First Commencement


Hannover, Germany

Friday, July 7, 2000


Purdue President Steven C. Beering

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Class of 2000, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those among us who have reached a highly significant milestone on their road to knowledge and future accomplishment.

Today, I have chosen to examine the notion of the power of ideas. A university is a repository of ideas – old ones, new ones, and ones yet to be created. A university is a citadel of thought; it is a magnificent cathedral of the mind. So let me tell you of a story that illustrates the power of ideas. It involves one of our own faculty members, Dr. Herbert C. Brown, a most distinguished Purdue professor of chemistry, who received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his groundbreaking studies of boron compounds.

At a dinner a few months ago, Dr. Brown, now long retired but still active as a researcher and beloved teacher, told the wonderful story of long ago events that led to his receiving that signal international honor. As a young graduate student at the University of Chicago, Dr. Brown courted and won the heart of Sarah, who was the only woman student in his class. Imagine the attention she must have had. At a time when Herb’s cash assets added up to $3.00 and Sarah’s totaled $7.00, he proposed and they decided to get married secretly. You see, even a man who possesses one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century had the idea that love triumphed and so his heart overruled his head when he was in love. On the other hand, she had $4.00 more than he had so maybe he married her for her money!

For a wedding present, Sarah gave her new husband a textbook called The Hydrides of Boron and Silicon. Not exactly the most romantic title you’ve ever heard. But as Dr. Brown tells the story, "As I read the book," he said, "I became fascinated with the properties of these little-known compounds and later with some associates, I began a research project that brought about the discovery of a whole new continent of chemistry and it was this that eventually led to the Nobel Prize."

So the idea of this little book was that science and inquiry and work and constancy would lead to success. And what about the textbook inspired his spectacular research? Dr. Brown asked Sarah of how from the hundreds of chemistry books on the shelves of the University of Chicago bookstore she happened to choose this one, The Hydrides of Boron and Silicon. And again, the answer from his chemist wife was very simple. She replied, "At two dollars and six cents tax, it was simply the cheapest gift available."

What a love story! But there is much else in there. Dr. Brown’s anecdote teaches us that great ideas are all around us and that the real power they possess is just waiting for the right person to come along and set it free.

Walt Disney, who may have influenced more Americans than all the political leaders and authors of the twentieth century, said that the future is not the result of choices among alternative paths offered in the present. It is a place that is created – created first in the mind and the will and then realized through action.

You men and women who will be receiving your very brand new degrees in just a few minutes, are at the vanguard of leadership for the century that is beginning now. You will not simply choose from a finite number of options, you have open to you possibilities that are limited only by your own imagination and ambition.

Not every generation has been so fortunate. College graduates during most of the twentieth century and young people throughout history have been faced with the overriding stresses of economic crisis or even war. These were the challenges that could not wait and they had profound effects on the individual futures of millions of young people.

But here in the year 2000, we have one of those rare moments when our nation and most of the world enjoy peace, prosperity and relative political stability. The world in which you live and work is far from perfect, but it offers rare opportunities and you are uncommonly well prepared to make the most of them.

Your generation has the chance to help art and literature flourish, to find ways to extend the benefits of prosperity to more people while conserving our environment, to breach the walls of race, religion, culture, and nationalism that have kept us from understanding and cherishing the precious uniqueness of every person of every color and creed on this globe.

You can improve food production and distribution, find even more continents of chemistry, biology and the other sciences. You can improve the medical care of all of humanity and our fellow creatures on this earth and you can reach out to new worlds like Mars. Will some of you walk on Mars? I would be surprised and terrifically disappointed if you didn’t. It all depends on ideas that you make real.

Now, I am not expecting every one of you to come up with world changing ideas; only a few of those come along every generation. But it is entirely possible that one of you will indeed originate a revolutionary new concept.

But the important thing is how you react to the vital ideas that happen to come into your path. How will these ideas change you and what will you do to improve upon them? The Purdue experience was designed to put you in the company of a wide variety of ideas of all kinds on many topics. You have had the opportunity to read about them, to discuss them with your fellow students and your professors, to challenge them and to be challenged.

If you engage ideas enthusiastically throughout your lives, if you allow them to excite you as Professor Brown became excited by reading about a little known chemical process in an obscure textbook, then wonderful things can happen. I had a grandmother who lived to be 103 and every Saturday no matter where we were in the world, we would talk on the telephone and the first thing she would ask me is, "Have you come across any new ideas or exciting people this week?" Can you imagine – for years this went on, and I have never forgotten. And now my sons and I have those conversations.

You can have a life that is full of adventure, achievement, and satisfaction. Some of you will change the world profoundly, but each of you can and should expect to enjoy the delight and wonder that comes from making the most of your own talents and from pursuing new knowledge throughout your lives. Most of you will return to your professional careers in the days ahead, but all of you have begun a personal career of self-fulfillment and constant inquiry.

In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "You commit a sin of omission if you do not utilize all the power that is within you." So on behalf of our trustees, the administration, and our faculty, I congratulate you and wish you the best of thinking in the years ahead.