Renaissance Man Ben Stein Tells Graduates to Focus on Gratitude

05/15/2005

Contributed by David Maley


For more photos of this year's Commencement, see Gallery.
In his address at Ithaca College's 110th commencement on May 15, Ben Stein shared a few lines from his resume. In addition to hosting an Emmy Award-winning game show, Stein achieved cult status from his movie role as a droning economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford, Stein is an economist, a lawyer, and the author of more than 20 books. In Stein's estimation, however, his greatest accomplishment is his sense of gratitude.

"Here you are on this beautiful campus, in this beautiful part of New York, in this beautiful America," Stein told the 1,420 graduates and their guests. "Every one of us in this place has plenty to eat, plenty to drink, and plenty of freedom and our constitution and the protection of laws. We wake up and there's no Gestapo chasing us down the street or killing us because we're Jews or whatever else we are. We're free people in a free and glorious country."

Stein was quick to note that just because a country is free doesn't mean it's perfect.

"You'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to realize we have problems in this country, especially of extreme economic inequality," Stein said. "But we solve them with ballots and discussion and debate . . . instead of with bombs and bullets. We are blessed beyond reason, beyond any historical precedent in this country."

Stein also warned the graduates against complacency and taking their many blessings for granted.

"Freedom, prosperity, abundance, opportunity are things that mankind has been fighting for all eternity, and we don't even think about them every day," Stein said. "Life should be very largely about gratitude. Gratitude to be here at Ithaca College graduating today but gratitude also to the fine men and women who made our great lives possible."

Stein's list of fine men and women include those who made sacrifices in the country's war of independence, those who defeated brutal dictators in World War II, and those who preserved democratic principles during the Cold War. Stein also mentioned that things in this country were different when he was graduating from college in the 1960s.

"Racism and anti-Semitism were a basic part of daily life in America. Quotas at private schools against Jews, restricted neighborhoods, blatant racism in hiring, and against African Americans. That did not go away by itself. It went away because of the incredible heroism of the civil rights demonstrators who got beaten and jailed and shot and lynched because they wanted to be free. If we as men and women, as Jews, as African Americans, are free, it is because someone struggled and sacrificed to make us free."

In addition to being true to the memory of those who went before, Stein also urged his audience to appreciate the people currently devoted to the common good, including firemen, police officers, health care workers, and scientists researching dreaded diseases.

"When you are young, you spend most of your life wanting more, asking for more, demanding more, protesting this, demanding that, criticizing this, criticizing that. That's fine, that's a free society at work. But let's be smart and true to those before us, and that involves gratitude."

Stein recounted his own experience of caring for his aging parents during their last years, which included being present at their deathbeds. The experience was a blessing, he said, because it taught him that if he could take care of aging parents, he could also take care of himself and his wife and their son.

"You guys are blessed," Stein said. "You're young. The great majority of you have living parents. Many of you have living grandparents. Be thankful to them. And don't just assume that they know it. Let them know that you repay their love for you. That is a very vital test, and if you do that, if you care about the people in your life who have cared about you, that by itself is an incredibly successful, great life. That by itself is more than winning prizes and money."

The Commencement ceremony began with William Haines, chairman of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, welcoming the new graduates to the fold of alumni.

The assembly also heard from senior class president Leigh Ann Scheider, who joined with her fellow class officers to present College president Peggy R. Williams with a record-breaking class gift of $31,172. The money will support a number of projects, including a collaborative workspace in the library.

In her address, Scheider recalled that this class had entered Ithaca College in 2001, just a few weeks before tragedy would turn their world upside down.

"Our transition into adulthood had been jump-started by the events of September 11," Scheider said. "From that moment on, it would be impossible for us to separate our time at Ithaca College from this fateful Tuesday morning that changed our lives and defined our coming of age."

Scheider noted that the possibilities and opportunities offered by the College seemed trivial compared to the momentous world events unfolding at that time. However, because of September 11 and its aftermath, the class of 2005 developed a deep sense of purpose that was expressed by participating in community service projects, seriously pursuing studies, and embarking on creative endeavors. Scheider reminded her classmates they were now in a position to carry that same sense of purpose to the world at large, and that they should approach that challenge without fearing failure.

"A teacher once told me that if you go through life without ever failing, then you haven't made much of an effort," Scheider said. "The teacher who said that was my father, and I think I speak for everyone when I thank my parents and everyone's parents for the strength, courage, and heart that they have taught us to put behind each and every dream we have."

President Williams then addressed the gathering, directing her comments to the inscription on the medallions traditionally passed out to the graduates before they enter the stadium. This year's medallions bear a quote from the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "Light tomorrow with today."

"Browning is urging us to use this day and every single day of our lives to create a better and brighter future," Williams said. "Her words urge us to do all we can to effect change."

Though the poet's words could be directed toward anyone, Williams noted that Browning's challenge has special resonance for the young.

"It is the young among us who have the will, the desire, and the energy to create a bold, new future," the president said. "Young adults like you break down barriers, question assumptions, and have the guts to try new ways of solving old problems. Your Ithaca experience, or your 'today,' provides you with the tools and perspective to begin your new adventures."

Williams ended her remarks by challenging the new graduates to take their place in society, to be leaders in their chosen fields, and to create lives of fulfillment and purpose.

"I believe that all doors are open to you," the president said. "Your possibilities are limitless, and each of you will, in your own way, light tomorrow with today."

In addition to honoring its new graduates, the College bestowed emeritus status on retired faculty members William Bergmark (chemistry), Willard Daetsch (modern languages and literatures), and John Pavia (history).

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