Alexander to Walters State Community College Graduates: “Keep Aiming for the Top”

Says students should, in the words of Alex Haley, “Find the good and praise it”

Posted on May 9, 2015

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“I loved and admired my Grandfather Rankin and I listened to him. He would always tell me, ‘Aim for the top. There’s more room there.’ I have followed that advice and, obviously, so have you. Because of your time at Walters State you will have a new stepping stone to a bright future. You have more capacity now to make a good living, to raise a family, to make a contribution to your community and your state and perhaps to the world. Congratulations. We are proud of you. Keep aiming for the top. And find the good and praise it.” – Lamar Alexander

WHITE PINE, May 9, 2015 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today gave the commencement address at Walters State Community College, telling the more than 800 graduates to “find the good and praise it.”

Alexander’s remarks, as prepared, follow:

Thank you, Scott. And congratulations to your grandson Trevor Gentry for such an impressive achievement.

Dr. McCamey, members of the faculty, members of the Walters State graduating class of 2015, family members and friends.

My late friend Alex Haley, the author of Roots, lived his life by these six words: “Find the good and praise it.”

He would say to our youngest son playing with a video camera, “That’s awfully good, Will. I think I’ll tell Steven Spielberg about you.”

Find the good and praise it.

Walking down the street in Knoxville, he met a man, Joseph Rivera, who was struggling to learn to read. Alex helped him learn to read. Soon thereafter there was a Sunday article in Parade Magazine about Joseph Rivera written by Alex Haley. Find the good and praise it.

Famous people stayed at the governor’s residence when we lived there. Presidents of the United States. Captain Kangaroo. But the one who the staff members who worked there most wanted to see was Alex Haley, because he wanted to know as much about them as they did about him.

He would find the good in each of them and praise it.

Alex Haley loved commencement exercises like this one because everyone is so happy: graduates, faculty, parents, grandparents, other family members, friends. If he were here today he would say to each of you, you don’t know how lucky you are to have each other.

Find the good and praise it. 

Alex also had a sense of humor. Looking around at the family members and friends he would remind you graduates, “If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost, you’ll know he had some help getting there.”

And then he would explain to you the mystery of why grandparents and grandchildren get along so well. With a twinkle in his eye, he would say, “It is because they have a common enemy.”

This morning I want to borrow Alex Haley’s six words.

First to praise the faculty, family members and friends who helped make this graduation day possible.

Find the good and praise it.

I want to praise Scott Niswonger. There is not a better way to way to say it than to say this: Scott Niswonger is a good citizen. To help expand the Greeneville campus, he made the largest gift ever to the Walters State Foundation.

 

His foundation works with 17 school systems in East Tennessee and serves 129,000 students with online instruction, AP courses, college and career counseling and professional development opportunities for teachers.  Niswonger Scholars attend the college of their choice and pledge to return to East Tennessee for at least one year of service for each year of financial support they receive.

Find the good and praise it.

And praise Trevor Gentry, for doing what more and more students will be doing: earning a high school degree and a community college degree at the same time, getting a head start on a brighter future.

Find the good and praise it.

Praise Walters State Community College and its campuses in Morristown, Sevierville, Greeneville and Tazewell, especially for being recognized for its innovative use of technology and its 92 percent job placement rate for the school’s technical graduates.

Find the good and praise it.

Praise the state of Tennessee for Tennessee Promise, for being first in the country to make community college free and praise Tennessee high school seniors for being first in the country this year in increasing the percentage of students who fill out the form for federal student aid.

There still is one big obstacle to Tennessee Promise and most families here today know exactly what that is. It’s that federal student aid application form, called the FAFSA, the form that every single applicant for Tennessee Promise has to fill out.

It is 108 questions long and so complicated that many Americans are discouraged from going to college. The president of Southwest Community College in Memphis told me he believes that he loses 1,500 students each semester because of the complexity of the form.

Most of those questions aren’t necessary. I have introduced bipartisan legislation in Congress to cut those 108 questions down to two questions, which should help even more students take advantage of Tennessee Promise.

Find the good and praise it.

Most important, I want to praise the graduates here today.

To do that, let me conclude with a story.

I am a seventh-generation descendant of the Rankin family of Dumplin Valley in Jefferson County.  

I have on my fireplace mantel a photograph made about 1890 of the family of Christopher Rankin, seven daughters all over six feet tall and eight sons all over six foot six.

I have a mouth bow made from the red cedar tree that stood for more than a century in front of Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church that the family helped to found in an old log house.

At the end of the Civil War, somehow a confederate preacher got into the pulpit at the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church and he prayed that “East Tennesseans who went to Kentucky to join union forces might die and their bones would decorate and grow white on the top of Cumberland Mountain.”

With that, Christopher Rankin and his entire tall family, all of them union soldiers or sympathizers, rose from their pews, marched out of the church and a few miles down Dumplin Valley Road where they founded Mt. Hebron Presbyterian Church.

My grandfather was Christopher Rankin’s grandson. 

Grandad also was part of a large family, one of eighteen children. He ran away from home at age 13 and found a job as a railroad engineer in Kansas. Unlike you, he never went to college. 

But he made sure my mother did, sending her back to East Tennessee to attend Maryville College where she met my father. 

I loved and admired my Grandfather Rankin and I listened to him. He would always tell me, “Aim for the Top. There’s more room there.” I have followed that advice and, obviously, so have you. 

Because of your time at Walters State you will have a new stepping-stone to a bright future. You have more capacity now to make a good living, to raise a family, to make a contribution to your community and your state and perhaps to the world.

Congratulations. We are proud of you. Keep aiming for the top. And find the good and praise it.

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