Gen. Martin Dempsey’s Notre Dame commencement speech is a powerful tribute to the importance of faith, country, and education.
This past weekend, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 2016 Irish America Hall of Fame inductee, gave the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame’s 171st commencement ceremony. Addressing the 2,163 undergraduates on an unseasonably brisk day in South Bend, Dempsey began his speech with a “graduate karaoke” round to warm up the crowd, à la James Cordon’s “Carpool Karaoke” sketches, taking the crowd through Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Train’s “Drive By,” and Lukas Graham’s “7 Years.”
The rest of the speech touched upon more traditional commencement address subjects, homing in on the four words of the Notre Dame slogan: God, Country, Notre Dame.
“Sometimes we wait for thunderclaps, drumrolls and clarion calls to alert us to what’s important when, actually, it’s most often the subtle and persistent signals around us that make the most difference. Persistent signals like those around you these past four years. Words like: God, Country, Notre Dame,” he said.
“As of today, you are part owners of the greatest nation on the face of the earth.”
He also touched on his own Irish heritage:
“I am the grandson of four Irish immigrants and a military leader of 41 years who has served, lived, and built relationships around the world. I report to you today that the America l know is strong, and it is admired, sometimes begrudgingly, but among freedom-loving people, we remain the partner of choice.
“The America I know is trusted, sometimes guardedly, but among those who aspire to improve the lives of their citizens, among those who feel vulnerable, and among those who want an equal voice in a partnership, we remain the partner of choice. The America I know leads, sometimes cautiously, but always ethically.
“America is the world’s engine, but also its conscience. We are the petri dish of diversity and inclusiveness. To channel Sinatra once more, if humanity can make it here, it has a chance to make it anywhere,” he said.
In his advice to the graduates, Dempsey invoked W.B. Yeats called on the audience to possess an “immigrant spirit.”
“For you to lead this country, we don’t just need you to succeed; we need you to inspire,” he said. “We need you to have a warrior’s heart, an immigrant’s spirit, and a servant’s soul. In describing tumultuous times in Europe just after WWI, my favorite poet, WB Yeats, said: ‘Talent perceives differences; genius unity.’ In our own tumultuous times, we need your genius.”
He also implored the graduates to live what he called a “felt” life, again referencing Yeats:
“Yeats penned this about his own life: ‘Say where man’s glory most begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends.’ I challenge you to make each other proud in the future as you have in the past.
“The end of the beginning of your education is at hand.
“We can’t possibly know what will come next for you. History will find some of you but not all of you. Because you can’t know which of you will make history, you must do your best to be ready.”
A complete transcript of his remarks can be read below.
Also at the commencement, Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the university. The two praised each other’s commitment to governance and also spoke of their shared Irish heritage and faith.
“As Speaker, I always drew a distinction between ‘compromise’ and ‘common ground,'” Boehner said, “because I truly believe they are two different things, and the fact of the matter is, you can find common ground with people on the other side without compromising on your core beliefs. Ladies and gentlemen, Vice President Joe Biden is one of those people.”
“Let’s get something straight right off the bat,” Biden opened. “I don’t like John Boehner. I love him.”
He also spoke of his recent meeting with Pope Francis. “‘You’re always welcome here,’ Pope Francis said,” reported Biden. “That is the message he’s sent to the world and the reason why he’s the most respected man in the world, not just among Catholics, but among Muslims, Hindus, other Christians and the Jewish community. ‘You are always welcome here’ is the message he was urging upon Congress and all of us who hold high office, to extend our hands as Americans and say, ‘You are always welcome here.'”
Following the speeches, General Dempsey was awarded an honorary degree, along with five other recipients: molecular microbiologist Rita Colwell; civil rights movement leader Diane Nash; outgoing University Board of Trustees chairman Richard Notebaert; internationally acclaimed jazz and classical musician and composer Arturo Sandoval; and Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies. A sixth honoree, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., received an honorary degree Saturday evening while serving as the presiding celebrant of Notre Dame’s 2016 Baccalaureate Mass.
Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 2016 University of Notre Dame Commencement Address
Thank you, Father John, for the honorary degree and for the privilege of addressing Notre Dame’s Class of 2016.
Congratulations to Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner on their well-deserved awards.
Congratulations to those presented honorary degrees today.
I know we will all treasure the experience and like these graduates here work to bring honor to this great university.
Congratulations to the parents and family members of our graduates. They couldn’t have done it without you!
Most important, congratulations to the Notre Dame Class of 2016!
I’m here with my wife, Deanie. We’re married nearly 40 years. To put my accomplishments in perspective, when I was named one of the 100 most influential leaders in the world by TIME magazine in 2015, I told my staff that there must be some mistake since I’m not even the most influential person in my own house!
Pretty cool being part of the class of 2016. I’m guessing I’m the senior member.
So as the senior member of the class, I want to make sure you’re ready to graduate.
You’ve all heard of James Corden’s “carpool karaoke.” He actually got the idea from me. Well, not exactly. But several years ago I invented “graduation karaoke.” Here’s how it works.
I’ll sing one line from three songs, and you follow by singing — ideally together — the next line. One song from my time, one song from your freshman year here at Notre Dame, one song from your senior year. Here goes.
“New York, New York” (Frank Sinatra, 1980): Start spreadin’ the news … we’re leaving today.
“Drive by” (Train, 2012) … Oh I swear to ‘ya, I’ll be there for ‘ya … this is not a drive by eh eh eh eh.
“7 years” (Lukas Graham, 2016) … Once I was 7 years old my momma told me go make yourself some friends or you’ll be lonely.
To paraphrase the psalms: On such a joyful day … “how can we keep from singing!”
Now that I know you are prepared to graduate — but clearly not ready to pursue a singing career — I will continue.
