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Ken Hersh (My Husband) Gives an Outstanding Commencement Speech at St Mark’s School of Texas

  • May 21, 2017

This is a deviation from the typical Struck by Living entry, but I had a moment this week when I was struck in awe by how lucky I am to be alive and well. Ken (my husband) gave a commencement speech at St. Mark's School of Texas Friday night (5/19/17). The skies looked threatening, rain fell and a little lightning flared in the distance. He never wavered, even when they moved to cover the diplomas from the rain. That's just the kind of guy he is.  So nice to see Ken be honored by a school he loves so much and was so instrumental in his development. This is one of the first graduations I've attended where I just sat back, took it in and did not even once look at my watch. We are lucky to be here and alive.

A number of people have asked for Ken's speech, here it is. He edited out his recitation of the ingredients of the Big Mac (frontwards and backwards in less than 2 seconds). Here is the speech (with jokes) https://www.smtexas.org/page/end-of-year-2017/commencement-2017. Written version is below. Enjoy!

Be Uncomfortable

St. Mark’s School of Texas

Commencement Address

By Kenneth Hersh ‘81

May 19, 2017

Thank you David:

Thank you Board of Trustees, Board President Mosle, distinguished faculty and staff, parents, friends, and the great class of 2017!
You all look really good in those tuxes. But I bet the combination of those stiff jackets, stiff shoes, tight bow ties, and those hard wooden chairs, you're uncomfortable. You look uncomfortable. How do I look?

Well, I am uncomfortable....even if I did just recite the ingredients of a Big Mac forward and backward in front of 500 people.

In an era of disinvited commencement speakers, I want to thank you for letting my invitation stand. I have been looking forward to tonight with trepidation. Back in February when David Dini called and asked me to be here, I was honored and humbled. Then, it sank in. This talk is kind of a trap -- I want to say something memorable, even though I don't remember much from the speaker at any of my graduations, and try not to be boring - since I am the major speed bump between you, your diplomas and some cheap cigars. The odds are stacked against me.

So, I was unsure. Should I take this opportunity as many alumni speakers have as a chance for a long overdue confessional for shooting butter patties and the occasional pencils deep into the ceiling tiles of the old cafeteria, or for my completely uncalled for harassment of Curtis Smith back in 1980 in his first year at SM teaching Freshman English, or for a thoroughly immature and uncalled for April Fool's issue of the ReMarker back in 1981? For alumni speakers who've been here, this is a great time for a confessional. But, all things considered, I really wasn't all that bad when I was here.

In fact, sometimes I think that the confession should go the other way... Like, If Maxine from the cafeteria were still here, I'd offer her immunity to tell me what actually is IN a Salisburys teak and How do you get a slice of turkey to be exactly round with exactly half of the circle to be white meat and half to be dark meat?

So, having dismissed the confessional strategy, I googled the minefield of the worst cliches in commencement speeches. I got some cliches off of the "Commencement Bingo" card I found online that seniors can keep on their laps to pass the time during a speech full of trite and unspectacular commentary. So, I am NOT going to tell you:

o To Remember that you are the future

o To Enjoy this time of your life
o To Follow your dreams, or
o To Not be afraid to fail

I am going to tell you to Be Uncomfortable!
In fact, to make sure you are still with me, I want to give you a little quiz:

Suppose, there is a legitimate house of worship, other than your own, that a neighborhood is petitioning to have it shut down because people in that neighborhood don't agree with that religion. Would you object to that closure?

That was an easy one for all you constitutional law experts. So, let me ask you a second question. If they called you to sign a petition, would you?

Now, if a zoning hearing were held and it went against them and, in protest, they organize a march down Preston Road...would you march with them?

Actually PARTICIPATING to defend someone else's rights, and take the time out of your day, is a bit different. It is more than just support, it is an actual time investment on your part and it could involve some risk.

Where do YOU stand on this spectrum of advocacy for a constitutional right?

This simple hypothetical illustrates a couple things:

First, there is a basic principal that most can agree upon -- the right to practice religion, even if some teachings are not your own...

Second, however, is that we often have different, personal thresholds when it comes to defense of those principles. This is where it gets personal and challenges us to think about what value system exists in our inner core and how much inconvenience, risk, or discomfort, we are willing to bear.

