Commencement Address John Gurda University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee May 19, 2013 Well, you finally made it. After all that time, all that money and, for some of you, all that beer, you’re about to cross this stage and enter the ranks of the college-educated. You’ll join a distinct minority: about 31 percent of Americans over 25. (Those of you with advanced degrees are breathing even thinner air; 8% of us have master’s and just 1% have doctorates.) This is a genuinely big deal, and the people who love you, the people in the stands today, have come here with powerful emotions. For some it’s relief, for at least a few it’s surprise, and for everyone it’s pride. You’ve finished something that nearly half of all Americans don’t even start, and you should take some time to simply bask in your achievement. That achievement is individual, but it’s also collective. You are the Class of 2013, and just who is that class? I’m going to tell you a few things about yourselves you may not know: -- There are almost 3500 of you who will soon be hearing from the Alumni Association—3,498, to be exact. -- Nearly 75% of you are going to walk out of here with bachelor’s diplomas, the remaining quarter with advanced degrees. -- The biggest schools represented in your class are Letters & Science (25% of degrees), Business (14%) , then Education and Arts and Health Sciences (all about 6%). -- The median age for undergrads is 23, which means that at least a few of you were here on the five-year plan, maybe even the six-. -- 40% of you lived on campus at some point as undergrads; I suppose the rest of you were terrorizing the East Side. -- 55% of you are female, and so women continue their domination of higher education. On the doctoral level, the ratio climbs to 61%. -- Most of you are well within the Midwestern mainstream. 87% of you are from Wisconsin, and 78% of you are white. But—the Class of 2013 has students from 38 states and 38 countries. You are large enough to include just about every conceivable American ethnic group, and you’ve been studying fields that range from art to zoology. The emphasis here is on a comprehensive diversity. So what can I tell a class that has everything? This is the first one I’ve been asked to give, but I know that commencement speeches are the last bastion of the platitude.
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft
The only speech form that comes even close in number of clichés per minute is the wedding toast. Graduates typically hear advice they don’t want from someone they don’t know and probably won’t remember. So what do I say? You may have figured out by now that you’re not graduating into the most robust job market of the last century. I figure the most honest thing I can do is offer my own testimony that there is life after college, life after grad school, and that it can sometimes take a most circuitous path. And believe me, I know first-hand the insecurity most of you are feeling. I’ve been freelancing for about 40 years now. I haven’t had a real job since 1972, and I’ve seldom known from one year to the next how I was going to support my family. I came late to a love of history and geography. I actually began on the writing side of my profession, graduating from Boston College in 1969 with a degree in English. This was the Sixties, remember—a decade that America has never entirely forgiven. I came home to Milwaukee with a woolly notion that I’d be a poet. Well, all those jobs seemed to be taken. I painted houses for six months and then accepted a friend’s offer to volunteer at a South Side youth center he was running. (It’s called Journey House, and it’s still very much alive.) I was soon working there full-time, and I stayed for three years, so my roots are actually in social work. Journey House was a shoestring operation; a $45,000 budget paid for five staff, rent, utilities, and supplies. It was obvious that we needed to be on a more-sustainable footing. A VISTA volunteer and I decided to write what fund-raisers today would call a case statement: What were the neighborhood’s needs, how had they developed, and what were we doing to meet them? That meant neighborhood research. For reasons still unclear to me, I drew the historical side of the assignment. That’s when the lights started to go on. That’s when the clouds began to part and visibility improved dramatically. My roots are on the Polish South Side. I hadn’t taken a history course since high school, but here I was, studying the history of my old neighborhood. I began to develop a powerful sense of history as story. All these connections began to surface: between my story and the stories of my family, my neighborhood, my city, my country, and the larger world. What I discovered, in short, was historical context—something sorely missing in the 1960s. The product of our research was a little booklet fearlessly titled The Near South Side: A Delicate Balance. It was published by a local social action group, and that led to a job with United Way, doing neighborhood research elsewhere on the South Side. During a period of unemployment following that project, I wrote, for free, another, somewhat less primitive pamphlet on the South Side’s history, which led to another research job in Waukesha County.
