Life is like the Brooklyn Bridge: David McCullough at the University of Utah

June 1, 2009

Because there have been public libraries everywhere for so long, free to all, does not mean they will therefore go on without our appreciation and support. There are, it may surprise you to know, more public libraries in America than there are McDonalds. But their infinite value should never be underestimated just because they are so familiar.

Nor does the fact that we have so long believed in education for all mean that quality public education will quite naturally continue without our constant attention, or that good teachers will just come along, because they always have. There is no more important work than that of our teachers, or more important people in our society. In Utah alone there are presently some 23,000 teachers, true builders.

Because we believe we must be, as John Adams insisted, a government of laws and not of men, does not mean we should ever take it for granted that everyone understands that bedrock premise and will thus make certain there’s no straying off in less acceptable directions.

David McCullough, author of great histories like Mornings on Horseback and 1776, delivered the key commencement address to graduates of the University of Utah this spring.

His comments from which the excerpt above was taken, ripped off completely from news center at Utah, below.

Historian David McCullough, photo by William B. McCullough

Historian David McCullough, photo by William B. McCullough

“President Young, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, fellow honorees, friends of the University, proud parents, and you who graduate today, May 8, 2009.

I deeply appreciate the high tribute of an honorary degree and the singular privilege of addressing this spectacular gathering. What an important, joyous occasion it is with so many assembled of all ages, all walks of life, from all parts of the country and of the world, all here to celebrate hard-earned, worthy accomplishment in so many fields of learning. I thank you and congratulate you one and all.

* * *

In the long ago year of 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, just to the north from here at Promontory, Utah, the world became appreciably smaller — in theory. It was the theory that led the celebrated French author, Jules Verne, to postulate that as of 1869 one could go “Around the World in 80 Days.”

The population of the United States stood at what seemed an unimaginable high of 39,000,000. Salt Lake City, which 25 years before was not to be found on any map, had grown to a thriving community of 12,000.

And that same year, 1869, at New York, the eastern-most terminus of the transcontinental railroad, work began on what was to be the greatest bridge in America, indeed one of the most famous American achievements in history.

If it seems odd that I begin my remarks at that distant time and distant place, it is because I see the Brooklyn Bridge as emblematic of the call I wish to make to you of the graduating Class of 2009 to give serious thought to what you wish to accomplish in your turn in your time, and how you wish to be remembered by history.

And because the Brooklyn Bridge, a surpassing symbol of affirmation, rose up out of an era as infamous for wretched corruption and absurd extravagance as, alas, our own has become.

The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain called it, seemed the ultimate show of just how rotten things could get, the very antithesis of what the founding generation of Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson had in mind.

And yet — and yet — out of that time, let us be aware, came a truly noble work that still stands today more than a century later.

It was the moon shot of its time — a brilliant, unprecedented technical achievement — and more, a great work of art intended, yes, to fill a utilitarian need, but also to enhance and enlarge the way of life of the communities it served, and to give justifiable pride to those who did the work.

For millions of immigrants arriving at New York by sea, including a great many who were bound for Utah, it was the first man-made wonder they beheld in America, the New World, where anything was possible.

With its enormous towers of granite, then the tallest structures on the continent, and its use of steel cables, the Brooklyn Bridge combined the architecture of past and future. It was the start of the high rise city in America, but also in its way very like the ancient cathedrals of Europe, in that, rising above all else within sight, it was intended, as said, to stand as a testament to the aspirations of the civilization that built it.

So what will we build in the years ahead? What will you build, you of the new generation upon whom so many high hopes are riding?

How will history regard you in years to come – you who are part of this over-ripe, shadowed, uncertain time which has understandably given rise to so many grave forebodings about the future?

Will you help navigate the troubled waters? Will you rise above avarice and indifference and self-pity? Will you be a generation of builders, not more mere spectators who leave creativity and performance and responsibility to others?

Will you take what you have learned here as inspiration to still greater learning?

Will you make your lives count?

The easy answer is time will tell. The better answer, I think, is it’s up to you.

We are a diverse lot, we Americans, and we have a lot of work to do, and thus it has been from the beginning and therein is our great advantage.

There is wondrous strength in our variety and a clear, powerful sense of direction in the fact that the American ideal in which we believe has still to be reached.

We have always been a people of many peoples and the high ideals professed by the Founders, though never fully attainable, have remained our stars to steer by. We strive on to reach those ideals — full equality, as one glowing example — and the desire to strive, the combined faith in what we stand for as a self-governing people, is what has helped us in the right course most, if not all, of the time.

Had the American dream been handed to us all in tidy order, all done up with everything set to operate perfectly in perpetuity, we would hardly be the people we are.

And this same, very American story is mirrored in the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. The great work was conceived in the mind of the brilliant engineer John A. Roebling, its Founding Father. But numerous flaws and problems in his design had still to be resolved when he met an untimely death at the very start of the work. Thus it was left to his son to address those problems and build the great work of his father’s dream, just as it was left to still others in succeeding generations to solve still further problems unforeseen at the start — the advent of automobile traffic, for example — and maintain proper upkeep and repairs.

