Keynote speech by Robert P. Watson, Distinguished Teacher of the Year 2006

"President Brogan, Provost Pritchett, distinguished colleagues, honored students, and guests, thank you.  Please know that I am truly honored, humbled, and enthused by this award.  Being recognized by one’s peers or colleagues, or by one’s supervisors, is certainly gratifying.  But, to be recognized by those you serve… our students, now that is a real privilege!  And I pledge to always strive to live up to this honor. 

Briefly let me acknowledge the students who served on the committee that reviewed the DTOY candidates.  Having gone through the process I know they worked hard, were generous in giving their time, and, in spite of the outcome of their vote – me (!), took their charge very seriously.  Let me also acknowledge all those students who were nominated for awards and congratulate those students and faculty here today who

received awards.  Lastly, let me acknowledge my family.  Those of you that know me know that I work seven days a week, so I wish to thank my family for their support and patience.

One of the aspects of the DTOY award is that the recipient is given the honor of addressing this convocation.  On that note, respectfully, I wish to depart a bit from precedent.  Rather than talk about myself or my teaching, I wish tonight to address my remarks to you, the honored students… because you represent the very best of FAU.  Seated hear tonight are the future doctors, lawyers, political leaders, teachers, scientists, and artists – the next generation of influence.  I am sure you have made your parents and professors so very proud, and for good reason, and I applaud you from the bottom of my heart. 

But, because your best is yet to come, I wish also to offer you a challenge.  And that is: Never just show up in life.  Rather, commit yourself to making a difference, to being that change you desire.  Do not settle for just doing good, or even doing well; but rather, commit yourself to greatness, to excellence in all you do… not only at FAU or in your eventual career, but commit yourself to excellence as a son or daughter, brother or sister, especially as a father or mother, even as a neighbor and friend, as a citizen, volunteer, and community leader.

To that point, I am often asked by students how they can make a difference or whether they or any one person can make a difference.  My answer to them – and to you tonight – is: YOU BET!  History is full of George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns, Susan B. Anthonys and Cesar Chavezs, men and women who have left an indelible mark.  Their large footprints have made all of our lives better in innumerable ways.  And what was their secret to success?  How did they make such a profound difference in the lives of so many?  There are as many explanations as there are factors, and volumes have been written about this…   But, if I were to boil it down to a single decisive factor I would say, without a doubt, moral courage.  This is what I wish to talk about tonight – the willingness to do the right thing to and for others irrespective of the consequences and challenges.

Now, this is often easier said than done and I promise that should you accept this challenge you will encounter obstacles and roadblocks.  Certainly those leaders mentioned earlier faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  But, like them, do not shrink from the challenge.  I have found that, in my own small life, when faced with challenges and obstacles it has helped me to think of inspiring stories of moral courage.  So, let me share briefly with you two of my absolute favorite examples of moral courage… stories to think about when you are faced with a tough decision:

I find it helps to think of Rosa Parks who, on December 1, 1955, refused to abandon her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and, in so doing, changed the world.  But, Ms. Parks did much more than remain in her seat – she showed real moral courage.  Because countless blacks had been arrested, beaten, or murdered for similar actions.  Rosa Parks did nothing short of taking on the entire entrenched, institutionalized system of racism in the South.

The buses in Montgomery, as in most of the South, were segregated.  So much so that black passengers could not even walk down the center aisle of the bus after paying the driver.  They had to exit the bus, walk around to the side, back door and enter there, relegated to the back seats.  And when the bus filled, black riders had to abandon their seats to white passengers.  That was the case on that fateful December day when the bus was filling and a white passenger asked Rosa and three black men seated in the same row, to give up their seats.  The men did so without incident.  But, Rosa did not!

She was arrested and fined, posted bail, and shortly thereafter, met with other concerned parishioners at her church – the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church – about fighting the grave injustice of segregation.  So, they met with the church’s new 26-year-old preacher – a man named [audience: Martin Luther King, Jr.] – and together they organized a boycott of the city buses under the name of the Montgomery Improvement Association… which helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, which….  and the rest, as they say [audience: is history]!

