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Gov. Timothy M. Kaine

May 12, 2006

"That I May Serve"

Mr. President; Distinguished Guests; Proud Moms and Dads and the Virginia Tech Class of 2006: good evening. It's an honor to be with you tonight.

This is the first graduation speech I have given as Governor. In 9 days, I have the privilege of delivering the commencement address at another university you may have heard of in Charlottesville. (pause) In Virginia, that's what we call being "bipartisan."

The first graduation speech I gave as a state official will always be the most memorable. It was four months after I became Lieutenant Governor. A senior at Monacan High School in Chesterfield County had cancer, and she was in the hospital at the Medical College of Virginia, just two blocks from my office.

Her principal had convinced the State Board of Education to give her a diploma two months before graduation day. I was invited to be the speaker at the small graduation ceremony in her hospital room. It was a somber occasion. We all knew she didn't have long to live. But about 15 friends, family members, teachers and nurses were happy to gather to celebrate her accomplishment.

My speech was short--"Miber Battle, I am proud to give you this diploma and make you the first graduate of the Class of 2002 in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia." When she took the diploma, the look on her drawn face was angelic--I saw joy and pride, I saw all the days and nights of hard work, I saw the family and teachers who had helped her. What I saw was something that is all too easy to forget as we hand out tens of thousands of diplomas every spring - the meaning that every single diploma brings to the person who has earned it.

You may not have battled illness to get to this day. But in getting to this point, each one of you has had to overcome adversity, fight unexpected battles, deal with setbacks and be persistent. It is a privilege to stand here and say, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we salute you.

My message to you graduates is simple. I want to tell you a story about the best piece of advice I have ever received, something I learned when I was your age that I have thought about virtually every day for the last 25 years.

When I was 22, I was a first-year student at Harvard Law School. My classmates were all bright and motivated and they seemed certain about what they expected from life. But I didn't feel so sure. I had questions about my direction. I had questions about my faith. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to live. I know some of you have felt the same way.

A small voice within told me I should take some time away from school to figure it out. When I was in high school, I took a week-long trip to Honduras, where I met some Catholic missionaries working there. So, I wrote to them and asked if I could come to work as a volunteer. They agreed, and I went to tell the Dean that I was taking a year off. The Dean, not to mention my parents and friends, were confused about what I was doing and even questioned whether I'd even come back.

The time I spent in Honduras was powerful and shaped my life in ways I could have never anticipated. As many of you may know, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. While I was there, I realized how many things I took for granted. I ran a vocational school, teaching kids how to be welders and carpenters and learned again the power of education and career training. I came to understand the power of faith and communal worship. I learned how to speak Spanish and began to understand how the things which can seem to divide us - like language and skin color - were so much smaller than the dreams and fears that unite us.

One day, I was traveling with a priest by mule through a very mountainous part of the country. We were taking Christmas mass to families who lived in isolated places. We arrived at one poor village and Father Patricio took me to see a family he knew.

The husband, wife and children lived in a small shack--bamboo walls and a thatched roof. The kids were clearly suffering from malnutrition. We visited with them and, as we got ready to leave, the husband handed Father Patricio a worn bag and said "Merry Christmas Padre." The bag was filled with fruits and vegetables that he had saved. Patricio thanked his friend and we left the home.

At the time, being 22 years-old, I really thought I knew everything. (pause) As we walked down the path, I thought to myself--"I can't believe that Patricio would take food from that family when he could see how much more the kids needed it." I was fuming. Father Patricio knew it, too, but he walked along in silence for a few moments before giving me the most memorable bit of wisdom of my life. He just said: "Tim, you have to be really humble to accept a gift of food from a poor person."

There were two great messages in those words. First--we should all be humble. No matter how much we've done in life, or how many skills we have, none of us can do it by ourselves. We have been helped along the way by others, some of whom we know, like our parents and teachers, and some we don't, like those whose taxes partly funded your schooling. We were helped yesterday, we are helped today, and we will be helped tomorrow. And, help often comes from unexpected places.

The second message was equally simple and profound, but it took me a little longer to understand it. My question was: Why did Patricio keep the food? And the answer was: Because he knew that the most important thing in life, even more important than the physical necessities, is the ability to give. Everyone--even a poor family in the most isolated mountain village - has the ability to give something. And giving to someone else is the most noble and elevating thing about being human. Patricio knew that, even though the family needed the food, their desire to give to someone else was even more powerful. And he would not deprive them of that.

I told you that this was the best piece of advice I ever received. When I came back to law school after my time in Honduras, I had a different perspective from the time I left. I wasn't as worried about where I would get a summer job, or what law firm I would work at. Instead, I knew that--so long as I had the ability to give of my talents to other people and encourage others to give as well--everything would work out.

Since my time in Honduras, I have faced countless decisions about what to do, where to work, who to spend time with, who to marry, where to live, where to stand on tough issues, how to deal with challenges in raising my own children. You will face these decisions, and face them repeatedly. And sometimes, you will find them to be downright scary.

I can tell you this. If you organize your life around using your talents to benefit other people, and do what you can to encourage others to do the same thing, yours will be a happy life. As you face tough decisions ask yourselves this question--which choice will best allow me to serve others with the talents I have? If you do this, you will never choose wrongly.

My path since Honduras has taken me to places I never expected--civil rights lawyer, Mayor of Richmond, Lieutenant Governor and now Governor. (My parents still wonder how they ended up with a politician in the family.) I've had successes and failures along the way. But, I've never worried about losing an election. I don't get too worked up about bad news or negative editorials. Anytime things seem tough, I just think back to that walk with Patricio and I ask myself whether I'm doing all I can to serve other people. This gets me focused on what's important and helps me set aside the things that don't really matter.

The motto of Virginia Tech says this very clearly: "That I May Serve." As you join the 185,000 graduates of this University living in every state and throughout the world, resolve to do the one thing that will bring the most honor to your alma matter. In your own way, and there are infinite ways, use the gifts you have--especially the gift of education you have received here--to serve other people and your community. That, I have found, is the simple recipe for avoiding regrets, finding fulfillment and achieving happiness.

Good luck!