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Commencement Exercises -- May 15, 2011ratzenberger address.jpg

John K. Ratzenberger

The best definition of the road to success that I've heard is from Winston Churchill. He said that "Success is a result of going from failure to failure with enthusiasm." He's also the man who said, "Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down." So go figure.

When I was a young man growing up in the bucolic seaside village of Bridgeport, Connecticut, (cheers/applause) … it's great to have you here. Much of my winter indoor time was spent reading books. Now books then were made of paper and didn't require batteries or a wall socket--the words were just right there like they were waiting for you. My first favorite author was James Fenimore Cooper, the writer of The Deer Slayer, Hawk Eye in The Last of the Mohicans.

The protagonist was Natty Bumppo. That's the part played by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans. Because of his woodland prowess and survival skills, the locals, Chingachgook especially, gave him the names of Deer Slayer and Hawk Eye. But the townsfolk knew him as Nathaniel Bumppo, Natty for short, and in retrospect, I suppose I fashion my life using him as a template.

What fascinated me most about that character is that he would set off into the deep green forest without any idea of a destination. He seemed more interested and excited about the journey in the wilderness than the actual getting there, wherever that was. No cell phone, no debit card, just gunpowder shot, and hardtack, enough to last until he could find something to eat. But he did have a moral compass. He knew the difference between right and wrong. He listened closely to the natives that had been in this great wilderness for centuries and learned from them the ways of survival. They in turn respected his willingness to listen and understand the meaning of a cracked twig or a forest gone suddenly silent. Every day was an education, and he was an eager and willing student.

So, after my four years at the university, with a degree in English, I set off with some tools and traveled New England trading the skills I had picked up working summers as a deck hand on an oyster boat and as a carpenter building houses in the southern Connecticut area. Well, I thought I was a carpenter until I walked up to a building site a few years before and asked the boss if he needed another house framer.

He looked down at this eighteen-year-old kid and said with a thick brogue, "So you tink you're a carpenter, do ya?" "Ugh, sure," I said. "Well, we'll see," he said. And he pointed to a huge pile of joists--two-by-twelve inches, twelve feet long each and every one. "Move those beams over there," he said, pointing to a spot about two hundred feet away across the snow- and ice-covered field. I needed the work, so, I moved them. It took me five days, but I moved each and every single one of them. Monday morning, the boss scratched his chin and said, "Ya know, I think dey were better o'er dere." So, I moved them back. Like I said, I needed the job.

Five days later I was standing taller and stronger than I had ever been before and the boss handed me a framing hammer and he says, "All right carpenter--show me." Up until that moment I thought I knew how to hold a hammer, but ugh, apparently I didn't. He showed me where to place my thumb and how to swing the hammer efficiently and drive in a nail with only three blows. I've been grateful ever since.

The first job he sent me to doing was nailing plywood flooring to the very same two-by-twelves I had become so friendly with the first weeks of the job. All summer long I pounded nails, climbed scaffolding, and did the fetch and carry demanded by the gruff crew that didn't take kindly to this new kid on the job. A few weeks later, on a fairly windy day, I was given the job to stand on the roof joists four stories up and lift four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood passed from man to man up the scaffolding from the ground below.

Now, I don't know how many of you have balanced yourself standing spread-legged on narrow beams holding a succession of what became a wooden sail wherever the wind blew. It's scary, and you learn very quickly to angle the edge of the plywood into the winder, otherwise you become Mary Poppins with a tool belt. I only tell you this because that day became one of the greatest of my life. When I was holding the last sheet of plywood, I looked down to where I had been handing them to the guy in the room below--he wasn't there. I couldn't drop the plywood, fearing that it would cause havoc and mayhem on the street below. I was in a pickle for sure!

Then I heard the sounds of rapid hammering and laughter, as two of the carpenters nailed the edges of my boots to the rafters I was standing on. Just to be clear, I was wearing the boots at the time. Then they double and triple knotted my laces, as I struggled to keep my balance and hold on to the plywood that was hinting at becoming a kite. So after nailing me to the rafters, the crew left for lunch, laughing hysterically. It took me a while to maneuver the large sheet of plywood to a place where I could tack it flat with a couple of nails, then I cut off my laces and lowered myself to the floor below because they had also taken the ladder I used to climb up there. It took a long time to pry my boots loose and find some twine to replace the laces enough to wear them again.

The crew, when they returned, they gave me a lunch that they had bought for me and sat around joking as I ate. I realized then that I had been accepted as one of them. I knew instinctively that it had been necessary for them to test my mettle, to put me through ugly, back-breaking, mud- crusted tasks to see what I was made of. On that day, the lunch they gave me and the laughter that came with it was as special and grand as any Oscar or Emmy I could hope to place on my mantle.

