Remarks delivered by Bob ’83 and Lee McConaughy Woodruff ’82 at Colgate University’s 186th commencement, May 20, 2007
Lee McConaughy Woodruff: Wow. We are honored in so many ways to be here. We were hoping to have a sunny day for you guys, but we’re sorry. We were hoping for some of Bob’s miraculous luck to rub off on this weekend.
Bob Woodruff: In the history of this school I’ve never seen it rain.
LW: That would be your first lie. Alright, we were going to make a Sonny and Cher joke, as we understand we are the first husband and wife alumni team to speak at a Colgate graduation. But we did a little math and, sadly, we realized that your parents and grandparents would probably be the only people in the audience who would get the joke. So we scrapped that whole ‘I got you babe’ thing and we moved on to something else.
BW: I’d be willing to bet that almost every graduation speaker who finds themselves at a podium just like this one has to desperately fight the urge not to utter that old cliché — ‘It seems like only a few years ago I was in your shoes…’
It’s hard for us to believe it’s been 25 years — a quarter century — since we’ve been there. I have to remind you that Lee spoke here first today because she graduated a year before I did; she’s the ‘older woman.’ She’s also called ‘the general’ so she’s in charge. She starts. Go.
LW: OK. So now, standing up here and looking at the campus and all of you, I have to say that there is a reason that things do become clichés. The basic collective experience that they’re all founded on are true.
It does just seem like yesterday that we were you. Those same black gowns, those silly mortar hats with the swinging tassels. That feeling of ‘let’s get this speech over with, give me the sheepskin, and we can ditch our parents and get to the parties.’
And so we won’t bore you much more with that old chestnut, but I will say that in two weekends I will celebrate my 25th reunion here on these hallowed grounds. It is amazing to think that a quarter century has passed since I sat quaking in my platform sandals — and yes, they’re back in style now — both exhilarated and partially terrified to be loosed on the ‘real world.’
But the lesson of standing up here 25 years later with my life partner, and probably the most amazing man I know, is that life really does go fast. And so we say seize it, grab it by the cojones, suck it up, go after your dreams. It really all does sound like greeting card philosophy, doesn’t it? It’s all so much easier to see looking back from the big end of the telescope — as Bob and I are now — but we’re here to tell you, for what it is worth, that it’s true. Life goes fast and life is precious. Life can change — in an instant. And in the past 18 months, it is a lesson that we, as a family, have taken to heart
BW: Some of you may be familiar with our story. In January 2006, I was named co-anchor of World News Tonight on ABC. Shortly after that, on assignment in Iraq, I was seriously injured by a roadside bomb while embedded with the military near Baghdad. Over the next year, I fought hard for my recovery. Words and names eluded me. Reading and writing were very slow; I battled fatigue and also extreme pain in the early days. I survived with the love of my family, a great team of doctors and nurses, and a multitude of amazing friends that surrounded us.
I wish I could protect all of you from the ups and downs of life, from the bends in the road to come. At your age I think I believed that life traveled pretty much in a straight line. If I was a decent person, and worked hard, I would be rewarded. But life wouldn’t be life if it didn’t have some curve balls in store.
Perched on this last step of the journey before being truly launched out of your parents’ nest and into the world, you are poised to move onto the next exciting juncture in your life. For Lee and I, I stand up here and tell you that life is precious, life is short, and ephemeral. It is just too intangible...too simple. But that’s not really what you want to hear right now. So Lee and I have decided to do a kind of top 10 tactics for the real world — a few little gems we have cobbled together — that have helped provide a roadmap for our lives since our days here at Colgate.
LW: Number one: Kiss a lot of frogs.
There are all kinds of people out there in the world, and I urge you to experience them. By meeting and knowing different people, by dating, or ‘hooking up’— which my sister said I’m not supposed to say because it’s not an appropriate term — or forming friendships and relationships with others, you will also learn to better define yourself as a person. I found my 20s to be a decade of intense growth. It was a decade when I began to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do.
I’m going out on a limb here, especially if any of you are engaged or with the person right now whom you may ultimately marry. I’ve seen those relationships work. But make sure you know enough about yourself and other people to understand what you are looking for and need in a mate. Don’t hitch your star to the first person you date. You can circle back and marry them later, of course, but experience people. And if you do the things you want to do before you settle down — learn, travel, work, create, write, explore, invent, accomplish — you will be a much more complete mate and parent, if that is your goal. Here’s a note to anyone who is engaged now: believe that you are the exception to the rule and learn to compromise, compromise, compromise.
