Providence College Commencement

Providence, RI | June 2, 1964

How many of you realize that what they're giving you today is no ordinary piece of paper. They're not handing you a license, or a letter of reference, or a discharge. What they're handing you is a ticket -- an admission pass to history. What they are saying is, "Here is history—there is the American of your generation...make of it what you will." You are the inheritors. What American is--what it becomes in the next fifty years, is what you make of it.

Today, after four years of college, of studying, and exams, and essays, and term papers, you probably feel like the infantryman in the old war story. After too many campaigns, one day he began wandering around the front lines, with a strange look in his eyes. Every now and then he'd stoop over to pick up a scrap of paper, stare at it and say, "This isn't it." Then he'd throw it away, pick up another scrap and say, "This isn't it." He kept repeating this for days until finally they came and led him gently away to the psychiatric ward. Doctors tried to establish contact with him there. But he kept going around with the same glassy stare, picking up scraps of paper and saying, "This isn't it." After two months of this the doctors gave up. They called him into the office, and told him sadly, "You can go now." But as he stared at the discharge they'd handed him, the strange look suddenly left his eyes and he-said, "Ah-hhh, THIS is it!"

Well today at long last they handed you that little piece of paper you've all been looking for. How many of you looked at it and said, with a sigh of relief, "Ahhh, THIS is it!" How many of you, I wonder, are going to regard that piece of paper as a license for private practice...for a return to private life, and private pursuits. How many are going to use it as a letter of reference for the first available job? How many are going to view it as a discharge? — From responsibility, from the need to be engaged with important issues, from the search for truth "Veritas," the motto of Providence College.

The great 13th Century Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, said, "Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do."

How many of you here, I wonder, really know what you believe, what you want, what you ought to do in life. How many of you realize that what they're giving you today is no ordinary piece of paper. They're not handing you a license, or a letter of reference, or a discharge. What they're handing you is a ticket — an admission pass to history. What they are saying is, "Here is history—there is the American of your generation...make of it what you will." You are the inheritors. What America is—what it becomes in the next fifty years, is what you make of it.

What is America now? It is an America of the fruited plain and the shining seas. It has always been that. And now it is also an America of the blast furnace, of the oil wells and the great cattle ranches, of the huge dams and the hydro-electric power projects, of the high standard of living, of the polaris subs and the nuclear aircraft carriers, of the 19-story rockets and the 60-story temples of finance. But it is also, I am proud to say, an America of concern for the aged and the disenfranchised, of the Peace Corps, and the War on Poverty. It is an America that is beginning to shake off the despair and cynicism born out of the Cold War, and to think and act again as if there were hope for the world. It is an America, in short, as it was when it started—a land of ideas and ideals. And some overseas observers, especially where we have Peace Corps Volunteers working, have made eloquent recognition of this truth.

A few months ago, I received an honorary degree at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, in recognition of the work of our Volunteers in that country. I want to quote to you something the Foreign Minister of Thailand said during the presentation ceremony, some remarks that were more significant, I felt, than the award itself. "It is indeed striking," he said, "that this important idea, the most powerful idea in recent times, of a Peace Corps, of youth mingling, living, working with youth, should come from the, mightiest nation on earth, the United States. Many of us who did not know about the United States thought of this great nation as a wealthy nation, a powerful nation, endowed with great material strength and many powerful weapons. But how many of us know that in the United States ideas and ideals are also powerful? This is the secret of your greatness, of your might, which is not imposing on or crushing people, but is filled with the hope of future good will and understanding."

The Foreign Minister of Thailand is not the only man to recognize this secret of America's greatness. In towns and villages throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America where our Volunteers are at work, people are becoming acquainted for the first time with this true source of America's power—ideas and ideals.

How many of the 579 degree holders here are going to share the secret of America's greatness? How many are going into the world of ideas and ideals? I am told this is the largest graduating class in the history of Providence College.

Father Henri Pire, the Dominican priest who won the Nobel Prize in 1958, had an idea. He had many ideas, and ideals. After World War II, he started an organization called Aid to Displaced Persons that helped resettle homeless and uprooted victims of the war. He also founded a home for aged refugees, and helped these old people to find jobs to sustain themselves. He organized the so-called European Villages where displaced persons could settle and raise their families. And he launched a kind of crusade to awaken public opinion in the European nations about the plight of the displaced persons. He called this crusade, "A Europe of the Heart." Through it he tried to interest all Europe in the work of resettling refugees, and in the general idea of service to all persons in need.

Last December Father Pire visited Seton Hall University and told the students: "We must, before all, create a public opinion, objective and constructive, expressing clearly the will to live in a world free of racism, hunger, and war."

This is the kind of crusade I would like to enlist all of you in. Today I was presented an honorary degree as Doctor of Humanities. I would like all of you whatever degree you have received—to be honorary doctors of humanity. I would like you to join in creating an America of the Heart, an America free of racism, hunger, and despair.

We have let ourselves fall into the notion that these things can be done from the top of society, that government or business or science can improve the human condition by hiring enough administrators, or stepping up the production of autos, or developing new vaccines. But real changes, real improvements have to come from the depths of society, from the confrontation of person. This is something we have learned in the Peace Corps.

