J. Brady Lum
Valedictory Exercises, May 21, 2011
University of Virginia
Thanks, Claire! Thanks Fourth-Year Class Trustees! This is an incredible invitation. I can hardly believe I’m here!
I’m on Grounds today with my wonderful wife Jill (Class of 89), daughters Perry and Sandy, and son Wiley. I’m bartering this speech -- for future admissions slots. So I hope you like it, Dean Roberts.
Tonight, most of you will dine somewhere -- around Charlottesville. Maybe you have had reservations for months. Twenty-two years ago I waited -- far too late and panicked. In a moment of inspiration -- I had the idea of a catered dinner -- in the Honor Trial room in Newcomb Hall – where I had spent many days as Chair of the Honor Committee. I thought great room -- great view. I convinced Ernie Ern, the Pat Lampkin of your day, to allow us to do it. We had a beautiful dinner -- an incredible evening. The next morning I got a loud knock on my Lawn room door. I opened it to a very irate head of Newcomb Hall – “you can’t serve alcohol in Newcomb Hall!” I am pretty sure that I had the first ever AND last ever graduation dinner in the Trial Room.
Introduction to Theme
I have a simple message for you today – say “yes” to more in life. That’s really all you need to know.
Without a doubt -- the most common question I get asked is, “How did you get to be President of Special Olympics?”
My usual response begins by telling a story of one day in 2008 in the office of the CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent.
That day had started with a phone call from his assistant. Muhtar wanted me to come up and talk about my career. I had that kind of nervous energy -- like when you get called into the teacher’s office – part excitement -- part fear.
When I marched up to his office, he welcomed me with a big grin and said, “Grab a seat and sit back. I am going to throw you a curve ball and I want you to hear me out before you respond.” You can only imagine what was going on in my mind at that time – I so didn’t want a curve ball. I wanted to move with my family to some far-flung land, like Indonesia, India or Brazil. He said that Special Olympics had asked him for help in finding the right leader and that he thought of me. ME? Why me? Why now? I have no background in Special Olympics, no special family connection, nothing. And what would that do to my 15-year career with Coca-Cola? And what about Indonesia?
Now, fast forward a couple of months -- decision time. I called a mentor I really trust. I expected him to drill me -- with a bunch of questions – you know -- pros? cons? But he had only one -- “What was your gut reaction when you first learned of the Special Olympics opportunity?” I told him that an opportunity -- like that? -- had to be for a reason. I should say “yes.” “Then do it,” he said. Special Olympics is -- all about a leap of faith -- the courage to brave the unknown.
He was right. I made that decision 3 years ago. I have never looked back.
You might think I am crazy, but the real credit for joining Special Olympics goes to scrapbooking.
Men don’t scrapbook. I do.
All of you have boxes of memorabilia stored with your parents -- in your dorm rooms – or more likely -- Facebook now!
In 1999, my father died from a heart attack at 57. My grandmother entrusted me with about 10 boxes of his stuff. I spent the next year exploring these boxes -- ultimately put together scrapbooks for me and my brothers. This started my scrapbooking passion.
Like most of us, I had boxes upon boxes of things that had been stored and moved around -- tighter than sealed caskets -- never to be unearthed -- nor re-examined. But somehow my dad’s experience -- gave me the curiosity to explore.
Creative Memory #1 – “Lake Placid Olympics”
In one box, I found a real gem – my 3rd row ticket -- to the USA-USSR Hockey game -- from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY. They called the win “Miracle on Ice.” Now, you all might not remember -- it was voted the greatest sports event of the 20th century. And my father and I were there!
I grew up in Houston -- where it is hot as Hades. I played ice hockey for nearly 8 years. Yes, I know, very strange. I was passionate about it. I loved the Olympic Games too. Somehow I convinced my father -- that we had to go to Lake Placid. I planned it all. We stayed an hour away in someone’s basement. We had no tickets. But we made it work and -- went for it. It was a trip of a lifetime!
Creative Memory #2 – “The OED”
In another box – my first essay I wrote for my Government Honors class -- Third Year. Wow, do I remember that essay. It was a 10-page paper on John Locke and the concept of liberty.
