Opinions and Speeches

May 9, 2014
University of Georgia
Spring Commencement Address
"Six Silent Secrets"

President Morehead, distinguished faculty, honored graduates of the Class of 2014, parents, friends, significant others, children, aunts and uncles, granddads and grandmoms, congratulations. It’s an honor to be here today.

Now I have to tell you a secret: when Jere Morehead called me up about six months ago and said, “I want you to be the speaker at the spring commencement,” I was ecstatic. This is my alma mater; 48 years ago, I graduated from the University of Georgia. All of my children graduated from the University of Georgia. My wife graduated from the University of Georgia.

When I got that phone call, I was ecstatic and I leaned back after I hung the phone up. I closed the door to my office and I said, ‘this must be the greatest speech you’ve ever delivered.’ So you better lean back and think for inspiration because this is your one chance to climb the rhetorical heights of ecstasy.

And so I thought if I could think back to my college graduation, all the memorable parts of it, and the great information I received, I could give a great speech tonight. I remembered that day, June 6, 1966, a brand new Stegeman Coliseum is where the ceremony was held. I remember the joy on my parents’ faces for their oldest son, the first Isakson in America to graduate from an institution of higher learning. I even remembered the good-looking blonde who sat in the seat in front of me at graduation.

But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember who spoke at my graduation or what they said. And then I realized this is not about me, this is about you. And for just a couple of minutes, I want to share with you something I call the six silent secrets of living a happy, successful, and fulfilling life.

They really aren’t secrets because every one of them is known. Each one’s a part of tenets of every major religion, each one is a part of the theme of every Academy Award-winning motion picture, but still they are secrets. And they’re secrets because parents don’t talk about them enough with their kids. Professors don’t talk about them enough with their students and none of us adults talk enough about them with each other. But they’re important secrets, and although I know you will forget who spoke at your graduation, I deeply care that you remember the six silent secrets of living a happy, successful and fulfilling life.

And the first one is learning.

Today, you graduate from an institution full of classrooms bordered by walls, time clocks, and schedules into the bigger classroom known as the world around you. Many of you are going to take your diploma, frame it, and hang it on the wall. I encourage you to carry it with you every day of your life and have it validated like a passport over, and over, and over again.

If this ceremony was the end of your education, it wouldn’t be called “commencement,” it’d be called “terminal.” But it’s called commencement because all of us in life know that your education in college is something that you build on for your entire career. The body of knowledge is compounded every seven years. It’s been almost 49 years since I graduated. Knowledge has compounded seven times since I left. Most of the things I learned here either aren’t true or have been amended or have been added on to.

But because I learned how to learn, I have built my body of knowledge to compete in this day and this time. So never stop learning. The most difficult subject I had to deal with upon being elected to the United States Senate was the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. I’m a real estate broker, I didn’t know what that meant. But you know what I did?  I got on the phone and I called the University of Georgia and I called Dr. Steven Stice, an eminent scholar here, who is an eminent scholar and a knowledgeable person on embryonic stem cell research. He knew what somatic-cell nuclear transfer was. He educated this real estate broker so I was able to make intelligent votes and contribute to the United States Senate. This university will serve you long after your diploma if you take it with you and have it validated over, and over, and over again.

The second silent secret is respect.

In the nation’s conscience and Georgia’s favorite son Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, “Always judge a man by his character, and never by the color of his skin.”

We are all different, each and every one of us. We’re different sizes, different shapes, different orientations, different religions, different ages, different sexes, and different ethnicities. But we all have gifts from God to contribute. Society is a fabric of everybody contributing together. When I speak at high school graduations, I always tell the 235 lb. middle linebacker who’s an all-state athlete ‘Don’t you ever kick sand in the face of a 135 lb. math and science whiz because one day he or she may hold the scalpel to operate on your knee.’ 

Every one of us has a time and a place and a talent to offer to everyone else. The adults in this room will tell you that life is about relationships. Relationships are about respect. The older you get the more you tend to realize you meet people a second time along the way in life. And it’s always true – they will treat you the second time reciprocal to how you treated them the first time.

The third silent secret is ethics… and I know everybody is leaning back saying, ‘here’s an American politician, a United States Senator talking about ethics. Those guys do nothing but create special prosecutors, investigatory committees and are always trying to find out what’s right and what’s wrong.’

