2014 Archives

Text of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings's Commencement Address

Given at Southern Methodist University on May 17, 2014

May 18, 2014

Today is a truly joyous day. It’s a day to celebrate. We must live in this moment, and we must be self-satisfied if even for a moment. But if you’re like me, you don’t know how to celebrate. And if we’re not celebrating today, we are not living in this moment. And if we can’t live in this moment, we won’t succeed when we are in the depths of self-doubt.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings

So live in this moment, graduates. Live in this moment, good parents. Live in this moment deans, provost and President Turner. Today you can say you have done well. For tomorrow, you ride. You ride on a journey into your future. This journey, like the season of life, is long – at least we all hope it is. It’s not just for one moment, not one game, not one play – but a series of great moments. Know when it’s time to kick yourself and when it’s time to pat yourself. Today is one of those back- pat moments.

I understand your anxiety. You must be asking what your journey holds. I remember leaving Boston after I graduated from college, driving west on I-90 to Texas. For me, singer James Taylor said it best in his song “Sweet Baby James,” when he sang: “Now the first of December was covered with snow/and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston /though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting/with 10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go.”

I’m still on my long journey and it’s been a wonderful one. I hope yours is a journey filled with learning, leadership and love. We all must realize that we had a big head start on our journeys to get here. This is not a critical statement, because I had a head start as well.

We all won the life lottery. It’s like we went down to 7-Eleven and won the Powerball. To be healthy, with a full stomach, graduating from a school of SMU’s acclaim, on scholarship or not, In Dallas, Texas and in the United States of America. Compared to the billions of people on the planet earth, you were dealt a great hand of cards. I know I was. We seem to have found our way to Homer’s Elysian Fields, the fortunate Isles of the Blessed in the Western ocean at the end of the earth. There is no moral judgment from this fact. Good or bad. It’s just that, a fact. It was our fate, and is a matter of pure luck, timing and genes. But this fact of nature does raise the important question you face. That of what you are going to do now with that good fortune? Are you like the servant in the Gospel of Matthew who takes the talent given to him and buries it to make sure he doesn’t lose it? Or are you going to put it to work, take personal risk and turn it into something that makes a difference in this world? It is your obligation to address this.

Now to answer that question, there are three other questions you should ask yourself:

  1. How will you continue to learn throughout your journey?
        
  2. What type of leader will you become?
        
  3. What and who will you love?

I know it feels like you’ve been learning your whole life, but to have a great journey you must continue to learn. Never stop. Search for the environments that teach you. Work for people who expect the most of you and will reward you with gifts of wisdom. Learning is what makes life exciting. In fact, that’s why I decided to become mayor. I had no idea some 38 years ago that my journey would take me through city hall in one of the top 10 cities in the U.S. At that stage in my life, I felt there was so much more to learn, and I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve learned that the wealthiest individuals have as much insecurity as those without money. I’ve learned about the heartbreak of poverty in Dallas, which is more widespread and deeper than I ever realized. I’ve learned how to speak frankly, and how to subjugate my ego for the good of our citizens.

If you are going to continue to learn, above all, you have to read, read and read some more. Read books that are in your field. Read books that aren’t in your field. Read books that you don’t understand. And read books that are profound in their simplicity. I discovered one of those books recently when I participated in a sophisticated training session for future leaders in a Dallas school. I got to read to kindergarteners the book I Like Me, by Nancy L.Carlson.

These books, that day, were printed for each student, with their name as the book’s protagonist. One was printed for me. It showed me how one person can grab an idea and make it a reality and change lives. It also showed me the art of customization. Each book was tailored for each student. They gave me one, too. The first page reads “I like me. I like my name, Mayor Mike. This book is written about me. I have made a great discovery. I am the only me here in this whole great big wide world.”

The importance of self-esteem for each of us, and these kids, is profound. This book, I Like Me, is not about politicians. It’s about each of us. It continues with how I like to work with people, how I like hugs and not drugs, and how I like all these things. On page 11 was a big one for me, “I like to tell the truth.” As a politician, that is a very scary challenge because the minute you tell the truth, one side of the room does not like you. Politicians like to be liked, because, I like me.

