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Jim Deshaies

Commencement Keynote Address
The State University of New York at Potsdam

May 20, 2017

Welcome everybody, it’s great to be here on such a beautiful day. I was prepared to make a cynical joke about the weather—but it has turned out beautiful, something along the lines of how Potsdam is Winterfell without the wall. But I’m not going to use that today. One question out there for the graduate out there from Hawaii today… how on Earth did that happen, and are you really here? Welcome, to no doubt what is the largest inauguration in the history of SUNY Potsdam. Did I say inauguration? I’m sorry, I meant graduation. Too soon? Don’t like that?

I’m sorry to the sign language interpreter, I’m going completely rogue here. I apologize. She’s like, “I’ve got nothing.” When you get old like I do, you end up like with, nine pairs of glasses. You’ve got your readers, your drivers, your sunglasses, your “watch TV” glasses. I apologize, I’ve got to trade out for a second, I look like a dork with my sunglasses on. The other thing about this ring is that it confers special powers upon me. I know you guys are getting ready to leave here, and some of you have probably had longstanding relationships in your time here, and as you’re getting ready to leave, you’re probably going, “Man, I should have asked him or her to marry me.” Well, if you change your mind, I can marry you now, because I have a Championship ring. That’s part of the deal. I have that power.

I looked online, and it said the optimum time for a Commencement speech is 12 to 15 minutes. So I’m going to set a timer here, and if I go a little long, if the band could just play a little “Pomp and Circumstance,” and kind of walk me off, like the Academy Awards… Feel free to hum along, if you guys are so inclined. The other thing, now that I work with the Cubs, and I’m going back today because I’ve got a broadcast tomorrow, and it’s fairly typical for us to put, people send in selfies to put on the air. So I thought it would be really cool if we did a selfie here, you and I. All right, hang in there… [turns around and holds up camera] I got a really good picture of that [pointing at the clocktower in front of him]. There. And see, I bet you’ve helped your parents with this, see, right? Technology. All right, everybody ready? All right, is that all you’ve got? Let’s pretend… you’ve been sitting awhile. It’s the seventh inning stretch. Get up, give me a little something-something. Beautiful, thank you. OK. Now, on to the matter at hand. [Pointing to sign language interpreter] Keep close to me, so you know what I’m saying.

Today, we not only celebrate the end of your time here at Potsdam, but for many of you, your graduation marks the end of your formal education. The end of a long, wonderful—and no doubt—at times frustrating journey. Most of you have been in school since you were three or four years old. Once it was determined you could walk, talk and use the bathroom (with a reasonable amount of accuracy), off you went—pre-school, Kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, junior high school, high school and finally here at SUNY Potsdam. You have gone from “Blue’s Clues” to “Orange is the New Black.” From PB&Js and juice boxes to Sergi’s pizza—give it up for Sergi again, it is awfully hard to follow the pizza guy—to Sergi’s pizza and double mocha extra hot double with a shot cinnamon mochaccino Frappuccinos at the PAC.

Now a little exercise. Close your eyes. Let your mind drift back through the years, and conjure up the images of all those classrooms, classmates, the teachers—the good ones and the not-so-good ones, the flat-out lame ones. Think about all those hours poring over homework at the kitchen table, wishing you were anywhere but at the kitchen table poring over that homework. All the exams, the projects, the term papers, SATs, ACTs, whatever other levers it took—draining Red Bulls so you can pull an all-nighter before finals. That rings true for everyone. You have gone from “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” to “What in the world am I going to do now?” Some of you know exactly what your next move will be. Others, not so much. But I can tell you this. You are ready. Remember Rafiki from the Lion King? Remember that guy? Remember what he said? “It is time. It is time.”

This is your time. This is your time to move on from Potsdam to embrace the challenges that lie ahead. You are ready. That is why we just took that little trip down memory lane. To remind you of all the work that you have put in to get to this point in your lives. In baseball, we refer to a player’s time in the minor leagues as having ‘paid his dues.’ Well, you have paid your dues—and you’re ready for the call of the big leagues. I can also tell you are ready by the way you are dressed here today. You are either the world’s largest, whitest gospel choir, or you are about to walk across this stage, shake hands with someone who loosely resembles Albus Dumbledore, and cross over into the real world.

So, having established that you are ready to flap your wings and leave the nest that is SUNY Potsdam, does that mean it will be easy out there? Of course not. There will challenges, obstacles, disappointments along the way. And here we turn to that great philosopher fish, Dory from “Finding Nemo,” who so profoundly said, “just keep swimming.” See, now you could be at any number of campuses across this great land, it could be statesmen, a former President, quoting Aristotle or Lincoln or Jefferson, but you got stuck with the ex-baseball player, quoting cartoon characters! Anyhow. So I say to you, don't give in to the naysayers, the doubters and those who would for whatever reason prefer to see you fail.

