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Remarks by Bob Woodruff at SU/SUNY-ESF Commencement
SU News Services
Below are the remarks delivered by ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff at Syracuse University’s 154th Commencement, and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s 111th Commencement, on Sunday, May 11. More than 14,300 attended the Commencement ceremony in the Carrier Dome for the graduation of 4,600 SU, and 400 SUNY-ESF degree candidates:
Well, I have to tell you it’s amazing to be here in this unbelievable stadium, and I also have to thank Chancellor Cantor for introducing me and even allowing me to be here at all. A year and a half ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this speech.
It is wonderful that ABC News has just announced we are setting up a campus news bureau here at Syracuse as well as four other universities. And ABC News I’m sure will be here often, and I’ll be back here many, many times. In fact it was one of my good friends at ABC who has a niece graduating today, so I want to say congratulations to Lindsey.
It is such an honor to be here because I graduated 25 years ago from that little school right down the road from here back in 1983–that little school of Colgate University, which you may have heard about.
(microphone feedback interrupts speech)
(Woodruff jokingly) What did you guys change on me? Is there something against me? You heard Colgate and you changed this thing on me? I know we’ve been enemies for a long time, but I had to admit it now.
I was here more than 25 years ago to play lacrosse against Syracuse right here in the stadium. I think we lost about 24-3. In fact, I was sitting here and looking at these 50,000 seats during our game. You know, I think seven of you showed up to watch us play. So I think this is a lot better crowd than we had all that time ago.
It is also interesting that 25 years ago when I graduated, the Commencement speaker at our graduation was also a remarkable reporter–an esteemed graduate of the Newhouse School of Journalism and anchor of ABC’s “Nightline.” You may know who he is, Ted Koppel.
I have told many times before that when I graduated 25 years ago this day, I knew that Ted Koppel spoke, but I can’t to this day remember a freaking word that he said. Now I will tell you that I called Ted Koppel just about a few days ago and I had tell him–confess to him–that I forgot what he said 25 years ago. He actually laughed, but he was a lot funnier this time around. He said he didn’t remember within 10 years after he’d graduated, he couldn’t remember who spoke at his graduation Commencement, although he did look it up a few years ago and it was the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead.
So I asked him, “Now do you remember what she said?” And he said to me that he does not remember a word that she said either back in 1960. He admitted to me was that one of the reasons why he can’t remember anything from that day is because he had only shorts under his dark graduate gown along with the rest of his friends he was graduating with, and they had been drinking a lot of booze. (Laughter) I know, you had a party last night.
So, if you go home today and don’t remember a thing I said, don’t worry about it. I certainly won’t be offended by that. I’m just happy you are graduating. And I’m sure your parents are too, and happy Mother’s Day to you mothers out there on this day.
It seems like yesterday that I was you. Those remarkable gowns, those swinging tassels. That feeling of “let’s get this speech over, give me the sheepskin, so we can get to the parties that we want to get to.” And so I won’t bore you much more with what I want to say, but I will say–standing up here 25 years later–is that time is passing so, so quickly.
And so I say seize it, suck it up, go after your dreams. It all sounds like greeting card philosophy and it’s so much easier standing here to see looking back from the big end of the telescope, but I’m here to tell you–for what it is worth–that it’s absolutely true.
Life flies by and life is precious. Life can change in an instant. And in the past two and a half years of our lives, it is a lesson that my family and I have really taken to our hearts. Some of you may be familiar with my story.
It was on January 29, as you heard Mrs. Cantor say–the Chancellor–2006 while covering the war outside of Baghdad for ABC, I was hit by a roadside bomb–an IED, which was only about 20 feet away from me, right about that angle. So many of our service members are injured every day in this war.
What happened after that, my shattered skull, my coma for 36 days and then, the long, slow road to recovery to regain myself after a traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI.
I learned recently when I met one of the surgeons who had been in the battlefield hospital, that when I first came in, written next to my name on a chart on a piece of paper was the word “expected.” That meant, “expected to die.”