From there I journeyed north and spent time in Bearsville, New York, right smack in the same region that Natty Bumppo explored in the adventures given to him by Cooper. Instead of stalking deer and listening for the slap of a beaver's tail, I was using my skills helping to build a mime studio in exchange for room, board, and mime lessons. As far as I'd know, I became the only carpenter that could ring an imaginary bell and walk an invisible dog. But then I thought like Natty Bumppo. Learn as much as you can about as much as you can. There is no such thing as useless knowledge. Ask Sherlock Holmes, or Cliff Clavin for that matter. They understood that.

While in Bearsville, word came around of jobs being offered in some music festival about sixty miles away. So a friend and I went down and I was given the keys to a large tractor after telling the hiring man that, well, I knew how to drive one. I lied, but like I said before, I needed the job. Mime is good, but cash is better.

After almost flipping the thing over backwards a couple of times I got the hang of it and became a tractor driver at the Woodstock festival. I helped build a stage, and once it started raining I spent most of my time pulling cars out of the rain-soaked fields of Max Yasgur's farm. I would like at this time to say that I am sorry for helping to ruin the world and apologize on behalf of the Woodstock generation. I could've stopped it. I could have pulled the wires, I could have sent people in the wrong direction, but I didn't and the Woodstock generation and their philosophy is what runs our culture today.

Movies, television, music, and literature glorified the long-haired, drug-fueled madness, but I was there, and this is what really happened. Once the rain started, everything fell apart. No food, not enough medical care or equipment. No sanitation, no clean water. A half a million helpless flower children were very close to panic.

Then, all of a sudden, we looked to the sky and heard the thump-thump of a National Guard helicopter cresting the horizon, loaded with the much-needed supplies and equipment, one right after the other. If not for that, the flaunted Woodstock festival would have possibly turned into the next Donner party. The Woodstock festival and its influence on our culture was saved by the National Guard. A few years ago, Senator Clinton requested that there be a statue erected on the farm to commemorate the summer of love and its impact it had on a generation. My suggestion at the time was that the statue should be of a National Guardsman feeding a crying hippie. I was there. That's what happened. And I was one of them. I had a beard and long hair--it was sickening.

Even then, when I heard the lyrics of the popular Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," you know, picture yourself in a boat down the river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies--you know the song. My question always was, "Who built the boat?" Someone who was not stoned or drunk had to get up in the morning, measure, cut, bend, and shape wood into a boat before the Beatles, or anyone else, could slap on a goofy smile and imagine magic dragons and marshmallow seas. Someone had to get up in the morning, put their hand into something useful, and be responsible for their work, themselves, and their families.

It was that philosophy that built and shaped this civilization. It is that philosophy that brought us to the dance. As the saying goes, "Dance with the one who brought ya."

I have always been a fan of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that you don't have to be Jewish or Christian to follow. Be responsible for yourself and the family you create and let your work speak for you.

While I was touring this great country during my show, John Ratzenberger's Made in America, I had the opportunity to visit factories that make everything from bagpipes to baseball caps, to bulldozers and bathtubs. It was at one of the larger companies that I got to talking with the CEO about the young workforce entering the marketplace. He told me a story that I've heard variations of across the country. He hired a young man fresh out of college to work at the headquarter office at a very decent salary. After three days, the CEO told me, they had to fire the kid. Apparently, he wouldn't listen to anyone else's advice or direction. He always thought his ideas were the best and refused to work in a team atmosphere. The boss had no other choice but to show him the door only three days on the job. On the fourth day, the kid returned with his mother. The mother walked up to the CEO and told him to apologize to her son because he had hurt his self esteem. Another true story.

Once again, I have to apologize on behalf of the Woodstock generation, where the notion of anointing someone with self worth for doing nothing first raised its ugly head. Before that "feel good" generation took charge you actually had to earn self esteem. You had to go out into the woods and figure things out for yourself. You had to listen to people who had been doing the job long before you got there. Before the notion of giving a child awards for doing nothing you had to at least be passably good at what you did in order to participate.

Before the era of over-praise and play dates, there was a time you had to try out for Little League, and if you weren't any good at it, you were simply told so and didn't make the team. You didn't get a uniform and a trophy simply for just showing up. But what you did get was a golden opportunity that gifted you for the rest of your life. You were able, at a young age, to use the skills necessary to handle an emotional crisis. If you didn't make the team, you either practiced 'till you could or you found something else like stamp collecting or tap dancing, or ventriloquism. Nobody gave you a trophy just for showing up and yes, I still enjoy tap dancing. I didn't bring my shoes with me so you're lucky.

So all you parents out there, I ask you not to scold your child's boss on self esteem. Instead, nail that kid to the rafters and let them figure it out on their own. And my advice to you graduates is to learn how to cook, build something with your own hands, learn how to change a car tire, learn to whistle, make a baby, laugh--oh, sorry, that's make a baby laugh. It doesn't have to be yours.

And, most importantly, if you're ever given the honor of speaking at the commencement at a prestigious place of learning, know when to stop. Thank you, God bless you all, and have a great life!

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