For example, Theodor Geisel—you probably know him better as Dr. Seuss—sold hundreds of millions of books in his lifetime and they continue to sell in huge numbers to this day. His very first book, “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” was rejected 27 times before someone finally agreed to publish it. Had Dr. Seuss not “kept swimming,” we would have no Lorax, no Cat in the Hat, no Grinch, for God’s sake. I would not want to live in a world with no Grinch. It took Edison—that would be Thomas—thousands of attempts before was able to perfect the light bulb. When asked about his failures, he responded, “I have not failed, I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” So people of course have overcome far greater adversity than a rejected manuscript or struggles in the lab. You may be familiar with Oprah Winfrey. Well, Oprah lived the first six years of her life in the deep South, in great poverty. Kids ridiculed her for wearing dresses made of potato sacks. She then moved to inner city Milwaukee, and after suffering years of abuse, ran away at age 13. Obviously, she came a long, long way, creating one of the largest media empires in the world, and in 2003, Oprah became the first black woman to become a billionaire.

Now, I’ve got a little bit of a story, I’ve overcome great adversity in my career. There’s one I’d like to share with you. When I was a young player, about 24, 25 years of age, I was straight out of college, had just been signed by the New York Yankees, and I was mostly in their minor league system, spent some time in New York. In September of 1985, I was traded to the Houston Astros for a pitcher by the name of Joe Niekro, who was, and still is, the winningest pitcher in Astros history. After the initial shock of the trade wore off, I became excited about my prospects with the Astros. New team, new league, new state. Had never been to Texas before. They must have thought I could help them, or why would they have traded for me? So it was with some anxiety, but also a great deal of excitement, that I jumped on a plane and flew from New York to Houston.

I walked to a cab, asked the driver to take me to the Astrodome and started to ride into the city. Sitting next to me, on the seat next to me, was the Houston Post, and as is my custom, I picked up the paper and immediately went to the sports page to see if there was any news on my trade. And there it was—front page of the sports page, lead column, the lead of that column: “The Astros have traded their heart and soul and in return have received a couple chest hairs and a toe nail.” Now, I’m not sure if I was a chest hair or a toe nail, but clearly this was a little bit of a shot to the ego. So, what are you going to do, but go play? The next year, I had a pretty good year, I won 12 games, the Astros won the division. I clearly was not the heart nor the soul of that team, but I’d like to think I was little more than a chest hair. Maybe an elbow, or at least the Wenus! Show of hands, who knows what a Wenus is out there? Show of hands over here, who knows what a Wenus is [pointing to stage party]? You’re smarter than they are [pointing to crowd]! It’s that little fleshy part on the end of your elbow.

So, just keep swimming. There will be bumps along the way. And just keep learning. A generation ago, you could find a job with a company and reasonably expect to spend your entire career there. Social scientists today predict that on average you will change jobs every four years. To thrive in the modern economy, you’ll have to commit to a lifetime of learning. John Wooden knew a thing or two about success. Considered by many to be the greatest coach of all time—yes, even better than [longtime SUNY Potsdam Bears Men’s Basketball Coach] Jerry Welsh—his UCLA basketball teams won 10 national championships in 12 years, including seven in a row. And Wooden’s advice was: “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow, learn as if you’ll never die.” I hesitated in making that remark, and then I lost my page. This is a day of adjustments, and I will make mine… it’s going to be around here somewhere. [Pointing at sign language interpreter] You know what I’m going to say next! You don’t, do you? No, you don’t. [President hands him another binder with the script] Thank you. I’ve got some version of it here. Oh! Here we go. Good, band, are we good?

OK. This is the part where I get to give you advice, because I’m the Commencement speaker. Take it or leave it as you go forward, my homework for you. Read novels—lots of them. Every time I finish a good book I think, “Man, I should read more often.” The book is almost always better than the movie. Read newspapers. Digital is OK, but being an old guy, I prefer the printed version. Read about the world. Be informed. Don’t forget the comics… I recommend “Zits” and “F Minus.”

Find cool and interesting people to hang out with, smart people who will challenge you. If you're always the smartest person in the room, you're probably in the wrong room. Go primitive every now and then: You guys were born right around the same time as the Internet, and the technology has come fast and furious—Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and on and on. Step away every now and then. Don't get me wrong, I think it is amazing. I could watch the “Charlie bit my finger” video for a whole day! That guy. But give yourself a break, take a friend out for a coffee and put it aside every now and then. And while I'm on the topic, be careful what you share. Nobody really needs to know what crazy Aunt Margaret thinks.

These are “interesting” times we live in, to say the least. Don't be afraid. Be engaged, challenge authority, question the status quo. Vote, march, run for office. Primo Levi was an Italian chemist, writer and a Holocaust survivor. He wrote, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”

Thank your parents, grandparents and rest of your family members for all they have done. Milestones like this can be a little tough for parents today, so give a nice, long hug. And maybe send an email to an old teacher or two, or three or four, and let them know that they matter. It will make their day.

Finally, my hope for you is that you find a friend to take long walks with. And on those walks you can talk and talk, and solve all the world’s problems or maybe you can just walk quietly. Someone you're so comfortable with, that the silence is not awkward. And if you're lucky like me, you’ll end up spending your entire life with that person, and maybe you’ll end up with three incredible children who will become your best friends, and bring you more joy than you could ever have imagined. Godspeed, good luck and kick butt.

Jim “Ace” Deshaies