BW: Number two: Sense of humor is key.
Sense of humor cannot be underestimated in life. Lee and I would not have gotten through the last year without it. Our shared ability to laugh, even when we are the maddest at each other, has carried us through almost 19 years of marriage. You have to learn to laugh at yourself. Being self-deprecating is one of the greatest levelers in a relationship. Intelligence is terrific, but being funny is probably the most important.
And speaking of laughter — laugh a lot — it helps you live longer and it releases good stuff. One word about sense of humor — know your audience!
LW: Number three: Find mentors.
Colgate is the kind of place where you can brush up against giants, and they’re all sitting right here in the front row. The professors are accomplished and accessible — they take the time, have the interest and they will challenge you. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors. Professor Bruce Berlin, in the front row, Professor Margaret Maurer [associate dean of the faculty and William Henry Crawshaw Professor of literature], Professor Jane Pinchin [Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English], and the late, great Frederick Busch [Edgar W.B. Fairchild Professor of literature emeritus, who died in February 2006], and Peter Balakian [Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in the humanities and professor of English], one of my writing mentors. Peter actually looked at our book galleys before they were published, so he was our unofficial editor. They all encouraged me at and beyond. They convinced me that I could write. And when I ended up in a job in the insurance field that I was completely unsuited for, it was their voices that I heard urging me to follow my passions and take the entry level writing job at the PR agency. Mentors are one of the most valuable things you can have in life. Good ones are the best combination of a compass, a conscience, and a Boy Scout leader. Mentors are how some of the most successful people in life have made their way. And when it’s your turn, mentor back.
BW: Number four: Recycle.
This is very big news for you. I don’t think this one needs any explanation. Al Gore and others have put global warming front and center in our minds and it’s gotten a lot of press lately. But use less, reuse, reduce, go green. Turn off your lights, walk instead of drive when you can. Clean, potable water, or lack thereof, will be the biggest issue facing your generation. The sins of the fathers will be visited upon all of you and your children. And it has got to start with all of you in earnest if we want this planet to survive.
LW: Number five: Have faith.
Believe in something bigger than you. It doesn’t matter if it’s Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Pagan gods, the Muslim religion, even the God of Shopping — but never underestimate the power of faith to lift you up. A battle with breast cancer, a parent’s slow slide into Alzheimer’s, the loss of a child, a husband kisses a wife goodbye and the World Trade Center falls. You will need faith in ways that do not seem important now, but it will serve you like a trampoline, a foundation. At your lowest ebb it has the power to stop you from falling through the floor. Use it, explore it, tap into it from time to time and it will renew you in unexpected ways.
BW: Number six: Don’t be afraid of change and don’t be afraid to fail.
Few people really know exactly what they will do in life. And some of us will do many things. I left Colgate and became a lawyer. But the financial market collapsed a few days after I started my job, and so sitting on my hands and reading the Wall Street Journal, I decided I would go teach law in Beijing. Lee and I were married two days before moving there and nine months later, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations captured the world’s attention.
I became a translator for CBS News, and got addicted to journalism. At age 30, with a newborn child, who is now 16 (sitting right over there) I left my high-paying law job and took a position as a reporter in a tiny California town for $12,000 a year. I was awful at first, really bad. But I had found my passion: telling stories, covering current events, watching history.
I always said to Lee, do what you love and the rest will come — the salary, the recognition, the satisfaction. At age 30 I took a risk, and was lucky enough to have a wife who was willing to support my decision. And I finally found my passion. You may set out today thinking you are headed in one direction and find yourself headed somewhere else completely. Don’t shy away from that if the moment comes. There are always opportunities ahead when you are willing to embrace them. And they lead to far greater possibilities than you had ever imagined.
LW: Number seven: Snap it on, and buckle it up.
I lived with a guy for the last 16 months who had half of a head for part of that time. (Yes we can joke about it; that’s where the sense of humor comes in.) When he couldn’t come up with the words due to his traumatic brain injury, he would make them up. Some of our favorites were names like ‘breast explosion’ for boob job. He called the Verizon man the Viagra man and renamed goose bumps ‘dunkles.’
