University News

2014 Spring Commencement Address
President Jack Thomas - May 10, 2014 (Macomb, Illinois) - May 11, 2014 (Moline, Illinois)

Graduates of Purple and Gold: Great Thinkers, Game Changers, and Generous People

One of the hottest songs in America, right now, is the song "Happy" which is written and performed by Pharrell Williams. Recently, video surfaced of civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis doing his "happy dance" to the song, "Happy." Graduates, in light of all that you have achieved, I would encourage you to do your own "Happy Dance" after this commencement ceremony. Indeed, you should be happy because this is a blissful occasion as you graduate from this fine University.

The colors of Western Illinois University date back to the opening year of the Western Illinois Normal School in 1902. It was a first-year student, Mary Jarvis, who was inspired by the "vast golden prairie...with purple coneflowers" on the campus who suggested the color combination in a contest. Jarvis' purple and gold ribbons which she displayed for the contest are on her framed 1906 diploma, and these ribbons can be seen in the Malpass Library University Archives. Purple and gold are beautiful colors that are complimentary of one another.

It has been noted that purple is the color of good judgment. It is the color of people seeking spiritual fulfillment. It is said if you surround yourself with purple, you will have peace of mind. Purple is the color of royalty. Rome, Egypt, and Persia all used purple as the imperial standard. Purple dyes were rare and expensive. Only the rich had access to these colors. Therefore, wearing purple colored clothing was a symbol of wealth and power. Graduates, can't you feel that purple wealth and power.

Today, in honor of the 2014 graduating class, I would like to add to the descriptive lore of our school's colors, purple and gold. Purple represents passion. What this means is that Western Illinois University graduates do not passively sit by on the sidelines of life. You should involve yourselves in worthy causes for the good and the betterment of society because of your purple passion. Remember, We Are Western! We want every graduate of Western Illinois University to find a cause in which you are passionate. Purple represents your passion. I want passion to become a moniker of our University and its graduates. I want passion to become synonymous with Western Illinois University graduates. I want passion to become one of the signatures of our great University. When employers hire a graduate from Western Illinois University, I want the employers to think of passion. I want people to think of Western Illinois University and think passion. Our other school color, "Gold" has also been associated with higher ideas, wisdom, understanding and enlightenment. The color gold is the color of success, achievement, and triumph. Gold also represents generosity and giving. Gold represents the benefactor or patron, sharing their wisdom, knowledge and wealth with others. The color "gold" also represents winners. First place medals are almost always gold. Typically, silver is second place. Just as I want purple to represent passion when it comes to Western. I want gold to represent "grit" in Western Illinois University's lexicon. It has become a new buzz phrase in higher education: "Got Grit?" Around the nation, schools are beginning to see grit as key to students' success. Grit means determination, tenacity, fortitude, resilience, persistence, perseverance, and courage. We from the farm call it "that stick to it ness" meaning that graduates from Western Illinois University do not quit when it gets a little tough. Graduates from Western Illinois University do not fold when we face a little adversity. Graduates from Western Illinois University do not give in when others say we should give up. Graduates of Western Illinois University do not do these things because we have grit---gold grit. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will." I want our University and its graduates to be known for their purple passion and gold grit. When I think of purple passion and gold grit, I think of Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila who was added to his country's Olympic team for the 1960 Summer games in Rome at the last moment. He was a fill-in for a teammate who had broken his ankle in a soccer match. Unfortunately, Adidas had so few shoes left when Bikila arrived that he couldn't use them, so he decided to run barefoot (which was how he'd trained for the race). Bikila set an Olympic record with a time of 2:15:16.2 (2 hours, 15 minutes, and 16.2 seconds), becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win a gold medal (a feat he would accomplish again in Tokyo in 1964). After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, "I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination..." This story is one of passion and grit. Passion is finding that thing, that activity, that fuels you. Grit allows you to work really hard and maintain interest and self-control to become better at these activities over a long period of time. The combination of passion and grit will help you become a success and maintain success. This has been confirmed as Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania received a MacArthur "Genius Grant" to study grit. Before becoming a professor and after leaving a high-paying job in consulting, Dr. Duckworth took a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ was not the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. She found that "grit" and a solid work ethic were good predictors of success. I want the graduates of Western Illinois University to be known for their passion and grit----and yes also their intellect. Now that you have been equipped with purple passion and gold grit, I want our graduates to be known as great thinkers, game changers, and generous individuals.

