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Viewpoint: The best commencement speech never given

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Winston Churchill is often cited as giving the shortest, but most powerful commencement address ever. The way I heard the story, it was 1941 when he visited his alma mater, Harrow School, in London.  Churchill stepped up to the podium and simply said “Never give up.” 

The roar of the crowds made him pause before he could go on. He then repeated the phrase, “Never give up.” This time the crowd went even wilder. 

Several minutes later, he delivered the line once again, but this time with even more vigor. “Never give up!” Churchill exclaimed, then sat down. And the best speech in history would be passed down for generations.

Dana McConnellThe only problem is that Churchill never gave that speech, exactly. While it was recorded that he did visit his alma mater and speak to those students on Oct. 29, 1941, that speech was actually two pages long. 

This time of year when we’re celebrating new graduates, I’m reminded about my own alma mater and what I might say to those students graduating today. 

What bit of wisdom would I give to those entering adulthood?  By the time we hit our 30’s and 40’s, we’ve no doubt learned a few of life’s lessons we wish we had known back then, things that would have made our young lives much simpler and more meaningful.

Here’s a stab at one such commencement speech I might write:

To all those entering your next phase in life, I have three “V”s for you.

  • Vote – No matter your gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, geography, orientation, or disability, you have the same powerful vote as anyone else.  Don’t vote based on optics, or someone who is nice to look at or happens to look like you.  Instead, vote for those who best represent your values.  Learn who the candidates are and what they stand for.  Voting is a privilege and your civic duty.  Your generation will have a significant impact on the future of our nation.
  • Volunteer – Everyone has a passion, and everyone can make a difference.  Whether you volunteer at your school, the local food pantry, your church, or by cleaning up a park, it’s important to give back to your community.  As you make volunteering a priority, you are setting an example for your family and friends. This also looks great on job resumes and increases your exposure to new people and connections (called networking). 
  • Value — yourself and others – Whether you become a plumber, bus driver, banker, trash collector, mother, father, waiter, teacher, police officer, engineer, or a janitor, know that you have a vital role to play in our community. Treat everyone with respect, whether they have earned it or not.  And no matter where you are, be a positive example to those around you.

So, that’s it graduates. Vote, Volunteer, and Value yourself and others. If you can do that, you’ll be headed in the right direction. Good luck.

Although this speech wouldn’t win awards, it might at least speed up the ceremony. I truly respect all those who have worked hard to achieve this milestone despite obstacles, disappointments, and personal challenges. 

Whether you know someone graduating from high school, a technical school, college, or the seminary, this is a wonderful accomplishment that deserves recognition. 

Congratulations to all our Upstate graduates. Good luck.

Dana McConnell is the executive director of the Center for Developmental Services in Greenville. She can be reached at Dana.McConnell@cdservices.org.  

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