Favreau Speech

Holy Cross Commencement 2003

Jon Favreau ’03 delivered this Valedictory Address in May 2003. He would later become the chief speechwriter in President Barack Obama’s administration.

Good morning President McFarland, Provost Vellaccio, Dean Ainlay, Dean Freije, Members of the Board of Trustees, Honored Speaker Mr. Matthews, Honored Guests, Faculty and Staff, parents, friends, distant relatives wishing that family obligations didn’t include sitting through this entire two hour ceremony, parents telling their kids they should’ve gone before they left home, alumni remembering what it’s like to graduate on two hours of sleep and a stomach full of memories, Caro St. residents who’ll miss the weekends, those of you getting your cars towed for parking in the student lots without stickers, and the class of 2003.  Welcome to our commencement—it is an honor to speak before you on this hopeful spring afternoon.

One hundred and sixty years ago this May, Bishop Fenwick laid the foundation for a small, Catholic College in Worcester that would sprawl across the scenic slopes of Mt. St. James.  As he awaited the advent of Holy Cross’s first year, the Bishop wrote to his brother and told him that he expected an enrollment of 100 and a tuition of, now listen carefully, $125 (Not to worry parents, I’ve done some calculations, and as of today, $125,000 wouldn’t even mulch half this place). The Bishop suffered no illusions that the success of Holy Cross would come easily, as the majority of new colleges failed during that time period while anti-Catholicism ran rampant in Yankee Massachusetts. Yet despite these challenges, the Bishop pressed forward and finished sharing his devotion to Holy Cross in that letter by remarking to his brother, “Will not this be a bold undertaking?  Nevertheless I will try it.”

And here we sit, over one and a half centuries later, as a living testament to the success of that bold undertaking.  A testament to the success of an idea that has been carefully shaped by those who sat here before us, but one that will also remain eternally incomplete, always waiting to be strengthened by those who follow us.  And while it will always derive its glow from the hill that rises before us, Holy Cross is an idea that can shine its light wherever we may go in this world.  During our four short years here, it has shone from the streets of Europe to the streets of Worcester’s neediest neighborhoods, from the halls of power in Washington, to the alleys of poverty in Mexico.  It has brought breathless thousands to their feet at the sound of a buzzer, and thousands more to their knees in reverent worship each Sunday.  And it has guided the way of the doers, the artists, and the entertainers among us who make our communities here and abroad worth preserving.

But here’s the best part folks.  We do not leave Holy Cross behind once we walk through its iron gates this afternoon.  Well, some of it stays.  Among other things, today we leave behind the papers, the tests, the practices, the Campus E-vents, the taco bars, the pasta bars, that bar we went to Thursday nights, the ears of patient professors who consider office hours a starting point, the highly unnecessary 2am Road Runner calls, that chair you stole from the Lehy study room freshman year, and the comfort of living among friends who build you up when you’ve fallen down, share your joy when you feel like smiling, and keep you humble with comments like “Hey guys, I can’t wait till we can start making fun of lines from Jon’s speech!”

Anyway, that’s what stays.  But what we take with us, what we get to keep besides a piece of paper with fancy Latin writing that will look good hanging in our offices and even better on resumes, is this idea I’ve been talking about.  With its roots in Bishop Fenwick’s bold undertaking of 1843, and its future in the bold undertakings that await each of us in the coming years, Holy Cross is an idea that challenges us to live a life that is not only reflective, but involved.  We have been blessed with a liberal arts education that keeps us asking “why,” and a Jesuit ideal that directs our answers toward a life of service and love for others.  This blessing calls us to live a life that keeps questions of truth, justice, and purpose at the center of our daily conversations, but one that also recognizes the importance of working with others to actively build a community that resembles the ideals we hold dear.  It calls for a life where family and friends serve as our lifelong teachers, where we don’t forget to call home every now and then, and where above all, we take care of each other.  (And, right now my mother’s in the audience elbowing my father with “every now and then?!”)

Such is the life we have been living for four years here at Holy Cross.  From here, though, I think it becomes more difficult.  We are about to enter a world where the demands of time and money do not always allow for the contemplative life that has thrived in our classrooms or the active life that has served our community.  We enter a world where a seductive bottom line is often paved with fame and fortune and sometimes reached by bending rules, abusing power, or selling out the last Islander on Survivor.  In an environment where such temptations exist, choosing the path the leads us back to the ideas that have shaped our four years at Holy Cross becomes even more important.  And, after all, this is what they’ve been preparing us for.  A wise professor once told me, “We’re not here to teach you how to win at Jeopardy, we’re here to prepare you to live.  God knows this world needs you guys.”  Devotion to undertakings that weave the fabric of our communities closer together, then, remind us what living is for.  As Bishop Fenwick learned when he began to build this community, such devotion is not always easy—but as we probably know by now, the most rewarding work is often the hardest. 

Now, so that I may leave all of you with more than just the Hallmark Card version of this message, I’d like to share two stories that, together, illustrate this idea.  During my first few years at Holy Cross, my experiences advocating for clients in the Worcester welfare office left me wondering why I would regularly encounter single, working mothers who could not afford food, housing, or medical care, despite the fact that they worked over forty hours a week.  If the idea was to get people off welfare rolls and into jobs, why were the jobs failing to provide even the most basic standard of living?  These questions led me to Washington during my junior year, so that I could see firsthand how and why decisions concerning welfare and other issues important to me were being made. 

