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Thomas R. Hoerr

Good afternoon.

First of all, welcome to everyone.  Welcome to the staff, the faculty, friends, and relatives.  Most of all, welcome to the graduates.  Congratulations!

This is an exciting day for you.

I remember all very well when I sat in those seats.   It wasn't too many years ago when I received my master's from UM-St. Louis.  Actually, to be honest, it was quite a few years ago when I received my master's from UM-St. Louis. 

I owe a great debt to this university.  The University of Missouri St. Louis took a chance on me.  To the degree that I am a success today, and I always say the jury is still out, but to the degree that I am a success, a large part of that comes right back to this institution.  The skills, the knowledge, the understanding that I have learned, has stayed with me over the years.  I treasure the degree, and I congratulate you for having it.

I want to start off by asking you a couple of questions.  This is an academic institution, so that seems appropriate.

Raise your hand if you have a college degree.

Raise your hand again if you have more than one degree.

Raise your hand really high if you remember who your commencement speaker was.

Thank you for that humbling introduction!

I can't remember mine either.

Second question.  This is a question that will involve a little interaction, a little engagement.  What I would like each of you to do is first of all, think of the teacher who made a difference to you – grade school, high school, university.  Does everyone have that person in mind?  What I'd like you to do is turn to your neighbor and give them some adjectives that describe that person.  What characteristics described that teacher?

Okay, raise your hand if you named a teacher because that person was easy and let you get away with a lot.

Raise your hand if you named somebody because of the content they knew or their knowledge or mastery of a subject matter.

How about someone who was demanding or challenging or pushed you?

How about someone who took the time to know you?  (The most hands were raised.)

I ask this question a great deal because it fits my point.

Invariably the teacher who made a difference was the person who took the time to know you. They saw you as more than somebody who was learning information.  They saw you as a person, and they reached out.

Let me begin by talking about Helen Mayfield.  Helen Mayfield was my first grade teacher.  She was a teacher who believed in me. I went to Monroe School in south St. Louis near Broadway and Chippewa.  She believed in me.  She knew I could do better and wouldn't let me get away with sloppy work.  She wouldn't let me be careless.  She always knew I could do better.

Back in those days, school was from kindergarten through eighth grade.  Every once in a while, she would see me in the hall and take me aside and say, "Tommy, how are you doing?"  She was a teacher who cared about me.  She knew me.

I've written two books, and in both those books I've listed Mrs. Mayfield in the dedication.  She knew.  She cared.

Let me tell you about a teacher at my school, New City School. Denise is a fourth grade teacher.  Denise had a student named Mikey.  Mikey is now a college sophomore about 6' 2" and 230 lbs.  If he knew I was calling him Mikey, he would just cringe with embarrassment.  His Mom still calls him Mikey.

About three years ago, we had a session with alumni parents, and I asked them to tell me about their experiences with our school.  Mikey's Mom told me that the most wonderful teacher was Denise.  I asked, "Why is that?"  The parent told us about her son, Mikey.

"Mikey was a kid with gifts, but he wasn't always an organized child.  Mikey needed someone to organize him and push him in the right direction.  Fourth grade was a big step up, with a lot more homework.

Denise used to call our house about 7:30 in the morning and ask him what was in his backpack.  She'd call once in a while, once a week, twice a week. His Mom said the phone calls changed this kid's life.   He never knew when she was going to call but he always had his backpack ready!"

This was a teacher who did more than teach, but took the time to know the children.  This applies if you're a principal knowing your teachers, a superintendent knowing your principals, or a teacher knowing your kids.

The end of this first story was about 15 years ago.  I was reading the obituaries one day, and found Mrs. Mayfield had passed away. 

I went to the funeral home and I walked in and there was a woman about my age.  I said, "I'm here to pay my respects to Mrs. Mayfield."  She said, "You must be Tom."  I said "How did you know that?"  She replied "Helen Mayfield was my mother, and she talked about you." 

Now, I'm sure Mrs. Mayfield didn't just talk about me.  I'm sure Mrs. Mayfield talked about all of the kids in her class.  To her, all of us were more than a learner, we were a person.  So that's the first message.

The second message is about two other people.

You know the first one, although you probably don't really know her - Rosa Parks.  I talk about Rosa Parks a lot because she was a change agent, but she wasn't a politician.  She wasn't a business leader.  She wasn't a big attorney.  She was a seamstress. But of course, she was more than a seamstress.  She was a person that said, "this is not acceptable.  I'm not going to put up with this."  She started a 381-day transit strike because she wasn't satisfied with the status quo.

The second person about whom I'll talk is Mike Thomas.  Mike is, unfortunately, now deceased.  Mike and I were getting our doctorates together at Washington University.  He was a little ahead of me, and he became the principal back then of Pruitt High School – Pruitt Tutorial School.

It was a new school they had formed in the old Pruitt-Igo complex.   Mike had grown up in the Pruitt-Igo complex, and it resonated with him.  I remember being with Mike when he got the job, and about two days later I asked him how the job was going. 

He had been there two days and said, "Something's got to change.  I don't like the name of the school. Pruitt Tutorial means these kids have a problem and they need to be tutored. That's not the case at all. The problem is with the system and society.  I'm going to defend these kids.  It's going to be called Pruitt Alternative School." 

So he began calling it that.  I was at a meeting with him once, and the assistant superintendent told him, "Don't talk about Pruitt Alternative School.  The stationery is made, the phone book is made.  It's Pruitt Tutorial. Get used to it!" 

Well, Mike did not get used to it.   Mike went out and spent his own money and bought new letterhead that said Pruitt Alternative School. He bought business cards that said Pruitt Alternative School.

About three months later I was in a meeting with Mike, and the deputy superintendent was asking for updates and without even thinking, the superintendent said to Mike, "So what's happening at Pruitt Alternative School?"   I looked at Mike, and he winked at me.

What Mike and Rosa Parks had in common was an unwillingness to accept the status quo, and that is the unwillingness that you graduates have to have.  I don't care whether you're going to the best school, or the worst school, it's got to get better.

The world is changing at an incredible clip.  The only thing that we can predict, is that it's going to change.  Every one of us has to have a responsibility to reach down and make things happen.

Now, so far, you're nodding that this is a typical commencement address.  So let me push you.  Making things happen means making people unhappy.  That means you've got to be willing to ask the hard questions. You've got to be willing to not settle for the easy answer.

You want to make an omelet, you got to break the eggs.  What that means is that you have to go to your setting - whatever it is - and say it is not good enough, and I'm going to make it better.  Now I know I'm going to get knocked down, but I'm going to get up and make it better.

I say that to you because you are graduating from the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

You have the skills, the knowledge, the understanding.  You've got everything you need, and you can do it.  I'm pleased to welcome you as a fellow graduate.  Thank all of you for being here.