Today our Volunteers are hard at work as vocational teachers in Thailand—as nurses and biochemists in Malaysia—as irrigation workers in Morocco, as nurses, teachers, civil engineers, community development workers and rural public works assistants in Pakistan—as heavy machinery: mechanics in Tunisia—as nurses and teachers in Tanganyika—as agricultural extension workers in India—as chemistry teachers in Ghana—and as rural youth workers and community development workers in Brazil, home economists in Chile, public heath workers in Bolivia, and in many other jobs in many other countries.

Two graduates of Providence College have already completed two years service with the Peace Corps and come home—Jim Sheahan, who worked as a teacher and educational broadcaster in Sierra Leone, and Frank Krajewski, who taught school on the island of Catanduanes in the Philippines and was made an honorary citizen of that remote island. Six other Providence College students are now serving abroad with the Peace Corps, in Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.

Wherever they are serving, whatever they are working at, the Volunteers are speaking the language of the country; they are eating the local food and living in local housing. They are assimilating completely into local cultures. In short, they are living at the level of the people-they are having a confrontation with persons. And what this can mean is indicated in the requests we have received for more and more Peace Corps Volunteers, more than we can possibly supply. And it is indicated in the heartfelt tributes and expressions of gratitude the Peace Corps has received from all over the world—even from countries in which we have no Volunteers at present.

Last year on of the most significant of these tributes, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes called 'Asia's Nobel Prize,' was presented to the Peace Corps on behalf of the Volunteers serving in 11 Asia nations. The citation accompanying the award reads in part: "The problem of achieving peace amidst the tensions and dangers of a nuclear age occupies the mind of much of the human race, yet few within it discover a useful way to contribute. In reaffirming the essential community of interest of all ordinary people, regardless of creed or nationality, the Peace Corps Volunteers belong to that small but growing fraternity who by their individual efforts do make a difference."

And the Manila Evening News, in taking note of the Award, commented: "Peace Corps workers achieved in less than two years an understanding with Asian peoples that promises to pass all tests."

So the world is discovering an America of the Heart, of ideas and ideals. The world is discovering the secret of America's greatness. And now we must put that secret to work in America itself.

This is the chance we have in President Johnson's proposed War on Poverty. This is the chance all of you have. This program is aimed at wiping out the whole subculture of poverty in America. 
 You are not poor, or you would not be here today, equipped with a splendid education. But one third of all the poor are children. They were born poor. No one can claim they got to be poor because they were lazy, shiftless, drunken or profligate. They have had no spokesman, no lobby. We haven't even seen them—we are so enclosed in our middle class life. Yet there are 25 to 30 million poor—shutout, broken and demoralized.

Fortunately, today the poor of America finally have a voice. It is a remarkable, memorable fact that our government has so concerned itself with the poor—from the vision of John F. Kennedy, to the action of President Johnson, to the concrete legislation of our Congress—that I can come before you today to speak for the poor in our War against Poverty. The poor are the hardest people in our society to reach. It is like going down in a diving bell. The farther you get down into this alienated subculture, the harder and harder it is to penetrate another foot. But we must bring the poor back into our society.

We can do it today because we have the wealth to do it. We have the knowledge of economics and the fiscal and monetary tools and techniques to do it. We have the new educational training techniques to do it. We have the means of communication and the mobility of population to do it.

And finally—for the first time in our history—we have the will to do it.

But who will be the executors of this will? We are not going to do this from the top down. We are not looking for more administrators, or autos or vaccines. We need people—we need you—for this crusade, just as we needed you and continue to need you in the Peace Corps. You must be the teachers of remedial reading, the re-trainers for new jobs, the workers by the thousands to remake our society.

They will be meeting the challenge of developing societies abroad, of poverty, ignorance and apathy. The same challenge exists in the United States.

The new anti-poverty program will give us a Job Corps in which young people from 16 to 22 can get work experience, with special emphasis on conserving our natural resources and recreational areas, along with general education. It will provide for part-time employment for students from low-income families who need to work their way through school. In these and other community action programs there will be many opportunities for you to teach and to serve. 
 We will also have Volunteers in Service to America—VISTA—our own grassroots "Peace Corps—to work in state, local or nonprofit programs to wipe out causes of poverty. To work with impoverished Indians on reservations. To bring help to migratory workers and their families. To work with the poor in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, the Virgin Island, the Pacific Islands. To work with the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, and the culturally deprived. To work with all the poor and the forgotten—perhaps right here in Providence.

In the Peace Corps we asked people to volunteer for work all over the world, not for money or glory, not even for comfort and convenience, but only to help others who needed and wanted their help. Helping others is not a new idea. It is very old, as old as the old testament. It was old when St. Thomas wrote in the 13th century, "So powerful was the appeal of man's needs and so eloquent was the cry of man in his distress, in his poverty, in his sin, in his helplessness, that God heard this and was unable to resist it to the point that he sent his only Begotten Son to come into the world to seek and to save that which we lost."

Is the appeal of man's needs any less powerful today? Is his cry of distress, of poverty, of helplessness less eloquent? Can any of us resist it?

Someone wrote once that the old man wants peace and quiet, the middle-aged man wants love and respect, but the young man wants challenges. Well you are two things above all today. You are bachelors of arts—and you are young. So I leave you with these challenges—the challenge of St. Thomas, the challenge of Father Pire, the challenge of the Peace Corps and the challenge of the War Against Poverty...The challenge to heed an eloquent cry—the most eloquent cry of all—the cry of human beings in
 distress, here in America and across the world.