Remarks by John McHugh, Former Secretary of the U.S. Army Recipient, honorary doctor of laws degree 155th Commencement, May 14, 2016 SUNY Oswego College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


May 14, 2016

President Stanley, Trustee Lewin, thank you so much. And to all the professional staff and professorial staff here at Oswego, I’m truly and deeply honored. I can tell you that President Stanley’s reading of my life went a lot better than my living of my life, but it was good to hear it, nevertheless. I really am humbled.

I want to add my words of congratulations obviously to each and every one of you—big day! I’m old but I’m not so old that I don’t remember a lot of emotion, a lot of excitement, a little relief—got through it. If you’re anything like I was back in my day, I was more than a little surprised I actually got out. And I know I speak for my professors, a lot of them were equally surprised. But all good things lie before you. And I was so pleased to hear your recognition of the folks who have joined you because none of us get anywhere in our lives without help and support: a mom, a dad, a husband, a wife, children, perhaps a professor who believed more than you that you could pass the course. Whoever those persons or that person may be, try to say, “Thank you.” They’ve got a lot of pride in you and they share in this moment as well.

This moment for me, as you heard, has been some time in coming. That’s true principally for two reasons. First of all, you may have heard about this, it was just a few years ago that I was offered the opportunity to receive a similar degree. At that time at least some on this campus felt, probably understandably, a deep concern about something called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It was the conditions under which gay men and women were forced to serve in the military and they weren’t very hospitable conditions. Now, the fact was, neither I as secretary nor anyone in the Department of Defense could change that. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the law. It was passed by Congress. It was signed by the president back when. But I didn’t want my presence to be a disruption. So very reluctantly, with a lot of sadness, I chose to withdraw, trying to return the focus of the day to where it belonged: folks like you who earned your degree and have the cap and gown on.

I went home after the ceremony, and all of us, all the service secretaries, all the officials in the Department of Defense worked with President Obama and worked with the United States Congress and they changed that law. And they changed it so now “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is really “don’t ask because nobody cares.” And as such, [Applause] And as such, every American can now, if they so choose, serve this nation and its military without fear of retribution, and the military and the nation are better for it. [Applause]

The second instance of a slight occurred back in 1971. You don’t remember 1971, but I do. That’s when I chose to forgo my pursuit of a law degree and do some different things, as you heard. So this degree is really 45 years in the making, and so for all of you who may be watching or thinking “I can stretch this into five years,” I bet you can’t beat me.

Now, I was originally asked just to offer a couple of points, a couple of lessons perhaps I’ve learned to help you, guide you, in the path that lies before you, a path that is better known as the rest of your lives. And now that I’m a lawyer, kinda, I feel intellectually empowered to do that. So I’m going to give you two brief points.

First, this is a happy day, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the fact of the matter is at some point, each and every one of you is going to fail. Again, if you’re anything like me, there are a few of you who are going to fail a lot. I didn’t tell you that to scare the hell out of you. I told you, rather, so when failure happens, as it will, don’t let a fear of another failure ruin your lives. Don’t let it keep you from taking on that next challenge, whatever that challenge might be, from embarking on a little uncertain but exciting journey.

I look back and I can tell you the regrets I have are not about the times I tried and failed, it’s really about the times I failed to try at all. The saddest two words in the English language, and I’m a politician so I’ve said a lot of words, but the saddest two words: “what if.”  What if I’d gone to grad school? What if I’d taken that job when it was offered? What if I’d asked so and so for a cup of coffee all those years ago? Don’t let your life’s mantra be “what if.” I don’t want you to be foolish, I don’t want you to be reckless, but sometimes when it feels right, take a chance. Step out of your comfort zone. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. And really, when you think about it, that’s what makes life exciting.

Second, have a plan, but at the same time, plan on having to change it. There’s a saying in the military: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Never happens. Life can kind of be like that. Planning is prudent. Having a dream and plotting a path to realizing that dream is really a labor of the wise. But if and when those plans come up short, don’t quit. Step back, think about what you’ve learned, where things might have gone astray, adjust, and re-engage. Never view failure in pursuit of a dream as the loss of that dream. Dreams are hard. That’s why they’re called dreams. But for those who continue to strive, no matter how many plan B’s they may require, those are the people that find out that dreams can and do come true. I’m living proof of that.

The good news: You’ve got your degree. You’re well prepared to take on all the challenges that might be coming your way. You’re well prepared to take advantage of all the opportunities that will cross your path and you will benefit from if you have courage to take on that opportunity.

Now’s your time to move on in your lives and make it happen, whatever it is. I know you can do that. And if I didn’t realize it before I came into this room this morning, I certainly would realize it now. You’ve got a cap and gown and shortly you’ll have a degree in your hand. So you can go out and you can make the world a better place, wherever you choose to do it.

Now I’m going to leave you with a song, and I’m not going to sing it either, and it’s not by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. It comes from an ancient people, the Copper Eskimos. It’s really a poem, but they sing it. I first came across it some 25 years ago. Most of you were not of this Earth 25 years ago, but it may sound familiar to you, and if it does, I am told, I did not see it, but I am told that a version of this, an incorrect version, was part of season three of “True Blood.” But I think it captures the moment and it helps keep in perspective, you know, some things are important in life, some things are not. And it goes like this:

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.
My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing.
To live and see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

So, graduates of the Class of 2016 of the State University of New York at Oswego, congratulations, you did it, and may you see the dawning of many, many great days. Thank you.