Commencement Address

U.S. Senator Peter Welch ’69
College of the Holy Cross 
177th Commencement Address

President Vincent Rougeau, Interim Provost and Dean of the College Ann Marie Leshkowich, Chair of the Holy Cross Board of Trustees Dr. Helen Boucher, members of the Board of Trustees, my fellow honorary degree recipient Rosanne Haggerty, faculty and staff, parents, families, friends, guests, and most importantly – the graduates of the College of the Holy Cross class of 2023…

Today I’d like to speak about the Holy Cross values:  

  • what they mean to me;
  • what I hope they mean to you; and
  • why they are more important than ever.

But before I begin, I’d like to say it is a great honor to be recognized with an honorary degree alongside Rosanne Haggerty, whose international leadership and trailblazing work in addressing the homelessness crisis is truly inspiring.

Graduates, I’d like to use the prerogative as your graduation speaker to offer two unsolicited pieces of advice.

First, maintain your friendships. You all have made close friends here. And you are about to go your separate ways. It’s bittersweet. But those friendships you have made here on The Hill can be enduring, not ending. 

I can say from the vantage point of someone older, those friendships become more important to you the older you get — the richness and warmth and mutual understanding we can have with our earliest friends is unique. 

Maintaining those friendships will stabilize you and enrich you. Stay in touch. Get together. 

Second, listen more than you talk. We all want to be heard and we all need to be. But it’s in listening that we hear others and create a sense of security for them to hear us. When we think back about meaningful interactions we’ve had, it’s far more often we remember how that other person made us feel rather than what they said. 

Take it from someone who knows. Talking about yourself will get pretty boring pretty fast. Hearing the stories of others you encounter along the way is endlessly fascinating.

Also, all of us here want to acknowledge the extraordinary challenge your class faced in March 2020 when the world stopped and college as you knew it stopped with no idea when or how it would restart. 

We all remember how sudden, how abrupt, how disorienting it was wherever we were. I was in Washington, on my way to the airport, coming from the crowded House floor (that was before we knew about social distancing) where we had just voted on what was our first COVID relief bill, all with the hope COVID would not ultimately turn out to be the worst public health pandemic in the United States in over one hundred years. 

The fact that we were all crowded together, more than 600 members and staff, in the House chamber to vote on COVID in what was a superspreader setting of our own creation showed how, even as we were voting on this public health disaster, we were acutely unaware of the perils ahead.

That began to change for me on my way to the airport for my 10 p.m. flight home to Vermont. While enroute I received a call from American Airlines asking, “Congressman Welch, are you still planning on flying to Vermont tonight?” I was puzzled, since never before had I received such a call. “Yes,” I said. And the caller replied, “Well, we’re prepared to depart as soon as you get here.”

I was puzzled but found out when I arrived for the flight that the plane I was taking — a good sized jet that I had taken to D.C. several days earlier and was packed, I mean packed, with passengers — was empty. I was literally the only passenger. 

And the next morning, I drove 90 miles from Burlington to Norwich on an eerily quiet and car-free interstate, a result of our governor's declaration of a state of emergency. 

I only then realized the world I knew had changed profoundly. 

As we are together on this beautiful New England day, I think back to that day, as I was flying home, when all of you were getting the news that seven months into your first year at Holy Cross the dorms would be closing, classes would be suspended, sports and theater and social schedules were all uncertain, and you would be returning to your homes to wait for — who knew what — while our world of yesterday began to adjust to the tomorrow world of COVID. None of us were prepared emotionally. How could we be? 

Each one of you has your own story of how you endured, you adjusted, you persisted — and you are here today, together, bonded both by that unique COVID experience and your Holy Cross solidarity you shared, graduating at the College of the Holy Cross’s 177th commencement. 

Congratulations to you!

And congratulations to your families who supported you throughout all those uncertain times.

Now let’s talk about Holy Cross values and why they matter. 

There are two that stand out to me – one, intellectual and the other, social.

The intellectual is the commitment to open inquiry, to the search for truth and discovery, done with civility and respect for different points of view, and with the humility to appreciate that the life experience you bring to your inquiry is important but not universal. And it’s your and my duty and the wonderful privilege of Holy Cross to share our different life experiences in a shared pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

The social is the Holy Cross community belief that the knowledge we acquire, the talents we build and the status we achieve should be shared and used for the betterment of others, not just ourselves. 

