Jimmy Carter's call to service

Though advised by his grandson that none of the graduates assembled at Franklin Field's Commencement ceremony would remember anything he said, former President Jimmy Carter delivered a powerhouse address that left them standing and applauding on the bright day before their futures began -- a day so bright many did, in fact, wear shades.

All assembled, Carter said, were "blessed by God." He asked, however, what kinds of priorities they would set for themselves, and recalled the 2,000-year-old question the Corinthians asked St. Paul about life's most important components. Paul answered there are things you cannot see. "Justice, peace, service, humility, forgiveness, compassion, and, if you'll excuse the expression, love," Carter recounted.

The former president railed against economic isolationism and encouraged graduates to lead by example.

Photograph by Candace diCarlo

Carter delivered a message that stressed a passionate commitment to service with numerous anecdotes and firsthand experience. More than a few came from his oldest grandson, Jason, who Carter recently visited at his Peace Corps outpost in South Africa.

Jason's advice to his grandfather was to be brief (Carter didn't dawdle), tell a joke (he told several), speak to the students (he spoke right at them) and remember that no one would remember a thing (who's to say?).

In his opening remarks, Carter hailed Penn, saying he was "very proud of this great university." He quickly cautioned the degree candidates against creating encapsulated environments, surrounding themselves with people like themselves.

To illustrate, Carter described his roots in the South, born into what he called "a time of great embarrassment, when racial discrimination was accepted. ... We bore a millstone of racial prejudice around our necks."

He told of ethnic and religious strife he has encountered around the globe, but concluded "the worst discrimination on Earth is rich people against poor people.

"It's not a deliberate discrimination, it's not filled with hatred and animosity," Carter said. "Everyone in this stadium is a rich person."

Breaking down that chasm is rare, Carter said, guessing that many did not have their children play with the children of their maids or "the guy who mows the lawn, or, God forbid, invite them to our house."

The work he does with the Carter Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public policy organization he founded in 1982, Carter said, continues to teach him of global responses to American isolationism.

He recently asked African leaders how much American universities mean to them, he said, and the answer was that the universities were "rarely relevant," because what they know is not shared, and they have little interest in Africa's problems.

Calling for the graduates truly to be world citizens, Carter offered advice for them to get more involved in global issues.

"We should continually stretch our minds, try new ideas, not put a limit on ourselves," Carter said. Transcendence, he said, is one of his favorite words, and he said he interpreted it to mean doing more than expected.

Even Carter's big joke reverberated his overarching call to service: A man dies proud of himself and St. Peter noted the man had achieved money, fame, had served his church, but asked what did he do for others? The man recalled giving sandwiches to a hobo during the depression worth about 50 cents, and a donation of an old table to a neighbor whose house had burned down. The table's worth? About 50 cents.

"And Peter said to give him his dollar back and tell him to go to hell," Carter said to the roaring crowd.

"The United States," he said, "should be the unquestioned champion of peace. And it's not how we're looked upon." Instead, he said, we are a great military power.

Photograph by Candace diCarlo

The reason he came to speak at Penn, he noted, was influenced by his impression of Trustees Chairman Roy Vagelos, whose decision to release, free of charge, medicine that stopped river blindness, alleviated suffering and ensured that more than 21 million people would never be blind.

"I want to thank Roy Vagelos for that," Carter said.

And, Carter said criticism of India's nuclear testing is unfair until the United States makes more motions toward peace. He pointed out the United States still has 8,000 nuclear warheads, still plants land mines and has not signed the nuclear test ban treaty itself.

"I wish our country could see our example is the greatest deterrent to death, destruction and war," Carter said.

The call to service began with introductory remarks by Penn President Judith Rodin, who called Carter a "public servant in the truest sense," and said he lives a life worth emulating.

Rodin encouraged students to embrace their ideals, to reflect and to look forward. "It's a rarefied day," she said. "An almost magical time." Joining 10 generations of Penn graduates, they should strive to make "meaningful and lasting contributions," Rodin said.

Originally published on May 28, 1998