When it’s really very simple – there’s a rule for what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s called the Golden Rule. You treat people like you’d like to be treated.

I was in business 33 years. I know a lot of people who made an awful lot of money. And I know a lot of them who lost it. And the difference in the ones who made it and kept it and the ones who lost it, is that the ones who made it and kept it knew that life is a win-win game not a win-lose game. They knew that when you leave something on the table for the other guy, they’d come back to do business with you. Dollars will come to play in your backyard just to see what kind of person you are. But if you had to have the last dime, you might get it once, but never a second time from that individual. My favorite author Mark Twain once said it best, ‘When confronted with a difficult decision, do what’s right. You will astound a few, and you’ll amaze the rest.’ 

We all have the same voice at the back of our head – it’s our conscience. It always raises that little alarm when we’re confronted with a question where it might go either way. But always do what you do when everybody’s looking, don’t just do what you do when nobody’s looking because the ethics and the way you treat other people is the basis for the foundation of the success you will have in life.

Now the fourth silent secret is love, and I’m not suggesting what we’re talking about when you daydream once or twice a day. I’m talking about the love of the people and the institutions that have contributed to get you where you are and the ones in the future who will. You need to repay that love with respect, with hugs and sometimes with your money and your talents.

For example, the very first check you ought to write after this graduation is to the Alumni Association at the University of Georgia. Or to the capital campaign or to the Foley Field building construction campaign. This university has been built in part on tax dollars, but three times as many dollars have been privately given and donated by organizations and institutions. The University of Georgia is everything it is because of those that have given and you owe it to this university to give back. I’ve done it and you should do it – and it’s a great feeling! It’s not a tuition that you’re paying. You’re paying back for what’s been given to you.

You know I always loved what Will Rogers said about love. He was once asked in the Wall Street Banker’s club in New York City: a guy at the back of the room raised his hand and said, ‘Mr. Rogers, you know all the great men of your time: artists, writers, statesmen - there’s perhaps nobody you can’t call by first name who’s a success. Mr. Rogers would you please tell us in one sentence what you think the secret to living a happy, successful and fulfilling life is?’ Without a moment’s hesitation Will Rogers said, ‘Always love people and use things. Don’t ever use people and love things.’

The fifth silent secret is faith.

Now, I’m at a public institution and I know how far I can and cannot go. But I’m an honest man at the age of 69 and I will tell you life is about success, but it’s also about trials and tribulations and it’s about failure. And you need to have an inner strength to carry you through. I will tell you I’ve been successful in politics fourteen times but I lost three. I’ve been successful in business for 33 years, but I had some losing years and what got me through the losing years of both politics and business was the faith I had in the inner strength I had from a belief that I have in God. So let me just tell you this: find it sooner rather than later. And when you do just remember this: you cannot check faith in and out of the library like a book and you sure as heck can’t buy it from a televangelist on cable television.   

Look for it. Find it, and it will help you throughout your life.

Now last, the sixth silent secret is to dream.

Now, I’m not talking about goal-setting. I’m talking about turning the lights off like I did to prepare this speech. Get all by yourself and think ‘If I could be anything, what do I want to be?’

We live in the greatest country on the face of this earth. People have volunteered and died to protect the opportunities that we have. In fact, every generation of Americans have donated their sons to go to war to protect our ability to freedom and liberty, your ability to assemble, my ability to say what I want to say. We live in the greatest country on the face of this earth. You can be anything you want to be.

Let me tell you a little story.

Let me tell you about the 135 lb. math and science whiz in my senior class in high school. His name is Kenny Ascher. Kenny and I went to our graduation in the Chastain Memorial Amphitheater in Atlanta next to Dykes High School, where we went to high school. Our party, after our senior party, after that graduation was at Robinson’s Tropical Gardens which was a Butler building on the Chattahoochee River where nobody went to so we could make all the noise we wanted to and nobody’d mind. It’s now called Canoe Restaurant, and some of you have been there. 