And the absolutely delicious historical irony is this:  Rosa Parks was a petite, uneducated, seamstress, who happened to be a woman and who happened to be black.  Every one of you here today – every sophomore at FAU – is better educated and has far more opportunities, comforts, and privileges than Rosa Parks could ever have imagined.  So, you don’t have to be rich or powerful to change the world… but you absolutely do need moral courage.

I find it also helps to consider Harry Truman who, in 1948, was facing a tough campaign to remain as the president.  Now, we all now that bold and courageous decisions are not made during election years, but Harry Truman displayed what I consider to be the shining example of moral courage in the White House since Abraham Lincoln… and he did it during an election year, and he did it not once, but twice.

Truman knew he had to carry the South in `48 in order to win the election because his opponent, Thomas Dewey, would win the north.  Yet, the two decisions facing him were easily the two most unpopular in the South, and moving forward would cost Truman the election and possibly his legacy.  But that did not deter him.  One of the issues was civil rights.  Truman was inspired by the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen – the legendary all-black fighter pilots who escorted our bombers over Europe during the Second World War and lost not a single man or plane under their protection – so he was outraged by the ugly discrimination that faced returning black GIs.  Truman acted to desegregate the armed forces with Exec Order 9981. 

And he encountered formidable opposition – the military opposed him, the Joint Chiefs opposed him, his aides opposed him, and the South opposed him.  Many remembered that Truman’s decision two years prior to establish the first civil rights commission in the nation’s history was met with strong opposition in the South and that Truman suffered politically because of his courageous stance.  Strom Thurmond – yes, the same Strom Thurmond – then the governor of South Carolina, was so angry that he threatened to run against Truman in 1948 – for one reason – to deny Truman the southern vote and thereby deny him the White House. 

The other morally courageous decision occurred on May 14, 1948 when Truman recognized and helped make possible the creation of the state of Israel.  And he encountered formidable opposition – the military opposed him, his aides and his own State Department opposed him, the South opposed him, the British and the UN opposed him, and so on.  Strom Thurmond was so angry that he threatened to run against Truman in 1948 – for one reason – to deny Truman the southern vote and thereby deny him the White House.

There was this critical moment at the 1948 Democratic Convention where Strom Thurmond made good on his threat to Truman – he did mount a third-party Dixiecrat campaign and defiantly walked out of the convention taking southern delegates with him.  Thurmond was met on the convention floor by the press who asked him why he was walking out.  After all, they reasoned, Truman’s platform on civil rights and the “Jewish question” was the same as FDR’s before him.  “Well,” responded Thurmond, “the difference is that FDR just talked about it but I know Truman means it!”  

It looked hopeless for Truman.  As he reflected about these tough decisions “In doing this I will lose the White House in 1948.  So be it, it’s the right thing to do.”

And, once again, the absolutely delicious historical irony is that Truman did what was unpopular but right… yet he won the election.  And it is worth noting that Truman was the last president to not have a college degree, and he was raised in a racist, anti-Semitic household in rural Missouri.  Descended from slave owners, I often refer to his family as “unreconstructed Confederates.”  Indeed, the Lincoln name was not to be mentioned in his childhood home.  Or, as Truman would later humorously say of his favorite room in the White House – the Lincoln Bedroom – “Don’t tell Mama!”  Yet, he overcame his upbringing and found his moral compass.  So you don’t need to be well educated to change the world.  But you absolutely do need moral courage.

So, I leave you with a final thought.  Like Rosa Parks and Truman, when you are faced with a tough decision, reach deep down inside you to find your moral compass and when you do, embrace it.  Always seek the high ground, take the road less traveled.   And I assure you, that is the secret to success and happiness, and, more importantly, it is the key to making a difference in the lives of others and to leading a meaningful life. 

So one day, when you are either looking back at your life or when you meet your maker and are asked whether you fed the hungry, gave comfort to the suffering, or whether you treated all people with equality and dignity… you can answer:  YES.  And that is what this is all about.

I wish to dedicate my remarks to my morally courageous mother who taught me these principles and lost her long, brave battle with a rare neurological disease this weekend.  Thank you."

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