For graduating seniors, parting words on adversity & character

Political commentator Charlie Cook delivered the Commencement address on May 23, telling Elon University's Class of 2015 how national leaders have found meaning in crises and personal tragedies.

PHOTO GALLERY: Elon University’s 125th Commencement Exercises – May 23, 2015

Many of the biggest names in politics over the past half century were shaped in their early years by tragedies or crises that tested their resolve while making them more determined to excel in their professions.

There was former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, a Republican from Kansas and his party’s presidential nominee in 1996. Dole lost the use of his right arm when he was hit by gunfire in World War II trying to reach an enemy machine gun nest.

In 1953, former President George H.W. Bush lost daughter, Robin, to leukemia. Former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt struggled in the 1970s when his young son developed a painful tumor that aggressive treatment fortunately cured.

Vice President Joe Biden buried his first wife and toddler daughter when they died in a 1972 car wreck weeks before Biden was scheduled to be sworn in as the state’s junior senator.

Overcoming adversity molded all four leaders, one of the nation’s top political analysts told the Class of 2015 on Saturday morning at Elon University’s 125th Commencement exercises. In each case, their lives were turned upside down, but the adversity they faced “made them stronger, tougher, and more determined.”

“Adversity is a part of life. It can be major or minor, but how you deal with it will determine your character,” said Charlie Cook, founder and editor of the Cook Political Report, in citing the four stories drawn from the 1992 book “What It Takes,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer. “Unfortunately, all of us will face some kind of adversity at some point in our lives. … When it does, will you rise to the occasion, will you allow it to make you stronger, or will it get the best of you?”

The morning address to nearly 1,300 seniors and their families highlighted a ceremony “Under the Oaks” of Elon University that concluded with graduates receiving oak sapling gifts to represent their intellectual growth into global citizens.

The nationally acclaimed political commentator took time to thank the men and women seated before him who had served in the military, in the medical profession, in law enforcement and in education.

Cook’s address offered practical career advice, too.

“No matter what career path you choose, most of you will need to learn how to sell yourselves, how to market yourselves,” he said. “You will need to convince future employers, clients, customers and colleagues that you are smart, driven, focused. That you have a sense of purpose in life, goals and ambitions and the determination to achieve them. You can’t count on anyone else doing that.

“But just as important as being able to sell yourself is for you to understand yourself, to objectively assess, to inventory your own strengths and weaknesses. You will need to figure out how to play to your strengths and how to mitigate your weaknesses.”

Considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on American politics and U.S. elections, Cook founded the Cook Political Report in 1984 and became a columnist for Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, in 1986.

In 1998 he moved his column to National Journal. He has served as a political analyst or election night analyst for CBS, CNN and NBC News and has been a frequent political analyst for all three major broadcast news networks. He also has appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week.”

Cook is the father of Jeffrey Cook, a member of the Class of 2015 who studied strategic communications. Yet Charlie Cook’s relationship with the university dates farther back than his son’s matriculation. The elder Cook first visited Elon in 2003 and has since forged relationships with faculty and made regular appearances on campus during election years to offer perspective on prevailing political attitudes of the day.

Cook praised Elon for the growth of its national stature over the past decade.

“Beyond the traditional classroom, Elon has been rated the top university in the country for its study abroad programs, and its unique engaged and experiential learning approach is a model for other universities,” Cook said. “When Elon is mentioned now, I don’t hear a a ‘oh, where is that?’ Instead it’s a ‘oh yeah, I know…’ with a story to follow about a family member, neighbor or colleague with a son or daughter who graduated from, currently attends or is applying to Elon.”

Graduates also heard from Nicole Morillo ‘12, who spoke on behalf of the alumni body, and Sarah Paille-Jansa, president of the Class of 2015. Morillo spoke of the relationships and community that students find at Elon University and how those connections don’t end at graduation.

“Elon will always be your home away from home,” Morillo said. “Your relationships with students and faculty and staff remain important, and going forward, your encouragement to an undergraduate, your presence on campus, your assistance in helping a student find an internship or a job … are all integral parts of the community. Elon still needs us.”

Morillo took time to introduce to the crowd Eugene Perry ’69, the first African-American student to receive an Elon degree. Perry’s presence at the Commencement ceremony earned him a standing ovation from the estimated 11,500 people in attendance.

Paille-Jansa likened her Elon education and experiences to one of her favorite films: “The Wizard of Oz.” Though the yellow brick road “will forever stir my soul,” she said, there’s no place like Elon’s red brick and no better place to call home over the past four years.

The campus community expanded her mind, opened her heart to making a positive difference in the lives of others, and illustrated bravery with people who displayed the courage it takes to stand up for what they believe act in authentic manners.

“The beauty of being a part of the Elon family is knowing there will always be a home for us,” she said. “I know that all of us are leaving with inspired minds, full hearts, and more courage than when we arrived.”

In his charge to graduates, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert recounted the efforts of the late Professor Emerita Lucille Stone when, four decades ago, she planted geraniums around the flags near Fonville Fountain – an area that served as a parking lot.

Stone’s suggestion to plant geraniums was met with skepticism. After all, there was no one assigned to water them, and then-President Fred Young worried the flowers would simply die. Stone vowed to water them herself, which soon led to the idea of landscaping the whole area.

Lambert cited her efforts as being part of the inspiration for what is today a campus that is designated as a botanical garden.

“In addition to planting your oak sapling, my dear friends, I charge you to go out in the world and plant geraniums as well,” Lambert said. “Start something big by committing yourself to small, intentional acts of kindness, of generosity, of courage, and of beauty that can lead to transformational change—even if it affects only one other person.”

There will be children who lack the kind words of mentors, many of whom will have their lives largely determined by their experiences and opportunities, he said. Peace in the world requires relationship building across religion, race, culture, sexual orientation and economic class.

“Yes, we plant oak trees and proudly so. But we also make a difference in the communities in which we live—all over the globe—by the metaphorical geraniums we plant, water and care for lovingly,” Lambert said. “Life is not a contest to see who ends up with the biggest oak tree. In the end, all that will matter is that you too were the essential ingredient in the lives of others.

“So share much. Love much. And be brave. Long live Elon!”