Commencement Address to Rowan University
College of Communication & Creative Arts, and
College of Performing Arts
By Nicholas Paleologos
May 12, 2016
Thank-you very much President Houshmond, Dean Pastin, Dean Arnold, distinguished faculty and Trustees, friends & family of this outstanding Class of 2016. I first want to acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude we owe to Henry Rowan – who passed away in December. This son of Ridgewood shocked the world in 1992 by making the largest gift ever -- $100 million — not to MIT, where he got his Degree, but to a little known New Jersey public college that was founded in the same year he was born.
Mr. Rowan’s enduring legacy to the university that now bears his name, not only made today possible for you, but also stands as a perpetual challenge to us: never to forget the importance of public higher education to the future of our country.
Henry Rowan was part of what has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation.” One by one, these parents of Baby Boomers are passing away.
My dad was one of them. When I was a kid, I had no idea what life was like for him when he was a kid. Dad’s parents fled a civil war in Greece to make a new life in America — specifically, Lowell Massachusetts during the Great Depression. He grew up in a three story tenement with no hot water. On his first day of school, he didn’t speak a word of English.
Dad passed away a couple of years ago. And like so many of my fellow Baby Boomers who’ve lost their parents, I think about him a lot. About the country he left me. About the country I’m leaving to my three millennials.
Dad was nine years old when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Unemployment was at 25%. Two million Americans were flat-out homeless. And every bank in 32 of 48 states had slammed the doors shut on their depositors. Even so, in his first inaugural address, Roosevelt reassured us that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt didn’t waste any time. The country had work that needed to be done and there were millions of jobless citizens willing to do it. So the President started the Civilian Conservation Corps. My dad lied about his age to get into the CCC, and was immediately put to work at a state forest up in Vermont where he earned a dollar a day, most of which was sent back home to his mother – my immigrant grandmother.
Not surprisingly, when Roosevelt sounded the call to arms in December of 1941, my father was only too happy to return the favor by heading off to the Pacific to fight in WWII. When the war ended, dad stepped off his PT Boat - proud and penniless - with just his service dress blues and the brain in his head.
At that moment, Roosevelt could have given dad a pat on the back and sent him home to the hardscrabble streets of Lowell. But the president had something else in mind. College. Not just for dad’s benefit, but for America’s. And it didn’t matter to Roosevelt that dad couldn’t afford it. The president insisted that the country pay for dad’s college education.
Under the GI Bill, Arthur Paleologos – together with eight million of his fellow veterans -- went to colleges; vocational schools; or got low interest mortgages and loans to buy homes and start businesses. And all they did in return was create the Great American Middle Class.
Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. But I grew up in the America he built – a country that could send my dad to college, build an interstate highway system, put a man on the moon – and most important: a country where both dad’s income AND his boss’ increased at roughly the same pace -- because everybody paid their fair share of taxes; because the banks weren’t allowed to gamble away dad’s savings; and because the government raised mostly enough money to pay for the programs people wanted.
That country started disappearing when I was in my late twenties. I just didn’t know it at the time. A new president, Ronald Reagan – in his first inaugural address – took dead aim at Roosevelt’s America, “Government,” he famously declared, “is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.”
And for the next three decades, with precious little pushback, America did a complete 180: The higher your income, the lower your tax rate. The harder you work and the more you produce, the less you keep for yourself and your family. Corporations are your friends. The government is your enemy.
Until everything came crashing down - right around the time you started high school. For those of you who are fans of Frank Capra’s classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” imagine falling asleep in 1978 in Bedford Falls…and waking up thirty years later - in Pottersville!
Just like in that movie, the great American dream of the great American Middle Class was built on the solid foundation of home ownership. Until one day, the value of all those homes – literally trillions of dollars – was wiped out -- overnight.
Muslims didn’t do that. Mexicans didn’t do that. Wall Street did. But you already know that. How could you not? You’re graduating right smack in the middle of a huge national argument over the role of government -- which is a little strange when you think about it.