So it has been with our American way of life and so it will continue. There must be no deferred maintenance, no dispensing with the old verities of individual conduct, no dodging responsibilities, no leaving national policy entirely to those in power — not that is if the structure is to endure.

Just because certain basic, familiar elements have been part of our way of life for so long does not mean they can be taken for granted. They must never be taken for granted.

Because there have been public libraries everywhere for so long, free to all, does not mean they will therefore go on without our appreciation and support. There are, it may surprise you to know, more public libraries in America than there are McDonalds. But their infinite value should never be underestimated just because they are so familiar.

Nor does the fact that we have so long believed in education for all mean that quality public education will quite naturally continue without our constant attention, or that good teachers will just come along, because they always have. There is no more important work than that of our teachers, or more important people in our society. In Utah alone there are presently some 23,000 teachers, true builders.

Because we believe we must be, as John Adams insisted, a government of laws and not of men, does not mean we should ever take it for granted that everyone understands that bedrock premise and will thus make certain there’s no straying off in less acceptable directions.

Remember please, you who are to carry the torch in your turn, that indifference to the plain duties of citizenship can prove perilous. Remember that common sense is by no means common.

Harry Truman, a man of very great common sense, whose birthday is today, once observed wisely that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.

Many of the new American citizens I have spoken to have expressed puzzlement that so many native-born Americans know so little of their own history. How interesting — and disconcerting — that the American history exam required for citizenship now is one many Americans born and raised here could not pass.

How appropriate that John A. Roebling, an immigrant, named his son Washington, and at the onset of the Civil War insisted that that son answer Lincoln’s call to serve.

In the fourteen years it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge, there were terrible setbacks — fires in the caissons below the river, failure of equipment, the discovery of gross political corruption — again as in the larger American story. Men suffered dreadfully from caisson disease, or the bends. Twenty or more were killed in accidents.

Washington Roebling, a gifted leader who never asked anyone to do what he himself would not do, suffered such agonies from the bends that he spent years directing operations from the window of his sickroom overlooking the work, while his courageous wife, Emily Warren Roebling, became his all-important second-in-command in a day when women were not supposed ever to assume such responsibility.

Such was the determination and character of so many who took part that the work went heroically forward. Thousands were involved in the effort before it was finished, including many hundreds of immigrant laborers, and yes, every race and nationality took part.

President Young has said that this university was built upon “the principles of hard work, dedication, and a stubborn will to succeed,” no matter the obstacles. That, too, is exactly the story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The grand opening, and the greatest public celebration ever seen in New York until then, took place just this time of year, in May, 1883.

* * *

I am here today due in part to a set of circumstances that led to a friendship with the remarkable Larry Miller. Larry was a builder who loved his family, his church, his hometown, his work, and his country. He believed fervently in the transforming miracle of education, and in the last years of his life took a leading role in helping to improve the teaching of teachers. I thank my lucky stars that our paths crossed and we had the chance to work together. It is one of my great regrets that I never had the chance to take him on a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. He loved history.

History can be a great source of inspiration. History, as a wise teacher said, is an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas.

History encourages sympathies and a sense of humor and serves as a ready antidote to the hubris of the present.

So read more history, you who are about to commence to the next part of the journey. Read all you can in all fields. Never stop reading and especially books that have stood the test of time.

And make it your practice to ask people about themselves and what they’ve learned from experience. Don’t ever forget that there isn’t a man or woman, no matter their appearance or station in life, who doesn’t know something, or how to do something, that you don’t.

Try not to make the mistake of equating ease or possessions with happiness. Find that in your work if possible. Bear in mind that hard work and joy are not mutually exclusive.

By all means set your sights high.

I believe that as difficult and unsettling as so many of our large problems are today, that we will, by working together and using our heads, succeed in resolving most if not all of them. I have long been and remain an optimist at heart.

Still, a great civilization must have more in mind than solving problems. A great civilization must be one that thinks and works creatively, that is inspired to express itself in creative accomplishment of enduring value.

“The shapes arise!” wrote Brooklyn’s own immortal poet Walt Whitman, celebrating the era of the Brooklyn Bridge. What will be the shapes you cause to rise?

Whatever you build — figuratively or literally — build it to last.

By almost any measure ours is a vastly changed time from that of 1869. The record setting trip around the world made by jet plane a few years ago was not 80 days but 67 hours, 1 minute, and 10 seconds. But the old human urge, the need to express the best that is in us goes on as always it has, thank heaven.

In closing I urge each and all of you to make it a point some time to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. You will never forget it. Go with a friend, a fellow spirit, and on a beautiful day like this one. The view is spectacular, the breezes blow free, the bridge itself is a masterpiece.

And wherever you go in your travels to come, and I’m sure you will go far, before checking out of a hotel or motel, be sure to tip the maid.”


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