My commencement speech to the graduating class of Basis Chandler

On May 23, 2017 I delivered this commencement speech to the graduating class of  Basis Chandler, a charter school populated by impressively high achieving students. It is a speech specifically geared to that graduating class, but I hope there may be a few provocative thoughts for all.

Graduates, parents, relatives, faculty, friends of the school and friends of the graduates.

Bless me Class of 2017, I am angry. I am angry at what we have become in this country.

I am angry that unfeeling airlines are tossing families off airplanes because they can’t figure out how to move their own staff around the country.

I am angry that loud, irrational pundits, on the right and the left are spouting outrageous vitriol with no regard for facts or sensitivity.

And, I am angry when callous congressmen say things like, ”Nobody dies because they don’t have health care.”

I am angry because it seems compassion is dying. Heather Figallo, the Customer Experience and Innovation chief of Southwest Airlines recently said in a private conference, “the clinical definition of compassion is I feel another’s suffering and I have the ability to alleviate it.”

This country used to care about the least of our brethren, now, not so much. So many people seem to care about nothing beyond themselves. Everything is focused on me, me, me. Self-interest dominates our thinking.

And even worse, so many people seem to be drawing into themselves. Several times in the last several weeks I have heard people say, “The world’s problems are too big, I can’t affect them so I don’t care.”

That is absolute rubbish. It may well be true that you can’t figure out what to do about North Korea, or health care or race relations, but each one of us can make a difference in this world if we look out and not in.

We can commit random acts of kindness. We can put together bags of food for the homeless. We can clean up the park. We can do countless things to make our world better and each kind act we do changes attitudes about those big issues.

As I prepared for tonight’s speech my anger started to subside and my normal positive peachy-keen attitude started to reappear because of this very graduating class.

You see, about three months ago I sat down with six of the graduates who are in the hall tonight. It was a delightful and educational conversation. It became apparent that this class is incredibly bright, completely driven and precociously attuned to critical thinking. But you all knew that.

Something bigger caught me by surprise. I asked the students what they would talk about if they were giving the graduation speech. To a person, those graduating seniors said they would discuss the remarkable four years they have spent with their classmates. They talked of their camaraderie, their empathy for each other and the genuine bonding they have experienced despite the built-in diversity of this school.

I admit my first reaction to that universally held belief of the students was a bit of disdain. I am not a nostalgic fellow. I think wishing for yesterday is a futile and even phony search akin to dreaming of rainbow stew.

However, as I reflected, I started to think about the students’ desire to celebrate their close-knit class in the context of history. I love history that teaches. My favorite author is a man named Steven Johnson who studies history to understand what is worth replicating in innovation and creativity. His brilliance illuminates new paths forward.

When these students told me of their bond with other students, their cherished memories of coming together to learn and achieve and their recognition that each person has value, they were telling me that the most important thing they have learned at Chandler Basis was the power of community.

That lesson can save our fragmented society and guarantee individual and professional success.

Community is what we are lacking in America today and yet Community is what those students were valuing so deeply.

The students who talked to me spoke of how the gauntlet of high school at an academically challenging place was so much easier because students were close. Students worried about one another. Students easily moved from one group to another because the differences were small.

It was obvious to me the students felt incredibly supported by faculty and parents. It was just as obvious these particular students trusted other students because everybody is smart and everybody has basic confidence in their own abilities.

I believe, based on the students I talked to, that the Basis Chandler class of 2017 has learned the fundamentals of real community.

In real community, the group interest triumphs over individual interest.

In real community, the shared struggle creates an unbreakable bond outsiders cannot break.

In real community members find joy and victory only when everyone succeeds.

In real community the individual does well, but not at the expense of others, all boats can rise when my boat rises.

It is truly remarkable that a graduating class has discovered such a strong sense of community. It is a treasure beyond words.

Abraham Lincoln closed his inaugural address with these words which should speak volumes to us today: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My charge to you is simple and clear. Leave tonight and pursue that same sense of community in the world you are going to encounter.

Don’t make it all about you. Make it about us.

Use the community building skills you have learned in the class of 2017 to build small, powerful communities wherever you go. Communities that will show compassion for those who struggle. Communities that truly make a difference because of the common bonds the community embraces.

Treasure your four years here at Basis Chandler Basis but never, never forget the power of community you learned here.

Let the better angels of your nature flourish.

 

A most unforgettable character, Jerry Graham, has died

Four or five years ago I promised, no, I threatened a friend of mine, that I was going to write his obituary and pay for its placement in the Arizona Republic. I did that, but Jerry is such a classic character I decided this was worth sharing with a broader audience. Besides, obituaries are hard to read in the newspaper. I hope you enjoy the story of my colorful friend.