Despite the terrors and the triumphs along Bob’s journey to heal from a near fatal injury, we are acutely aware that we are a very, very lucky family. When the IED [improvised explosive device] exploded 15 yards from Bob’s tank, his skull was shattered, and the concussive force of the shrapnel caused a traumatic brain injury, or a TBI. A head injury is no laughing matter. Most people with TBI live with some form of impairment for the rest of their lives. In the military hospitals and VAs, we’ve seen so many young men and women robbed of a limitless future by these roadside bombs. But brain injuries happen in this country, too — 1.5 million a year from motor vehicle accidents, sports, playground falls, and domestic violence. So yes, this is your mother speaking. Wear a helmet and buckle your seat belt. Believe me when I say how quickly life can turn — in an instant.
BW: Number eight: Learn, think, and act globally.
The world is a very different place than it was 20 years ago. This is a country that used to have an ocean on the west and an ocean on the east that would separate us from so much of the world. But the protection and isolation those oceans provided is gone. The Internet has brought us immediacy and information, and has leveled the playing field in many ways. The global economy means we need to be so much more aware of our neighbors and to understand them if we are to interact effectively. Customs, religions, cultures, differences…take what you’ve learned here at Colgate and expand on it as you go out into the world. Expand your horizons with an open mind. Learn another language, if you haven’t studied one already. Travel — you’ll see amazing vistas and meet people that will shatter your misconceptions and hopefully inspire you.
LW: Number nine: Examine your life.
Share your emotions, ask difficult questions of yourself at critical junctures, probe the ones you love. Push yourself. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than your own personal best — and love well. Love with all of your heart. And in loving, you will learn the biggest nugget in life: that giving is so much more rewarding than being on the receiving end. If you choose to give, the love you put out there will come back in spades. Kind of like a pyramid scheme. When Bob was injured, in some ways it was as if he had died. People sent amazing letters and notes about the things he had done for them, the little ways in which he had touched their lives. I understood even more what a great guy he was and how respected among the journalistic community and beyond. But I was awestruck by the power his giving had when it doubled back on itself — and our family became the recipient of all that love and goodwill.
BW: Number 10: Vote.
Don’t ever take those rights for granted. Some people get angry at our government and our country and become apathetic or refuse to vote. The fact is that we have so much possibility in the United States of America. We have flaws, like any system, but we also have the ability to make our voices heard. And there are so many ways we can get involved to advocate for change if we care enough. People fought and died for our freedoms. They are fighting and dying every day now in Iraq. Whether or not you believe in this war, people are putting their lives on the line for us. That deserves our total respect. And they deserve our complete care and best medical attention when they return home. You don’t have the right to criticize our country if you don’t advocate for change. You can’t complain about our elected officials if you didn’t cast a vote.
LW: And I have the last nugget — it’s the one I call the Bonus Round. The bonus round is: thank your parents. Yes, this one sounds self-serving and even cheesy, in fact. But no matter how your parents got you here — whether they manage a hedge fund and paid cash for your tuition or they took a second mortgage out on the house — they got you here. They sacrificed in more ways than you can imagine at this moment in your lives to give you the best education, the best upbringing, the best chance at being a better version of themselves.
It’s true that you won’t really appreciate what all of this means until you yourself become a parent — and for my own kids that thought always makes me break into an evil chuckle — it’s the giant payback of parenthood, when my kids will turn to me and say ‘Mom, I finally get it — this is the hardest, most wonderful, most important job in the world.’
So do this for me at some point today — just say thanks to your folks in whatever way you do.
BW: So finally, one last word that I get today as well. You are at this wonderful juncture where you still have so many terrific choices ahead of you. You are searching for something to do with your lives. You may have already found it. But for most of you, it has not yet been discovered.
I barely knew Lee here at Colgate, and years later, we would fall in love and get married. And through that marriage we have had laughter, adventure, fun, and four wonderful children as well as some moments of fear and pain. Welcome to life. And there will be that moment when some person you love, a mother, a son, a cousin, or a friend will need you to help. And that person, for me, is my Lee. So I want to thank this school, Colgate University, for magically giving me Lee. Because, while she has always had my back on our journey together, in so many ways, she is also the woman who saved my life.
Thank you, and thank you all.
LW: Good luck everyone.