Navigating those differences and understanding where your thresholds are takes careful, deliberate thought. There are the Legal, the Moral and the Ethical realms in which we all navigate. I would argue that if we live solely by the Legal, we will find ourselves in increasingly uncomfortable situations. In fact, as people move around in different societies, laws change. Does that mean our behaviors should change? We have moral and ethical compasses that go beyond simply the Legal.

Freedom of expression is a tough one, I admit. Because it often makes us uncomfortable. But if you think a democracy with protected free speech is uncomfortable, try living in a society where such freedoms are not respected.

Discomfort is the cherished by-product of a healthy democracy.

Life has discomfort; your character is revealed in how you deal with it. Do you welcome it, tolerate it, or avoid it?

Just like a muscle that will not get stronger until it is pushed to a limit, our inner core won't become stronger unless it is tested. Part of the curricular goals of the St. Mark's education is to challenge our intellect, assumptions, and our biases in order to define and strengthen our inner core. I developed that muscle in 12 years here, not only in the classroom, but even starting in the straight lines marching to gym class w Mon. Neuvot, to campouts and the Pecos trip, to 4 years of high school debate and editing The ReMarker.

I remember the nervous, anxious excitement of watching everyone read the paper in the hallways the day it came out, wondering if there'd be any reaction to the editorials and columns, and feeling real satisfaction when hearing students reference what was in the paper or debating something that was printed. And being really nervous and getting an admittedly mischievous satisfaction if we struck a nerve with a teacher or the administration...And one time getting under the skin of headmaster Whatley who pulled me out of my morning class to vent his displeasure...talk about Uncomfortable!

When someone's opinions are so different from our own, I think we are all clear that that isn't grounds to claim a constitutional exception.

What concerns me now is when the subject matter becomes so objectionable that we WANT to shut them down...understanding that it is not a legal issue, but rather a normative one -- Something that is so objectionable to our sensibilities that we would prefer that it just went away. Today, selecting where we get our opinions is the start of the process of shutting out opinions with which we don't agree -- joining a crowded throng on the road to isolation.

As Vaclav Havel teaches us, "The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less."

So, how do we strike the balance between free expression and the alternative?

On today's college campuses, there is a disturbing trend toward quieting opinions that are in the minority and that can offend sensitive ears. Rutgers protests caused former Sec of State Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from speaking at its 2014 commencement, yet Rutgers was quite comfortable in paying Snooki a $32,000 speaker fee to talk about how to perfect a killer hairdo! Recent protests at Berkeley and Middlebury are equally disturbing. Unlike the campus protests in the 1960's where protesters were complaining because their rights to speak were being violated, today's protesters are angry that people whose viewpoints they don't agree with are being given a platform. How ironic.

Going to university is about exposure to ideas, about learning, about maturing and discovering what exactly makes us tick. In fact, administrations go to great lengths and even risk discrimination litigation to ensure a diverse student body. Diversity based upon race, color, geography, sex, sexual orientation, and religion is applauded. If someone protests against this diversity they are accused of being insensitive, hurtful and intolerant.

But what about diversity of opinions? I guess that diversity isn't as good. As SMU President Gerald Turner explains, "The radical left and the radical right are the same people, they just came to different conclusions. Intolerance is what they share." The key question is "how do WE deal with our discomfort versus their rights to speak freely?"

What if the shoe were on the other foot? How do we think about speech that is merely "objectionable" or "unpopular"? We have had times in our history when institutionalized racism existed as the conventional wisdom. Abolitionists protested and made their voices heard. 100 years later, desegregation was promoted by the likes of Martin Luther King who engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, but others like Rosa Parks actually violated local statutes that they felt were unjust. Speaking out against a law that was in place at the time was a renegade move, even though today, that law seems objectionable and immoral. But then, it was the law. Those protesting the law of the land who did it violently were arrested and punished, even though they were protesting what they thought was an immoral law. We celebrate those leaders today for initiating a movement that ultimately changed conventional wisdom...We are glad that that speech wasn't squelched.

Tonight you will all link arms and sway to the alma mater at the conclusion of this ceremony. The class of 1997 did the same. Brothers. But 20 years later, something challenged that brotherhood. A source of discomfort appeared, which caused them to look into the mirror and ask what do they stand for and what do the words Honor, Courage and Freedom mean to them.

I had to ask myself also. As a graduate, what kind of person did I want to be in choosing how to respond? -- I want to be a person who respects someone's right to speak, even if I vehemently disagree with the content. I fear a society that finds it acceptable to shut down speech, however, repugnant. There is a good way to respond. As Justice Louis Brandeis said "The fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones." [Whitney vs United States, 1927].