About 11 o’clock, Kenny and I went and sat on the steps and watched the Chattahoochee River go by and started talking about what we were going to be now that we we’d grown up and graduated from high school. And I told Kenny about my dreams and then I let him talk about his. And he said, ‘You know I’m going to Columbia University on a full scholarship for math and science and I’m going to do everything I can to do good. But you know what I really want to do? I want to write great music and entertain millions of people.’

And I thought to myself, ‘This scrawny little booger, he’s not going to ever be able to do something like that.’ But I didn’t say it to him because I didn’t want to blow out his candle.

I didn’t see Kenny for six years until I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, riding to a hotel to go to a meeting at night, looking out the window of a cab going by the Majestic Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There on the marquee it said, ‘Woody Herman and his Orchestra accompanied by Kenny Ascher.’ And I said, ‘The little booger has made it!’

So I got to the hotel and I called the theatre and I got the night watchman. I said, ‘When the music is over and Woody Herman quits, there’s a piano player up there named Kenny Ascher. Would you give him this room number and the number at the hotel and tell him Johnny Isakson called. And the same Kenny Ascher I knew in school called me up at 3 a.m. – you know how musicians are – the phone rings. I said, ‘Kenny you’ve made it!’

He said ‘No, I haven’t made it, I’ve just been lucky.’ Now, I want to interject here that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. And I said, ‘What do you mean?’

And he said, ‘Well, you know I went to Columbia and I did good in math and science but I stole off and played a lot of music, too. In fact went into New York City and played in Greenwich Village and I met a guy named George Klabin, and George introduced me to a guy named Frank Foster. Frank Foster had a touring jazz band and he asked me to fill in one night for him on piano and I did and he liked it.’

He said, “A few weeks later Woody Hermann’s piano player had a heart attack, couldn’t finish a tour and Frank recommended me to Woody Hermann. And I met him in Washington, D.C., and did a two-night gig and it turned out good enough he took me all over the country with him. But I haven’t entertained millions of people yet and I haven’t written any great music. I haven’t made it. And I said, “Well Kenny you will one day, I’m sure.”

And we kept up with each other, where a few years later he wrote and produced songs for Barbara Streisand on “A Star is Born.” Later, he played with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a concert in New York City. And I kept saying ‘Kenny, you’ve made it!’ And he kept saying, ‘No I haven’t, one day I’m going to write great music and entertain millions of people.’

And then on a Saturday afternoon in 1979, my wife and I took our four year-old daughter Julie and seven of her friends to the Roswell Theatre to see the great hit movie of 1979, “The Muppet Movie. Now y’all remember “The Muppet Movie.” Kermit the frog sitting on a lillypad, strumming his banjo, singing, “The Rainbow Connection.” It was a beautiful movie and a great song.

Well after the movie was over, when you’ve got eight little girls at a movie theatre that’s dark, our wife sits on one end of the row, you sit on the other and you hem them up until everyone is out of the movie theatre. And when you do that, you don’t have anything to do except watch the Roman numerals go by on the screen.

And I sat as the production went by, watched as cosmetology went by, watched as costumers went by, and then all of a sudden, it said: Music. “The Rainbow Connection,” arranged, produced and written by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams. And I said, ‘Dadgumit, the little booger’s made it.’ The next Monday, he was nominated for an Academy Award by the Academy of Arts and Sciences and they were nominated for a Grammy. And that song today is one of the most played songs in the history of music all over the world. So Kenny Ascher’s dream of one day writing great music and playing before millions of people came true.

And I urge you at this point in the speech to think about the last verse of the ‘The Rainbow Connection’ – I want to share it with you: ‘Someday you’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lover and the dreamer and you.’

As your graduation speaker tonight, I want to tell you the rainbow connection is there for you and if you’re just willing to dream the impossible dream, if you’re willing to continue to learn throughout your life, if you’re willing to respect your fellow man and treat everybody with ethics and principle, if you’re willing to love those who’ve gotten you to where you are and are going to take you to where you want to be, if you find a deep and abiding faith that gets you through the difficult times and if you’re willing dream, you can do anything in America that you want to do. And you’ve built an educational platform to do it with.

Now you may not believe me when I say this, but there’s a dream just like Kenny Ascher’s to be fulfilled for every senior in this room willing to dream it. And if you don’t believe me, think about this – this is a stadium full of parents; you are their dream and they love you very much.

Thank you.