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Commencement Address

Gonzaga High School, Washington, DC

Congratulations, Class of 2002 — you did it. And to your parents, your long-suffering, income-sacrificing parents, as the father of three (and soon four) children in Catholic schools, let me just say in the words of our former President Bill Clinton, “I feel your pain…”

I would ask all of you to indulge me for one second here. Would the “O” section of the graduating class please raise their hands? OK. Now which one of you is Oliverio? On this day, 21 years ago, I sat right there, immediately to the right of one of your ancestors… Now would the “C’s” please raise your hands? Which one is Costello? Tell your father, as my football coach, he never gave me enough playing time… 6’1″, 135lbs, I could have been a contender.

To the majority of you who will graduate without honors and without the benefit of one of the many fine awards given out today, let me assure you – with the authority of personal experience — that the absence of one those graduation ornaments will not be a disqualification for your one day becoming the chief executive officer of one of the largest cities in America.

Nor, apparently, will it be a disqualification for being asked to deliver the Kolman address, even though — sad irony — being an elected official, you would by definition, know very little about anything.

Father Novotny, Headmaster Pakenham, Distinguished Faculty and Alumni, Parents and my Fellow Gonzaga Eagles: thank you for asking me to be with you today.

It is very good to be back at Gonzaga — though a part of me never really left.

Today we celebrate success, we celebrate excellence, we celebrate incredible friendships that will last a lifetime. We celebrate championship soccer, swimming, rugby, golf and track teams. We pray in thanksgiving for the past. We pray with anticipation for the future. And we pray that the Mayor of Baltimore will be brief so we can get to the after parties.

But we do all of these things under the cruel, though true, title of “commencement”, not the end but the beginning, the beginning of all the possibilities that lay ahead – the beginning of the pursuit of eternal things; during our blink of time; in this temporary world. Eternal things.

I honestly can’t say I remember much, if anything, that my commencement speaker had to say at my graduation, although I’d be hard-pressed to tell you if that was his fault or mine…or Oliverio’s. But I remember many things about the four years I spent at Gonzaga and I always will.

I remember the clatter on the catwalk as we hustled to homeroom. The smell of the old steam ventilation system in Kolman Hall. The smokey off-limits aura of the senior lounge. The anxiety of the locker room before a game. The honest, eager, open eyes of the DC school kids we tutored in the Eagle program. The welcomed invasion of Immaculata and Visitation girls for play rehearsals in the late afternoons. The joy of rescuing a failing semester by simply acing an overly weighted final exam. (The purely intellectual satisfaction of replacing an afternoon of class on a sunny April day with whiffle ball and drinks at the National Arboretum… don’t tell me that tradition is no more!…)

But more important than the sights, sounds, and smells, I remember the lessons I learned here, here at this high school that refused to leave the city after the ’68 riots, here in this hallowed little academy, here in this very human place which strives — generation after generation — to produce Men for Others. The most important things… I learned them here.

I learned in Fr. McKee’s freshman year social studies class about Arnold Toynbee’s theory of the progress of man. Namely, that man progresses in response to adversity: when the adversity is too great man (or society) perishes or moves away; when the adversity is too little, he atrophies or stagnates.

I learned from Fr. Horace McKenna to search for Christ in the faces of others including, and especially, the faces of the poor, the faces of the homeless men who lined up for a meal every morning alongside the foundations of this church as we filed by to class, many of us from our lily white suburban neighborhoods.

I learned from Fr. Bradley to see and appreciate holiness in the quiet fortitude of hardworking people of very limited means: mothers, fathers, wives and husbands.

I learned from Fr. Ward to recognize and confront the enemy within – the original sin of our own culture and environment that would have us think less of people who – because of race, or class, or place – are not like us.

I learned that expectations become behavior.

And I learned that it is not enough to have faith, you must also have the courage to risk action on that faith, to risk failure upon that faith: the faith that one person can make a difference and that each of us must try.

These were the things I learned here, at Gonzaga, by the time I sat in your seats; and if it is the same school, I’d bet – one way or another, despite the nicer facilities – you’ve learned these lessons too.

So what of this world, this world of yours? Thomas Aquinas said that any “seeker of a higher truth or of God, must eventually and inevitably come back to the idea of community.” What of your community? This mighty nation of yours where during your senior year 3,000 of your fellow citizens – moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters – were killed in a terrorist’s instant while they settle into their desks at work? You saw from your classrooms, the smoke of their tragic and untimely pyre.

What of your State? For those of us who live in Maryland, how do the people of the wealthiest State in America allow their one major City over ten years time to become the most drug addicted and violent City in the nation? What of your Church, and State, and people? What of your community? Or in other words, what of you?

I ask this question because the battle is always the same. For the most blessed and for the most handicapped, for the privileged and for the poor, the battle is always the same: will you change your world, or will your world change you. And the scary thing,… the really scary thing – is that you are smart enough to know it won’t be easy. My father has a saying for whenever the going gets rough. He reminds me that “this world crucified Christ.” In fact, if you have learned the most valuable thing that any bit of Catholic education can give, then you have learned from the Cross that if you do it right, if you believe, if you risk and dare, and walk humbly in the footsteps of your God, it should not be easy. “Man progresses in response to adversity.”

By Fr. Novotny’s kind introduction, you probably guessed that I was not asked to speak because the Class of ’81 decided to reconsider their initial vote for valedictorian. I was asked most probably because I currently serve the people of the City of Baltimore as their Mayor; the 17th largest City in America, and The Greatest City in America for those of you who haven’t been there lately or yet. And here’s where Baltimore and Gonzaga come together.

