A moment in time: publicly thanking my life-altering alma mater, Ripon College in Wisconsin, as they gave me their Distinguished Alumni Award on June 28, 2013. Our revered Dr. Bill Woolley gave a profoundly moving introduction for me. Here’s my thank-you speech:
Thank you so much, Dr. Woolley, and thanks for your encouragement for so many years.
But, I have to confess to all of you: I’m shakin’ in my shoes in Dr. Woolley’s presence this evening, just as I was shakin’ in my shoes as a freshman when I learned he was my advisor for my major in Russian Studies. I was terrified of him – after all, Dr. Woolley was a legend!
That first week of school, I naively mapped out my entire four years of classes at Ripon – a pretty tough schedule – and showed it to Dr. Woolley. He kinda shook his head – hmmm… But four years later I showed him my original schedule. Everything worked out according to my plan! Dr. Woolley said it was a first among his students.
I’m telling you all this because I’m pretty sure it’s the first and last time anything I planned actually turned out the way I thought it would.
We all know what that’s like: The sports team you root for – loses. The house you built to last forever – ruined in a massive landslide. Relationships you built to last forever end in divorce, or death – emotional landslides that can bury you alive.
The stuff you studied in college and grad school – let’s just say Russian Studies, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia – well, guess what? They don’t exist anymore. They’re gone. No one questions you about dialectical materialism or domino theories at cocktail parties, anymore.
The original State Department career you prepared so hard for ends up in a 23-year class-action legal battle with you and 1,300 other women against the U.S. government – the most massive workplace discrimination in U.S. history. It goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – not once, but twice. And you win – not once, but twice. As you stand on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., you know the verdict is too late to help you in your own career, but landmark justice for a new generation of young women and men, like those right here at Ripon College.
And that breaking-news television career you ended up with instead? You see the craziest things: Planes plowing into buildings. Bombs bursting in air in Boston – at runners. Nuclear Chernobyl wastelands where Russians once lived. And children senselessly dying of malaria, diarrhea, AIDS, and really bad water…
And you just shake your head and say: It’s not supposed to be this way. This is not the plan—at least it’s not MY plan.
It’s kind of like when you’re driving down the road and you miss a turn, and then you hear this very sweet GPS voice: “Recalculating.”
Recalculating the roads and turns we take in our lives that land us into brand-new landscapes we don’t recognize or even imagine.
Much of learning to recalculate is rooted right here at Ripon. We don’t leave this college with just a headful of information, circa the four years we studied here. We leave Ripon College with deep knowledge learned together with our professors and classmates, and we recalculate its significance into our 2013 lives today in the challenges we face: personally, professionally, nationally, globally.
We leave Ripon College, recalculating the significance of relationships we made right here: How can we help one another, as we together help this world?
And we leave Ripon College, recalculating the privilege of our education here – and personal and professional achievements that come from that – and we’re challenged to look up and out and beyond our own singular lives and lean into Ripon’s legendary legacy of service to our families, our cities, our nations, our world.
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Thank you for this honor because when you honor me, you honor my parents.
My mother, Frances, is here tonight. She’s 84 years old. At age 18 she’d already finished college and was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the backwaters of Montana. She nurtured in me a love of learning, and curiosity. So Mom, thank you so much for your encouragement and abiding love.
My dad died last year. The day before the last day I ever saw him alive, my mom, dad, and I spur-of-the-moment took a road trip up here to Ripon College; he hadn’t been here since my graduation. Dad and I walked into this building and I showed him the WRPN-FM radio studio where I spent way too much time in college(!). And then we walked into this very room – in the back over by that window. Dad looked at me and said, “You know, Helen, Ripon was a good place for you.”
Ripon College was – and is – a good place for me. Thank you, everyone – President Messitte, Board of Trustees, Alumni Board, faculty, staff and alums – thank you for making Ripon College a good place for all of us to land, to learn, and to launch our lives… offering hope and healing to this broken, wonderful world.
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