When you come to a fork in the road
Across many campuses—including ours—it's fall commencement
time. Many graduates will be entering a world dramatically changed
by the business and economic turmoil of the past months.
Dean Bierbauer delivered the commencement address at Lander
University in Greenwood, South Carolina, on December 13. His
remarks are below.
Thank you for this opportunity to be with you for this celebration.
I will be at our own commencement on campus in Columbia on Monday.
For us, it is one of three days a year that I can count on seeing
pretty much nothing but happy—and sometimes relieved – faces.
From time to time, I have been asked to be a commencement speaker.
That’s included my high school in Pennsylvania and my alma
mater, Penn State. I am always mindful that I do not remember
who spoke at my commencement or what he said. I do recall that
it was a “he.” Those were still the unenlightened
dark ages. As I look out here, I see a picture very similar to
ours at USC—more women than men. The senior members of
my college’s staff—the directors of both our schools,
the associate dean, the director of development, our alumni relations
director—are all women.
Life is about change. It is not about constancy and stagnation.
How many of you voted this year for the first time in your lives
in a presidential election? Regardless of how you voted, you
were cognizant, I trust, of the notion that this election was
about change. If only the change from the administration of the
past eight years. I was in Washington on election night, broadcasting
from a rooftop overlooking the White House a block away. When
the polls closed on the West Coast and Barack Obama’s electoral
vote projection clinched the election, it was as though the doors
of Washington had sprung open. People started streaming toward
the White House from all directions. Perhaps 2000 of them gathered
on Pennsylvania Avenue. And the chant that wafted up to us on
the rooftop was “yes, we can.”
This election, unquestionably the broadest, deepest, longest,
most expensive, most diverse and most dynamic in my lifetime—therefore,
also in yours—was also about generational change, philosophical
change, attitudinal change, even technological change. The Internet,
blogs, YouTube and Face Book were all campaign elements. This
election was cast in your language on your turf.
Your lives are about to change again. You knew that. Now here’s
the inherent problem in commencement speeches. You have just
spent the past four—or five—years amassing some 120-plus
academic credits in a wide variety of subjects, accruing knowledge
in your specialized course of study, absorbing the wisdom of
dozens of professors—either by inhalation or osmosis—sharing
the collective experience of your classmates, fraternity brothers,
sorority sisters, soulmates. And I’m supposed to impart
some additional nugget of universal and eternal wisdom in a ten-minute
speech—the university web site says I will deliver a “motivational
speech.” I sense you are already motivated by today’s
event. (And I’ve already blown two minutes of my ten.)
Perhaps the best thing I can tell you is that just when you
think you’ve got it figured out and gotten it right, someone
will throw you a curve ball and the game will change. Things
don’t happen on a predictable timetable.
Albert Einstein explained his theory of relativity more than
100 years ago. E=mc2. We’ve probably all known that, repeated
it and—because Einstein was cool way before his time—took
it for granted, whether or not we understood it. It means that
the amount of energy is equal to the mass multiplied by the square
of the speed of light. Sure, you physics majors say. Yet only
recently has an international team from Germany, France and Hungary
using supercomputers managed to prove, as one web site describes
it, that the “theory is actually right from a subatomic
What’s my point? The tricky things in life—and a
lot of life is tricky—are not easily figured out. Not if
it takes 100 years to prove what Einstein intuitively knew a
century ago. Not in my ten minutes—now three—or four--of
Have you seen the movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill
Murray? It’s about a local television reporter (I can relate
to that) assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day ritual in
Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. Local lore has it that if Punxsatawney
Phil—the groundhog—sees his shadow, there will be
six more weeks of winter. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, that’s
an important thing to know. Actor Bill Murray, as the reporter,
somehow gets the story wrong and is doomed to repeat Groundhog
Day—day after agonizingly repetitious day—until he
gets it right.
In truth, no two days are alike, even when it seems they might
be. You get up at the same hour, go through the same morning
habits—exercise, shower, shave (well, I don’t shave),
dress, eat the same breakfast—wheat chex, granola, banana
and raisins with 2% milk--no, I actually like it—read half
the newspaper (oh, your generation may not read newspapers—make
that check your Face Book), and dash to work.
But one day, you may skip the exercise part because it’s
really cold and, well, you just don’t feel like it. And
you forgot to pick up your laundry, so as one Johnny Cash song
says, you “put on your cleanest dirty shirt”. And
you’re out of bananas, so you forego the chex and granola,
too, and stop at Starbucks for a “grande” and a blueberry
muffin instead. And you sit and sip your grande and read the
whole newspaper. And there on page 11 of the business section
you see a story that captures your imagination. And you start
doodling on the napkin and soon you have a notional business
plan for that social networking web site that no one else has
thought of, and you can see it generating, oh, easily a million
dollars in the first six months. And this is no Groundhog Day!
