Commencement Address by Governor Peter Shumlin

To the class of 2013, to the moms and dads and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and significant others that helped get them here, as one who’s paying two college tuitions I know how relieved you feel today. To the extraordinary faculty and staff, and a special tribute to Jerry Levy and Paul Nelsen, my friends, for their extraordinary contributions to Marlboro. To the best college president that anyone could ever ask for—congratulations. To the board of trustees, that does such an extraordinary job of supporting this extraordinary little school.

I’m honored to be here with the 59 graduates, all of whom have accomplished amazing and creative things while here at Marlboro. You’re a group of students who have rejected traditional ways of knowing things—creative, entrepreneurial, motivated, curious. You’ve passed oral exams and in-depth study Plans in multiple areas, and you’re a group of critical thinkers who have said “yes” to a way of learning that only Marlboro offers. That’s why I’m so honored to be your graduation speaker. To be graduating from Marlboro, you’ve already demonstrated the attributes that will contribute and be so important for your future, and for ours.

There’s no way around giving a graduation speech without the essential message of: the future is yours, make the most of it. No matter what one does, phrases like “seize the opportunity,” “live with purpose,” and “make a difference” unavoidably creep into graduation speeches. Frankly, they should. You straddle a transition in life right now, and the choices you make from here on out will affect not only you and the course of your life, but your community and our world. This is a moment to be reminded of that responsibility—even as you are celebrating for the hard work and your achievement so far.

What might be most helpful, in my opinion, is to help you to recognize the biggies, the individuals and moments in your life that—if you just say “yes” to them—will make all the difference. Just like you said “yes” to the sort of education at Marlboro, which Marlboro has now given you. It’s a small and extraordinary college, and it has offered you big things because it has clung to its smallness. In deliberate defiance of our national obsession, where growth so often trumps quality, Marlboro harnesses smallness.

Henry Z. Persons, whose name blesses this hall where you graduate today, had a quirky phrase that I’ll always remember. The phrase defined him, and in fact it defines Marlboro. He used to often say, “Blessed be small.” Henry Z. Persons was the president of a little bank, First Vermont Bank, and you couldn’t start anything entrepreneurial here in Windham County without his blessing. He believed in “blessed be small” to the point where when you walked into First Vermont Bank, on Main Street in Brattleboro, he was the first person sitting there at the desk to greet you. Imagine bankers doing that today. And he made great things happen as the result of his belief in small people doing great things.

That phrase comes to mind today as I look out on the class of 2013, and think of your wisdom to see the benefits of the smallness of this place and say “yes” to it. After you leave here, you’re going to hit a lot of “nos” in your life. You’ll be tempted at times to even say “no,” often because it’s easier, sometimes because you don’t recognize the consequences, sometimes because things stand in your way and tell you that no is the right answer. I’m here to remind you that you will get more out of your life, and give more to the rest of us, through your “yesses” than you will through your “nos.”

I want to share a few stories from my life, as I remember them—which means that they might not necessarily be accurate—in the hope that they might help you see some of your opportunities to say “yes.” As Ellen McCulloch-Lovell just mentioned, I learn differently. I am dyslexic. I had a terrible time learning how to read. I’ll never forget getting called into the principal’s office in the early 60s, in this great state—that’s before we had special education, before we had individualized plans—and my parents were sitting with the principal. I couldn’t imagine what I had done wrong, that day. I looked at the principal. He looked at me. He looked at my parents. He then pretended that I wasn’t there. And he said, “We can’t seem to teach this kid how to read. We don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s not going to go to college. He’s not going to have a professional career but we’ll do the best we can.” And they sent me back to class—That’s how we did it here in the 60s.

I had one teacher, who became teacher of the year. Her name was Claire Ogelsby, many of you, including Lisa Merton who’s sitting here, knew her well. And she saw something in me that other people didn’t see. She asked me if I would like to go home with her after school, because she wanted to teach me how to read. Now, the easiest path would have been to say “no.” But I said “yes.” I loaded in her Willys Jeep at the end of school, and we drove up Windmill Hill, in Westminster West, to her small log cabin, where she lived with her teacher husband, Mac—I just want to remind the class of 2013 that although I’m old and wrinkled and getting gray, not everybody lived in log cabins then. In the warm weather we’d sit on the lawn, in the cold weather we’d sit around the stove, and she slowly and methodically taught me how to read. All I can say is, that was one single teacher seeing something in one single kid.

