Thank you Dean Burkholder.

It was the early 1940s in Memphis, Tennessee when James Walker, a 'rough-as-a-cob' young man from South Carolina, somehow convinced the charming and beautiful Alta Belle Duckett to become his bride. They dedicated themselves to a life of service as ministers in The Salvation Army and spent the next 35 years in service to others.  Exactly 10 years after their wedding day, on a cold February morning in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, I was born. (61/49)

You will be surprised to learn that as a preacher's kid I had a drug problem. It is true.  I was DRUG to church on Sunday morning, drug to church on Sunday night, and drug to church several times during the week. 

Quite honestly, I do owe everything to my parents and the training they gave me as a youngster. Not only did they instill in me a strong work ethic, a haunting sense of right and wrong, and a sense of personal responsibility, but I also saw them on a daily basis sacrificially give of themselves to help others who were less fortunate. They were never afraid to get their hands dirty, doing whatever needed to be done, but they also got their shoulders dirty. They made a habit of lifting up others, letting them stand on their shoulders, and giving them opportunities and encouragement.

Frank Rayburn was someone they lifted up. Frank was a sophomore in high school in Greenwood, Mississippi, one of 12 children, and the son of a sharecropper, who had developed tuberculosis and was unable to work. Frank went to work at 3:00 a.m. at the Morning Star newspaper before school. Mom and Dad ensured that he was given opportunities in character building programs and encouraged with a vision of success.  Although he married and started a family soon after high school, he dreamed of a college education and took classes at the local extension center. Nineteen years after earning his high school diploma, Frank completed a bachelor's degree. He ultimately earned a Ph.D. and served on the faculty of a major state university and as national President of the Federation of Schools of Accountancy. Frank Rayburn is just one of many individuals Mom and Dad 'lifted up' - getting their shoulders dirty. 

The story of Frank Rayburn typifies my passion for Continuing Education. Within the academy that was designed for full-time students, fresh from the halls of high school, students like Frank Rayburn need an advocate. Against a national backdrop where 70 per cent plus of students fall into the non-traditional category, students need an advocate. Institutions are more accommodating than when Frank was in school; however, I wonder if we can do more. Not to relax standards, or require less of students, but to make the delivery of learning more convenient and, when possible, increase the efficiencies and effectiveness of learning. Continuing Education units nationally are asking faculty to consider lectures delivered via Podcasts rather than in the classroom; interaction, essential for learning, through virtual message boards rather that face-to-face discussion; and even self-paced instruction in the virtual reality of a video game, where successful completion requires the acquisition and the application of principles one might acquire in an economics classroom.

While the mode of delivery is being pushed, it must be shown that academic integrity is not marginalized. Courses delivered in a convenient format will mean little unless learning takes place. And, by the way, you must continue to learn. The average American changes careers five times during a lifetime. How can you protect yourself? Prepare by adopting a lifestyle of continual learning. Stay in touch with your alma mater. Become active in professional organizations. Develop a lifestyle that includes serious reading. Reserve time every day to read!

I would like to present you with three challenges.

I  challenge you to be a leader
In his book, "Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders', Patrick Williams writes that everyone has leadership potential. He identifies three important characteristics of effective leaders.

  • Leaders must have a vision.
  • Leaders must persistently communicate the vision. Leaders must be willing to sacrifice in order to achieve the vision!
  • Leaders take responsibility. They take responsibility for failures while they spread the credit broadly for success.

The journey that has brought you here has equipped you to lead. I hope you already know how to be a good and loyal follower, because that too is a crucial part of leadership.  And do not think that leadership is about control or being the boss. It is not. It is really about being responsible and serving others. All great leaders genuinely care about those who follow their leadership.

Do not be afraid to take bold action. The great humorist Will Rogers pointed out that, "Even if you're on the right track, if you just sit there, you'll still get run over." Whether you are coaching a little league team, volunteering at church, in a political campaign, or in the workplace, study effective leaders, develop your leadership skills, and look for opportunities to lead. Get your shoulders dirty!
  
I challenge you to be a good person 
Being a good person is part of what qualifies you to be a leader. Live your life with integrity. Be honest-even when it hurts! Develop more discipline, patience, and humility in your life. Always earn more than you make (think about that). Always be thankful, be generous to those less fortunate than you, and always be compassionate.  Especially show compassion to those who can do nothing for you. Listen to people attentively and be free with an encouraging word.

You will never know how important even a simple word of encouragement might be to someone. Retired major league baseball pitcher Gene Conley was asked in an interview who was his favorite manager. "Eddie Sawyer," he answered immediately, "because he was the kindest man I ever played for."  When asked to elaborate, Conley relayed that he was a pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959 in a game against the Cardinals. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, the Phillies were up by one run, but the Cards had two on, two out, with Stan Musial coming to bat. Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer goes out to the mound, removes the pitcher, and waves Gene Conley in from the bullpen. "And?" asks the impatient interviewer. "I strike Stan Musial out and win the game." Seeing the emotion welling up in the big man's eyes, the reporter asks, "Then what happened?"  Holding back the tears, Gene Conley replies, "As I'm walking off the field, Eddie's standing alone in the dugout. He shakes my hand and says, 'Thanks a lot, Gene. I really appreciate that.'" 

You mean THAT is what got 6'9" Gene Conley choked up? But here is the point. Eddie Sawyer forgot those words 45 seconds after he said them - but Gene Conley remembered those words 45 years later, and even the thought of those words caused him to become emotional. That is the power of an encouraging word. It will cost you nothing and has the power to change a life!

I challenge you to be passionate 
This is the passion that is derived from a highly disciplined, goal-centered lifestyle that keeps you on course, even amidst the most severe disappointments and setbacks. I am quite certain that each of you have experienced adversity as you have pursued the completion of this degree, but I must warn you. The challenges will not end. You will face disappointments. You will face setbacks. You may even face complete devastation.  No matter what, do not quit. Never give up. You only lose if you quit!  Do not quit. I can assure you, that you will not be the first, or the last, to deal with such issues. I recently heard someone say that, "We don't choose our ancestors…but neither do our descendants!"  So live a life of which your great-great-grandchildren will be proud. Be passionate about being a person of integrity and character, and then make decisions in light of that. And do not forget we are given people to love and things to use. Do not confuse that!
 
I am reminded of the young executive who inverted this principle. He routinely used people to get what he wanted and then, worshipped his possessions. The young man longed for an exotic sports car. When finally he was able to obtain it, he idolized the specially ordered convertible. One day, however, he was speeding around a treacherous curve.  He lost control, side-swiped another car, ripping his left arm completely away from his body. He was thrown from the car, and looked up to see his precious vehicle plunge over a cliff.  He managed to get to the edge of the cliff in time to see the car burst into flames. "My car! My car!" he sobbed uncontrollably. The paramedics arrived and attempted to get him into the ambulance, but he was fixated on the burning car. In hopes of bringing him back to reality, a paramedic said, "Please sir, we must get you to the hospital. Your arm has been severed from your body, and you must get medical attention!" Upon hearing this, the man looked down, "My arm?  My Rolex!"

There are more important things in life. Work for and pursue the important things.

Thank you and congratulations to you all!