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft
It began to dawn on me—slowly—that this might be a career, but it became more and more obvious that I really didn’t know squat about my subject matter. I needed more tools, and that’s what brought me to UWM. I quickly found a home in the Geography Department. Neighborhoods were my primary focus then, but I became interested in the broader intersection between time and place, and that is historical geography. My master’s thesis was on Jones Island, a fishing village at the mouth of the Milwaukee River. What I do is history, but it’s always informed by a geographic perspective. What UWM gave me was respect for evidence, higher professional standards, and a small place in the community of scholars that has helped me avoid the pitfalls of the self-taught. UWM helped me learn how to learn, and I’ll be forever grateful. As soon as I got my master’s degree, I got back to work. I was married by then, with one kid in diapers and a second soon to come. I wrote a couple of small neighborhood histories for a project sponsored by the university. The head of our advisory committee was a Northwestern Mutual executive who asked if I’d write a history of his company. (Another writer had backed out, and he needed someone fast.) I knew nothing about life insurance. I took the job almost as a lark—and because I had no other work. It turned out to be fascinating. That’s been the rhythm of my career ever since. One part is commissioned work, sometimes for companies like Northwestern or Miller Brewing or We Energies, at other times for non-profits like the Jewish Museum or Forest Home Cemetery. The other part is community work: usually projects I choose and find funding for. (I’ve been doing my own version of Kickstarter for years now.) By the mid-Nineties, I’d gathered so many pieces of local history that I decided to put the whole puzzle together. The result, four years later, was The Making of Milwaukee— first the book and then, after few more years, the TV series. Both have been wellreceived. My current project is a book about Milwaukee neighborhoods, and so, in a way, I’ve come full circle. That’s my story. So what’s the point? What could this possibly have to do with you? I would not presume to offer my story as a textbook example of how to pursue a career. It’s closer to the opposite, but there are at least two lessons you might find useful. The first and most obvious is to follow your passion. Now there’s a commencement cliché, but I stand here as proof that it’s possible. Try to find work, or create work, that you want to do, something that feeds you emotionally as well as financially. I know that’s easier said than done, and it’s more complex as well. A lot of you are probably asking, right now, “So what’s my passion? Where do I get one of those?”
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft
Let me give you some of that unwanted advice I mentioned earlier. Passion doesn’t strike like lightning. It rarely begins in a blaze of glory. It more often starts as a small fire that you feed, twig by twig, then branch by branch. I felt an initial spark, but it took me years to realize that I had a fire going, and years more before I felt anything like consumed. And how do you find that fire? How do you feed it? By knowing who you are. You’ve taken a lot of classes during your college career, but your most important subject, by far, has been yourself. You’ve learned the essentials by now. The goal is to build a career that makes full use of four things that are related but different: your values, your interests, your talents, and your skills. In other words, look to what you believe, what you enjoy, what you’ve always been good at, and what you’ve learned to do. And while you’re at it, pick a path that can do the world some good. I know that’s a tall order. No job satisfies all those criteria all the time. No work is without its frustrations and disappointments and challenges. (I don’t know about you, but I find writing really hard.) Hardship is part of being human. Expect dead ends, expect power failures, but don’t lose sight of the stars you steer by. If you pursue a passion as well as a paycheck, you’re bound to do better work and come home a happier human being. A second lesson is even simpler: Get on with it. Don’t be paralyzed by the choices before you. I recall being visited by that fear in my twenties. Committing to one thing meant rejecting all the others; opening one door meant closing ten more. That happens to be true, but it’s also OK, because you can’t live in a state of perpetual possibility. Not choosing is a choice, and if you make that choice you’ll forever be a seed fallen on barren ground. So don’t be afraid to plant yourself, and be assured that your first roothold need not be your last. Every decision is subject to revision, every direction is subject to change. If you’d told me in the 1960s that I’d some day write the history of an insurance company or an electric utility, I’d have recoiled in horror. That would have been selling out to The Man. But I grew, I changed, I opened to other possibilities. Every career is like a marriage or a friendship. It evolves, it changes with time, it takes on new dimensions. So start somewhere. Engage with the world. Get off the sidelines and onto the field. You might be amazed at what you find there. I’ve found a few things during my forty-plus years in the field of local history and geography, and I’ll wind down by sharing a couple of them. I’ve talked about your class, I’ve talked about my work, and I’ll close by discussing something we have in common, and that is the past and how we can use it.