I loved Washington.  I loved the excitement, the heated political debate, and meeting all those famous people—Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and those esteemed political talk show hosts who relieve their guests of the burden of finishing their own sentences.  And somewhere along the way, I made up my mind that one day I would return to that city as an elected representative.  So, when I would get the umpteenth second-semester-senior-year question about my post-Holy Cross plans, I would mention my interest in politics. And, when people would ask what office I planned on running for, I would naturally attempt to impress them with answers like Senator or Governor.

Except, however, whenever a certain friend was around.  Always ready to keep my ego in check and teach a lesson in humility, she would savor the moment that someone asked me the question, “So, Jon, which office will you run for?  President, perhaps?”  And as I would open my mouth to articulate just how important I would become, my friend would always interrupt with “Well, Jon’s dream, his absolute highest aspiration, is that someday, with a lot of effort and a little luck, the people will elect him…Chairman of his town’s school committee!”

Well, my friend and I would share a laugh at this, realizing of course that we had been big-time Washington interns.  As such, our futures lay in the capital, and not on the school board of a small town with barely ten thousand people in it.  Then, one day, a lesson in humility hit a little closer to home. 

The mother of a close friend of mine had served on that very same school board in that very same small town for a number of years.  A teacher and a mother of two, local education issues had always served as a passion for Janet.  When we were in fourth grade, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  And through a thirteen year cycle of diagnosis, treatment, remission, and relapse, I always admired how active and dedicated Janet remained within her community.  Even as the disease progressed, against doctor’s orders she kept teaching, she became a spokeswoman for the disease, she started an organization that has raised thousands for research, and she counseled other cancer patients. 

Then one day earlier this year, when hope was fading and the pain may have been a little too much to bear, as she was on her way to yet another grueling chemo session, my friend told me that one of the most pressing things on her mother’s mind was to request an absentee ballot.  There was a big vote in town over school funding and, because of her rigorous treatment schedule and frail condition, Janet wouldn’t be around to cast her ballot.   Yet, because she had cared so deeply about these issues her whole life, thinking about them as a teacher and acting on them as a school board member, not even a disease that was consuming all of her time, her energy, and her life would prevent Janet from engaging in the simple act of making her voice heard within her community.

And on that day, I thought to myself, when I look back at the end of my life to find what I might have added to the story of Holy Cross, if the highest office I ever reached was in fact school committee chairman, and if reaching that office meant that I had displayed even half the commitment Janet did to the place I lived, the people I loved, and the ideas which gave me purpose, then sign me up.

Does this mean that I changed my Washington plans?  Not necessarily, and following today’s ceremonies you’ll be able to make whatever campaign contributions you see fit.  No, what it means is that the incident caused me to look back at those original questions raised by the issues and people within this community, the questions about our citizen’s welfare, that led me to Washington in the first place.  In this way, Janet’s story shows us we can choose to keep the people and places we care about at the center of our attention, no matter what the circumstances.  We can choose to let Holy Cross’s light shine within each of us, even when it gets dark outside.  It is this freedom of choice—this power to place our moral selves at the center of the lives we lead that we must exercise in the years to come.

And if fame, fortune, and power should come into our lives at some point along the way, if our schedules should become too hectic and we sometimes find ourselves living to work, let us also welcome these developments as inevitable parts of life that can be handled with grace, humility, and responsibility.  But let us also remember that sometimes bold undertakings require nothing more than grabbing an absentee ballot.  No one’s asking us to save the world—only to save whatever piece of it we can.  As Jonathan Kozol puts it, you fight the battles that are small enough to win, but big enough to matter.  The answer you choose to that time-honored Holy Cross question, how then shall we live, is not as important as taking the time to try and answer the question in the first place.  Besides, having the right answer won’t matter unless you convince others of its value.  Only then can we begin our own bold undertakings, the ones that will keep Holy Cross’s light shining for generations to come.

And in case you’re looking for some ideas, there seems to be one last bulletin here that Career Planning forgot to drop in our mailboxes.  Now, I realize that most of us already have jobs, but all of these positions are part-time, and I’m sure all of us have the necessary qualifications.  The employers are our communities, and while each position is already being filled by millions all over the world, there is a desperate need for more help.  And here’s some of what we need:  Soccer coaches, Den Mothers, PTA members, Neighbors who help you move in and promise to keep in touch when they move you out, Friends who come early and stay late, Shoulders to cry on, Big Brothers and Sisters, Family comedians, Tee Ball Umpires, Letter-to-the-Editor authors, Voters who care about any issue from Traffic Lights and Tax Reform to Potholes and Peace on Earth, Organizers and Activists, Critics and Supporters, Voices for those who are having trouble getting theirs heard, Summertime Porch-Sitters with special degrees in talking about everything and nothing until the mosquitoes bite, Mentors, Philanthropists, Signature collectors, Boo-boo fixers, Grocers to the hungry, Roofers to the homeless, and Believers—especially believers. 

Will not these tasks constitute bold undertakings?  Indeed, I’m sure they will.  But I have faith that we will try them, and, God willing, we shall succeed.  Congratulations on all of your achievements and God Bless us all.