Commencement 2006
Commencement Speaker

New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s commencement remarks:

audio clip

Thank you for inviting me to share this special day with you, and thank you for that gracious welcome.It’s inspiring to see all of you gathered here at this significant moment — the culmination of your youth; the moment before you embark on the journey and adventure that is the rest of your lives. Your elation, hope, impatience, fear… wetness … It’s thick in the air today.

I join your parents and loved ones in congratulating you on this great accomplishment, and in taking a collective deep breath to see what you’ll do next. Because, quite frankly, anything is possible.

I’d like to begin by asking you to acknowledge your parents and family members, and your teachers as well as everyone else who helped you reach this important day. We accomplish nothing in life alone. We do it together.

The point of a commencement address is to encourage you to reflect on where you’ve been and where you are going, and, hopefully, to convey something meaningful in the way of advice.

But as the Roman poet Horace once wrote: “Whatever your advice, make it brief.”

Horace actually had good reason to feel strongly about time. In his era, people didn’t live as long as we do today — so they had little tolerance for filler.

My hope and expectation is that you will enjoy good health and longevity, but I will also try to heed his advice about giving advice. I won’t take long.

I am here today, like many of you, as a parent, as a New Yorker, and as someone who cares deeply about the future of this great state.

And as I look out at you, I see that future. I see a range of backgrounds, capabilities, opportunities — and, I see hope. But, sadly, I fear too many of you will leave in the coming months and years.

Over 180,000 more people left this state than came here between 2000 and 2004. 180,000.

People are leaving because they can’t make ends meet, and they are forced to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

This is not the New York we dream of. My father has lived in New York his entire life. The son of immigrants, he attended City College for free. He moved to Syracuse and started work as an engineer. He moved back to New York City and found success and prosperity. This dream, the dream my father lived, has grown far too infrequent.

Government can help. But even the strongest of governments can’t alter this course alone. When it comes down to it, only you can change the current direction.

So here is my request of you today: I’d like to ask you to stay in New York.

I know that nearly three-quarters of you are not native New Yorkers.

But I invite all of you to join in the process of restoring this state to the greatness it once knew. If you choose to go — back to California or Ohio or Georgia — I wish you well. But you might miss something spectacular.

Because we can make this a state where you make a great life for yourselves and your families. But we need your help.

I ask you to stay in New York — not for your tax dollars or even for your good company — but for the sake of our collective future.

New Yorkers take a special pride in their state. Some of you have only called New York home for four years, but you have felt it, too. Maybe in a small way, New York has captured a piece of your heart.

New Yorkers are proud when we recall the spirit of Ellis Island, proud when we think of the majesty of Niagara Falls, and proud when we hear the roar of the crowd at Yankees or Bills games.

But there’s more we can be proud of. The great weather. The land of extraordinary opportunity and hope. We are the Empire State; the gateway to America; the center of commerce and ideas for our entire nation.

But today this is a state desperately in need of a wake-up call — and a dose of passion. We need people devoted to new ideas, new businesses, new ways of governing.

It can be done. But only if you stay and add your voices.
Each of you can have a profound effect on the future of our state. No matter how big or small, our private actions can serve a higher, broader purpose.

As Robert Kennedy once said, an individual act can send out a ripple of hope. Each ripple of hope can generate other ripples. And the small ripples that we make as individuals can ultimately become important waves of future progress – an appropriate metaphor for today.

What I’m talking about is forging a legacy which we can hand to our children and grandchildren. At one point, this was done for us. Now, it’s our turn.

Let me give you three quick examples.

This first example has to do with the environment. A century ago, much of northern New York looked like a wasteland. Clear-cutting, erosion, and forest fires had devastated millions of acres of once-pristine forest land. Pictures from the period depict moonscapes. A small group of people got together and were determined to do something. But they were told: “Why bother. The region is too far gone.”

They didn’t listen. They rallied people, enlisted Governor Teddy Roosevelt and others and established the Adirondack Park. We now recognize the park as one of our greatest natural resources in New York, drawing outdoor enthusiasts, families, tourists, and, over 25 years ago, elite athletes from all over the world to compete in the Olympics.

The second example involves the economy. In the 1820s, a small group of forward-looking businessmen convinced Governor Dewitt Clinton that New York needed a canal that would stretch from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. For a long time, they had a hard time convincing others of the merits of the proposal. In fact, people laughed at what they called “Clinton’s ditch.”

Fortunately, they weren’t deterred. They fought for years to get the funding, and when the project was finally completed, it was the greatest economic boon the state and nation had ever seen. It created the Empire State. Not bad for a ditch.

The last example has to do with women’s rights. One of the greatest reformers ever was Susan B. Anthony, who led the women’s rights movement from right here in upstate New York. Talk about obstacles. For much of her career, she and a handful of supporters were met with jeers, not cheers. They were arrested, but it didn’t stop them. In fact, she once said something that I believe must have been her motto. She said: “Careful, cautious people, always casting about to save their reputations, will never achieve true reform.”

This is a tradition that we claim as New Yorkers. We would do well to remember it. It shows what citizens can achieve when they are willing to take risks, upend the status quo, question everything, and never take no for an answer.

Robert Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Teddy Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man or woman who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who spends himself for a worthy cause; who at the best, in the end, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Live up to the sprit of these great New Yorkers. Follow in their grand tradition. Show us what you can do — if you choose to stand up.

The point is, never underestimate the power you hold.

Set an example. Work yourself bleary-eyed. Be relentless. Demand more from yourselves, from your government, from your neighbors. Upend the status quo.

Mark Twain observed: “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

It’s okay to be annoying in that way. Believe me, I’ve been called far worse.

So step up. And do it here in New York.

And be prepared for pushback. There will always be naysayers. An army of the status quo. They will call your canal a ditch, your vision a mirage.

History is littered with them.

The Wright brothers were told that ‘heavier-than-air flight was both impossible and contrary to the will of God.’ The Beatles were told that ‘guitar sound is on the way out.’ IBM engineers were told that there was no market for home computers.

The future doesn’t belong to the army of the status quo. You couldn’t fly, you couldn’t rock, and you couldn’t surf the web if it did.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Each of you has the ability to achieve great things. But in order to do so, you must get involved, you must embrace change — and your dreams. Much of the world around you is invested in keeping things the same as they are. Only you have the fresh eyes needed to question everything and return dynamism to our state.

I hope I’ve made a compelling case. Please stay — and bring your energy, creativity, and fresh perspective to New York.

Your state will reward your efforts.

Thank you for listening. 

Congratulations — God speed, and stay dry.

Office of Public Relations and Communications
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Eliot SpitzerEliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York state, will deliver the keynote address at Colgate University’s 185th commencement exercises Sunday, May 21.

Spitzer became New York’s 63rd attorney general Jan. 1, 1999. Since then, he has spearheaded a broad array of initiatives that have focused on consumer protection, environmental stewardship, labor rights, personal privacy, public safety, and criminal law enforcement.

Nicknamed “Crusader of the Year” by Time magazine in 2002, Spitzer began his career in public service as a clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet and later served as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan under Robert Morgenthau from 1986 to 1992.

He rose to chief of the Labor Racketeering unit, where he prosecuted organized crime and political corruption cases. He also spent time in private practice with Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, and Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. In addition, he was a partner at Constantine & Partners.

Spitzer has contributed significant time and energy to community service throughout his life, and, with his wife, Silda Wall, formed the Children for Children Foundation.

He is a 1981 graduate of Princeton University and a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review


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