You know, I got elected governor with the biggest class of new governors in the history of America, 2010. It was the same election that elected Tea Party congress-people and I’m one of the few new democrats that got elected in 2010. And all I can tell you is that it really helps, as a governor, to be able to read. As I listened to my fellow Tea Party governors, and got to know them and hear their ideas on labor, economic development, tax policy, women’s rights, reproductive rights, climate change and others…one might think that they can’t read, but they can. All I can say is the power of that single teacher, Claire Ogelsby, saying “yes” to one single student—blessed by that blessedly small log cabin—made a difference.

Ellen also mentioned my involvement in Landmark College. I never intended to run for elected office. When I came back to Windham County from college, I came back to build a business, and make a difference for kids by sending them all over the world to build schools and houses in places that needed help. The founder of Marlboro College, a remarkable man named Walter Hendricks, founded a number of colleges. Marlboro is the one that lasted. Another one of them was Windham College, and it’s an interesting story. Windham started up in the 60s when, if you didn’t want to go to Vietnam, you went you college. And it started in downtown Putney. They quickly outgrew the buildings in downtown Putney, and they decided to build a new college.

President Johnson at that time was handing out U.S. Department of Education money, because Johnson saw something that the rest of American politicians often don’t, which is that there’s no better jobs policy than education. And he was doling out the loot. Now Windham needed a campus. So—as we do it in Vermont, the grounds people and other staff do almost everything in colleges—they put together some plans and sent them down to the Department of Education on a tight timeline. The Department of Education wondered why there were no stairways to get from the first to the second floor, why the plans didn’t make much sense, so they sent them back with a reject.

That got them down to just a few days, and some wise board member, like you have sitting here in the front row, said “I know a guy named Edward Durell Stone. He designed the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in D.C. I’ll bet he’d be able to help.” So they called him. And he said, “Yeah, I’ve got a design I did for a campus out in Arizona.” And he sent it up, they submitted it, and it was approved. And that’s why we have a campus in Vermont with flat roofs that leak in the winter.

So, when Windham went bankrupt, it leaked and it leaked and it leaked, and it was a mess. And the Department of Education sold the land in between the buildings to a junk bond dealer in New York. The federal government decided one day, “Well, we know what we’ll do, we’ll start a federal penitentiary there—a maximum security prison.” And a bunch of us didn’t think that was such a great idea. So we called up Saint Patrick Leahy, who still protecting us, and he got the Bureau of Prisons to agree that if the town had a town meeting style vote—which they had never heard of in Washington D.C., of course—and the town voted against it, they wouldn’t come. But they were so sure they would vote yes. So the select board got knocking on doors and got around and we defeated it in a vote, 95 percent. We said “no” to the federal prison.

Don’t clap yet, because that was the easy part. That’s my point. It’s easy to say “no” in life. So a bunch of people said, “You know Peter, you better run for the select board, because if you don’t, those same guys are going to come back with the prison. And this time they’re going to be smart enough to not adhere to the town meeting vote. You know how democracy works.” So I ran and I won. And I made a promise, to the people who elected me, that I would try my best to bring an educational institution to that leaking, rotting campus.

Now, this was before the internet—again, log cabins, no internet—so I was reading the Boston Globe one day, and there was a little article in the back that said Landmark School, in Beverly, Massachusetts, specializes in dyslexic education—which kind of interested me—and they wanted to start a college. So we went down, and after a long, and complicated, and really tough process—it was hard work—Landmark College came to be. It’s the first college in the nation solely dedicated to educating people like me. So we did it. It was harder to say “yes” than it was to say “no.” But think of all the dyslexic kids, all the kids with learning differences, who sat somewhere many, many times in their lives and were told they were never going to college, they were never going to have a career, and there they are getting degrees at Landmark.

Ellen also mentioned marriage equality. Shortly thereafter I got appointed by Governor Kunin to the legislature —I had no intention of going there either—something happened that right now is touching the rest of America. We decided, because Vermont is the best place on Earth to live, that we wanted equality for everybody, not just some of the people. I know there are some parts of the world where that’s still hard to achieve. But we’re Vermonters, and we care. We reach out and we trust. So, over the course of time, we passed the first law, which I was proud to help sponsor, that granted marriage rights, we called it civil union, to people who wanted to declare their love for each other for the rest of their lives.