I have a vivid memory of that first day in Professor Robert Morgan’s office. He handed me back my paper -- started the class – and asked me to read my opening paragraph to my classmates. I was exploding with pride. Clearly, he had singled me out because he wanted to showcase my brilliant work – NOT!
When I finished the paragraph, he asked me to count the times I used the word liberty. Then, he pointed to his bookcase – 20 volumes of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary -- intimidatingly stacked. He ordered me to read aloud the definition of liberty. “Professor Morgan,” I said, “which of the 27 definitions would you like me to read.” “All of them,” he replied sternly.
He then sacrificed me like a hog on a spit at a Cajun Cuchon d’lait – dripping with long-windedness – imprecision -- and utter babble. I shrank with humiliation.
Creative Memory #3: “Speaking Malay”
In another box – A photograph – Me scuba diving on a Malaysian island. I remember that trip fondly. I forgot my swim suit and had to go into beach side store to get a new one. When I walked to the counter to pay -- I overheard the lady ask her colleague in Malay, “Apa yang harus saya tuduhan ini orang putih untuk pakaian renang?” or “What should I charge this White guy for this bathing suit?” I replied in Malay, “I hope you charge me the same amount that you charged the man who just left your store.” Her jaw dropped. Her face turned five shades of red. She had no idea that I spoke Malay. She was so embarrassed. She and her husband who owned the little shop -- invited me to dinner. That little incident led to a great relationship. I stayed with them every time I went back to Pulau Perhentian.
Weaving the Stories Together – Lessons Learned
What do the Lake Placid Olympics -- the Oxford -- English -- Dictionary, and -- speaking Malay have in common? Each of these is a vivid part of my life journey, among many others, that have prepared me for the unexpected.
The Lake Placid Olympics memory is about a father and son -- Saying “yes” to spontaneity and sporting adventure.
What about Professor Morgan’s English Dictionary drill? -- a humbling lesson in saying “yes” to learning — even tough feedback — in all circumstances. I can assure you my level of precision in writing was changed forever!
Speaking Malay was about saying “yes” to the welcoming gift of language -- its power of invitation -- meeting people on their turf – their terms.
Saying “yes” to Special Olympics brought all of these experiences together.
My opportunity at Special Olympics came. I could rationalize a whole bunch of things -- my professionally relevant experience, etc. But I would be lying if I said it differently. The bottom line is that I just said “yes.”
My message to you is -- just say yes.
Life is not always connected. Life is certainly not a straight line.
You -- are the point of connection. You -- are the intersection of meaning and relevance. You -- have already done great things – You’re here this morning. This is just the beginning.
What -- brings -- you -- joy? What gets you up in the morning?
Don’t be paralyzed with the thought of what comes next.
Danny Wallace wrote a hilarious book called “Yes Man.” He takes three simple words —"Say yes more"—as a challenge and says "yes" to everything for a year. He says "yes" to pamphleteers on the street. Yes -- to the credit card offers stuffing his mailbox. Yes -- to meetings with a group that believes aliens built the pyramids in Egypt. Yes -- to every invitation to go out on the town. His book was made into a movie of the same title starring Jim Carrey. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it already – very funny.
Your parents and I grew up -- bombarded in the media by First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. We heard “no” about everything. My charge to you today is to do the opposite. Just say Yes.
For some of you, this message of Yes may seem strange. You know exactly what you want to do. You have a clear path for how to get there.
But for so many of us, I believe life’s answer lies in a seemingly random pattern of saying “yes” and allowing life to connect the dots.
So many people go through -- life and work convinced -- that there is only one path open to them. The self-prophecy becomes true -- some people never -- try anything else. But the world is a huge -- glorious – experiment … not a set of rules to be followed … not boxes to the checked. How much you are willing to join in that experiment is up to you. The closer that you stick -- to the same script -- the less you will discover about what might be even better. What holds most people back is fear of losing what they already have -- however imperfect it might be. Just remember that you are in control of the experiment. You can try a little change as easily as a huge one. And if it doesn’t work -- you can always go back and try again. Saying “No” is the real risk.
When I ask my son Wiley if he wants to do something -- his usual response is -- “Sure, Daddy!” How did we lose that kind of positive attitude? -- That exuberant readiness for what is next?
We can all listen -- more carefully to our own voices -- experiences of joy. Can you hear them?
Let’s do it.