Commencement Address for Cheshire Academy

Thank you, Dr. Beaulac.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

This is a very special occasion for everyone here.

To the class of 1982, I sincerely congratulate you on your achievement. This day marks the completion of one phase of your education. Now, you will go on to new and even more challenging endeavors.

This is also a special occasion for those who have taught, for those who have encouraged, for those who have loved, I congratulate all of you, teachers and parents, for your dedicated efforts which have helped to make this day possible.

This is a special occasion for me too, and on a very personal level, I am not only honored to be your commencement speaker, but as I stand here, I am filled with a warm feeling of nostalgia.

Thirty-three years ago, I came to Cheshire from Cuba. I landed at what was then Idlewood Airport in New York and somehow made my way to Grand Central Station. Somehow, I got to New York, New Haven and Hartford Line. Somehow, I survived that, and then, somehow, I got a bus to Cheshire Academy.

While many things changed over the years, I can assure you the New Haven Railroad has not!

I did all this hardly being able to speak a word of English. I couldn’t even tell people what I didn’t know!

I spent long nights here at Cheshire with a dictionary going over Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot, word by word.

I also spent quite a few Sundays at the movies. Sometimes I would go to the same movie twice or three times, as a method for learning the language and getting an ear for it. By the way, I highly recommend the movies, especially now Since The Coca-Cola Company has acquired Columbia Pictures.

In all honesty, I have to say that I think the proudest moment of my life was when I sat where you graduates are sitting now.

I had learned the language, I was graduating from this fine school, and somehow I had the great, good fortune to be valedictorian of my class. In Cuba, when you did something like that, they gave you a big gold medal with silk ribbons.

Here, they gave me a fancy dictionary!

It was appropriate though, because I think it actually was my difficulty with the language that enabled me to do well.

I remember after one exam, my profession said that my sentence structure was textbook-perfect. It should have been … it came right out of the textbook! The only way I could accurately convey a thought was to memorize, word by word, entire passages.

I have used these examples of my experience as a student at Cheshire to point out that the tools of learning are all around you, and the supply is limitless. During your study at Cheshire, you have acquired a great deal of knowledge.

I urge you to keep acquiring knowledge. No one can ever take that away from you.

Material things – your property – can be lost, stolen or even forcibly confiscated. This happened to me and many of my countrymen some 20 years ago in Cuba. All personal property was confiscated. Even that fancy dictionary from Cheshire Academy.

I hope you never experience anything like that, but it has left a lasting impression with me. No one can take away from you what you have stored inside your head.

The human mind knows no capacity, so open it up. Explore as many avenues as you can. Every experience can be a learning experience.

I don’t have to tell you that today’s society is very fast-paced and very demanding. The tendency is toward specialization. It takes so much effort simply to master one particular area, there seems to be precious little time left to wander widely in the fields of knowledge.

And yet, as disciples of education, we have an obligation to wander in the fields of knowledge.

It is only through broad knowledge that we can recognize and grasp opportunity when it comes along.

It is only through broad knowledge that we can even vaguely visualize what a better world might be like.

It is only through broad knowledge that we can make moral and ethical decisions.

My intention this morning is not to lecture. I instead want to give you something to think about as you embark on your chosen educational and career paths.

So first, think about what I just said, the idea of continuing to acquire knowledge.

Secondly, think about this: take the time – make the time – to step outside your specialized field. Do not limit yourselves by erecting artificial barriers.

If you are going to major in engineering, most likely you have a strong background in science and math, but don’t neglect music, poetry or history. On the other hand, students in the humanities have the same obligation to learn a little something about the sciences.

I am concerned about a widening gulf and conflict between the so-called “two intellectual worlds”: the world of science and the world of the humanities.

Today, when so many of our technological decisions have social and moral implications, and when many of our social policies require technology for implementation, it is imperative that the gap between the worlds be closed.

Many scientific or technical questions become so emotionally charged that they cannot be resolved rationally. Out of the fear bred from ignorance, we have over-reacted to many things, creating stalemates in a number of areas.

By the same token, many scientists and technicians are so narrow, and at times so intellectually arrogant, that they have not bothered, nor have they developed the ability, to communicate with real people. They fail to recognize that the destiny of man is not determined by some computer, but by the human spirit!

We, as a people, don’t always do such a good job of understanding one another.

My university degree and background are in chemical engineering. But over 90 percent of my time during my business career has been spent in dealing with people, appealing to people and finally, trying to unite people in pursuit of our goals.

The Coca-Cola Company is the world’s leading soft drink company. We do business in 145 countries around the world. Our products are asked for in 80 different languages.

