John F. Kerry photo

Commencement Address at Bedford High School in Toledo, Ohio

June 06, 2004

I can't tell you how privileged I am to share this special moment in your lives. And by chance it falls on a day that commemorates a moment that will always live in American history. As we know all too sadly, this weekend also marks the passing of a modern giant. I want to focus on your future, but in the past we are all so conscious of now, there is strength and inspiration for your lives. First, let me tell you how honored I am to be part of the class of 2004.

I know it's out of the ordinary to have a graduation speaker who hasn't passed Mr. Harley's math class, but I'm here because of a letter I received from an extra-ordinary young man.

A few months ago, your classmate Brandon Spader wrote to me that you could all use, "a strong flame to brighten the future of [your] lives."

Brandon is right. I wish, just as I wished for my own daughters on their graduation day and just as your parents wish for you today, that we could send you out into a world of peace, a world of justice, a world that is fair and free for every person on this Earth.

Yet we know this is not our world. Your generation will face great challenges, and you will find, as you already have, that life brings setbacks as well as success, hardship as well as hope. And when it gets dark, you'll need that strong flame to light your way.

Sixty years ago today, an earlier generation faced down darkness and lit their way with a courage that saved freedom in the world. On June 6th, 1944, more than 73,000 young men were on landing crafts steaming toward the Normandy shore. Many were not a day older than any of you. They left their homes, their families, their friends and yes their high schools to wage and win the decisive battle. They did not know if they would ever see America again.

But eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds on the hundreds of landing crafts approaching that beach held their rifles over their heads, jumped into the shallow waters and fought their way ashore. Because at the end of the beach, beyond the cliff was the horizon of a better world. That is what Americans do. We face a challenge – no matter how great – because we know that on the other side there is always hope.

I had the enormous privilege of going to Normandy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-Day with my friend Senator Fritz Hollings, who served in World War II. And I stood in awe as old townspeople came up and touched him and tugged at his sleeve saying 'thank you' for 'what you did for us.'

Today, as we mark your graduation, we also celebrate the greatest generation.

And that coincidence tells a powerful truth: Now it is your generation's turn to find the greatness that's in you.

Look around you. Look at all the proud parents and teachers. Look at the smiles on their faces and the tears in their eyes.

They believe in you. America believes in you. And the best way to show how much you believe in America is to give something of yourselves to your country as well as your future careers.

After all, our greatest strength – our greatest responsibility as citizens – is service. And it is the people who answer the call every day who keep America strong. So many of you have already served right here in your hometown. As Bedford Angels, you have given your hearts and your hands to lift up the sick, the homeless, and families in need. And in the years to come, your service can change a neighborhood – or a nation. You will not do it alone; none of us can. We do it together – in the sum total of all our contributions and caring.

I know that Brandon is going off to the Air Force Academy, many of you are enlisting in the military, and others will go on to higher education to become tomorrow's teachers, business leaders, ministers, and public servants.

But no matter what work you do, there is other work to be done.

There are senior citizens who need a friend, there are children who need mentors, and there are communities that need help and healing. And across the oceans, there are not only enemies to be faced, but people everywhere ready to open their hearts to Peace Corps volunteers who show the world the generosity of the American spirit.

If you're willing to get involved, to lend your voices, your energy and your time, in the years of your youth, you can surprise those who underestimate the idealism and commitment of the young. You can prove in your own lives the truth of something that was written about this nation when it was young: "America is great because America is good."

My own father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He volunteered well before the war even began. And while he was on duty, and my mother was volunteering, she sent him a letter. "You have no idea of the ways in which one can be useful right now," she wrote. "There's something for everyone to do."

Half a century later, in a very different but equally fateful time, there is something for all of us to do, a place for all to serve, no room on the sidelines, and no challenge too daunting.

We're a nation of optimists. We're the can-do people. And we just have to believe in ourselves.

Yesterday, we lost one of our greatest optimists. President Reagan's belief in America was infectious.

And because of the way he led, he taught us that there was a difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship.

He was the voice of America in good times and in grief. On another D-Day twenty years ago, he stood on that windswept cliff at Normandy and paid an imperishable tribute to the glorious boys of Point du Hoc. Many who had survived were there with him that day, and he spoke the nation's heart. When he stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, he said, "Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall." He spoke for our country, for the eternal cause of liberty, and most of all for the millions imprisoned behind that wall who would soon after tear it down. Free men and women everywhere will forever remember and honor President Reagan's role in ending the Cold War. He really did believe that communism could be ended in his lifetime, and he helped to make it happen. Perhaps President Reagan's greatest monument isn't any building or any structure that bears his name, but the absence of the Berlin Wall.

When we lost the brave astronauts in the Challenger tragedy, he reminded us that, "Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."

Yesterday, his own journey ended a long and storied trip that spanned most of the American century – and shaped one of the greatest victories of freedom.

Today in the face of new challenges, President Reagan's example reminds us that we must move forward with optimism and resolve.

He was our oldest president, but he made America young again.

We pause for a moment to pray for his family, and the wife he loved in a way all the world could see. And to the end, she loved him with courage and complete devotion.

The American spirit wears no political label. In service to others and yes, in sacrifice for our country, there are no Republicans; there are no Democrats; there are only Americans.

When Brandon wrote to me, he asked about "ideas and values" that could lift us up and "make our country greater than it has ever been."

When I look for the answer, I look at you: your commitment to a cause bigger than yourselves. You are the ones who will lift up this land up with your ideas and your values, with your faith and your love of family and country.

You are the ones who will always stand up for what is just and what is right in America. That is what has always made the difference.

You are what Robert Kennedy had in mind when he warned against a sense of futility. He said "each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

I know your idealism is not something you wear on your sleeves. Sometimes it is tested by events and disappointments. But above all today, I ask you to keep it. In it, you can find a lifetime of strength and service.

And America needs it: your idealism is our hope.

Now you are ready, as the words at the doors of Bedford High tell you, to depart and serve.

And I know that as you hold on to all that brought you here today, you will reach out and reach higher and give something back.

Congratulations, God bless you, and good luck.

John F. Kerry, Commencement Address at Bedford High School in Toledo, Ohio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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