Graduation season is coming to a close, and I just gave my third commencement address. This one was for my alma mater, Southern Oregon University, in Ashland, where I earned my Masters in teaching in 2001. It was a grand day out on the field with about 900 graduates and a few thousand visitors.
By this date, all the graduation rhetoric and clichés have been used, and as the student speaker mentioned that day, our job as speakers is much like the body at an Irish wake: you kind of need them there at the party, but no one expects them to say much.
So I basically told them “congratulations and all that”, but not to get a big head. They weren’t all that special.
There are over 50 million people with bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. alone (over ¼ of the population.) About 18 million have Master’s degrees. A degree isn’t really enough to set you apart.
So what is? It’s the life-long quest to keep learning, and to keep creating. The formal education of most of these students is over, but it’s how they proceed from here that will set them apart.
After commencement, we visited some good friends of ours who live in the Applegate Valley, not too far from SOU. Michael and Janice have a homestead that they have crafted over the years that is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places we’ve been. Michael’s trade is handcrafting high-quality stringed instruments, and Janice is an expert at stringing bows. Their work is beautiful and timeless.
But it is all of the other things they have their hands in that truly make them so unique. They built their home (and several other buildings on their 100 acres) by hand, mostly using traditional timber framing methods. Michael has a whole log cabin shop devoted to powerless hand tools, and not only collects antique tools, but builds them, too. He teaches woodworking and violin-making workshops on the weekends. He harvests most of his own wood for his projects, mills it up himself, and maintains a small fleet of heavy equipment, too.
Last year, he built an enormous water wheel in the forest up the hill from their home. It weighs tons, but “it’d spin if you got up there and peed in it.” He’s hoping to wire it up to produce the little electricity that they need.
His latest project is building a hot rod from scratch (so far he’s used parts from a model-A, a VW bug, a WWII bomber and a Suzuki Samurai.)
And they do all this while raising their beautiful granddaughter.
Michael and Janice are people that just never quit learning and never quit doing. But most enjoyable is to sit with them and tell stories together. They are both wonderful storytellers, and we all get a great ab workout from laughing so much.
I honestly can’t remember if Michael and Janice have college degrees. They might. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s what they’ve done since then that is so remarkable, and what they will do from now on that will keep their lives – and the world – so fascinating.