We also must deal with different cultures, different political conditions, different religions, different customs, different tastes and different economic conditions.

There is only one constant in our entire enterprise, and that is human nature!

Where do you go to find out about human nature? Not the chemistry lab and not a business management handbook.

I believe the answer lies somewhere in literature or history, and from my readings in literature and history, I conclude that mankind confounds us. By and large, humans are unpredictable and also, far from perfect.

Not to be discouraged, however, I feel there is one quality of human nature that seems to be fairly consistent – and luckily a part of what some may call our imperfection. That is, given the possibility of personal gain, mankind will be motivated to produce the goods and services that a society needs.

So the point to think about: if you have to bet on human behavior, it’s a pretty good bet that human beings will act in their own self-interest most of the time.

This notion is repugnant to us, especially to all of us who have been exposed to the ideals of academia.

We would like men and women to be selfless, but we are not.

We keep trying to find some substitute for the profit motive, but we also keep coming back to basic human nature.

The pilgrims who came across on the Mayflower tried to make a go of it with a communal system. Work was to be performed on the basis of ability, while end products were to be distributed on the basis of need.

History is not explicit on just who did what, but the records are brutally clear on what the results were. By the second winter, one third of the colonists had starved to death. By the following spring, the surviving colonists abandoned their communal concept and reverted to a system of individual initiative with the right to acquire and hold property.

I could have selected a more “scholarly” example, but not one which better illustrates the nuts and bolts of the private enterprise system, a system which has been working reasonably well in this country for 200 years.

Oh, much like human beings, it’s far from perfect, I agree, but with all its imperfections, the private enterprise system has been a relatively efficient producer of goods and services.

The corporation is an institution which has grown out of this system. Corporations are not as pious as I might be tempted to tell you they are. Nor are they as evil as some portray them to be.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, with the curve skewed in favor of the responsible corporation, because for a corporation to remain healthy, it requires a healthy society.

In the long run, for a company to survive it must do its share to help the whole society survive.

In this context, then, I offer you a fourth point to think about: while you are taking, make sure you put something back.

What I’m talking about in the broad sense is giving something back to society.

As individuals, each of us pursues personal and private goals. The proverbial question we were all asked as youngsters, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” conjures up images of the American dream.

In America, you can still grow up to be anything you want to be. That is a very strong statement for our political and economic systems.

My faith in the “American way of life” is predicated on the spirit of volunteerism which exists in this country. I recall the words of Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame University, who said: “Almost the total fabric of our society was initiated, developed and maintained by voluntary activity in the private sector.”

Father Hesburgh goes on to suggest, “If you wish to see how unique this makes America, visit a communist or socialist society,” to which I can add that if we, in America, have a migration problem, it’s an immigration problem, because so many people want to come to this country. Communist nations have an emigration problem because so many people want to get out.

In our society, corporations do not operate under a government franchise. If they did, we would be one step away from communism. We have the freedom to operate in a capitalistic environment, but in exchange for this freedom, business must voluntarily fulfill its societal obligations, serve the public well, and contribute to the common good.

We must give back as individuals, as groups, as companies, as people.

The final point I want you to think about is: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you want to accomplish anything, you are going to have to be prepared to make a few mistakes.

In fact, I firmly believe each person has the right to be allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them.

One of the problems in this country today is that we’ve lost a little of our entrepreneurial spirit. When people are content to sit back and conform, nothing happens.

At The Coca-Cola Company, we want things to happen. We need new ideas. If the “system” only serves to smother new ideas, it is only weeding out the lifeblood of our Company’s future success. We don’t want anything to do with that kind of a “system.”

We want a “system” which encourages intelligent individual risk-taking.

It doesn’t make good business sense to take foolhardy chances, but some degree of calculated risk is an essential prerequisite for progress.

Very few things in life go exactly as planned. Mistakes are a vital part of the learning and growing process. Trial and error is vital to invention, innovation and success.

The Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, put it beautifully and succinctly when he wrote: “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.”

The translation is: “Traveler, there is not path. Paths are made by walking.”

Others before you have made their own paths. They have left breadcrumbs, broken twigs and sometimes even billboards along the way.

Study them, learn from them, keep an open mind.

And then, move boldly without fear to make your own way, to create your own destiny, to invent your own future, to make your own path.

As you travel, take in the sights around you. Stop to ask questions if you are unsure. Consider the “common good” – the consequences of your actions.

“Se hace camino al andar.”

“Paths are made by walking.”

I wish you every success in this journey of life and Godspeed.

Thank you.

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