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The decent thing to do

| Friday, April 17, 2015

Farewell “decent” senior class.

It is fast approaching that inevitable time when warming spring days beguile the final scholastic semester and prompt seniors to prepare for graduation. The looming seasonal ritual not only includes seniors about to cross the academic threshold into “the real world,” but also ensnarls wise, experienced and successful public figures who must offer advice with an eye towards constructing a memorable inspirational speech. Unfortunately, by the next commencement cycle, most of the wise pearly pronouncements soon slide into a forgotten basement, even when the most notable of speakers attempts to convey the magical formula for living a decent life.

This year’s senior class is in many ways like every senior class that has proceeded and will follow — decent individuals who are academically brilliant, spiritually generous, but sometimes limited in life lessons. Depending on the venue, many commencement speakers regurgitate the party doctrine used to define a particular school’s character, e.g., Notre Dame is defined by “service, Catholic character, community.”

Commencement speakers attempt to convey a buffet of thoughts during a limited time on stage. They challenge the graduates to strive for greatness while sharing how they achieved success. They may pepper their remarks with humor but ultimately are remembered for “blah, blah, blah,” followed by decades of memorable cricket chirps.

My personal Notre Dame commencement memories are long faded unless I peek at my commencement brochure. I only remember that iconic author and nationally syndicated journalist, Carl Rowan, received an honorary degree with me. My speaker was the University of Minnesota president, an intellectual who never personally stimulated my curiosity.

On the other hand, I vividly remember my sister’s 1979 Notre Dame commencement, when Helen Hayes accepted the Laetare Medal from then-University President Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh. I do not remember exactly what she said but rather how she spoke. Hayes exuded such enthusiasm that she brought the only fun into an otherwise dull and onerous afternoon.

Humor columnist Art Buchwald created a so-called “rule of one” standard for commencement addresses. He oftentimes told graduating students that his only goal was for them to remember one thing about his speech — that they had laughed. With that in mind, 2015 graduates should set a standard going forward of guiding their lives with a question, “What would be the decent thing to do?”

This year is replete with many “WWBTDTTD” examples at Notre Dame. The multitude of remembrances at Hesburgh’s funeral gives pause and exemplifies how grand iconic personages of our time set great, decent standards. My favorite story is one retold in the spring edition of Notre Dame Magazine. The Catholic roommates of a Jewish student at Notre Dame belittled and bullied the Jewish student to the point that he left the University. Hesburgh, after learning of their unchristian — and youthful, stupid — intolerance called them into his office for a sit-down. Hesburgh ordered them to travel to the Jewish student’s home and convince him to return to Notre Dame. Hesburgh said that if the Jewish student did not return, the Catholics could not return either. Fortunately, all of the students returned together and graduated from Notre Dame.

Living decent lives need not be reserved for those entrusted with managing huge institutions. Those in the public’s specter affect others by leading through example. Notre Dame men’s basketball seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton acted decently by playing during their senior years. As one of them noted during a television interview, his loyalty lay with fulfilling his commitment to the University on the terms he accepted. In turn, they were rewarded with a NCAA tournament appearance, failing just a basket from advancing to the Final Four.

Graduating seniors demonstrate daily that they are caring, decent beings when they generously pay forward at a restaurant just for the fun of it. Living a decent life is one that sidesteps greed and a worship of wealth in favor of well wishes to others who would normally not expect consideration. During Christmas week, I vacationed in Aruba, where at my resort, I mistakenly canceled my daily towel allotment by not swapping out my first day’s towel. The towel attendant spent special time correcting my error for me. I felt ashamed when I witnessed a college-aged guest bring her a traditional Dutch Christmas cake — just a decent thing to do during the holiday — which cost about $8 U.S. equivalent. Surely I, the knucklehead who canceled my towel allotment on day one, should have offered her something as well.

The lesson I learned turned even harsher on me when I heard the attendant thank her patron. She said, “I live alone and am going to save this to share with my daughter, who is about your age. She will visit on Christmas Day. Nobody ever gave me anything before. You are so kind to think of me.”

With similar thoughtfulness as a standard, this class of graduating seniors will be good, decent stewards of our society during their generation’s political and religious rein in history. After all, it is the only decent thing to do.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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