There’s a story told of a small parish priest in a rural part of Indiana whose church was being threatened by a flood. As the waters rose, one of his parishioners with a small boat floated up to the church and called for the priest to get into the boat and save himself. “No” said the priest, “l’ll be fine. The Lord will provide for me.”
Awhile later, as the flood waters rose to the second floor of the church, other parishioners came by in another boat and pleaded with the priest to get into the boat and save himself. “No,” replied the priest. “I place my faith in the Lord.”
Later still, the waters rose up the church steeple and, as the priest hung on tightly so that he wasn’t washed away, another boat came by. But still the priest refused to get into the boat.
Eventually, the flood waters covered the church, and the priest was swept away and drowned.
When he got to heaven, Saint Peter met the priest at the pearly gates.
The priest approached Saint Peter perplexed and even a little angry. “I had faith in the Lord,” he said, “why didn’t he assist me in my hour of need?”
“Well,” said Saint Peter, “We did send three boats.”
Sometimes we wait for thunderclaps, drumrolls and clarion calls to alert us to what’s important when, actually, it’s most often the subtle and persistent signals around us that make the most difference.
Persistent signals like those around you these past four years. Words like: God, Country, Notre Dame.
Each of these has a definition; but more important, they each have profound meaning in your life.
A few thoughts about each.
Your faith-based education has taught you and will remind you — if you allow it to — that it is not just what you accomplish in life but how you accomplish it.
You leave Notre Dame understanding that the study of your faith, like your education, doesn’t end today. Your faith, like your education, cannot survive if dormant.
Remember that as daily events conspire to cause you to forget it.
I’m sure that as you prepare to depart from Notre Dame the world outside these hallowed grounds may seem impossibly complex and irrevocably divided.
In the fourth century Saint Augustine wrote this: “Bad times, hard times, this is what the people keep saying. But let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times.”
If Augustine was right, as I think he was, then we must continue to grow in faith to be equal to the times.
As of today, you are part owners of the greatest nation on the face of the earth.
I am the grandson of four Irish immigrants and a military leader of 41 years who has served, lived, and built relationships around the world. I report to you today that the America l know is strong, and it is admired, sometimes begrudgingly, but among freedom-loving people, we remain the partner of choice.
The America I know is trusted, sometimes guardedly, but among those who aspire to improve the lives of their citizens, among those who feel vulnerable, and among those who want an equal voice in a partnership, we remain the partner of choice. The America I know leads, sometimes cautiously, but always ethically.
America is the world’s engine, but also its conscience. We are the petri dish of diversity and inclusiveness. To channel Sinatra once more, if humanity can make it here, it has a chance to make it anywhere.
We’re not perfect, but I believe we try harder than others to be perfect.
For you to lead this country, we don’t just need you to succeed; we need you to inspire.
We need you to have a warrior’s heart, an immigrant’s spirit, and a servant’s soul.
In describing tumultuous times in Europe just after WWI, my favorite poet, WB Yeats, said: “Talent perceives differences; genius unity.”
In our own tumultuous times, we need your genius.
Today you leave Our Lady’s University with everything you need to be leaders of consequence wherever life takes you.
Today you leave this beautiful campus armed with a diploma and an identity. You are now part of a brand that is widely recognized, that is much respected, that generates high expectations and that represents a brother and sisterhood unlike almost any other.
Yeats penned this about his own life: “Say where man’s glory most begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends.” I challenge you to make each other proud in the future as you have in the past.
The end of the beginning of your education is at hand.
We can’t possibly know what will come next for you. History will find some of you but not all of you. Because you can’t know which of you will make history, you must do your best to be ready.
Be ready for God, Country, and Notre Dame.
As you continue your journey, I wish you a felt life.
And as you lead lives that are “felt,” I offer you one last piece of advice.
I had 32,000 soldiers with me in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. Our job was to provide a safe environment within which Iraq’s political leaders could restore confidence in their government and reestablish basic goods and services like sewage, water, electricity, and trash.
As that proved more and more difficult, an insurgency emerged, and we were among its targets.
We began to take casualties in August of 2003, and we tried to remember our losses in two ways. We would begin each day with a morning briefing, and at the start of the briefing we would display the soldiers’ name on the large screen at the front of the briefing room and pause for a moment of silence. Soon thereafter, we would hold a memorial service with the soldiers’ teammates at their forward operating base which were spread across Baghdad.
You’ve seen images of these memorials. A small wooden box, an inverted rifle topped with a helmet and the fallen soldier’s dog tags over a pair of boots.
The soldier’s teammates sat in the front row. A chaplain would provide a spiritual reading. The soldier’s immediate supervisor — usually a lieutenant or captain — would provide some memory of the soldier.
And one or two of his peers, his surviving teammates, would present a eulogy. And then “Taps” would be played.
These were heart-wrenching experiences.
Following the ceremony, we would all pass down the row of the soldier’s teammates to render our condolences and provide encouragement. You could see in their eyes that these young soldiers felt both fear and guilt: Fear that they had to go back out again and guilt that they had survived and their teammate had not.
In those early days, and for the first couple of these ceremonies, I simply couldn’t find the words to help either myself or these young warriors.
And then one early morning — in that spiritual period between asleep and awake — I found the right words.
From that point on, at each of these ceremonies, I would shake the hand of the surviving teammates of our fallen and tell them simply “make it matter.” They knew what I meant.
It has since occurred to me that “make it matter” is a phrase with meaning in each of our lives, regardless of our occupations.
So today, I ask you to make tomorrow matter and then the day after that and the day after that.
And pretty soon it will be the sum total of your life that has mattered not any one particular accomplishment.
I’m proud to be part of Notre Dame’s Class of 2016.
I know we will make it matter. ♦