Obituary for Jerry Graham

Jerry Graham (maybe) April15, 1933 (maybe)- April 28, 2016

You may have known known Jerry Graham. He was the smiling, mustachioed guy who often held court at the Starbucks Coffee shop in Fry’s at 90th and Via Linda from around 6 to 9 am. He’s the guy who knew your name or wondered why he didn’t. And if you were a woman or a child, he definitely knew who you were.

You might have known Jerry from Giants spring training where he used to handle parking and take tickets. Or you may have known him from his frequent haunts like Vito’s, Hiro Sushi or at the Brass Rail where he could find a really cheap breakfast. Finding a cheap, good meal was Jerry’s eternal search.

Jerry was especially nice to the ladies. He was so nice to the ladies he was married five times and had at least four live-in lovers. At one point he carried business cards that said “Catch and Release.” He did not fish. In his old age it was all about the chase. He could usually pull that sort of thing off without offending.

Jerry’s kindness was on display whenever he encountered children.  He was charming to them and connected with them in ways others could not. One little fellow came into Fry’s regularly. He routinely hid behind his parents. It took Jerry some time, some cool presents and genuine persistence, but before long the little boy would come running into his arms the moment he entered the coffee shop.

Another coffee shop habitué had a son with Down syndrome who visited from out of state a few times a year. The bond between Jerry and the young man was palpable and heartwarming. In the days before his death he said with deep feeling, “I love that boy.”

And then there were the rest of us. We didn’t fare so well. Jerry was king of the insult. “I’ve missed you, but what a nice feeling.”  Jerry could insult your looks, your interests, your politics, and your loved ones, but the insults were always followed by a loud joshing guffaw. And Jerry took as well as he gave. If you didn’t insult him upon walking into Fry’s, he feared he had offended you in some way. Months before his death he pointed to a guest and told his nurse, “We have never said a kind word to each other, but we are really good friends.”

Jerry came to Scottsdale 23 ago after spending much of his working life in the Bay area as a newspaper pressman for the Wall Street Journal and several other papers printed in the bay area. He said one year he gave his accountant 17 W2 forms from different newspapers.

Jerry had friends everywhere. Many of them visited in his nursing home room after he decided to enter hospice. Several said, “I have to go kiss the ring.” He was that kind of guy. One afternoon before his death, 17 people crowded into his small hospice room. He engendered that kind of loyalty. Most of those friends would tell you he is number one or two on their list of most unforgettable characters they have ever met.

Jerry’s laugh, his storytelling and his sharp wit would explain some of that, but mostly Jerry was a rogue, a caring, lovable, funny and more than a bit mysterious rogue.

When Jerry, with his checkered romantic past, would dispense marriage advice to troubled friends some would laugh uproariously. Those who were happily married recoiled in horror.  When he told about his days as a bookie and his father’s testimony before the Kefauver crime commission where he took the fifth, every eye widened. Jerry hated the mobster Mickey Cohen for driving his dad out of the LA syndicate world and railed about the terrible inaccuracies in the 2013 Cohen crime move “Gangster Squad.”

You always had a strong feeling Jerry knew what he was talking about, but you were never sure what was true and what was actually the work of a darned good storyteller.

The amusing thing about Jerry’s tales of being a bookmaker was that if you accompanied him to the racetrack you quickly realized he was the worst handicapper of all time. He couldn’t even read the Daily Racing Form, horse racing’s bible. That led some to believe that Jerry must have brought a different set of skills to the bookmaking operation.

An astute reader has figured out there are few specific dates here. We think he went into the Coast Guard at the age of 18. We think he lived in the Bay area for thirty years or so and at various times was a pressman, a haberdashery owner, a bowling alley proprietor and a bookmaker. He says he ran with athletes like the football player Joe Perry and he crossed paths with numerous other big names. As a child, he says he met a lot of the Hollywood stars his dad knew from the southern California race tracks.

Once on a St Patrick’s Day a few years ago, one of his buddies innocently asked if the name Graham was Irish or British. Jerry stopped abruptly, gave his friend a flabbergasted look and said “How would I know, that’s not the real name.”

That mysterious answer was an essential part of Jerry Graham’s charm. Nobody is sure exactly what is true and what isn’t, but that is perfectly okay. Jerry was funny and knew what being a friend was about. He was incredibly loyal, touched thousands, and did countless favors for people without ever seeking credit. If you needed a ride to the hospital or doctor’s office, Jerry had it for you.

Jerry had one last big surprise up his sleeve. This obituary was first written in mid-October of 2016, days after Jerry entered hospice. He was supposed to die within two weeks. Mysteriously Jerry lived seven more months and died peacefully in his sleep.

Jerry thought it was hilarious that he had several goody-bye parties. That devilish delight in confounding everybody is just one more of the many reasons why 17 people crowded into his room several months ago, and why there were a countless others who visited him in his last days. And, it is why many others will cry when they realize that a genuine one-of-a-kind character has passed from our midst.

Jerry Graham will be cremated and, always angling for one last nice trip, his ashes will be sent to Hawaii. He will be interred in the National Memorial Cemetery.