Commencement Address – Donovan W. Pepper
University of Illinois Springfield
May 17, 2014
Thank you, Chancellor Koch, for that really nice introduction. President Easter, Chancellor Koch, Trustee Hasara, distinguished faculty and staff, the class of 2014, I am very honored and deeply grateful to be here today to speak to you. Congratulations to each and every one of you on the beginning of what will be an amazing journey in life.
Some of you may know that last year on behalf of the university’s alumni association, I gave brief remarks here at commencement, kind of like what my friend, John Lowder, who is my fellow UIS classmate and former colleague, will deliver to you in just a bit.
So late last year, when Chancellor Koch asked me if I would speak at commencement, I immediately responded, “Sure, I would be happy to give the alumni remarks again.” Then she said, “No, not the alumni remarks, we want you to deliver the actual commencement address.” At that moment I paused and thought, “WOW,” either I really must’ve rocked it last year with my alumni remarks—the pressure’s on John—or UIS must be lagging a bit if it hasn’t graduated any distinguished alums since 1994…. and a guy who sells drugs for a living is the best they could find!
I thought, now I could understand if I were the CEO of Walgreens, or some famous celebrity, or a self-made millionaire that’s ready to make a large gift to the university…. even an un-indicted politician, I could understand. Obviously, since I am here, I said yes. However, I have to confess and come clean with you all right now. I said “Yes” because I assumed that all commencement speakers were automatically bestowed an honorary doctorate—and I thought this would be the fastest way to finally become “Dr. Pepper.” Last night, I asked Ms. [Eveyln Brandt] Thomas if I could trade places with her and she said no. I guess I’ll have to pursue my doctorate the old- fashioned way—earn it!
Before I continue my remarks, I would be remiss if I did not recognize my mother Karen, who is with me today. My father, William, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, could not be here. But without their love and support and encouragement of academic success for me and my siblings, I would not be here. Also, my wife Heidi and our two sons, Dakota and Dillon, are here as well.
As I was preparing my remarks for today, I spoke to a friend and a colleague who is also an author and does a lot of public speaking. I asked him for some advice on public speaking and what I should say. He said he didn’t know what I should talk about, but that I should always keep in mind the first rule of public speaking–remember the Five B’s….Be Brief Bro’, Be Brief! I promise to remember that rule this afternoon!
I am really honored to be here and share with you my memories of UIS and how this institution prepared me personally for my career as a lobbyist and public affairs professional, working with elected and public officials across the country.
If someone would have told me 20 years ago when I graduated from UIS that one day I would work on interesting pieces of legislation or policy initiatives that would help senior citizens get access to needed prescription medication, or work on intricate telecommunications deregulation legislation, or advocate for high-speed rail and airport expansions, or even be involved in the debate about whether restaurants in Illinois should serve foie gras, I would have thought they were crazy.
My career has allowed me to meet and work with people like sitting and former presidents, U.S. senators, congressmen, governors, legislators, city councilmembers from across the country, just about every big and small city mayor in America, and even celebrities like LL Cool J, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, Mark Wahlberg and even Magic Johnson—sorry Donald Sterling, but I think that’s pretty cool!
This has been a career that I truly love and this path started with my education and how it taught me about the importance of sharing my time, talents and treasures.
I owe so many aspects of who I am today to this university. My involvement in Model Illinois Government is what heightened my interest in legislative and practical politics and is one of the reasons that I am a lobbyist today. My time on Student Government and as president during the transition from SSU to UIS gave me great insight into how incredible opportunity can come from challenging situations, which is something I deal with daily in my professional life.
My time as a resident assistant gave me great preparation in dealing with conflict resolution and mediation, which I use on many legislative and regulatory issues across the country in my position at Walgreens. Who knew that managing roommate arguments about room temperatures or eating someone else’s food in the refrigerator would be such a highly regarded life skill? Lastly, as you heard, my wife Heidi is also alum of UIS, whom I met while here on campus 24 years ago. This September we will have been married for 14 years and now have two sons. So not only did this institution get me started down my career path; it also got me started on my path for life as a husband and a father.
While I am appreciative to UIS for these things, I am even more grateful for something that took place 60 years ago, before I was even born and is probably the reason why I can even stand before you and address the Class of 2014. On this very day, 60 years ago, May 17, 1954, the single most important action in public education history took place: the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, was handed down. And racially segregated public schools were deemed unconstitutional. There is no question that I owe my ability to attend high-quality, racially integrated public education institutions like the high school I attended or UIS to this landmark decision. I am eternally grateful and always aware that my education and career today is possible because of the justices of that court—and especially the hard work of Chief Justice Earl Warren 60 years ago today.
On a side note, some of you out here know how this decision came to be, and as a professional lobbyist, I’m equally in awe of this decision because of how Chief Justice Warren was able to fashion a unanimous decision by the entire court, which had been deeply divided on race matters on other cases, and at the beginning of this trial. To a lobbyist, this is a pretty cool accomplishment. To reach not only consensus on a divisive issue, but to reach a unanimous vote is quite simply something any good lobbyist wants every time. My apologies for digressing there for a moment, but what can I say, I’m still a political science geek.
In closing, I know that I am supposed to share with you some inspirational words that will motivate you all to go out in the world with your degree in your hand and live your dreams to the fullest, so I thought I would go back to the three “T”s that have made my career and life a happy one. I really didn’t understand until later in life, the importance of sharing these three things. In fact, by your being here today you have already begun to do these three things: share your time, talents, and treasures. You have given your time in pursuit of education, and those countless hours of studying have paid off to get to this day. You have shared your talents with your professors, your classmates, co-workers and fellow graduates. And lastly, you or your parents out there have all given your treasures to this institution, and I am here to tell you that it is an investment well spent.
However, I am challenging you today to share your time, talents and treasures beyond your soon-to-be new or current employer, or in the pursuit of another degree, or simply with your family and friends. There are people, places and causes outside of your sphere of influence that need your time, talents and treasures.
There is a quote by Martin Luther King that really illustrates the importance of sharing the three “T”s, which I believe Dr. King’s life exemplified. Dr. King said, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
Each one of you in this room today will have a choice about the kind of life you will create and I hope you will think about how you will share your own individual time, your unique talents, and your treasures—no matter how big or small.
You can make all the difference in the world.