to be someone. Now I realize I should have been more specific."

I can still vividly recall my first day of class at Harvard Law School. I was one of 24 women in a class of 550. And a male student came up to me and demanded to know what I was doing there. In what can only be described as tones of moral outrage, he said, "Elizabeth, what are you doing here? Don't you realize that there are men who would give their right arm to be in this law school — men who would use their legal education?"

That man is now a senior partner in a very prestigious Washington law firm. And ever so often I tell this little story around town. You'd be amazed at the number of my male classmates in high-powered Washington law firms who've called me to say, "Tell me I'm not the one. Tell me I didn't say that, Elizabeth!"

I had so much to prove to myself and to others back then. In the years since, I've learned that accomplishment and influence are sometimes different than we expect and greater than we plan. And that they require, in the end, not just ambition but mission — a sense of calling beyond the cold calculus of personal gain and loss.

Like love, you know it when you find it, because it springs from the heart and excites your passions. It can even keep you awake at night.

You may find that passion in the business and professional world, with its many rewards and satisfactions. If that is your direction, I urge you to take with you what has been special about your Smith education, and that includes your participation in the community beyond this lovely campus, your commitment to service through Smith's wonderful S.O.S. program, and your involvement in efforts to enrich every aspect of our society with the gifts of diversity.

You may find that passion in medicine or law or politics or parenthood. And let me say there is no more profound achievement than raising a family of outstanding young citizens, and our greatest humanitarian achievements have sprung from the vision of volunteers.

For me, the great joy in life has come from public service, which has enabled me to touch thousands of lives.

When I earned my law degree in 1965, law firms weren't beating a path to the door of female graduates, and Wall Street held no appeal for me. I lost out on a White House fellowship that first summer, but another door soon opened, to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. I found myself on the ground floor of the emerging consumer movement, and what began as a job soon turned into a personal crusade. I discovered my mission as a servant of the public — in both government and the nonprofit sector.

At the Department of Transportation, I was charged with overseeing America's material resources — our highways, airways, railways — and public safety was my primary concern. We overhauled an outdated airline inspection system with a special emphasis on ensuring safety in an age of deregulation and changed the climate for automotive safety in America by fighting for the ultimate protection — the use of seat belts and air bags in cars.

At the Department of Labor, my goal was human resources — improving the skills of our workers in America and encouraging cooperation between labor and management. My visit to the coal fields of southwest Virginia and subsequent appointment of a supermediator led to the settlement of a bitter 11- month United Mine Workers' strike against the Pittston Coal Company. Meanwhile, I sent another kind of strike force into the field to lead a nationwide crackdown on child labor violations. And to help break the glass ceiling impeding women and minorities from senior management opportunities, the Labor Department investigated and publicized both success stories and areas in which the private sector needed to do more.

As President of the Red Cross, my focus is on inner resources — inspiring people to volunteer, to give of their financial resources and their blood, since we are the largest supplier of blood in America. It has given me a unique vantage point from which to view the world at its very best and its very worst. I have seen the evil humans can inflict on one another in the dim eyes of starving children in Somalia and in the paralyzing grief of parents in Oklahoma City. I have seen the monstrous destruction unleashed by nature in the rubble of neighborhoods laid waste by Hurricane Andrew. I have felt the hopelessness and despair of families who have lost everything to a tornado's 260-mile-an-hour winds and terrifying violence.

No one can undo such grievous and unearned pain. But Red Cross volunteers have made it their mission to bring compassion and caring to disaster victims. These remarkable people go wherever and whenever they are needed, providing emotional and practical support. And I can assure you, every one of them is grateful for the opportunity to serve.

Red Cross volunteers have taught me lessons about the durability of human hope and faith amid irrational suffering. I've seen great hearts in tired bodies, driven past exhaustion to bring comfort to strangers.

