EDITORIAL: My speech to graduates

MY FATHER ONCE ASKED me what advice I would give my younger brother as he prepared to head off to college for the first time. Fathers take note: this is a very bad idea, especially if you have not rehearsed the answer ahead of time. It happened a long time ago, but I still recall the stricken look on my father’s face when I answered without hesitation, “Don’t take it too seriously.”

Fortunately, my brother did not heed my advice and went on get a good education. This story also has another happy ending in that it illustrates why no one seeks me out as a graduation speaker. With graduates preparing to confront the world’s absurdities, they’re better off hearing from somebody who earnestly seeks to offer inspiration with a straight face.

But that won’t stop me, though here’s a word of caution. While we all know that very few young people read newspapers these days, parents might want to tuck this edition into the recycle box right away to be sure it doesn’t fall into impressionable hands, because here’s the address I would have given to this year’s graduates.

You’ve done it; you’ve earned your diploma, which really does mean you are smart. Now I will tell you a secret of success: If you are thinking about going into the newspaper business, think again.

That’s it. No great pronouncements about “Life is…” or “… is not.” Just a tip.

Most of you undoubtedly never thought about going into the newspaper business, which is a good thing, because the industry continues to shed jobs, it never paid very well, the hours are long and the whole business is changing radically as you read this. You’re more likely thinking about what you’ll be doing when this is over and how nice it will be that you don’t have to pretend you’re listening to me instead of texting.

But for those who were, however briefly, thinking about what’s next, stop thinking for a moment and look around. That’s what we do in the newspaper business. We spend a lot of time rushing from Hudson to Hillsdale, Ancram to Kinderhook to report stories or deliver papers, and then, when we least expect it, some new view of this landscape takes our breath away. It’s an occupational hazard. You have to be careful in this business because appreciating natural beauty can be contagious.

Another great danger associated with the newspaper business involves a syndrome commonly called “grudging respect.” That happens when you don’t want to like someone, but after you observe them in action you understand that they do something worthwhile, possibly something you wouldn’t want to do yourself. Let’s take an extreme example: politicians.

Columbia County doesn’t have a lot of politicians, if you define them as people who make their living in politics. It does, however, have lots of citizens who get elected to local positions. There are 18 towns, 4 villages and a city in this county of just over 63,000 people. Plus we have six public school districts and all sorts of other elected volunteers like fire commissioners and library trustees, who serve because somebody like you voted for them.

Newspapers report what political officials do and say, and that can get uncomfortable when office holders don’t like what they read. But the more you write about the long hours that local officials put in, the problems the public expects them to fix and how little they get paid for what they do, the more you come to understand that democracy isn’t some abstract idea in a textbook; these elected officials are the reason we call ourselves free. We don’t have to agree with every decision they make to appreciate the value of their service.

It’s sooooo easy to put down politicians, to lump them all together when one of them acts badly. Unfortunately, the newspaper business makes it difficult to hang on to these and other stereotypes and narrow views. Life is much easier when you think you know all about people you’re sure you won’t like even before you meet them. Those of you who already know that much about everybody else should avoid working in the newspaper industry and you should never pick up a newspaper and read it.

That’s it. No big pronouncements. No other advice except that plea of old people who want you to take care and treat your life as if it’s the only one you’ve got. Oh, and please, don’t take graduation speakers too seriously.

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