At Holy Cross, the inner development of our spiritual and mental and physical selves is in service of an outward expression to help our fellow citizens. 

It’s more in retrospect than when I was here myself that I came to appreciate how much Holy Cross did to help me find my own way.

It was the ‘60s, the summer between my sophomore and junior years. The two big tumultuous struggles engaging my generation were civil rights and the Vietnam war. 

Civil rights absorbed my attention.

I learned from classmates that they would be joining a summer community organization project in the Lawndale neighborhood in the West Side of Chicago, led by a Jesuit seminarian and affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that worked with the extraordinary Martin Luther King Jr. 

I wanted to go but I had an agreement with my father. He paid tuition and room and board — generous dad — and I earned my spending money on my summer job driving a soda delivery truck. So, I couldn’t go when the project began in early summer. 

But over the July 4th weekend I wanted to check it out. So, I hitchhiked the 900 miles from my home in Springfield, Mass., just west of here, to Chicago’s West Side. 

It changed my life. 

Lawndale was poor and ignored by City Hall for basic services like sanitation pickup and playgrounds for neighborhood kids and, to the dismay of parents, the schools for their kids were deteriorating. 

I became a volunteer in the organization, living in a third floor two-bedroom apartment with bunk beds for the eight of us living there. Our goal was to help the community mobilize to collectively improve their lot. 

We went door to door, asking about concerns. When the lack of sanitation emerged as an issue, we got together with neighborhood folks and trucked the trash the city wouldn’t pick up to City Hall. 

If the city wouldn’t do its job and pick up the trash in Lawndale, Lawndale would bring the trash to City Hall. It caught the mayor’s attention. The next week there was a caravan of Chicago Sanitation trucks throughout Lawndale.

But it was toward the end of the summer and shortly before I was to return to Holy Cross for my junior year that the biggest issue exposing the biggest injustice came to our attention. 

When the neighborhood was changing from white to Black, unscrupulous folks in real estate found a way to exploit the Black families moving into Lawndale. The real estate speculators created panic in white homeowners, telling them property values would soon plunge. The speculator would then buy a house from a departing homeowner and within days sell that same house to a Black family for twice the price. 

How did they do that? They had lots of help. 

The big Chicago banks redlined neighborhoods where Black families were moving and denied them a mortgage, no matter how credit-worthy they were. 

The Federal Housing Authority likewise would not insure mortgages in that neighborhood, even for veterans who fought in WWII. And Black families, denied access to a mortgage, were compelled to buy at excessive interest rates on sham-contracts. 

This was a savage legal document that allowed the seller to repossess the property from the buyer if they missed a single payment for any reason. So, if a couple who bought a property and made on-time payments for 10 years but, due to family sickness or a job layoff, missed one, that Lawndale family lost their home and all the equity they would have had with a conventional mortgage.

I was shocked at the injustice. 

And what was most shocking to me, as an idealistic and eager young person who was accustomed to being treated fairly, was this immense infliction of suffering on so many was legal. It was legal then to force people to buy on contract and to deny them a mortgage or mortgage insurance because of the color of their skin.

So, I had a decision to make. It was time to return to Holy Cross for my junior year. But this would come with a cost: abandoning the neighborhood folks whose hopes we had helped raise that they could get relief from the brutal oppression of those contracts. 

It felt wrong.

Or I could drop out of Holy Cross and continue my community organizing work. That came with a risk. Losing my student deferment and being drafted, as many of my high school classmates had been, to go to Vietnam, a war so many of us opposed. 

That felt right.

In the end, Holy Cross saved me. When my parents drove to Worcester to meet with our then dean (before he became president), the great Father John Brooks, they had one goal: persuade Father Brooks to talk sense into me to return, not drop out. 

Father Brooks calmly told my parents, “Ed and Mary, we think what Peter is doing is good and worth doing.”  

This was well before there was any precedent of leaving college for a year to do community work. But Father Brooks not only stood by a young student who wanted to try to make a difference. He made it possible. 

