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Office of the President
4200 54th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33711
local: (727) 864-8211
toll-free: (800) 456-9009
fax: (727) 864-1877
39th Commencement Ceremony
May 18, 2002, 5:00 p.m.
Introduction of the Commencement Speaker
It is my privilege and honor to welcome today's Commencement speaker.
A graduate of the University of Georgia, Eugene Patterson is known and respected nationally and internationally for his courageous leadership in speaking out for racial equality and for civil rights.
In 1966, as editor of The Atlanta Constitution, Mr. Patterson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his powerful and poignant editorials on desegregation.
In 1972, he moved to St. Petersburg to serve first as editor of The St. Petersburg Times and its Washington publication, Congressional Quarterly, and later as chief executive officer of The St. Petersburg Times Company. Under his leadership, the Times itself won two Pulitzer Prizes and became known as one of the top newspapers in the country.
Mr. Patterson has received the William Allen White National Award for Journalistic Merit and Honorary Degrees from more than fifteen distinguished colleges and universities, including Harvard, Duke, and Eckerd College. He was inducted into the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame in 1997.
Two years ago, when selected to receive the LeRoy Collins Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. Patterson was described as
a beacon of hope in the long dark night of the soul of the American South during the struggle against the immorality of racial injustice. Like Governor Collins, he showed unbelievable courage in standing against the tide of popular sentiment for what he believed to be right.
Recognized for his uncompromising integrity and ethics, Mr. Patterson has been called a "journalism giant." At Eckerd College, we are fortunate to call Gene Patterson our friend.
Editor Emeritus of The St. Petersburg Times
Mr. President, honorable trustees, distinguished faculty, proud families and admiring friends -- and, you, yes you graduates in the Eckerd College Class of 2002, I am now going to bestow upon you your reward. In recognition of the very long road you've traveled en route to completion of your higher education, I promise you to make my bloviation the shortest commencement speech you could ever pray for.
Fittingly, in the outfield of this cozy ballpark, I salute you for the home run each one of you is hitting here today. The Devil Rays have managed to lose a few, but out there now under those caps and gowns, I see 500 winners.
I congratulate you for fitting yourselves educationally to be leaders as you live your years ahead. Whatever field or occupation or duty or service to others you may now be drawn to pursue as leaders in the adventure of life, I offer you just one assurance: Leadership isn't about winning.
Since that point may seem a little jarring to you, I hasten to explain it by telling you stories of three losers. All three happened to be in politics - all were Southern governors - but their allegories can translate to whatever life you now may chance to lead.
The first, and maybe noblest, was the late LeRoy Collins. He was governor of Florida in the 1950s when state laws forcing segregation of the races still existed across the old Confederate South including Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1954 that schools must be desegregated. But demagogue governors like Alabama's Wallace, Mississippi's Barnett, Louisiana's Davis, Arkansas' Faubus and South Carolina's Thurmond howled defiance of the federal law and conditioned their willing electorates to defy and resist justice for black citizens by voting for them. In Florida, LeRoy Collins stood up. He went on statewide television to tell Floridians the truth, that they must obey the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court. He vetoed racist measures passed by the segregationist legislature. He refused to yield to the temptation for any politician to be a crowd-pleaser and go for the hails and hurrahs and not risk boos and catcalls for taking an unpopular course. It's far harder to lead public opinion than to follow it. Collins led. And Florida punished him for his brave leadership by never electing him, perhaps the most honorable and distinguished leader in the state's history, to any public office again. When he ran for the Senate at the close of the 1960s, he was rejected and crushed at the polls by a long forgotten crowd-pleaser whose campaign distributed photographs of Collins walking - as a federal peacemaker - alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Responsible leadership made him a loser -- or was he?
Ernest Vandiver: He was governor of my native Georgia, elected as a segregationist, when a federal court ordered two qualified black students admitted to the all-white University of Georgia. Unable to duck or dodge any longer, Governor Vandiver assembled his legislative leaders to form a consensus on whether they wanted him to close the university or obey the law and desegregate it. All of his dozens of advisers, except two, demanded that he close the university. Left alone with his conscience, Vandiver opted to lead. He sent the black kids into the university and when riots against them broke out on campus he deployed the state patrol and conserved the peace. That courageous act destroyed Ernie Vandiver's political future as he knew it would. He took soundings on his chances of making a race for the U.S. Senate at the end of the 1960s and found he had zero support statewide. Punished for being a responsible leader, he retired from politics and went home to practice law. He was a loser -- or was he?
Carl Sanders: He was one of Vandiver's two legislative advisers who had counseled him to desegregate the University of Georgia, and he succeeded Vandiver as a moderate governor who led toward racial justice. Largely because of the courage of these two governors, Georgia separated itself from the backward racial politics of other Deep South states. As a direct result, Atlanta and the state took off socially and economically in the 1960s and can lay claim today to being the capital of the South. But the segregationist voters punished Sanders when he ran for governor again in 1970. They elected an opponent who pleased the segregationists by gestures of friendship toward Alabama's Governor Wallace. Sanders never got elected to anything again and retired from politics to practice law. After taking office as governor, the opponent who beat him never pandered again to the segregationists who elected him, and he went on to be president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. So Sanders was a loser -- or was he?
Of course, Governors Collins and Vandiver and Sanders were losers -- in the short run. Their courage and honesty ended their careers in politics. But their courage and honesty and readiness to lead, no matter the risk, no matter the peril to themselves, gave them honorable places in history for the long run. Collins is now revered as one of Florida's all-time great statesmen. Vandiver and Sanders have been rehabilitated and recognized and celebrated as key makers of Georgia's enlightened record. All three will be remembered in their great-grandchildren's textbooks as Southern leaders of great worth and wisdom and rare courage, while the cringing and yelping seekers of popularity are well forgotten.
So there's my case that leadership isn't always about winning. What it's about is the courage to do what's right, whether it carries a short-term penalty or not and then, depending on time and history, to make your children proud they're descended from such a leader as you.
That's the leadership that matters most, to us all, at the end of the road - isn't it? And that is the graduation goal I wish for each of you, that you never let someone else's pressure for your conformity deflect you from letting your own conscience be your guide always.