And when I did wake up–in a dramatic and some ways funny way–which you can read about in our book, “In an Instant,” which by the way is just out in paperback if you want to go buy one (laughter). At that moment, I didn’t remember any names of any countries in the world, any states in this country, I couldn’t remember the names of my brothers, and in fact, I have four children– two eight-year-old twins, and I didn’t even know that they existed when I woke up out of that coma.
On the left side of my head the doctors had removed 14 centimeters of my skull because my brain was actually expanding. For the next four months my brain was exposed and I had pain and fatigue. But that is actually when my recovery began.
With the help of my family, my friends, our community in New York and around the country, I was able to come back and continue as a father, as a friend, and also now remarkably as a journalist. So thank you for that–for those prayers and thoughts and good will if you ever followed our story. We had a pile of letters and they were all about this high; I can’t thank you enough for that.
In this war it is not clear how many are injured. Mine was obvious, but others are not. A recent report by Rand Corporation found that more than 300,000 soldiers are suffering from some kind of brain injury. That includes physical injuries or mental stress from combat. Some of them have obvious wounds; scars that mark them as brain injured, but others are more hidden from the outside, in a way, invisible.
As you probably know most of these soldiers are around your age. They wake up every day wondering if this is going to be the day they get hit by a sniper bullet or stumble on an IED in the dirt on the side of the road or under the body of a dead dog.
Whether you are for or against this war, on the right or on the left, this is not a political issue. I believe that veterans deserve to be treated with dignity when they return home. It is simply the right thing to do.
There is a quote in the cemetery in Iwo Jima, a pivotal battle in World War II in Japan, and it says this: “They gave of themselves today so that you would have your tomorrow.”
We all need to remember that quote.
So now, all of you–I believe it’s 4,900 graduating here today–it is your turn. This is a fast and rapidly changing world and you are the future. We are older up here. You are the future. This world has been growing and changing for decades like this (hand going upward) but now it is skyrocketing like this.
There was a time when Americans rarely left this country. If you look at the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, that was a place that protected us and kept us from traveling. But now, those barriers for the most part are basically gone. All of us need to study this world. In the past we looked at weather only in our city, our village, our towns, our state and in our country, but now we have to watch the air, the clouds, the temperatures around this entire planet–everywhere.
Now you can talk to billions of people on your cell phone, or you can send them an e-mail anywhere in the world. When we were younger, we could not do that.
When I started traveling about 25 years ago, I would stumble into villages where people had never even seen any foreigners other than those people in that village; now it is rare. There are still many in the world, but far, far, far fewer than then.
Technology can bring information and images into remote places. This is a wonderful tool for education, but it also holds a mirror up to different lifestyles and standards of living.
We live in a world of haves and have nots, and the chasm between the two is growing. The world you are inheriting needs to bridge those gaps in very important ways. And there are people out there making a profound difference, working to make a difference.
We celebrate innovators like Bill Gates and the creators of Google, without question, and other technological advances. But we also need to champion others, who have equally important work in transforming this world. We need to read about what they are doing. And I just want to tell you about a couple of books I read recently.
Paul Farmer, who is about my age, initially took it upon himself to help eradicate TB from Haiti and nearly a dozen other countries, some of the world’s poorest places. He dedicated his life to this mission, and today, his international organization, Partners in Health, has transformed the disbursement of healthcare in the countries it touches. The world is a better place because of Paul Farmer’s endeavors. Just giving you some advice about what to read–these are recent ones, very good.
A second one is Greg Mortenson, who is an American who, as a mountain climber, witnessed first hand the devastation wrought by war and poverty in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you’ve read the book “Three Cups of Tea,” then you know the amazing story. He became committed to building schools and educating girls in these countries, despite the obstacles of dealing with the Taliban. He has built over 55 schools in these countries, in some of the most remote areas through his Central Asian Institute. Two examples of how one person can make a difference and help some–in a small part–around the entire world.
And that leads me to my next message. Don’t be afraid of change. I certainly changed a lot.