Great Thinkers

Great thinkers have great minds. Great thinkers contemplate how they can make society better. Do not be afraid to be a great thinker. Shakespeare once said, "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Be a great thinking philosopher such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, or Confucius. Be a great thinker and statesman like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Benjamin Franklin. Be a great thinker and writer such as Mark Twain, George Orwell, James Baldwin, and Alice Walker. Be a great thinker and scholar such as Norm Chomsky, Howard Zinn, bell hooks, and W.E.B. DuBois. Whether you have been great, achieve greatness, or will have it thrust upon you, great thinkers are not afraid of the possibilities. Some ask why? Great thinkers ask the questions why not and how can we get it done? You are prepared for greatness because you are a great thinker and you are a graduate of Western Illinois University.

Game Changers

Great thinkers who dare not be afraid of possibilities become game changers. Game changers are those who leave an indelible mark on society through great accomplishments. Game changers look at uncharted paths and say this is the path I will take. Game changers look to shift old and outdated paradigms by creating innovative and new ways and methods of being.

In 1967, 19-year-old Syracuse University journalism major Katherine Switzer was two miles into the Boston Marathon when a race official, Jock Semple, discovered that a woman had entered the race. Semple, in an effort to remove Switzer, attacked her shouting, "Get (sic) out of my race and give me those numbers." Switzer's boyfriend, an All-American football player and hammer thrower from Syracuse, flattened Semple and her coach yelled, "Run (sic)." Switzer finished her first Boston Marathon in 4 hours, 20 minutes. She ran the race seven more times, from 1970 through 1976. She did it in an effort to facilitate the official acceptance of women's participation in the Boston Marathon which finally happened in 1972, the same year that Title IX became law.

Over the next decade, Switzer's time improved to 2 hours, 51 minutes and made good on the promise she made to herself in 1967--to create running opportunities for women. Switzer plans to run the race again in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the year Semple tried to push her out of the marathon. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or an animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds that we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."

When I think of game changers, it reminds me of the analogy of the comparison between thermostat and thermometer. A thermometer is influenced by the atmosphere in which it is located. If the atmosphere is hot, then the thermometer is hot. If the atmosphere is cold, then the thermometer is cold. However, a thermostat makes the atmosphere around it adjust. If you move the thermostat to a cold temperature, then the atmosphere becomes cooler. If you turn the thermostat to a hot temperature, then the atmosphere becomes warmer. I want Western Illinois University graduates to be thermostats by looking for innovative and new ways of doing things to shift old and outdated paradigms in every field of endeavor. Create opportunities for yourselves but also create opportunities for others. Be game changers and change the game.

Generous Individuals

As you become graduates of this fine institution, we want you to give back to your community and to your university. Be generous with your time and resources. Give back to society. Volunteer for worthy causes. Share the knowledge, skills, and abilities that you have gained from Western Illinois University to make the world a better place. Be generous and believe in humanity and show respect for all people. Gandhi once said, "You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty." Jane Addams, once said, "Civilization is a method of living, an attitude of equal respect for all men." Help all of humanity. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that you cannot sincerely try to help another without helping yourself." When you give to others, you not only help them, but you help yourself. Be generous with your resources when it comes to your alma mater, Western Illinois University.

Because of the support from our many alumni and friends, Western Illinois University continues to receive national accolades from U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, Forbes Magazine, and GI Jobs Magazine. Previous graduates' contributions of their expertise, wisdom, time, and resources have made it possible for Western Illinois University to be recognized and showcase our achievements as a University that provides scholarships to some of the brightest high school students in the state of Illinois.

Finally graduates, do your "happy dance" and remain passionate and gritty. Here is a story that you may not know about the song, "Happy." Pharrell told National Public Radio (NPR) that he created "seven to nine different full songs trying to get that scene right" before coming up with "Happy." Pharrell explained: "With 'Happy' I went through everything that I thought was possible in my mind based on what I understood about Gru (the super villain in Despicable Me) and what I thought the people in the studio would accept. They are asking for something where Gru is in a good mood. None of it was working and the studio kept rejecting his submissions. He notes that he was out of ideas and had to ask himself the fundamental question: What does a good mood feel like? And he wrote the song, "Happy." Pharrell stated, "It would have never happened if the studio would not have kept telling me, "No, it is not good enough." To the graduating class of 2014 of Western Illinois University, when individuals doubt you and tell you it is not good enough, make it happen through your purple passion and gold grit – for you are the standard for excellence, a graduate of Western Illinois University.