Commencement 2009 Address
Howard R. Fricke '60
Thank you very much, President Wilson and your president’s cabinet, the Wesleyan Trustees, distinguished faculty, family, friends, and especially to all of you graduates. Congratulations to each and every one of you.
Let me first thank you for this Honorary Degree. As a person, I’m truly humbled and honored by this – but as an alum, I was wondering, and I know there are some other alums wondering – couldn’t you find anyone better than Howard Fricke ?
And, I suspect the graduates are also saying, “A Commencement speaker that’s 73 years old. I mean, how can he possibly relate to the anxiety I’m feeling as I’m about to enter this real world. Hey, he graduated 50 years ago. Why – why he’s even older than Coach Dennie Bridges.
Well, I’m here, I’m going to give it a shot. I promise I’ll keep it short.
Like many of you, when I first entered Wesleyan I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I thought about dentistry until my freshman zoology class. Whoa – cutting up dead frogs – whoa. And my zoology professor gently suggested that you really should think about things other than in the science field and I really ought to go talk to Dean Beadles about changing that major. Well, the short of that story is that I did meet with Dean Beadles, he became my mentor and he got me interested in insurance and financial services, even found me a part time job at State Farm, and really started me down a career path.
As I reflect on my 4 years here, I’ve concluded there really is something unique about Wesleyan – you have this outstanding faculty that really do take a personal interest in you. They challenge you to think independently, question why things are as they are, wonder how they should be.
And the diversity of the whole institution is really impressive – not just TALKING about the merits of diversity, but actually LIVING it. You have met, you've lived with and you're become friends with people from very different backgrounds, different interests, and different goals. Those goals are dramatically different from yours.
You have music majors really getting to know, interacting with and sometimes living with – P.E. majors, theatre majors and political science majors or, and I can’t leave this one out, a business major getting to know an English literature major, whom I married 50 years ago – my wife Sharon.
Wesleyan has also afforded you the opportunity to get involved in a number of extra-curricula activities from athletics to Homecoming to Student Senate and they gave you the authority and the responsibility to make decisions in those activities, – although I suspect there was always some faculty and administration folks in the background ready to catch you in case you were about to really screw up.
All of this is the “Wesleyan Experience,” and I'll submit that hasn’t changed much in 50 years.
The spirit of Wesleyan that was here when I was here, is very obviously alive and well and here today.
In fact about the only change I can detect is the physical campus. And to say it's much improved would clearly be an understatement. Let me tell you, you didn't miss a lot, by having classes in the burned-out basement of Duration Hall. And we were all so excited we had this new, modern building called Shaw Hall. Oh, and I think the cost of going to Wesleyan has changed a little bit. As I recall, my last year here, it was right at $700. That included tuition, and fees, as well as room and board. So $700 a semester.
But the Wesleyan culture, the Wesleyan spirit, the Wesleyan experience, really hasn't changed. So with your “Wesleyan Experience,” you’re about to enter the real world. What’s it going to be like?
In some ways, I hope it’s going to be a lot better than it has been in the last 50 or 60 years.
Although I’d be the first to admit that life has certainly been very good to me. I’ve got 3 great children, 2 of whom graduated from here, 8 wonderful grandchildren. I’ve also had a wonderful career in business and the opportunity to serve as a Cabinet Secretary for the Kansas Governor and a Cabinet Secretary for an Illinois Governor, although with some of the problems our recent Illinois Governors have had, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that.
But at least sometime during the last 50 or 60 years our values as a society have changed. Somehow we came to revere money and power as the goals to aspire to.
So how much money you have or how much power you have became the benchmarks that society use to determine your worth as an individual.
We came to idolize Bill Gates, not for the value that Microsoft and its products added to our lives, but, "Hey, how rich is he?" We venerate Warren Buffet, not for the hundreds of thousands of jobs he created and the companies he purchased, but because he’s a billionaire. We publish lists of people, how rich they are, who are the richest people in the world – not what they’re adding to society, not what they're contributing to life, but how much money they have – it’s as if somehow how much money you have and how rich you are, somehow you're a better person, and that better person is we should admire.
So, if society comes to view your net worth as a primary indicator of your worth as an individual, is it any wonder that greed, even greed of the worst kind, becomes OK. We're talking about getting rich, by any means, becomes THE GOAL that everyone should aspire to.
And, of course, that produces the Enrons and WorldComs and Bernie Madoffs and AIGs and outrageous CEO salaries, etc.
Now, let me hasten to add that most of the CEOs I’ve come to know in my career – not all, but most – share my belief that how many jobs you’ve helped create, how many lives you’ve helped enrich, how much you're giving back, are much more important than how much wealth you’ve accumulated.
But greed and the lust for power have not only infected the business world, they certainly have also infected the not-for profit and government world. We hear almost every day about some government official who "I'm just a person of modest means and I just want to serve the people” but along the way gets perks and privileges and riches that most people can’t even imagine. Is it any wonder there is so much political rancor because if I win, or my party wins, gee, that means I'm going to get more perks and more privileges and more power and that leads to more riches.
From my experience in both the corporate world and in the government sector, I believe historians are going to look back on this economic crisis we’re now experiencing, look at that period, and say it's the greed involved in all of this, our lack of trust that government officials are going to act on our behalf, but the root cause of all this is when we, as a people, began to value more what we take – how much wealth and power we accumulate – rather than how much we give.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that accumulating wealth or accumulating power and influence is wrong – what I AM saying is that those things really should be a by-product of the value you’re adding to society.
Somehow we have to get back to where we value the school teacher or the college professor more than the powerful, but maybe corrupt, government official or the rich, but maybe overpaid, CEO. Someway we have to get back to where what you’re giving back to society is valued more than what you’re taking from it.
And I think you, this graduating class, are just the right people to start making that happen.
The ethics and values you started with, honed by your Wesleyan experience, convinces me that you can help fundamentally change our society’s values.
But it won’t be easy!
I believe all of us, each of us, has an internal voice and an external voice. Your internal voice tells you what you should do to feel good about yourself. That external voice is going to tell you what you should do so others will feel good about you.
Your external voice will tell you what you should do to be admired by the world – and you’ll get lots of advice from friends, and family and coworkers, lots of people.
Your internal voice will tell you what you should do to be proud of yourself.
And you’re going to get a chance almost every day to choose between that internal voice and that external voice.
You really need to ask yourself – would you rather the world THOUGHT you were the greatest doctor, or lawyer, or politician, or artist, even though you knew you weren’t very good – or would you rather BE the greatest, even though the world thought you were a loser. Someone else described it this way – would you rather the world THOUGHT you were the world’s greatest lover even though you knew you were lousy or would you rather Be the world’s greatest lover even though everyone thought you were the world’s worst.
I think it’s this simple. If your emphasis is on what the world thinks of you (listening to that external voice) instead of what you think of yourself (your internal voice), you’re going to wind up living your life doing what others think you should do and those values, your values will really be the values of others. And for too long, I believe, those externals voices have told us the lust for greed or power or wealth – are goals to be admired.
So, listen to that internal voice. Cherish those values Wesleyan has helped you clarify. Help change our society from one that values greed and power to a society that values what you contribute – one that values how much you add not how much you take.
I’m sure you can do it! All of us here today are counting on you!
Thank you very much.