Because the Declaration of Independence – right up front -- tells us that the “role of government” is self-evident: namely, to secure your right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That last one – the Pursuit of Happiness - has been the subject of every presidential election since my father was 9 years old.
Believe it or not, every four years since 1932 the same two people have been on the ballot for president. They just had different names and different faces. But if you look very closely you’ll see that it has always been same choice between two very different visions of America: Roosevelt’s and Reagan’s.
Roosevelt believed that the best way for government to secure your right to the pursuit of happiness was to – as much as possible -- remove fear from your life. For Roosevelt, fear makes us less productive citizens; less likely to take risks; less entrepreneurial; less forward-looking. Roosevelt believed that a basic pre-requisite for the pursuit of happiness in America is freedom from fear.
In Reagan’s America fear is a motivator. Fear of losing your job, of getting sick, of being destitute in your old age – all that fear makes us work harder…makes us more productive. And - at the end of the day - if we still can’t afford the cost of staying healthy or of educating our kids, well that’s our fault—not our country’s.
For Roosevelt, fear is bad. Fear holds us back.
For Reagan, fear is good. Fear moves us forward.
For thirty years, my generation basically bought into the “fear is good” argument. But now, we see things a bit more clearly. Maybe it’s because we’ve lost our jobs, or our homes, or our pensions, or our ability to pay for our kids to go to college.
Maybe it’s because billions of dollars in profits aren’t showing up in our paychecks anymore. Instead they’re paying for 30-second commercials designed to con us into believing that money equals speech, that corporations are people, and craziest of all: that wealth should be taxed at a lower rate than work.
Speaking of fear – this year I guess we’re supposed to be afraid of immigrants. That really kills me. “God Bless America” -- for heaven’s sake -- was written by a Jewish immigrant who fled persecution in Russia in the 1890’s. His name was Israel Isidore Baline. You know him by his American name -- Irving Berlin.
Which brings me to the story of a young Hispanic couple who grew up in New York City in the nineties – the 1990’s. They first met at Hunter College High School. She was a sophomore, a math wiz, a great dancer, and very opinionated.
He was a senior, a theater nerd who performed in almost every school play, and always carried a boom box around with him. He noticed her in high school, but never quite got up the courage to talk to her.
After graduation, he went off to Wesleyan College and picked right up where he left off – writing, directing and acting in a bunch of college shows, ranging from musicals to Shakespeare. He also found time to start an improvisational comedy troupe. After getting his degree from Wesleyan, he went back to his old High School and worked as a 7th grade English teacher.
By that time, she had already graduated from high school and was well on her way to a bachelor’s degree at MIT – which eventually led to a pretty good job as a scientist at Johnson & Johnson in Skillman, New Jersey.
While she was at J&J, he moved into an apartment with some friends. His improv group was making a name for itself, plus he was writing lyrics on the subway and performing at bar mitzvahs to pay the rent.
Then, in the summer of 2005, while catching up with fellow Hunter graduates on Facebook, he came across her profile. He sent her an instant message inviting her to his next show. She showed up and was really impressed.
Still, he was so shy around her that he asked a friend to get her phone number. Then he called to invite her to another show. And yes, she showed up again. But this time, after the show, they discovered that Hunter College High School and their Hispanic heritage wasn’t all they had in common. There was also Grand Theft Auto, Jay-Z and Marc Anthony.
That night, he told her about how -- as a 7 year-old kid growing up in Washington Heights he saw his first Broadway show -- Les Miz -- and fell in love with the theater. He told her about how, on his 17th birthday, he saw Rent – which changed his entire view about how theater can speak to the real lives of people like themselves.
It wasn’t long before the couple became not only best friends, but also fixtures in each other’s lives. Then lightning struck. He scored the starring role in a Broadway show — a lifelong dream. She quit J&J to go to Fordham University to pursue a newfound passion of hers – the law.