Three summers ago, I was coming to the end of my second term as an elected member of the Baltimore City Council. It had been a rough eight years for Baltimore, as I struggled and did my best, risked action on faith, and tried to make a difference as one of 18 people on the city council, Baltimore sank into a culture of failure, of self-pity and self-defeat. The currency of local politics was the bankrupt coin of division where heads was some form of racial racketeering while tails was some form of white retreat.

By 1999 we had become according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the most addicted City in America; by 1999, according to the FBI, we had become the most violent City in America with over 320 murders a year during the nineties.

In the open race for mayor, no one who could change the situation would step forward. For my part, I was a little known white councilman, in a majority African-American city; black people wouldn’t elect a white mayor. I had a family and three kids to think about. Had to make money. Had to build my stunted law practice. My friend had become a judge, I inherited his practice, my mortgage would be paid on time, and my wife would get off my back. I had done my best in eight years of public service, it was time to start building my castle; I was out of politics but would pray for the City. The problem was… I had gone to Gonzaga.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite pass by the wounded beaten man lying on the side of the road because they only ask themselves what will happen to them if they stop to help. The Samaritan instead asks, what will happen to this beaten man if I don’t stop to help him. The lessons I learned at Gonzaga, forced me to answer question two.

When I decided to run for mayor in late June, both of my opponents – one of them the sitting City Council President — had 90% plus name recognition. The leader was at 36%, the next guy was at 25%, and I was at 7%. And that’s when I knew I had them.

When the primary came in September, we won 53% of the vote – every district in the city. What many had feared would be a divisive race, turned out to be a unifying consensus-building race around that fundamental issue of social justice: public safety. Our highest numbers in the African-American community came from those neighborhoods that had been hardest hit by the last decade of drugs and drug violence.

Thanks to the hard work of many neighbors and their police, and a new group of people in City government – including the Enrights, Michael Class of ’81 and Kevin ’84 (yes… the other Enright family members already had jobs during transition), Baltimore has started to believe in itself again.

Over these last two years, Baltimore has led the nation among major cities in the rate of reduction of violent crime. According to the federal government, Baltimore has led the nation in rate of reduction of drug related emergency room admissions. The average sales price of our homes has risen from $69,000 in 1999 to $90,000 in 2001. We’ve seen more building in the last two years than we did all during the nineties. Our first graders in our public schools scored above the national average in reading and math for the first time in 30 years; and the number one scoring fifth grade math class in the entire State of Maryland last year was none other than the 100% proud African-American public school kids – many of them school lunch eligible – from Mt. Royal elementary school in the City of Baltimore.

Looking for Christ in the faces of others, especially the poor; recognizing holiness in the most humble of our neighbors; knowing that man progresses in response to adversity; understanding that expectations become behavior; risking action on the faith that one person can make a difference and each of us must try: Gonzaga.

Now, of course, our City still has a long way to go; but, in response to adversity, we are now progressing. And please understand like anything worthwhile, none of what we have accomplished in Baltimore over these last two years has been easy. It has all been very difficult and at times very painful. We’ve had to cut hundreds of jobs, raise some fees and taxes, close schools and libraries and firehouses. But that’s not the real pain about which I speak.

In this short time we buried five of our officers killed in the line of duty; the images of their weeping colleagues and the faces of their young children will never leave me. I have sat in too many hospital rooms, once holding the hand of a teenage mother whose toddler – while playing in his own doorway – was shot through the head by warring drug dealers. The size of my son, in diapers, tubes running in and out of his bandaged little head.

Last year I handed a diploma to a star all-round athlete named Rio-Jarell Tatum, gifted young man from a blue collar Baltimore neighborhood, he graduated with honors from Poly, scholarship to Penn State, and was shot to death for ten bucks this week. I delivered my trite gold sealed condolence resolution to his parents just Friday… in front of his open casket.

You don’t have to go to the third world to fight injustice and suffering. And you don’t have to go to the third world in order to open your own heart and find a way to fight it. It is all around us, and you don’t have to be in elected office to do something about it. Your community, your State, your Country, your world, is made and defined by what you chose to do and what you chose not to do. And I’m not talking about your career or job. Sadly, this world of ours, and our country in particular, will try to define you and box you in with the conventions of money, job, and career; don’t let it. Each of us is more than the job we do.

Today, I happen to be doing the job, the challenging and honorable job, of Mayor of the City of Baltimore. Before this job, I was a father, and a husband, and a lawyer, and a mediocre folk-singer in a rock n’ roll Irish band. Before those jobs, I had others, as I am sure you have had. But after this job and before all of those, I was and will be Martin, son of Thomas, son of William, son of Martin – a poor exiled Irish speaking farmer, whose people had endured 700 years of political, religious, and economic oppression. Jobs are not who we are, they are just the things we do while answering a higher calling.

The renowned Georgetown University Professor, Carroll Quigley used to share this wisdom with his class at the start of their new semester and I would like to share it with you. He said:

“The thing that got you here today is belief in the future, belief that the future can be better than the present and that people will and should sacrifice in the present to get to that better future. That belief has taken mankind out of the chaos and the deprivation that most human beings toiled in for most of history to the point we are at today. One thing will kill our civilization and way of life, when people no longer have the will to undergo the pain required to prefer the future to the present.”

Guys, this world really needs you; needs you more, probably, than most of you fully understand right now. We are all very lucky to have been born in this country. Whatever path you choose, put the important lessons of this place into action, and remember:

“No great cause is ever truly won or lost. The creed must constantly be restated and the battle renewed; For some ideas are universal, catholic and undying. They do not pass out of fashion or age with time For they represent eternal things: They are the guardians of the freedom of the human spirit, And the proof of what our mortal frailty can achieve.”

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