That was a tough thing to do. Other people for a long time had been saying no. In fact they wouldn’t even say no—they wouldn’t engage in a conversation. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Really?” I was on the transportation committee then and thought, “If you’re loading lots of people onto a bridge to get them across, and half of them fall in the river, what the hell do you want to let more people onto it for?” And it wasn’t I until I heard the stories, I heard about the moms and the moms and the dads and the dads, dropping their kids off at school with my kids, that I thought, “Yeah, of course they want the same rights as everybody else.”

We did it in Vermont. Then 10 years later I was proud to sponsor the first marriage equality bill in the nation that passed not because of a supermajority, not because of a blocked vote, but because Vermonters just thought it was the right thing to do in our small way, where we say “yes,” instead of “no.” And now look, last week it was Minnesota, the week before it was Rhode Island, a short time before that it was Maryland, New York, New Hampshire. We’re going to pass it in every single state in America because it’s the right thing to do and it started right here, small, by saying “yes” not “no.”

So now we’ve more “yesses” to do, and I know we do. Right now I’m caught up in another big one—and the rest of the nation will come along when we get it right—we’re trying to pass the first sensible single-payer health care system in America. And we’ll do it with the same dogged determination that I had going to that log cabin to learn how to read. We’ll succeed, and health care will be a right and not a privilege like it is in the rest of the developed world.

So enough about me. What kind of opportunities are you going to have to say “yes” to in your lives, and how are you going to recognize them? It requires faith in a better future, even when the future seems undeniably bleak. Last week, for those of you who wanted a downer before your graduation, you could have read the New York Times story on climate change. It should remind us of our responsibility to make the planning of the future of this beautiful planet part of our “yesses” and not so much part of our “nos.” They reported, for the first time ever, our CO2 levels in the atmosphere are 400 parts per million. Just another number, I suppose, but it happens to be the first time in over three million years that we’ve had that much CO2 in our environment.

When we landed back here in a chopper a couple years ago, the little town of Marlboro had people living in total isolation and despair because 12 inches of rain got dumped on this little community in ways that we’ve never seen before. Whether it’s Irene, or—for those of you from down country—Sandy, or any of the other climate-induced catastrophes, they’re just a little warning—a little teeny window into the future for the class of 2013’s children and grandchildren. We know that change is not happening fast enough, and we’ve got to speed it up. But you all have the courage and the vision to define for us a carbon-free future, with the imagination and the power to say “yes” that Marlboro has instilled in you.

You’re probably sitting there and saying that’s easy for us to say, and we left you one heck of a mess—and we have. But I want to close with two quick stories that remind me of your opportunities. A good friend of mine who lives just over the hill here in Dummerston—a guy named Will Ackerman—like many of you, or at least some of you, he had no idea what he was going to do after college. So he got in his Ford truck and he headed to Los Angeles and he started playing music. And he played from the back of the truck, and he had a little can there, and he got what he could. Some radio station heard him, and they liked him. They started putting him on. Anyway, to make a long story short, he became known as Windham Hill Music. Paul Nelson’s son’s worked for him for years. Anyway, he was successful, and it was beautiful music. They beamed it all over the world.

I was having dinner with him, maybe 15 years ago, and over a glass of wine he said, “I’m selling my business.” I said, “Why, Will. You’re young, and you love it and it loves you. It defines you.” He said, “Well, I was over in Japan recently, talking to the engineers at Sony. They say that they now have the capacity”—of course, don’t forget, going back to the log cabin, we were listening to CDs at that time. And we thought that was high tech, alright? We’d moved from the cassette player to the CDs. And we were paying big money for the CDs. He said, “They’ve got the technology now to download music onto a little chip. And you can hear it on a little thing in your pocket that communicates everything you do, including music, and it’s going to be free.” And I couldn’t imagine it. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine it, but he could. He sold the company while the going was good. The only reason I’m telling you that story is when it comes to fighting climate change, your opportunity is to find the chip.