In 2010, the couple had a storybook wedding. At their reception, he and his family surprised her with a heartfelt, flash mob rendition of “To Life” – the great production number from Fiddler on the Roof. And yes, this Jewish story of family and tradition, resonated deeply with these second generation Latinos. You can see for yourself on YouTube. Their wedding video went viral.
But I’m telling you their story for a different reason.
A few years before they got married, he decided to take some time off from his 8-performance-a-week Broadway schedule, to coincide with her semester break from law school. He was making decent money and decided to treat her to a vacation in Mexico.
At the airport terminal, he bought a book that happened to catch his eye, started reading it on the plane, and couldn’t put it down.
When she asked him to explain exactly what was it about this 700 page historical biography that so captivated his imagination, it literally took him a whole year to answer that question in his own words.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean
by providence, impoverished, in squalor,
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The 10-dollar founding father without a father
got a lot farther by working a lot harder,
by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter,
by fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered
and carted away across the waves,
he struggled and kept his guard up.
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of,
the brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter.
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned,
our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain,
put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain,
and he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.
Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid’s insane, man”
took up a collection just to send him to the mainland.
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came,
and the world’s gonna know your name.
What’s your name, man?”
Just last month, for writing those words – which became the opening rap of his theatrical masterpiece, HAMILTON -- Lin-Manuel Miranda won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Last week, HAMILTON earned 16 Tony Award nominations – the most ever.
It was the story of Hamilton the immigrant that touched Miranda’s heart.
He said, “I recognize people I know in Hamilton. Not only my father who came here at the age of 18 from Puerto Rico, but also the stories of so many other immigrants who have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”
For Miranda, Alexander Hamilton’s immigrant story opened the door to something much, much bigger – the story of the creation of our country.
“I had to make the Founding Fathers human for myself.” he said. “And I think what is touching a nerve -- is other people are finding the humanity within them as well. “
Hamilton is so much more than just the first Hip-Hop/Rap Musical on Broadway. It is a game-changing piece of theater.
Today that couple, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his wife Vanessa Nadal, have an eighteen-month-old son. Miranda is now 36, and the latest in a long line of first and second-generation American songwriters who have shaped the way we see ourselves -- a line that stretches all the way back to, Irving Berlin.
Miranda discovered one more important revelation in that Hamilton biography: “The ideological fights of the Founders” he said, “are the same fights we are having today. What is the role of government in our lives?”
I’m slightly ashamed to admit that my dad’s generation answered that question a lot better than my own. For some reason, we contracted an acute case of American Amnesia – where the lessons our parents learned in the aftermath of the Great Depression were first ignored, and then ultimately forgotten by us.
Now it’s your turn. You are graduating into a country where the fundamental assumptions my father lived by, simply don’t apply any more.
In dad’s America, Kodak - the great camera company - at its peak was valued at more than $30 billion and employed 145,000 people.
In your America, Instagram is also valued at more than $30 billion…but they only employ 13 people. You live in a country where less and less “work” is required to create more and more wealth.
In trying to figure out the appropriate relationship between work and wealth in the new America, you get to say what “the pursuit of happiness” means for your generation.
You have the opportunity to re-imagine your country as a place where people work – not just to make a living, but to make a life worth living. Getting to that place will require a whole lot of creative thinking.
Along the way, beware of folks trying to distract you with terrifying tales of Muslims under your mattress. And remember that while the names, and faces, and parties may change, your choice will always be the same.
Hope or fear?
And I don’t know about you, but I tend to do very stupid things when I’m scared to death.
Each one of you came to Rowan blessed with special gifts -- which you developed and sharpened here. You are artists. You look at things that everybody else looks at, and you see things that nobody else sees.
That unique ability -- to see truth and communicate it in ways that touch peoples’ souls – is what makes the artist the single, most important person in any successful and prosperous democracy.
America wants you to be the best artists you can be.
America needs you to be the best citizen-artists you can be.
I just want you to be...consequential.
Look around. Look around.
How lucky you are to be alive right now.
History is happening.
And History has its eyes on you.