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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the John S. Burke Catholic High School Commencement Ceremony

By General Martin E. Dempsey
New York —
MR. JOHN DEBOLD: I’ve been asked to say a few words about – of introduction for, as we call him, Marty. And I can offer three things that might give an insight into his being and his character. Marty has spoken twice before, as far as I know, to Burke community members. Once when I was a student he came and visited our gym class as a representative of the United States Military Academy, along with a friend and classmate of his, George Scott.
George Scott spoke to us about the virtue of the U.S. states – the United States Naval Academy. And that was a wonderful commentary. And after a moment’s pause, a poetic pause, Marty stepped forward, threw off his gray cadet uniform shirt, and on the T-shirt underneath was, “at Navy.” (Laughter.) And then there was humor and banter. We saw an insight even at our young age, of the close bond between the service academies.
The second time I heard him speak to the Burke community was as an inductee to our hall of fame. And what strikes me in memory of that event is not so much what he said as what – as how many classmates came to share in the moment. And you could see that the joy in the moment that Marty and his classmates felt was just in the idea that they had a chance to be together again.
When a great garment is worn for a long time and often, it becomes threadbare. And as you graduates walk across the stage and take a close look at Marty, you may see a thread or two on the uniform. I have seen one for a long time. And that thread is one that goes all the way back to his childhood as the son of Martin and Sarah Dempsey. And that thread also connects to our school motto, “Not words but deeds,” with the West Point motto, “Duty, honor and country.” And the thread is faithful service. Those two words, I think, best sum up Marty as I know him.
Please allow me, class of 2012, to introduce to you Marty Dempsey. (Applause.)
GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: Thank you. Have a seat. Your – (inaudible) – here – this is a home game for me. (Laughter.) I have some prepared remarks, but I wanted to come out here and speak for a moment to the class. Where did Connor go? OK, here you go, big guy. (Sings) – conjunction junction, what’s your function? (Laughter.) That makes 31 views on YouTube. (Laughter.) (Inaudible) – me? (Laughter.) Come on, we could do better than “Conjunction Junction,” or whatever that’s called. (Laughter.)
Hey, do me a favor. The class of 2012, stand up for a minute for me. First thing I want to do is ask those of you who admire them as much as I do to give them a round of applause. (Applause.) The second thing, before you sit down, because I’m going to sing a line of a song; you’re going to answer it, because it does have a certain meaning today. It’s from “New York, New York.” So I’m going to sing, “Start spreadin’ the news.” And you’re going to sing, “I’m leaving today.” (Laughter.) You are, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.
Here we go. Yeah, I don’t know if you know the tune but I’ll – if you don’t, I’ll do it twice. Here we go. (Sings) – start spreadin’ the news.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Sing) – I’m leaving today.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Not bad. Let’s do that one more time. (Applause.) I don’t think they can hear you in (inaudible). And by the way, the female – the female voices completely washed over the male voices. (Laughter.) So step up, men. Here we go. (Sings) – start spreadin’ the news.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Sing) – I’m leaving today.
GEN. DEMPSEY: All right. Sit down. (Applause.) You’re not going to remember a thing I say today, but you’ll remember that. (Laughter.)
So a couple of thoughts before I go back to the podium. One is: You are now in the business of beginning in your life to accumulate titles. So I was just introduced as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Obviously, I’m pretty proud of that. But I’m actually prouder of being a husband, a father and a good son, I hope. And as well as all of that, I happen to be a soldier. But you are now beginning to accumulate titles. And as you do, think through how you prioritize those titles, because you’re going to – you know, you’ll – many of you will exceed your wildest imaginations. You know, you might think you’re going to do X – you’ll do Y, and Y will be unbelievable.
Some of you won’t – you’ll come up short, and you’ll have to kind of adapt yourselves to a new reality. You know, life will hand you a trick or two along the way. But you’ll always be in the business of prioritizing that which is most important to you. Never forget that. So as you accumulate titles – and you’re starting today; high school graduate – as you start accumulating titles, make sure you keep them in order.
The second thing is, you are now about to become net producers of goodness and benefit for this country, not net consumers. Up till now, you’ve been largely consuming that which has been prepared for you by parents, by the military, by police and firemen. You are – by teachers; especially teachers. You are net consumers of goodness. You are now about to reach the point, as you progress beyond high school, where you have to start producing some of that goodness for the generation behind you. So that’s a challenge to you.
