July 29‚ 2002 Commencement Speech

Georgia (Jun 29, 2002) —  Good morning and congratulations, graduates. Sounds good, doesn't it? And good morning, family and friends. 

I am here today, really, because of a dog named Kenny. In the spring of 1936, when I was 10, my family -- six of us -- piled into our '26 Franklin automobile and headed from East Lake, in SE Atlanta, to a foreign destination called Kennesaw. It was a 45-mile trip -- an all-day journey. At the Kennesaw Kennels, we purchased a cocker spaniel with the distinguished title Sir Galahad of Kennesaw. We called him Kenny. He was our long-time family pet; and so, that once faraway place known as Kennesaw has, all my life, held a special place in my heart.

As years passed and time allowed, I wished to become involved in some way with a college in my community. So you can see why, in the early 80s when I was invited to become a trustee of what was then Kennesaw College, I jumped at the chance.

I was a child during the Depression. Parents had a tough time financially, but kids enjoyed so much freedom -- sandlot ball, endless roaming thru the woods -- I could and did ride my bike from East Lake to the Atlanta airport. Can you imagine a boy of 12 being able to do that safely today?

I lived across the street from a golf course. Several times I remember bi-wing mail planes, out of gas, having to land on the fairway. I would run to that spot. The pilot would give me an empty gallon can and 15 cents. I would hurry off to our country store and return with 10 cents worth of gas and a nickel candy bar for me. What was a dilemma for the pilot, was always a thrill for me. I've loved airplanes ever since!

Other than the lack of antibiotics and vaccines, it was a great time to be a kid. There was little need for words of caution. In my house the only rule was "be home for supper."

Along the way I know you have all had teachers and professors who have challenged you to be your best. You will always remember them!

Three of mine stand out vividly -- one in 6th grade who taught me respect -- one in 12th grade who pushed me to enter the statewide math contest -- and a professor from my alma mater, Lehigh University. In 1980, Lehigh's football team was in the Division 2 semifinals. My son and I drove to Kentucky for the game. During the victory celebration I caught a glimpse of the professor who tried to teach me physical chemistry. Wow! What an impossible course!

I walked up to him and said, "Dr. Zettlemoyer, I am Fred Stillwell. I was in your p-chem class in 1948 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday." He stepped back. He took a long look at me and said, "Yes, and I was hoping I would never see you again." To say the least I was in shock. To this day I'm still trying to figure him out. Was it because I was not alert in class on Saturday mornings or did he say that to everybody?

As I said earlier, parents in the 1930s were struggling. My Dad traveled constantly and wasn't home nearly enough to suit me. So, I knew as a youngster, that when I had my own family, I wanted to be home while my children were growing up.

After 10 years with an Atlanta company and traveling most of the time, I was able to reach that goal. I ventured into the home building trade on my own. I built my favorite style -- two-story farmhouses with porches and bay windows. The growing Atlanta market liked them too.

From this success, an opportunity grew for me to become a residential developer. I loved finding the land, walking it and envisioning the neighborhoods that would materialize. Fortunately, this work allowed me to always be home for supper - even if sometimes a little late. Those evenings spent with my family were priceless.

And now, graduates, I must give you what my kids refer to as Dad's "Tiger" speech. Life is a series of events and accomplishments -- most of them small, a few momentous. Attention and attitude are the bricks and mortar that pave the way to success.

First, I urge you to pursue your life's work in a field you can enjoy. Everything requires close attention to detail and the ability to see the big picture. With a good attitude -- and liking what you do -- you will succeed. You will be able to see the forest as well as the trees. Next, treat all those around you with kindness and respect. Some occasions will call for tough-mindedness. It's OK to be tough -- if you're fair!

Lastly, set goals and when you reach them, recognize your accomplishments -- and feel pleased and proud. End of "Tiger" speech!

I cannot leave here today without telling you how much my tie with Kennesaw State has meant to me. It has been one of those momentous events in my life -- and one of long standing. The campus has been my second home, especially since my retirement.

Thank you all for allowing me to be a part of KSU. I have made so many wonderful friends.

Especially in baseball -- the many players that have come and gone over these past 13 years -- and particularly the coaches -- Mike Sansing, Bob Roman and Ryan Coe. I have given them lots of suggestions and they have listened with patience and then gone on about their business. In one tournament, Mike asked me who I thought should pitch, as most of our pitchers had already been used in this particular case. I responded by saying "Look, you pick 'em and I'll do the complaining. We're not switching roles."

I appreciate these coaches for letting me share both their teams and their families. They are my idea of success -- not just because they win national championships, but because, with their families, Barbara, Kyle, and Bradley, Michele and Hannah, and Cara -- they are stellar role models and an inspiration for the many young lives they touch.

Again, graduates, congratulations. Enjoy your very special day and your very special life. As Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart taught us so well -- It's a Wonderful Life! 


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu