Monday, June 1, 2015

A message for the Class of 2015

It was an especially exciting graduation season for our family this year since my son Drew was among the 180 students in the Bolivar HS Class of 2015. When your dad is also principal, commencement is a little different for sure. He was even quoted in the yearbook as saying he was frequently asked, "So what's it like having your dad as the principal?"

For me, it was a great honor and privilege to get to present him with his diploma. And I wish him and the rest of the Class of 2015 a fantastic future. The group is filled with wonderful, interesting, and talented young adults. As far as achievement goes, they did okay on that account too. The grads earned nearly $2.3 million in scholarships, setting a new record for BHS.

Each year, I have the opportunity to make a few remarks to encourage and congratulate the graduating class. I always try to keep my message short but hopefully meaningful. My speech this year follows.

Recently, I read Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, the American hero who endured and overcame unbelievable hardships as a soldier and prisoner of war during WWII. Zamperini's story is especially relevant as we meet today on Memorial Day weekend, a time to remember the sacrifices of our veterans. His life serves as a powerful reminder to believe in your dreams and never give up.

You see Zamperini was not born to wealth or privilege. He was the son of Italian immigrants, considered a troubled child. As a teen, he was a juvenile delinquent and thief. He was not extraordinary in any way, except for causing trouble.

But he later became one of the top track and field stars in the U.S., breaking collegiate records in the mile run and competing at the 1936 Olympics.

But then came WWII. As part of a bomber crew, his plane, the B-24 Liberator (our school mascot is The Liberator), was shot down over the Pacific, only 3 of the 11 crew survived, cast adrift for 47 days on a lifeboat, enduring extreme conditions including lack of food and water. He lost about half his body weight.

Pulled from the lifeboat by Japanese captors, he was sent to a POW camp where he faced daily torment, unlivable, disgusting conditions, exposure, disease, starvation, and constant beatings. Even as I read about his ordeal, it seemed to me it would never end. I can't imagine the discouragement and suffering Zamperini endured.

And yet he pressed on. He persevered till the conclusion of the war and was finally liberated--there's that word again. But even after his imprisonment came to an end, an internal struggle remained. He could not get his captors out of his mind. He had terrible nightmares. He turned to alcohol to deal with the stress. His own bitterness was now holding his life captive.

 In 1949, Zamperini went to a Billy Graham crusade, accepted God's forgiveness and found the power to forgive his captors. From this point, Zamperini lived a long and fruiful life. He died last July at 97 years old.

The Zamperini story is very similar to that of former Bolivar resident the late John Playter, who endured his own set of extreme hardships at the hands of Japanese captors in WWII. Both of these heros serve as inspiration to me. I share this today to give a word of encouragement to you, the Class of 2015.

 So what can we learn from Zamperini and Playter? They never gave up. Our freedom and way of life is owed to men like this. When Zamperini was asked how he made it, he said, "I'd made it this far and refused to give up because all my life I had always finished the race."

And then there's forgiveness, it makes you stronger. Zamperini came to realize that forgiveness is the only way to truly be free. He had to let go of his bitterness towards his captors. He explained, "If you hate somebody, it's like a boomerang that misses its target and comes back around and hits you in the head. The one who hates is the one who hurts."

At this time, I would like to say thanks to our Veterans, especially the men and women here today who have served our country and protected our freedom. Like Zamperini and Playter you inspire through your service. Please join me in recognizing our veterans. And several members of the Class of 2015 are set to enter military service as their next step. We also applaud your willingness to serve your country.

The Class of 2015 sings the Alma Mater one last time together...

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