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft
No matter how young you are, history has gifts to offer, and the first is perspective. Although we know better, we grow up thinking that things always were the way they are now, that the world as we know it was somehow preordained, fixed. History explodes that notion. History puts the world in motion. Let me give you an example close to home. Do you know what UWM’s campus was used for before it became UWM? A golf course, of all things. In 1894 three upper-crust Milwaukeeans were bitten by the golf bug during a visit to Chicago, and they came home determined to infect their friends. The group laid out Milwaukee’s first primitive course in an East Side cow pasture bordered roughly by Hartford Avenue and Locust Street between Downer and Oakland Avenues—UWM, basically. Their sport was known as “pasture pool.” Tomato cans served as cups on the shaggy greens, and bandannas tied to fishing poles were their flags. Development pressures forced the golfers to move a few blocks north, where they laid out a new course just north of Edgewood. A flock of 200 sheep kept the fairways trimmed to playing length. One day a banker named James Ilsley (of Marshall & Ilsley, or M&I) beaned a sheep with an errant tee shot. The blow proved fatal, which prompted one of his friends to immortalize Ilsley in verse: “His graceful swing marks everything from drivin’ down to puttin’, But he won his fame at a different game as a dead sure shot at mutton.” This was the origin of the Milwaukee Country Club—among the most exclusive groups in our region. The club moved to what is now River Hills in 1911, when mounting development pressures proved too strong to resist. Much of that pressure was applied by institutions you know well in a somewhat different form. One was Milwaukee-Downer College, a national pioneer in women’s education. It began downtown as the Milwaukee Female Seminary and moved to the corner of Hartford and Downer in 1899. You know their buildings as Holton Hall, and Johnston and Merrill and Chapman and Greene.The other institution was the State Teachers College, which opened just south of Downer College in 1909. Today it’s Mitchell Hall. UWM in its modern form dates to 1956, but the school’s physical roots go back to the late 1800s. Try to visualize golfers in their woolen knickers walking down the fairway between the library and the union. Try to imagine young maidens dressed in white dancing around a May pole in front of Chapman Hall. They were just as real in their day as we are in ours, and they occupied the same geography. They’ve all moved on, and so, in time, will we.
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft
That, I think, is the greatest gift of history, especially local history. It teaches us that nothing had to happen, that nothing is inevitable, and it teaches us that everything is on its way to becoming something else. History, at root, is the study of change. Just take a moment to look at the people around you. The gowns may be old-school, but look at the hairstyles, the glasses, the shoes. I can guarantee you with absolute certainty that, fifty years from now, everything that everyone in this room is wearing under those robes could be sold in a vintage clothing shop. Every car on the streets outside, if it’s still running, will be a classic fifty years from now—something you see in parades. Every tune you download onto your iPod will be an oldie, if it’s played at all. And the UWM students of fifty years from now will study your pictures in some dusty departmental newsletter, or maybe in holograms, and think how curiously antique you look. I guarantee it. We are all sharing a single historical moment—one that places us between a million moments that went before and millions more to come. That means we’re all in this together. We are the only link, the living bridge, between past and future, and what we do with, or to, this world, this society, and this city will shape the lives of generations to come. That sense of shared fate, that sense of shared responsibility, is something I think is very much endangered in America today. We have elevated the “I” at the expense of the “we.” There are numerous ways to restore a healthier balance; the one I’m pursuing is local history. Milwaukee is my chosen geography. It may or may not be yours in the years to come, but the basic idea is the same. History, on some fundamental level, is story. I believe in the power of story to shape our understanding of who we are as individuals. I believe in the power of shared story to shape a sense of who we are as a community. The communal story is what I tell—a modest endeavor, to be sure, but one I undertake in the service of something larger. Whether you’ve been here for generations or arrived yesterday, Milwaukee is the context for your story. My hope is that by helping people put their stories in the context of our story, I can help to close some of that troubling distance between the individual and the community. My ultimate goal is to encourage a sense of ownership and finally a sense of belonging for everyone who calls Milwaukee home. But it all starts with story. Each of us, each of you, is living a story. Today marks the end of a very important chapter, but your story continues.
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft
Congratulations, Class of 2013, on making it to this point. As you commence the next chapter, make sure your story contains a dash of adventure and a healthy dose of risk. See to it that every line doesn’t start with “I.” Weave in a thread of what you did for others. Above all, make this moment, make your moment, count. It is, after all, your story, and the only one you’ll tell. Tell it proudly. Live it well.
John Gurda, 5-16-2013 draft