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To Know the Road Ahead, Ask Those Coming Back

University of Evansville Commencement Address
M. Stephen Harkness
President, Duke Energy Generation Services (and UE alum)
Delivered May 13, 2006

Thank you. I appreciate the kind words, but introductions always remind me of one of my favorite stories.

A young grade school student – let’s call him Steve – was to introduce a local politician to his class – let’s call him John Doe. To assure proper protocol, young Steve checked with his parents.

They advised that sometimes, depending on the person’s position, experience and achievements, introductions may be lengthy to convey importance, whereas when introducing the President of the United States, for instance, his introduction is merely his title.

Young Steve assured his parents that he “got it.” The next day, young Steve’s introduction was as follows:

“Fellow classmates, I would like to introduce local politician, John Doe…the less said, the better.”

I fully understand today, that the less said, the better, so I will be brief in my comments.

Trustees, President Jennings, Faculty, Class of 2006, parents, spouses and families of the graduates – and to my family, especially my wife, Shelly, and my mother, Isabel – I’m here today because of the University of Evansville.

Let me say that again so there is no mistake about it: “Like all of you, I’m here today because of the University of Evansville.”

Late last year when President Jennings called and asked me to speak today, my response was: “It’s an honor, but why me?”

He answered that he thought it was important to bring back alumni to inspire confidence in the graduates about the future.

Well, I don’t know how confidence inspiring I’m going to be, but as I thought about this, I realized that I wished that my commencement speaker would have been a U of E alum.

You see, there’s this vast wealth of wisdom embodied in those who have gone before you. I think that we sometimes fail to tap that wisdom, which is rich with knowledge and opportunity.

I liken it to the old Chinese proverb that says, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” And that’s the title of my talk today.

I came from humble beginnings in Oakland City, in the very southwest corner of Indiana. Were it not for U of E working so hard and pulling out all the stops for me with grants, financial aid and…yes…student loans, I wouldn’t be standing before you today.

The success I’ve had since 1970, when I sat in the chairs you are sitting in, is due in a large part to our University.

My experience is somewhat akin to Horace Mann who lived in the early days of our nation and who today is described by some as the “Father of Education.”

Horace Mann lived in poverty and hardship on the family farm in Massachusetts in the early 1800s. His schooling was very limited, but through tutoring and sheer willpower, he persevered and worked his way through Brown University.

He became a lawyer, public servant and ultimately, the first President of Antioch College in Ohio.

Moved by how much his educational experience changed and enriched his life, he used his influence to campaign for and improve education, he advocated the establishment of free libraries, he was a champion and developer of public schooling, and he rallied his fellow citizens to build 50 new secondary schools.

Horace Mann knew the importance of money in making educational progress.

Through his efforts, teacher salaries more than doubled, state school funding was increased significantly, teacher education advanced, and textbooks and equipment were improved.

When asked why he dedicated his life to education, he said: “Beyond all other devices of human origin, education is a great equalizer of conditions of humankind. It is the balance wheel of the social machinery. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich. It prevents being poor.”

I completely agree with Horace Mann; “Education is a great equalizer.”

Like Horace Mann, the accomplishments, successes and many blessings I’ve had these last 36 years were first cultivated on this campus – including meeting my first wife Charlotte and being married in Neu Chapel.

Upon graduation, we pursued The American Dream – a home, a family and happiness. My education made me very productive and effective. Career success came quickly. My job advanced with more responsibility, promotions and more opportunity. Life was good.

And then it happened. It wasn’t in our plan, nor did we think it would ever happen to us, but it did. At age 31, Charlotte acquired an incurable illness.

Despite much doctoring and various treatments, by age 37 she required an organ transplant, which took place at the Mayo Clinic in 1985. The transplant was a second chance that gave us another 11 years together.

We never knew who the donor was, but shortly after she died in 1996, I learned that the donor had been a 12-year-old boy from North Carolina.

He was killed in a traffic accident while riding his bike.

My life virtually halted while I internalized and learned to cope with her death. Needless to say, her passing changed my life’s focus.

At the same time, I thought a lot about the 12-year-old boy. How do you repay his family and society for that kind of sacrifice, kindness and generosity?

I’ve said many times – and despite Charlotte’s passing – if I had to add up my blessings, I’d need a calculator.

Shortly thereafter, I decided to establish a scholarship in Charlotte’s honor for U of E students from the Greenwood, Indiana area, where we lived at the time.

That, in turn, led to my establishing three additional scholarships – one honoring my parents, another honoring my brothers and sisters, and finally, one in my name.

Some of you here today may be the recipients of those scholarships.