This is a Yogi Berra day.
I know commencement speeches traditionally quote the ancient
great philosophers—as Aristotle learned from Plato….
Instead, I have a rather eclectic group of heroes. Einstein,
Johnny Cash and Yogi Berra. [Not Yogi Bear.] Does anyone now
know who Yogi Berra is? He was a Hall of Fame catcher for the
New York Yankees and manager of the Yankees and the New York
Mets. I met Yogi Berra once. He was quite a baseball player.
Caught the only perfect game thrown in a World Series. These
days Berra may be more remembered for a collection of malapropisms,
whether true or not, that are attributed to him, such as: “It
ain’t over until it’s over.” “It’s
like déjà vu, all over again.” And one I
cite with some regularity: “When you come to a fork in
the road, take it.”
So here we are, at a fork in the road. (It’s taken you
four years and me about six minutes to get you there.)
This city, Greenwood, once thrived on cotton mills and the railroad.
Not any more.
My friend Judy Burns and several generations of her family have
owned and worked at the Greenwood Index-Journal. But the newspaper
industry is changing rapidly and dramatically. Sometimes, I get
the headlines on my iPhone.
Today, Greenwood has new technology-based industries—Fuji
and Solutia—and, like any city, you hope there will be
The auto industry, steel, durable goods once seemed to be places
where you could work for life and pass on your job to your son…or
daughter…with unions protecting your jobs, your rights,
your pensions. Look at the headlines out of Detroit these days.
For my generation there was still a notion that you would go
to work for a company and perhaps spend your professional life
there. I have high school classmates who joined IBM right out
of college and retired comfortably 30 years later. I’m
But I’m not complaining. Because I’m a fortunate
graduate of the Yogi Berra school of career planning, summa cum
laude. When you come to the fork in the road take it. I’ve
got enough forks to fill the silverware drawer.
My freshman year at Lehigh University was a year of exploration.
Alas, I was so busy that I did not explore the inside of enough
of my classes, primarily that 8am calculus class. (Remember that?)
I did not know it at the time, but adversity is the gateway to
opportunity. So I spent the next three years in the U.S. Army
acquiring an excellent working knowledge of the Russian language
and, later, undergraduate degrees in Russian and journalism and
a graduate degree in journalism. Within a short time, I found
myself as a foreign correspondent, first in Belgrade, Yugoslavia;
then Vienna, Austria; Bonn, Germany; London; Moscow, then still
the capitol of the Soviet Union, and back in Germany again.
In all, I have lived in seven countries and worked in dozens,
some of which no longer exist in the form they did then.
That period of wanderlust—more than a decade—was
followed by more than 20 years as a CNN correspondent in Washington
with several forks on that stretch of the road — the Pentagon,
the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and hundreds of
thousands of miles covering five presidential election campaigns.
In 2001, I came to the big fork in the road and decided that
after more than 30 years of daily deadlines, days in the sun
or rain, nights in the dark or cold, holidays away from home
and missed family occasions that change might be a good thing.
So I and my encouraging wife and uprooted son came to South
Carolina in 2002 for a new academic career as a dean and professor,
now in my seventh year. Susanne—also a journalist with
the Associated Press—and Andrew, a high school senior coming
to the fork in the road you were at four years ago, are here
with me today.
Every one of those places where the road splits has required
a decision made with one measure of enthusiasm and one of trepidation.
At no point could I ever have told you that on December 13, 2008,
I would be at Lander University receiving your honor and sharing
your experience. There’s never been a Groundhog Day along
the way. There may have been days that started out seeming awfully
familiar; they just never ended that way, even if only by an
increment of change.
Well, that’s the condensed version of my life. And I’m
about nine minutes on here and getting panicky because I’m
just about the last thing between you and your becoming genuine
college graduates. No time to tell you about my international
rugby career (short, sweaty and in its final act quite painful),
or meeting presidents, prime ministers and kings, or crossing
the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian railroad, or paddling
a raft 150 miles down the Grand Canyon.
Yogi doesn’t know it, but I’ve spent a lot of time
with him at one fork in the road or another.
Now it’s your turn.
Don’t know just where you’re headed? That’s
ok. Think you do, but are not certain? Not a problem. Haven’t
got a clue, so better go to grad school? Call me. We’ve
got a couple of interesting programs in information science and
mass communications. Got it down pat, job in hand, sitting at
the wheel, road ahead straight and bright? All right! Good luck.
Watch out for the turns and the deer in the headlights.
Change and temporary uncertainty are O K. You don’t want
to know everything that lies ahead. That would take the excitement
out of it. Or from a different perspective, if you knew, you
might never get out of bed in the morning.
But my time’s up. Yours isn’t. The fork in the road
is just outside the door. God speed.