Final Exercises 1998: Gilmore Speech

Governor Jim Gilmore
Commencement Address, May 17, 1998
University of Virginia

It is, indeed, a very real pleasure for me to be back home here at Mr. Jefferson’s great university. I am truly honored that you have invited me to take part in today’s final exercises for the Class of 1998.

The University of Virginia has meant, and will always mean, so very much that is important in my life — in the very shaping of it, and the direction it has taken.

You know, after I took my degree, I sometimes wondered whether at some point I would be able to come back to these beautiful grounds with the opportunity to deliver a commencement address.

And sometimes in my mind, I would go over what I would like to share with graduating fourth year students and other graduates as they were about to join the ranks of nearly two centuries of UVA alumni.

Today I have that awesome opportunity — and my heart is filled to overflowing.

I recognize, of course, that it would be presumptuous of me to lecture you here today, or to preach a sermon. But let me share just a few thoughts with you — and, of course, a few very fond memories — and I might even wax a bit nostalgic for a moment or two.

But I tell you at the outset — without any hesitation whatsoever — that I am always ready to declare, at any time and in any forum, that I am a very proud son of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

And I also eagerly proclaim — in the same context and with the same deep-seated fervor — that I am a very proud son of THE University of Virginia.

I learned very much as a student on these grounds from 1967 to 1971 — majoring in foreign affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences. And — after serving in the United States Army — I returned here as a student in the Law School, from 1974 to 1977.

Here I studied many of the subjects many of you have studied — and in many of the same classrooms — and it is just possible, I suppose, that we have shared a professor or two — a very old professor.

Here I was the director of the pep band before it became the marching band of today — and I, too, have wandered up and down Rugby Road on big weekends.

Here I was a member of the Jefferson Society, and I recall all too well when Walker Chandler was elected president of the Student Council on the Anarchist ticket, and he gave me a big, fat cigar at a Jefferson Society meeting. And I lit it up, and it promptly exploded in my face. Ah, dear Walker!

It was when I came back to the University for law school that I met Roxane at a Jefferson Society meeting. She was a Society member, too, and we fell in love, and we were married.

On the dark side, I was here when the student riots took place across these grounds — on the Lawn; in the streets of the other side of the Rotunda; and at the ROTC building; and at Carrs Hill.

But I also have walked across the Lawn and in front of the Rotunda on snowy evenings when these wonderful grounds were blanketed in white, and the lights were very dim, and everything was very soft and hushed and magically beautiful.

These memories have never left me and never will, as I know full well your memories of this magnificent place — at such a pivotal time in your lives — will never, ever leave you.

U.Va helped prepare me for life, as it has prepared you.

The bachelor’s degree and the law degree I earned here equipped me and enabled me to succeed — as the degrees you receive here today will equip and enable you.

After my undergraduate education here, I went into military service and was assigned to the Army’s Intelligence School, where I finished first in my class because here —at UVA — I already had learned that success comes from hard work, and mental discipline, and a tenacious will to compete and achieve.

Because of the depth and breadth of my undergraduate education here, I was well-equipped to learn German at the Army’s Language School in Monterey, California — and to then live in Germany for a time, fully conversant in the language.

And when I received my law degree here, I had no family business to fall back on — or sponsors in law of business or high places to promote me.

I was strictly on my own, and I got my first job as a lawyer by going door to door. But once I found a job, my law degree from this university gave me all the tools I needed to become a successful practicing attorney.

And my experience in the College Republicans on these grounds gave me the training, and the knowledge of the electoral process, and the insight to go boldly forward into politics and even to realize election victory and high public office.

There is surely a lesson in all this. This is a clear demonstration of how a central good education is to enabling people — ordinary people to go forward and be successful and achieve there goals and dreams and aspirations.

In a world filled with limitations of one kind or another at every turn, it is very important for all of us to seek and find better and better ways to define excellence and then to achieve it.

Attaining excellence in an excellent college liberates and empowers undaunted people of modest means to make successes of themselves — to attain excellence in their lives.

You are receiving degrees today from the Number One public institution of higher education in America. It is a degree as good as any offered anywhere in the world. Very few college graduates have degrees of such high caliber as those awarded by this University.

The people of Virginia have made this possible. For nearly 200 years, they have sustained this university as Mr. Jefferson wanted it to be — and that places a responsibility on you.

Many of you will depart these grounds and, in your careers, go beyond Virginia — to other states and other lands. If this be your future, I urge you to take with you what you have learned here, and use it to make s a much better place of wherever you might go.

Those of you who remain in Virginia have an absolute duty to advance our Commonwealth and your communities; to engage in local activities and organizations; to develop and advocate the ideas to which your minds — enlightened here — lead you.

And so, whether you settle near or far, I call you to serve. I exhort you to promote liberty, and to enhance democracy and self-government, not only in Virginia and America, but in the world.

And I beseech you to engage in the political system — and to become involved in government yourselves.

Your education requires it. Your freedom demands it.

Mr. Jefferson had a clear vision of America’s future and of the role of education in maintaining us a free people.

As he wrote in 1816:

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

And in his 1818 report to this university, he wrote:

"Nor must we omit to mention among the benefits of education the incalculable advantage of training up able counselors to administer the affairs of our country in all its departments, legislative, executive, and judiciary, and to bear their proper share in the councils of our national government; nothing more than education advancing the prosperity , the power, and the happiness of a nation."

Another of America’s Founding Fathers, Virginia’s revered James Madison agreed when he wrote:

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own government must arm themselves e with the power knowledge gives."

Take this path Mr. Jefferson charted for our nation — and for you.

Do not become self-absorbed and interested only in gathering wealth.

Keep in mind that which Mr. Jefferson insisted be inscribed on his tombstone.

Of all his contributions to America and to the future of our nation, he wanted most to be remembered by future generations for having written the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, and for having founded the University of Virginia.

What will you be remembered for?

Will the people say: "He got rich!" — a self absorbed, self-aggrandizing testament to the great acquisition of property.

You know that is not nearly enough.

Rather, that which will be fulfilling in you lives is the satisfaction you will have in using your education to its fullest extent to better mankind.

I suggest that satisfaction would be best achieved by finding the entire community in which you live, so should you guarantee your own self-sufficiency — to stand on you own two feet — so that you do not become wards of the state or anyone else.

As you reach this important transition in you lives, I leave you with this thought: Your education, your liberty, and your duty all go hand in hand.

Mr. Jefferson, in a 1787 letter to James Madison, wrote:

"Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."

So I close this speech, knowing full well how much you have truly honored me by inviting me to be a part of this day — your day.

And here I suppose I could make some passing and perhaps amusing reference to taking a stroll or two "from Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill" — but I won’t.

Instead, from the bottom of my heart and with a great deal of affection for this place, I bid you — at every change you will have in the rest of you lives — to ever be ready to join one another in rousing chorus:

"That good old song of Wahoowah;

"We’ll sing it o’er and o’er."

And Roxane and I will be singing right along with you.

Congratulations -- and good luck.