However you continue to learn, just learn. Make it a life mantra to learn until the day you die and your life will be ever so fulfilled.

The next question you have to ask yourself, what type of leader are you going to become? The question is not whether you will lead or not, because I believe we are all leaders. Simply put, a leader is a change agent, a person who impacts or changes the world. You have already done that. You have chosen to change your world by studying and graduating. You have decided to not let the absurd forces of nature and human mistakes send you into the shadows of disheartenment. But going forward you will have tough leadership decisions throughout your journey. This becomes an existential personal choice about you and the philosophical other. You and the world. Are you going to change it, or is it going to take control of your life?

I love stories of great leadership. Let’s turn back to some 50 years ago, when the Mayor of Dallas J. Erik Jonsson took office three months following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Now that was not good luck. It was arguably the nadir of our city’s history. Mayor Jonsson answered that question of leadership for himself and for Dallas when he challenged the citizens to “dream no small dreams.” Fifty years ago he made a choice for Dallas that put us on a track towards greatness from which we all benefit today. His city plan, called the “Goals for Dallas,” laid out a blueprint of the city we live in today. Now Dallas-Fort Worth is the fourth largest market in the country behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. We are the fastest growing, slated to be the third largest market by the 2020s.

A huge catalyst to that growth was the DFW airport, the fourth busiest airport in the world. Mayor Jonsson dreamed of an airport, and he helped build one that is bigger than the island of Manhattan. Because of that, corporations relocated to Dallas from all over the country and continue to do so today. It was recently announced that the North American headquarters of Toyota was moving to Plano. We have built the largest light rail system in the U.S. We got serious about higher education as well. All this because Mayor Jonsson led the citizens of Dallas to “dream no small dreams” and to believe we truly were a city of opportunity. A young, 22-year-old new kid in town – that was me – bought into this. His leadership choice to “dream no small dreams” changed my world, and it impacts yours today.

You see great leadership all around you on this campus, it’s been happening for 100 years. The Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility has already made a difference at Dallas City Hall. Today I see it in the impact that students, teachers and Dean Chard of the School of Education are making in West Dallas. I see it in the students that are coming out of the Cox School of Business. I see it in Coach Brown on the basketball court in this very building where we saw how a basketball team and a university truly grew by great leadership.

Great leadership can be done quietly.  Like an anonymous courageous young man who berates his buddy for not treating women with the respect, dignity and the equality they deserve.

I promised I would never make a speech without saying to young men, never hit a woman. You can call a guy who hits a woman a lot of things, but you cannot call him a man. Sorry, end of preaching, but I needed to say it.

So when confronted with that old question that we all face: lead, follow or get out of the way, always chose leadership.

The last question is more difficult to ask because it’s a question of emotion, not brains. Who and what are you going to choose to love? It’s a critical question because it is through passionate love that we take learning and leadership and focus it to make a difference in this world. You will have to make this choice yourself, but I hope you choose to love the we and not the me. I hope you choose to love the good in the world, not the gold in it. I hope you choose to love your family, the one that’s here today and the one that to come in the future, and not fame.

Remember St. Paul in I Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, (and have graduated from SMU) and have not love, I become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” Those are the choices dear graduates. Those are the questions you face. Will you continue to learn? Will you clothe yourself with the cloak of leadership and choose the right thing to love? Those are hard questions to answer, and the answers don’t come like a sudden flash on high, but more like a mirage in a desert seen from a distance. But through hard work the answers become tangible, within your grasp, then finally, the most real thing you’ve ever encountered. They become part of you.

So may your 10,000 miles to go, of which James Taylor sang, be filled with hills of hard challenges to make you tough and curves of challenging decisions to make it exciting. May the support of those that love you be like the wind at your back. May you have the hunger of dissatisfaction mixed with hope. May your courage to do what is right be tempered with common sense so others will follow. And may you have the self-esteem to believe in yourself when no one else does and with the humility that you are a child of God trying to do His will. Travel well my friends on your journey and never forget, have fun while you are doing it.

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