More than 20 years ago, when I was in law school, I decided to study Chinese because I thought that China would eventually be a force to be reckoned with. It was correct.
But just as I started practicing law, the economic markets fell apart in New York, and I got a job teaching law in Beijing. I had good friends who found me a job like that right out of law school.
So my wife Lee and I–I married her actually two days before we went over there–we lived there for one year in some pretty harsh conditions. But it was an amazing year, which ended with the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square. I found a job translating for CBS News during that time and it was my first inkling that this was what I really, really wanted to do. I wanted to be in the middle of world events as they were happening; I wanted to witness history, and I decided that I would pursue journalism.
But first, I decided to give the law one more chance outside of New York and my wife and I moved to San Francisco and then we left China. We had our first child, a little baby named Mac, now 16 years old. It’s hard to believe. Then the Gulf War broke out in 1991 and all I could do was watch what was happening on TV. I again just longed to be there.
I’m getting older, I’m 30 years old at that time. The kind of work I was doing did not feed my soul and I made a fairly radical move at that time. I left my six figure law firm job with a two month-old baby and I moved to northern California, and this time only making $12,000 a year. We qualified for food stamps in the state of California. Luckily, my wife was an accomplished writer and I still cannot believe to this day that she did not dump me. But she didn’t. Hopefully, when you get married, they don’t dump you either when you make these changes.
And so for the next 15 years I covered many stories from local news to the Justice Department to wars in Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq. Our family actually moved 11 times over the next 13 years.
In December 2005, just a month before I was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq, I was named co-anchor of “ABC’s World News Tonight,” after the untimely death of Peter Jennings.
And so that is my second piece of advice to you today, and remember nothing else: do not be afraid of failing.
Some of the greatest ideas, inventions, and outcomes have been born out of failure. Try different things. Reach and aim high. Approach the old question of “what do I want to do” by asking yourself, “what do I like to do?” Do what you love and I think the money will follow. I deeply believe in that.
The last little nugget I want to share with you today is to make sure that you have humor.
A sense of humor cannot be underestimated in my life, and there are plenty of people around me that have remarkable humor. My family and I would not have gotten through the last year without it. Our shared ability to laugh–even when we are the maddest at each other–has carried us through almost 20 years of marriage. We’ve had plenty of fights.
And speaking of laughter, laugh a lot–it helps you live longer and it releases good stuff.
The other day, oddly enough, I was looking at some movies that might prepare me for a speech to you, so I was looking at the movie “Miracle” about the amazing victory of the U.S. Hockey team over the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics, just right up the road from here at Lake Placid.
I was struck by a part in the movie where the coach is listening to a speech by President Carter, considered one of his fulcrum speeches. What struck me was that this speech applies almost exactly to what we face as a nation to this day. It speaks to us as Americans, our resilience and determination as a country–a country in which you are the future.
So I quote for you right now Jimmy Carter from 1979:
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America. The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else. We’ve always believed in something called “progress.” We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children will be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. We were taught that our armies were always invincible, and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate. We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating. Stop talking and start walking. Working together with our common faith. We cannot fail.
You are graduating into a period that is very similar in many ways to 1979. You are taking the stage into a world where there is war, high energy prices, an uncertain economy. And yet, that will change. You can make it change.
I need to tell you that for me over the past two years reading and writing has helped me recover and in many ways to start thinking again. That is one reason my wife and I asked our kids–again in our book that we’ve got out now–to write what they are thinking about and how they are getting through this. And I will tell you what my 14-year-old daughter Cathryn said about the day I finally emerged from my coma. She’d seen me while I was asleep, and now she could see me alive.
Her quote is this:
“The first day he woke up, the life was inserted back into me. And ever since that day, I have woken up too–opened my eyes–and now I look at my life in a whole different perspective, a perspective that will never again allow me to get too caught up in material things. Life is way too short, at least that’s what I have learned. Do the impossible, have fun.”
You know your generation has the power to direct the future, to change it, to make it better and to stop talking and start walking. You have that power. Now go use it wisely and have a blast. You have made it.
Thank you and have fun.