Speeches & Floor Statements

Speech to Marville High School: At 100th Graduating Class of Maryville High School

Posted on May 10, 2019

Members of the 100th GRADUATING class of Maryville High School, family, friends, faculty:

A few years ago, after hearing me speak, Alex Haley, the late author of Roots, made this suggestion to me:   

“If when you begin you would say, instead of making a speech let me tell you a story, someone might actually listen to what you have to say.”

So — instead of a speech, let me tell you two short stories, one about Maryville’s past, one about your future.

Maryville was certainly a busy place one hundred years ago, in 1919.  

World War I was ending.

DW Proffitt was tossing Thanksgiving turkeys off the roof of his store on Broadway to attract customers.

The public library, the police department and the city of Alcoa all were founded.  

Construction of Alcoa’s West Plant started.  

Maryville College was celebrating its 100th birthday.

The first 13 students graduated from Maryville High School. 

About that same time Will Alexander sold his farm on the Little Tennessee River and moved his family to Maryville so his children could attend the new high school.  

His youngest son, Andrew, said he “had died and gone to heaven.” That was how much the opportunity to go to Maryville High School meant 100 years ago to a Blount County farm boy. 

After graduating, Andrew enrolled in Maryville College where he met Flo Rankin. Her father—my grandfather—had sent her from Kansas to Tennessee for college near where he and five generations of his family had grown up. The Great Depression came, the Rankins ran out of money, and Flo returned to Kansas after one semester. But that was long enough to meet Andrew. Andrew’s family also ran out of money and to earn a living -- he would walk from Maryville to and from Alnwick School where he was principal.  Andrew and Flo kept their love affair alive long distance and were married in 1939.  

Andy became principal at West Side Elementary School. When his son was born in 1940, Andy, who was my father, took a job paying twice as much as a safety director at the growing ALCOA plant, but kept alive his avid interest in education. After World War II, he joined a ticket of five who ran together for the City School board and served for a quarter of a century trying to make Maryville City schools even better.  

Meanwhile, Flo opened a school in a converted garage in their backyard on 121 Ruth Street where for 35 years. She somehow managed to teach 25 three and four year olds in the morning and 25 five year olds in the afternoon.

She had nowhere else to put me so I got a pretty good head start with five years of kindergarten.

Each day I walked from Ruth Street to Maryville High. Those four blocks were so filled with neighbors interested in my well-being that I couldn't have gotten in much trouble even if there had been much trouble to get into.    

I learned the importance of the pledge of allegiance, of telling the truth, of the greatness of this country and of our civilization, or the value of working and being on time and of the difference between right and wrong.  

There were 97 in my graduating class 61 years ago.   

When I ran for president of the United States—a campaign I started right here in 1996— I said Maryville values were the values I hoped our country would have.  

Bill Bennett, the former U.S. Education Secretary who was my campaign chairman, told me, “Lamar, not every town is like Maryville.”  I told him, “Well, they should be.”   

About that time the New York Times wrote that Mr. Alexander grew up in a lower middle class family at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. 

When I called home that weekend I found my mother reading Thessalonians for strength to deal with what she considered to be a slur on the family. “Son, we never thought of ourselves that way. You had a library card from the day you were three and a music lesson from the day you were four. You had everything you needed that was important.” And, she could have added, you had a diploma from Maryville High School.  

This is a remarkable school because this is a remarkable community.  

At a state football championship game I heard the TV announcer ask Principal Greg Roach what made Maryville such an excellent school. “It’s a community school,” he said.” Something happens at the school, and the community shows up to support it.”

Now for my story about your future. This is about a great Tennessee storyteller, Alex Haley. And six words of his I hope you will remember: Find the good and praise it.        

As a boy Alex Haley sat on the steps of a porch in Henning, Tennessee, in the summertime listening to his grandma and great aunts tell stories about his African ancestors.

Alex used to tell how his Aunt Liz could knock a firefly out of the sky from fourteen feet with an accurate stream of tobacco juice.

They told stories about his seventh generation ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who snatched out of the cane break in Gambia and brought to the Port of Baltimore to be sold as a slave.

About his great grandfather, Chicken George. About his father, Simon P. Haley, the only member of his family to attend college who became a professor at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. 

There he raise four children – an architect; a future ambassador; a teacher and Alex -- who he was afraid was not going to amount to anything so he had  him join the Coast Guard. 

In the Coast Guard Alex —for a dollar — would write letters home for sailors who couldn't write as well. He sent stories in Readers Digest, then The Saturday Evening Post.

Later, he wrote the Autography of Malcom X that won the National Book Award.

And then he turned his family’s stories into Roots, the Pulitzer Prize winning story. At that time, the ten best watched TV series were nine Super Bowls and Roots.     

It was in 1980 that our family met Alex Haley.  I was the governor of his native state. He was the most celebrated author in the world. 

We remember him not because he was famous, but because he would walk into our home and pick up our daughters’ school essay and say, “Oh my goodness, that essay could win a prize.” 

Or he would say to our young son who was playing with a video camera, “That's awfully good. I think I'll tell Steven Spielberg about you.” 

He would always “Find the good and praise it.”

Walking down the street in Knoxville, he met a man, Joseph Raveira, who was struggling to learn to read. Alex helped him.  Soon Joseph Raveira was an article one Sunday in Parade magazine written by Alex Haley. 

Find the good and praise it.  

A lot of famous people stayed at the Governor's Mansion when we lived there including presidents of the United States.  But the one who everyone who worked there wanted to see the most was Alex Haley, because he wanted to know as much about them as they did about him. 

He would find the good and praise it.    

Along with his compliments, he had a good sense of humor. If he were here tonight he would explain to all these families why grandparents and grandchildren get along so well. He would say with a twinkle in his eye, “It is because they have a common enemy.”

I never heard him say a bad word about anyone because of their race or because of where they came from. 

Find the good and praise it.

He never joined those who were busy finding everything wrong with America.     That was a powerful message, coming from the grandson of slaves.    

Thirty years ago in Henning we buried Alex Haley next to the front porch where his grandma and his great aunts first told him those stories.  On the marker, in front of the house are the words--Find the good and praise it.

I hope you can see that those six words—Find the good and praise it —have something to do with where you go after tonight.

You were only five or six years of age in 2007 when the iPhone was first released, when a start-up named Twitter gained its own separate platform, when Amazon released something called Kindle.

In 1919, no one could have predicted you would carry around a computer in your pocket that would allow you to book an airline ticket home for Thanksgiving or video call your parents when you’re away at college.

During your lifetime even more technological miracles will happen.  

But your success will not depend upon how well you manipulate technology, but upon how well you live your life. The formula for that has not and will not change growing up in Maryville. You have learned not just academic skills but good judgment that should remind you to keep your feet on the ground, tell the truth, serve some cause larger than yourself and find some good in everyone you meet.

Because of your time at Maryville High School — and 100 years of effort by those before you — you will be able to make more of your life and to make a greater contribution to your community and to your state and perhaps the world. As my grandfather Rankin used to tell me, “Aim for the Top. There’s more room there.”

So Congratulations.

We are proud of you.

And just in case you have had other things on your mind tonight and you forget those six words, I have a gift for each one of you, a copy of “Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book.”

As a reminder, on page 124 is Rule Number 225:  

Find the good and praise it!