Commencement remarks of senior judge John M. Cleland

Cleland speaking
Senior Judge John M. Cleland

Dr. Alexander, Dr. McDowell, Mr. Hartburg, Mr. Higie, Dr. Stuckart, Dr. Panah, distinguished members of the faculty, university administrators and staff, parents, grandparents, step-parents, foster parents, aunts, uncles, children, friends and supporters of all kinds, and most especially, the graduating class of this, the 50th year of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford:

            It has been my good fortune over the years to have spent some considerable time in the American West – much of it on horseback. I have ridden into areas that were far even from dirt roads.

            One afternoon I was riding with a young cowboy, looking for stray cattle. We were riding through sagebrush up a wide valley between towering mountains. He didn’t have much to say, but his eyes kept moving. At one point he stopped his horse and looked across the valley and said “we’d better go get that one. He’s on the wrong side of the fence.”

I looked in the direction he was headed and could not see either the fence or the cow. He finally pointed it out to me – a black dot – an Angus calf. I simply could not believe he could see a calf that far away in the midst this vast open space.

            “How did you see that,” I asked. He answered back over his shoulder, “Just looking for what’s not supposed to be there.” Just looking, he said, for what’s not supposed to be there.

            Now I was overwhelmed with the scope of the country, taken by its beauty, its colors, the white clouds, the smell of the sagebrush. And he took that all in too, of course, but he knew the country so well, he cared for it so much, that when something about it was wrong it to him it stuck out.

Just looking for what’s not supposed to be there.

Some years ago I spent time each summer with the elderly cousin of my elderly neighbor. The cousin had grown up on the adjoining farm and moved on. He never went to college, but retired after leading projects all over the world to build complex oil refineries. In his later years, he returned to his roots each summer pulling the travel trailer that was his home away from home.

He was one of those people who in his retirement – in his 80s when I first knew him –took on all manner of projects. He was a woodworker, a maker of fine jewelry boxes. He was a jewelry maker, fashioning delicate earrings and bracelets, some incorporating precious stones he cut and polished. He could repair a tractor, use a chainsaw, prune an orchard, and pick more blackberries than any person I have ever known.

One day I consulted him about building a cupola to mount on the top of our barn. He said he’d help and he explained the process to me. It was more a complex process than I had imagined – there were a lot of angles to be figured out, and besides, the mechanical arts constitute a significant gap in my skill set. Finally, he turned to me and with some little impatience said, “look, all you gotta do is do it.” All you have to do is do it. What he didn’t say, but didn’t have to, was “but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.”

Two lessons. One from a young man, and one from an old man.

Fifty years ago a group of men and women in Bradford looked into the future. “The Founders” we call them. They saw what wasn’t supposed to be there. They saw a lack of educational opportunities for the young men and women in this region. They saw dead ends for those in middle-age who had lost their jobs and needed additional educational opportunities; they saw lack of opportunity for those who had postponed their own education to advance those of their children’s.

They saw what wasn’t supposed to be there and they decided to do something about it. The timing, of course, was fortuitous. The University of Pittsburgh and its then Chancellor, Edward Litchfield, was looking for opportunities to expand its educational footprint over western Pennsylvania. But Bradford was not the only spot interested in sprouting a regional campus. Other leaders in their communities were also making a pitch.

But there was something unique about the Bradford group, about those Founders. And what a group it was. The Founders’ names may be familiar to you. Bert Fisher, of Fisher Hall, was the President of Kendall, the predecessor to ARG. George Blaisdell, of Blaisdell Hall, was the President and founder of Zippo, a man interested in higher education who had himself never attended college, never even graduated from high school. Robert Bromeley, of the Bromeley Family Theater and Bromeley Quadrangle, who was an entrepreneur who, along with Lester Edwards and Henry Satterwhite, known collectively as E S and B, poured money, expertise and political connections into the effort. Ed and Tullah Hanley, of the Hanley Library; Tom McDowell of that very fieldhouse; Dick Frame and Vic Westerberg, of Frame-Westerberg Commons, who provided political clout; and Donald Swarts, of Swarts Hall, UPB’s visionary first president, a man Dr. Marvin Thomas has called the “right man at the right time.”

But in addition to those Founders there were others, whose names are not so familiar to you -- those who also contributed to the success of the initial campaign to raise the $540,000 start-up fund. Some contributed through payroll deduction. Employees of the old Bovaird and Seyfang, and Dresser; employees of Hanley and Co., and Kendall and so many other businesses, large and small. Those contributions -- 25 and 50 dollars a piece – they added up. Those people, too, were the early pioneers.

That effort has continued on now for five decades.