Now, conventional wisdom says that you won’t remember your commencement speaker. Well, I’d like you to remember me – not for what I stood here and said – but for what I stand for.

Like Horace Mann, a humbled Steve Harkness stands for helping students like you get through college and to their commencement – and for years to come.

I know each graduate has received a letter from a “mystery challenger” to fund and establish a scholarship in the name of your class – The Class of 2006. The challenge is a $5 to $1 match.

Well, the mystery is over. As you may have guessed, I’m the challenger, and I’m pleased to tell you today that we have established in your name an endowed scholarship for a minority student.

The scholarship will be titled the “Harkness-Maxey Family-Class of 2006 Endowed Minority Scholarship.”

I have jump-started the funding, but others have contributed, including my employer through Duke Energy Foundation and especially our University.

U of E has worked their magic for me again to find additional dollars to contribute to the scholarship.

Now, I know how difficult it is to give when you’re a student. Yes, I still remember always being broke in college. But the important thing is that you participated at whatever level you could.

I’m proud to say that with the additional participation and your help, the members of this Class of 2006, the scholarship will be initially funded with $100,000.

I believe that this scholarship is the first to be established by a graduating class and only the third dedicated to minority students. Congratulations Class of 2006. I think you deserve a hand.

I established this scholarship because endowed scholarships are a unique investment opportunity. They have the qualities of paying back and paying forward. I’m paying back because I want to give back to Society, and especially, to U of E for the jump-start in life it gave me.

And I’m paying forward because I’m giving future students the opportunities that I had, and this will hopefully inspire them to do the same.

And while U of E provided the means, I had to provide the willpower. As a child, my parents would often paraphrase Luke, chapter 12, verse 48: “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Well, much is expected of you now. So as you turn the page to open this next chapter in your life, I encourage you to “Think BIG” – and I mean, “B – I – G – “Big.”

“B” is for “Balance.” I can tell you that finding the balance between your personal and professional life will be challenging.

For me, it has been a major struggle as I’ve been immersed in my career while traveling the twists and turns of my life’s road.

But I urge you to always find time in your life for family, friends, neighbors, and your community.

Don’t become so self-absorbed in pursuing your life ambition – or wanting to make that first million dollars – that you lose sight of your fellow citizens.

I was proud to learn that many of you in this class, and the University as a whole, have dedicated many hours to community service, especially to help the victims of last year’s tornado here in Evansville.

And some of you went to the Gulf Coast to help those whose lives were changed forever by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Such efforts bring character and balance to one’s life. They keep you focused on humanity’s far horizon – and beyond your own life and your own problems. They help you see the bigger picture.

“I” is for “Improve.” Whatever course your life takes you – business, academia, politics, parent, or a combination of all of these – stay competitive.

Be a continuous learner – reach out to new opportunities. I have an insatiable appetite for learning. U of E was my first major step in my lifelong learning – it laid the foundation for that craving that I have…and it is the testimony of my success.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

But remember, BALANCE is still important.

“G” is for “Grow.” I’m standing here today because I grew. The doors that U of E opened to me inspired me to earn my MBA up the road in Bloomington.

Throughout my career, I have been able to re-invent myself several times, and most recently to lead the business that I am president of today.

My point is by being an example, you never realize the influence you have on others – that’s “the power of one” – and that’s what growth is all about.

When you get to the point where you can sincerely say that you’ve had a positive influence on others’ lives, you can truly say that you have grown.

Growing is also about having the right attitude. Let me paraphrase what the noted religious leader and author, Charles Swindoll said about attitude:

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do.

“Attitude is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company ... a friendship ... a home …an institution. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change the inevitable.

“The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with us ... we are in charge of our attitudes.”

My take on Swindoll’s comments is that attitude is everything. You may have tremendous “brain power” and strong “will power,” but at the end of the day, it’s your attitude that will make the difference in your life over the long haul.

So, very simply, thinking BIG – Balance, Improve, Grow – means always having a positive outlook about the future and a good idea of where you are going.

It’s also NEVER forgetting your roots, your family and friends, and the past – especially at U of E – which got you to the present – here, today.

Some people leave school and close the door on that chapter of their life. My advice is to stay in touch. You were part of a community, U of E was your second home, and you never know when you will need to tap the wisdom of those who have gone before you.

As the Chinese proverb says, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”

And so, as I have come back, let me give each and every one of you, and especially your parents and loved ones, my heartfelt congratulations for reaching this life milestone.

May you measure the success of the rest of your life by how you can make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Or as Horace Mann said when he came back for his final speech to the Antioch College student body:

“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

My challenge to you is: What victory will you win for humanity?

Thank you very much for letting me share this special day with you. Congratulations and good luck on the road ahead.