President's speech at December Commencement

Good afternoon again, everyone.  It’s graduation day, how does that sound to you?

I am so proud to be with all of you here, my favorite graduating class ever, and it will remain that way, at least until May 2019!

Welcome to all of you who are family and friends of the graduates. By extension you are all part of our university family.  You cheered these students on, and you cheered them up when they needed it.  Ultimately, you helped and encouraged these soon-to-be USC alumni to “take flight.”


The path to success is often non-linear, and yours may be too.  Embrace that possibility, but don’t be passive about it.  Drive the path you want to follow and don’t be a back-seat passenger.  


Graduates, 115 years ago, in 1903, on this very day, December 17, and barely 400 miles from here, one of history’s most sought after achievements was realized-- humans took flight for the first time.

On the windswept dunes of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, readied with passion and a dream, and just like you, unlocked the elusive door of human flight, changing history forever.

At 10:35am on that December 17th, Orville won a coin toss with his brother to determine that he would be the one to actually fly.  So Orville climbed up on the flying machine they had designed, laid down flat on the wing and faced forward into a brisk wind.  Behind him rotated two ungainly looking propellers connected to a twelve-horsepower engine, that would be about the size of a lawnmower engine today.

I’ll tell you what happened in a moment.  But first, let me remind you that humans’ ability to fly, something that 2.6 million Americans do every day, had foiled centuries of inventors.  The Greeks told the story of Daedalus and Icarus.  They flew too close to the sun with their wax wings. 

The great Leonardo da Vinci sketched and experimented with a way to get himself airborne, to no avail.  The person who depicted Heaven with mastery could not even get off the ground.  Hundreds of others tried, then the two brothers came along.  Neither of them had earned a high school diploma.  Not that they weren’t smart, but in 1903, less than one percent of all Americans were enrolled in college.   

Wilbur was whip smart, but the family moved in the spring of his senior year of high-school so he never graduated.  Orville was not an exceptional student and dropped out of school before his senior year to launch a weekly small-town newspaper.

They worked at the paper together for a while, but it wasn’t “happening” for them.  So, they saved money and opened the Wright Cycle Company, where they repaired bicycles and then started designing their own.  Their true calling, however, was flight.

They attributed their interest in aviation to a small helicopter type toy their father brought back from an overseas trip to France.  Fashioned from bamboo, two propellers, and rubber bands, the toy was crudely made but it fascinated them.  Now in their bike shop, and in their late twenties, they dove into the study of flight science, focusing on the failed attempts and limited successes of others.

They worked side by side six days a week, whenever they could find time at the cycle shop.  They complemented each other.  Wilbur was introverted and thoughtful and he handled the business operations; Orville was outgoing and more mechanically inclined.

The parents here with us today are probably starting to worry that I’m suggesting to you that you not stay on your chosen path.  Not at all, if you have chosen a path that you’ve well prepared for and are excited about, that is simply perfect. 

But it’s not just the Wright Brothers who hadn’t figured out their exact calling by your age.  Mark Cuban was a bartender, Tina Fey was a childcare worker, and Howard Shultz, the CEO of a Starbucks, was a copy machine salesman at your age.

The path to success is often non-linear, and yours may be too.  Embrace that possibility, but don’t be passive about it.  Drive the path you want to follow and don’t be a back-seat passenger.  Get behind the wheel and get in the cockpit-- pardon the pun. 

As I step down next year, I might remain open to the possibility that I’ll find my true calling, although I hardly think there is a better job in the world than Gamecock President!

Ok, now I’ll tell you what happened after Orville climbed on to the wing.  They started the engine.

The Flyer began to move along a sixty-foot launching rail on the ground.  Wilbur ran alongside the Flyer, supporting the wingtip so that it wouldn’t drag in the sand.  Near the end of the rail, the machine lifted into the air, rising suddenly to about ten feet, then ducking quickly to the ground.  The erratic flight would last for all of twelve seconds and cover 120 feet.  Their fourth and last “flight” of the day lasted only 59 seconds.

Today, nobody remembers how long these flights lasted, or that they barely got off the ground.  All we remember is the history that was made that day at Kitty Hawk and that the world was never again the same. 

In fact, Neil Armstrong paid homage to the brothers by carrying a piece of their Flyer’s wooden propeller inside his spacesuit when he became the first person to step foot on the moon in 1969!

Graduates, history is also being made today, and it’s your history.  Don’t take this day lightly.  Remember and commemorate December 17th every year.  And today, we are providing elaborate and great fanfare, just for you, for your graduation.  Celebrate with gusto, whether you are the first in your family to graduate from college, or the 25th. 

 Today is a really big day as you start your path.  Like the Wright Brothers, you may not have always soared that high.  You may regret not taking that class you always hoped to, or you may wish you had prepared differently for a certain exam, but all that is behind you now.  In a few minutes, you will be taking flight!

 Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s show the class of December 2018 that we know that these graduates can reach their goals because they are about to take flight as graduates of the University of South Carolina!