And the third thing – this is kind of a public service announcement. I do want you to know that my security detail is posted nearby in case some rabid O’Neill fan comes bursting in. (Laughter.) OK. (Applause.) 
So I do have a few prepared remarks that I wanted to put on paper so that I could capture the moment, both for myself but also for you, I hope. So thanks for the kind words in introduction, both Connor and John. Nice job to the salutatorian. I’m looking forward to hearing from the valedictorian here in a moment. But I will tell you that, as I said, this is a home court for me, West Point. In fact, I was suggesting that kind of the three most important things in my life are present in this auditorium today: my wife, of course, Burke Catholic High School and the United States Military Academy. So it’s a real honor for me to be here to do this.
I give a lot of speeches, a lot of interviews; I consult with a lot of different folks around the world – groups, businessmen; obviously, the United States military – and some of the most powerful figures of our time. But I do want you to know that I feel this one today a little differently. I was you. I can remember vividly, for three years, playing in that little band back there, watching the Classes of ’68 – ’67, ’68 and ’69 walk across the stage. And now – finally, in 1970, walking across myself. So I do – I do remember it. I feel the energy today, and I – again, I thank you for letting me be part of it.
I want to begin – other than little prelude, there – I want to begin by thanking the families who are here today. You’ve raised a remarkable – superb, really – group of young men and women who have already achieved a great deal in their lives, and you have the potential to achieve a lot more. And you deserve tremendous credit for your support of that, for your love and for your continuing dedication to your children’s success. And so if you’re a mom or dad in the audience, how about standing up? Come on. (Laughter.) You’ve got to – there’s got to be one or two of you out there. (Applause.) Thank you.
The – I also want to thank Principal Dolan, Monsignor Byrnes – who’s not here, I don’t think – the assistant principal, and of course the faculty. You have a tall task that you’ve strapped on your back year after year. I admire your dedication, your commitment to education, to values and to developing young men and women of character on whom we can all be proud. 
I’d like to mention a few of those who were my faculty members when I was a student here: Sister Mary McCarthy, Sister Josephine – (inaudible) – who may be here today, I hope – Sister Mary Lee, Sister Mary – Sister Nora Cronin, Mr. Pete McDowell, Mr. Richard Dolan, Mr. Kevin McGee and Miss Sophie Banno. I’ll tell you how I think of them. Even today, they were more than teachers. They were influencers in my life, they were role models, and they have become life-long friends. That’s the power of this – of this relationship. You graduates are now soon to be part of the Burke legacy. I’m very proud of that legacy. I expect a lot of you. You should expect a lot of yourselves. The Burke brand is strong. It’s strong in academics, it’s strong in athletics and it’s strong in service. 
Now as I’ve said, my high school days were nearly a half century ago, so I suppose I should point out to you that I would be the equivalent speaking to you today of someone from the class of 1928. That’s a little frightening, frankly – (laughter) – but it is what it is. So – but if you think about what someone from the class of 1928 saw in their lifetime as they move through world wars, the Cold War, all the different economic ups and downs, you’re going to see as much as that as they did, as much of that as I have. And I know you will be up to the task. 
I know from experience that good commencement speeches, by the way, share three qualities: an interesting beginning, a strong ending, close together. (Laughter.) I will try my best to achieve that third one. But there are three themes that I want you to take with you today. I’d like you to try to remember these three themes. And I say try, because I’m aware of President Lincoln’s caution, you will little note nor long remember what is said here. 
But first, I want you to think about the extraordinary pace of change that we’re currently experiencing and will and should expect to continue experiencing here in the near future. I can report that 50 years ago doesn’t seem all that long. But time didn’t seem to move as quickly back then as it does now. It’s sure moving fast. Some fast facts, in fact, from a YouTube site called, “Shift Happens.” If you haven’t ever logged on to it, I encourage you to do so. (Laughter.) 
Here’s some of the facts off of that website. There are a million words in the English language today, five times more than there were during Shakespeare’s period. More than 4,000 new books are published every single day. It’s estimated that a week’s worth of The New York Times contains more information than a person is likely to come across in an entire lifetime in the 18th century. And now with social media, we no longer search for the news, the news searches for us. There are more than a billion searches performed on Google every day. Makes you wonder who was getting asked all those questions before Google. 
Sixty million status updates happen on Facebook every day. The first commercial text was sent in 1992. The number of text messages sent and received today now exceeds the total population of the planet. Some of you probably just texted that fact. (Laughter.) Some of you are probably updating your Facebook status right now. (Laughter.) The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 – the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 – didn’t exist in 2004. So faculty members, we’re currently preparing students like these for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. (Laughter.) Other than that, your task is simple. (Laughter.) 