The many humanitarian services of the American Red Cross include meeting the needs of victims of 60,000 disasters each year, training 11 million people a year in lifesaving health and safety courses, collecting, testing and distributing one-half of America's blood supply, and transmitting 4,000 emergency messages daily between members of our Armed Forces and their families. But the Red Cross has another mission that we share with 170 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies worldwide: humanitarian assistance to the victims of war. Indeed, it is this enduring commitment that has inspired the Red Cross to declare its own war, on landmines.

Modern combat is no longer a contest between uniformed armies on remote battlefields. More than 225 armed conflicts have occurred since the end of World War II. Combatants in many of these clashes have worn street clothes and waged guerrilla and terrorist warfare in the midst of populated areas, placing civilians on the front lines and turning children into casualties. And perhaps most tragic of all are those killed or mutilated by weapons long after hostilities have ended. This is the deadly legacy of land mines.

It is a tragic fact that today there are more than 120 million land mines strewn in trees and pastures, fields and villages in 70 countries, awaiting the unwary touch of a farmer, a traveler, a child attracted by the glint of metal. If this were taking place in Alabama not Afghanistan, in California not Cambodia, or in Michigan not Mozambique — if, on the back roads of America, a false step could cost a leg, a life, a child — our campaign would not be an admirable cause, it would be a national crisis. The detachment that comes from mileage and time zones is understandable, but it is not justifiable. Because the value of life does not diminish with distance, and the cry of a child is no less wrenching because it is faint.

The Red Cross is committed to providing help for victims of land mines today, and hope for a world free of land mines, tomorrow. We do not presume to advise the United States government on military matters; ours is a humanitarian perspective. These deadly weapons must be eliminated as soon as possible, using every venue possible.

The American Red Cross operates a prosthetics and rehabilitation center in Cambodia, a nation where one of every 236 persons is an amputee and one of every 54 is disabled. One of them, a woman who lost both legs to a land mine, has for years crawled on the ground, pulling herself along with her arms. Fortunately, she was recently taken to our center. Within hours, workers manufactured a wheelchair exactly to her specifications. As she was placed in the first wheelchair she had ever seen, tears of joy filled her eyes. "This is the first time," she said, "that I will be able to see my children at their own level, without looking up."

This was a cause that deeply touched Diana, Princess of Wales. In her far too-brief life, she found her mission: to alert the world to the landmine crisis. During her visit to the American Red Cross in Washington last June, her final public appearance on behalf of the campaign to ban landmines, she told me about her trip to minefields in Angola, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Hardly a role designed for a princess but instead a responsibility undertaken by a committed and compassionate woman.

The influence and accomplishments I have come to respect are united by a single trait of will and character — a sense of mission. . . finding a cause or calling that summons us to selflessness. Something that consumes us, heart and soul. Something that causes us to contribute, not just to the wealth of our nation, but to its meaning.

Let me add an observation that may smooth the way a little. Personal integrity — our moral compass — counts far more than any line on a resume. The late Barbara Jordan, Nancy Landon Kassenbaum and Madeleine Albright are three women who've succeeded in a world of public policy and politics. And agree with their positions or not, one of the hallmarks of their service is their total and complete commitment to integrity — the one area over which each of us has 100 percent control.

And finally, successful women make a commitment to those who follow. Never take for granted the struggle and sacrifice of the courageous women who were trail blazers. I could depend in my career on the help of women who gained a foothold on the executive ladder and then reached a hand down. And there is still a need for such networking! What was harder for me will be easier for you. And as you accept the responsibility that is passed on to you, it will be easier still for your daughters.

Here at Smith, you have grounded your life in knowledge and, more importantly, love of learning. You have forged the bonds of friendship that round out your soul. On whatever path you now choose, I urge you to commit to a mission that stirs your soul. To be truly absorbed releases us from the limitations of ego. It melts the ice of apathy and cynicism. It gives purpose to our freedom and direction to our gifts, turning life into an honorable adventure and a source of joy. And, I strongly believe, it brings fulfillment to our lives. It leads to the most satisfying exhaustion you have ever known. I have found it in government service. I feel it every day at the Red Cross. And I want it for you.

I wish you godspeed on your exciting journey.