Father Brooks, on his own initiative, called his counterpart, the President of Loyola College in Chicago, and got me enrolled. I took classes in our Lawndale apartment for the next year.

So, to you, President Rougeau, as a successor to President Brooks, and to the entire Holy Cross Community, I want to express my gratitude. Holy Cross had the flexibility to allow a young student to pursue his social mission and turn the institutional gears to make it happen. 

During that year we created a successful, neighborhood-led organization called the Contract Buyers League. We exposed the rip-off contracts, demonstrated in front of the big downtown banks, the Federal Housing Authority, and in the serene north shore neighborhoods of the contract sellers — exposing what they had done, an exposure long overdue. 

We had payment strikes and succeeded in getting then Mayor Daley to help us renegotiate contracts and substitute them for legitimate mortgages. It made a difference in the lives of many residents of Lawndale.

And it certainly made a difference in mine. 

I saw the power of cooperation. When people worked together, even in the face of great odds, they could accomplish great things. 

And in seeing how much injustice was actually legal, I made my lifelong commitment to two things: 

  • The law. As a lawyer I could use the legal system to help people hurt by bad laws. 
  • And politics. In the legislature I could work to change laws to eliminate oppression and create opportunity.

Now let me suggest why I think these Holy Cross values are so important to you. And why you are so important to all of us.

You are our future.

When you drive down Linden Lane your last time as a student and first time as a graduate of Holy Cross, a challenging world awaits. I think it is far more challenging than the one my class of ‘69 entered. 

I am certainly not here to brag about some of the urgent challenges awaiting you that my generation has left at the front step of yours. 

We have more guns and gun violence in our country than at any time in our history; there have been more mass shootings already this year than the number of days in 2023.

We have a planet on fire from climate change, even as major parties continue to debate whether climate change is real.

We have students working hard to get ahead who are saddled with huge student debt as they are about to get their start.

We have a fractured Congress — right now, today — unable to do what every Congress has done throughout our history — pay our bills on time and in full, even when our failure to do so will be catastrophic to our economy and hurt the people we represent.

And we have a fragile democracy, still reeling from the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, the first time in our democracy that violence was deployed in our Capitol to thwart the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, as authorized by the voters — including many of you sitting here today — not the politicians. 

The cornerstone of our democracy that was attacked.

I was there that day, about 20-feet from where the shot was fired, watching as the mob attacked the House chamber, pummeling the entry doors and shattering glass, ultimately repelled by brave Capitol police. 

But even though I was present and observing in real time the gun’s discharge and the doors being battered, I could not believe it was happening. This was the United States of America, after all. We accept the outcome of elections, and they are peaceful.

But as frightening as that was, it was at 3 a.m. when, with the Capitol cleared, we all returned to vote to ratify the election of the person voters chose to be president that my fear became sadness. One hundred and forty-seven of my colleagues voted against certifying the election and the dispute of who won the 2020 election continues to this day. 

Never before in our history had that happened.

You, class of 2023, will help us make sure it never happens again. 

You, class of 2023, will help us, as a nation, have the confidence that in taking on the challenge of climate change we can create affordable, clean energy and a stronger economy.

You, class of 2023, will help us stabilize and strengthen our democracy by your example that cooperation gets more done than conflict, that acceptance creates trust that acrimony can destroy. 

You, class of 2023, will help restore our shared commitment to the diversity of ideas, the diversity of people and that we are all entitled to live with dignity and respect. 

You, class of 2023, will help strengthen our institutions — our democracy, especially — all our institutions.

Each of you must make a decision as you face the challenges of your own life and the times in which you live. 

With clear eyes and unsparing observation, you can assess these challenges, none of which were of your making.

You can decide to retreat, or you can accept the fact that none of us decide what challenges the times will present. We all decide whether we will use the energy, the ambition, the goodness, the love within us to face the challenges those times present. 

You are strong and ready. Your shared experience at Holy Cross has made you so. Your mutual respect and admiration for your classmates will help see you through.  

And the Holy Cross experience that we share - its commitment to intellectual and open inquiry and using our talents for good is something this institution has preserved and passed on to one generation after another since 1843. This experience and commitment will make you the builders of tomorrow.

You will succeed for yourselves and our country.

Thank you. Good luck.