There is unlimited opportunity in all of this change for you. I tell my young officers: The future will find you. Be ready. I remember graduating from Burke at 18 and not really having a good idea about what the future held. I mention this to let you know that as much as I encourage you to embrace change and be confident, it’s actually OK to be a little bit unsure about the future and where you are, to feel a little bit uncomfortable with all the change in your lives and in the world. 
I was fortunate to receive direction from my family about the most important – and from my important mentors that helped me make the decision to come here to West Point. And if it hadn’t been for Representative Ben Gilman, who may or may not be in the audience today, appointing me to the academy, Deanie may have wound up as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Laughter.) You’d probably all be better off. (Laughter.) The way it worked, I actually got the telegram from West Point on June 29th, 1970 that said simply: Congratulations, you are appointed to the West Point class of 1974. Be here at 08:00 on the 1st of July. Now frankly, I didn’t really want to go, but I decided to give it a try for the summer anyway at the request of my mother. I guess in retrospect, mother did know best. (Laughter.) 
When I got here though – here’s the point – when I got here, I met my first upper class cadet, a rather imposing figure in a red sash. And I dutifully said, I am new Cadet Dempsey, reporting.
And he said, Dempsey, you probably had a pretty good high school career, didn’t you? I said, yes sir, pretty good. He said, well, you’re not going to make it here. (Laughter.) I thought, yes I am. (Laughter.) And then it happened.
I worked hard to make sure that I did make it through West Point. And I realized then, and I continue to realize now that I had to keep getting better. I realized that never settling for mediocre is one of our enduring national traits. As a nation, we dare to be great. That’s the legacy that you are now inheriting. You have to dare to be great, and sometimes it takes courage.
I’m told that you’re an exceptional group – some of the best, the brightest and the most motivated. And by the way, best and brightest isn’t good enough. You have to have the motivation part of it.
There are Eagle Scouts among you, a National Merit Scholar finalist, scholar-athletes – soccer, basketball and cheerleading champions. You’ve had terrific high school careers.
But here’s the second theme I want you to remember. No matter how successful you’ve been up to this point, you need to keep working to be better than you think you can be, whether you’re going to college or out into the workforce.
Your salutatorian Lindsay talked about the uncertainty of being bombarded with circumstances beyond your control and about not losing sight of your ability to determine your reaction. You can do it. Recall what I said about all the change you all have experienced. Well, you also need a moral compass to navigate that change.
Let me tell you in the simplest what it means to be a soldier. It means service, it means integrity, it means courage and it means trust. That’s who we are. Who are you?
Whether you realize it or not, you’re very well-positioned to take advantage of all the changes that will confront you, in great part because of the education you’ve received and the support you’ve received while here at Burke Catholic and from your families.
The last thing is that, whether you realize it or not, your generation is very much inclined to serve. Some of you are headed to the service academies, prep schools or ROTC units, and I applaud each of you for that choice.
But I don’t just mean the military when I talk about service. I mean service to others, to your community, to your country. The nation needs each of us and it needs all of us.
You’re about to be asked to live – and I mean really live – Burke’s motto: “Non Vox Sed Votum;” “Not Words But Deeds.” Today, you’ll join a long line of Burke Eagles who have done just that. I look forward a great deal to watching you take advantage of your opportunities, to watch you impact on our society and to watch you reshape the future.
So on the springboard of your Burke education, push yourself to explore issues you haven’t even considered before, to lead where leadership is required and to keep options open. Because life, as I mentioned earlier – it will deal you changes and challenges, and you’ll have to adapt. Remember, the future will find you. Be ready. 
Who knows? One of you someday could be the senior military leader of the greatest military the world has ever known.
Let me leave you with these final words. I suggest that your life takes on meaning only as the causes to which you attach yourself have meaning; that the greatest value in life is to spend it for something that lives after; that in the end you become what you are through some cause that you have made your own. And if you follow that line of reasoning, deciding about the part that God plays in your life is important. 
Youth isn’t a time; it’s a state of mind. Nobody grows old by living years. People grow by deserting their dreams. Even now, on the threshold of your future, you need to know this.
Youth is equality and imagination, a vigor of emotion, a dominance of courage over timidity and an appetite for adventure over the love of ease. But also remember that in many ways it can be a far higher ideal to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way. 
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon face; the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palms of his hands. Thank you. (Applause.)