Just recently I talked to a student on this campus, a young woman of color, who was from the River Rouge section of Detroit. A tough piece of real estate, to be sure, and a long, long way in both distance and culture from rural McKean County. I asked her how she got to Pitt-Bradford. She said she was here, as she put it, because of a “generous stranger.” That stranger has paid the full net tuition at UPB for six students from his alma mater, River Rouge High School -- students with talent and drive who needed a helping hand. That generous stranger was Les Rice, of the soon to be completed Rice Hall.

And still the names roll on – so many names, so many gifts. Contributions, large and small, of money, art, books; contributions of dreams and contributions of prayers.

They all built this place. But it wasn’t easy.

A British historian once wrote that “We know the end before we consider the beginning, and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”

We, in other words, who sit here amidst these wonderful facilities together with this talented faculty can never really appreciate what it must have been like for those early visionaries who started this work. 50 years ago, work started, literally, in an old hardware store and a refitted hotel. They called into existence what did not exist. They willed it into existence, they worked it into existence, they hoped it into existence.

In the 1960s, when this campus took root, was a very different and very frightening time in many ways. People talked openly about the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and the shared mutual destruction that would accompany it. Many serious people even feared that nuclear warfare would end civilization as we know it -- a fear that took a very real form during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After President Kennedy was assassinated many wondered aloud what kind of society we had become, concerns that only resounded more loudly during the following years as civil rights protests, and urban riots, and anti-war protests, and yet still more assassinations wracked that very turbulent decade.

We know – now – now – how that all ended. But those who founded this campus, those who looked to the future and saw what wasn’t supposed to be there, they did not know how it would all turn out. They moved ahead in hope, with the sure faith that someday, students just like you would be sitting here in a place like this. They did the best of things in what seemed to be the worst of times.

But just because they did it, just because they succeeded so successfully, doesn’t mean it was easy.

So, I’ll ask you, what do you see in the future that is not supposed to be there?

Do you look into the future and see the unfairness of an economy in which we speak with near religious reverence of the free market and of corporations as though either the free market has a conscience or the corporation has a soul? Do you see unfairness? Then do something about it, but it won’t be easy.

Do you look into the future and see the irony of telling our young people that education is the key to our nation’s future and then saddling those same young people with overwhelming student debt? Do you see irony? Then do something about it, but it won’t be easy.

Do you look into the future and see the dangers of climate change? Then consider the possibilities that wind, and solar and tidal power, combined with efficiently burned fossil fuels, can assure our continued industrial growth and maintain our position of international leadership. Do you see dangers? Then do something about it, but it won’t be easy.

Do you look into the future a see a void of art and music and literature as part of the everyday fabric of our educational and communal lives? Do you see a cultural void? Then do something about it, but it won’t be easy.

Do you look into the future and worry that the debate over the future may be won, not by those with the best ideas, but won instead by those with the most money? Does that worry you? Then do something about it, but it won’t be easy.

Take a lesson from the Founders. Important things worth doing are not easy. Important things are worth doing because they are hard. Building colleges, going to the moon, preserving and protecting democracy, caring for our environment, fostering communities in which neighbors care about neighbors – they are worth doing because they are hard. And they may take decades to accomplish.

Have no doubt, sometimes you are going to fail. Some of you will fail in business; some of you will fail in marriage; some of you will lose elections; some of you will suffer the ravages of disease; some of you will lose your faith; some of you will lose someone that you simply loved too much to lose.

But fear of failure -- I tell you this with all the urgency and confidence in my power -- fear of failure is no reason not to try. Fear of failure is no reason not to try to start a business; or to seek the joys of marriage; or to run for office; or to fight disease. Fear of what you may learn is no reason not to seek a deep and meaningful spiritual life; and fear of the pain of losing love should not discourage you from enjoying the wonderfully fulfilling satisfactions of a loving relationship.

The simple truth is this: Either you will live your life with energy and joy and enthusiasm and passion – doing the hard things that matter; or you will live your life in fear and anxiety, despairing over what might have been. There are no other options.

All of us gathered here today who care for you, perhaps who even love you, or perhaps who don’t even know you, all of us have looked into your future and tried to prepare you for that future. Your collective and individual success assures the success of the American experiment. Your collective and individual success keeps faith with all those who for 50 years have looked to the future, and have trusted that education, your education, would lead to a better and brighter world.

So now, graduates, it is your turn to look into the future. Look for what is not supposed to be there. Fix what you see. All you have to do is do it.

And, some point while you’re at it, give a tip-of-the-hat to the Founders – and make them proud.

Good luck to you all and Godspeed.