When you’re a governor, at least for me maybe because I’m a dyslexic governor, I never know where I’m going until 11:30 the night before. And my extraordinary staff, three or four people, works on this all day long. They shoot me a little email, and it comes up on my iPhone and I look and I see where I’m going. So a couple of weeks ago I got one of those, and I look at it, and I yell at the iPhone because I’m tired. I have to get up early and stay up late. The iPhone understands me and I understand it. So I look and it says: last stop, a dinner just outside Manchester, New Hampshire, at somebody’s house that I’ve never heard of. And I said, “Really?” You know, I get up at 5:00, go to bet at 11:30, and I’ve got to go to New Hampshire for dinner with some guy I’ve never heard of? Why do I have to do that? And the iPhone didn’t say anything back to me. So I got mad at it. I said you know I’m the only Democratic governor in America who’s not running for President, why do I have to go to New Hampshire?

So we pull into the driveway. I shouldn’t say driveway because we don’t build driveways like this in Vermont, but the gate’s open, we drive up the hill, and we get up on top and there’s a big house, a big energy-sucking house like people have when they make too much money. And it was a hexagon. It was build of Vermont stone and Vermont lumber, even though it was in New Hampshire. He has good taste—the guy’s name was Dean Kamen. So I go to the front door and the place is filled with corporate-looking people and my good friend Governor Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire—a great governor.

So I still don’t know why I’m there, but I ate the food and had a cocktail, Dean Kamen is a small, very enthusiastic guy, and he’s talking a mile a minute. He starts taking us around. He has 400 engineers in Manchester, New Hampshire, and he starts showing us the holiday gifts—every year they give him a gift. Some of them are pretty extraordinary. One of them was a beautiful cherry chest, and in it was a tiny light bulb. But the light bulb wasn’t attached to anything—it was just suspended in air. You could run your hand between the light bulb and whatever powered it, and it just stayed on. And it didn’t drop.

So I said to Dean Kamen, what do you do? How do you get here? What’s going on here? And he said, “I’m an inventor. I’ve got 1,800 patents.” I said, “What kinds of things?” He said, “Do you have any illness in your family?” I said, “Sure, my brother is a juvenile diabetic.” He said, “He’s on the pump?” I said, “Yeah, he’s on the pump.” He said, “I built that.” So he started telling me other things he’s built. And, you know, I was getting kind of interested. He ran his hand under the light bulb, and it didn’t drop; but he said if you make medical equipment, you don’t want the bulb to break because people die. He switched off the power, and the light bulb gets sucked into the socket and stays until the power goes on.

Then he took us into his basement, and in his basement was a box, about the size of a dehumidifier. And there were all these corporate guys from a company called NRG Systems there—not our little Vermont one, but the big guy—including the CEO. Dean starts showing us the box, which can be powered by anything: cow manure, wood chips, natural gas, whatever you’ve got. It can generate the amount of power to power this house that’s 15 or 16 times all the houses that we live in. And it provides the power, the heat, and all of the energy. Bill Gates had been in to look at it the night before. They think that they found a way to power the world.

And I turned to the CEO of NRG Systems, and I said, “What are you doing here? Ain’t this your nightmare?” He said, “Why do you think I’m here? I just signed exclusive to distribute these things.” They envision a world in the next decade like Will Ackerman had vision for free music. No more transmission lines. No more big generation. Your power is going to be bought at the hardware store in a box. And you can power it with whatever the heck you like, particularly if it doesn’t emit carbon. Maybe they’ll succeed and maybe they won’t.

But here’s the point: blessed be smallness—that little box. Dean Kamen said “yes.” I sat down next to him at dinner, and as I talked to him he had all of the qualities and ingredients of a dyslexic. So I said to him, “Do you learn differently?” He said “Yes, how do you know?” I said, “I can smell them, that’s why god gave me this nose.” He said, “I couldn’t get through college. I still have trouble reading. I reverse my “b”s and my “d”s so it takes me a long time to read.” But he just wants to make a difference.

There has never been a generation of graduates who had a bigger responsibility and opportunity to say “yes”—to “blessed be smallness” by thinking small while we do big things—because the future of the planet depends on it, and that’s a big one. Believe it or not that’s not a reality we lived with when we were graduating from college. So take the gift that Marlboro has given you. Bless it, it’s small. And do big things with it by saying “yes.”