The Class of '97 did just that, responding to its bigoted classmate with good deeds directed toward the International Rescue Committee. The ReMarker also did such an admirable job that even St. John's in Houston publicly applauded. That response made me proud. That class chose not to spend its time and energy silencing, but rather, dealt with the discomfort and reaffirmed the positive traits of being a Marksman and spoke thru actions and words. Well done! You dealt with the discomfort, and came out stronger on the other side.

Personally, when I hear anti-semitic pronouncements, I become even more motivated to make my decent and hard-working actions speak louder and make an even larger, positive impact!

For me, I have confidence that society will reach the right conclusion over time. The more someone speaks who is devoid of fact and espouses repugnant views only serves to highlight how fringe his or her views really are and will ultimately galvanize the centrists and marginalize his or her own standing. That is the difference. The civil rights protests, despite their illegality at the time, were espousing views that appealed to fairness, decency and integrity, so that, over time, those clinging to their anachronistic, albeit legal, views were the ones that gave way.

But, until that moment is reached, while we are in the process of sorting out right and wrong, the question we still have to answer is: How will we react to the discomfort today when speakers espouse views that are disagreeable? Universities, your next stop, are now Ground Zero for this question. You will all confront that soon. So, ask yourself:

Do I feel ok about divergent opinions being presented, and just not go?

Do I go and turn my back or hold up a sign in protest?
Do I go and shout down the speaker?

-- if you shout down a speaker, are you exercising your rights to free speech or, if you are so disruptive that the speaker cannot be heard, are you violating the speaker's rights? When does rude become a constitutional violation? Or do I physically attack the speaker like at Middlebury, or as protesters did at Berkeley, do we destroy private property around town?

Clearly the last ones are unacceptable. However, the other answers are deeply personal and the questions cut to your core. Where is your bright line? How will you deal with discomfort?

For scholastic leaders, selecting content is part of the job. Librarians choose books to stock, Deans choose courses to offer. Clearly a school librarian wouldn't be doing his or her job if he or she just stocked one type of book or only books from one point of view. We routinely entrust the content selection to certain roles.

I do feel that while diversity of opinion is required to make us sharper and stronger, we are by no means obligated to provide a venue for every thought. Justice Potter Stewart famously gave his justification for limiting speech when it comes to pornography, even though he couldn't define it, but "he knew it when he saw it." Certain views, in my opinion, rise to a level tantamount to "conceptual pornography" and can be excluded.

However, once invited, or, in public spaces, their rights to peacefully articulate their views is absolute. Discourse must be civil. That is an implicit pact made between the speakers and the listeners. But, don't get me wrong, this is a limitation I don't take lightly and we all need to guard against doing so capriciously. Recall that, once upon a time, conventional wisdom banned books like Huckleberry Finn because they were deemed too offensive.

So, in thinking through the issue about content on campus, leaders have an ominous responsibility to foster civilized discussion and not disqualify messages that may offend sensitive ears. Understanding where those lines can be drawn and still maintain our diversity is key. We increase our understanding of the world around us by listening. We enhance our democracy by tolerating those whose opinions differ from our own. In short, it is ok to be uncomfortable. We should seek that out. As St. Mark's graduates, don't worry. You are equipped to handle that discomfort and you can all be a positive, courageous voice when diversity of opinion isn't just tolerated, it is encouraged.

Philosopher John Stuart Mill explained that being open to the possibility that we may be wrong is reason enough to listen and consider other points of view. In addition, even if a person is wrong, seriously engaging in a civil debate will deepen our own understanding and enhance our skills at defending our own point of view.

Professors Robert George and Cornell West, two professors from strikingly opposite political camps, recently co-authored an editorial on the topic of shutting down speakers on college campuses today, they wrote:

"All of us should be willing -- even eager-- to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject matter under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage --especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held--even our most cherished and identity-forming -- beliefs."...

They concluded,

"Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies."

WE all want to speak freely? I would hate to have been disinvited tonight because I may have offended someone. Although, before I am done, you may think otherwise. Has anyone ever been disinvited halfway through their speech?

Marksmen, you are about to enter college campuses where free speech is being tested in an effort to minimize discomfort. I hope that you embrace discomfort. Seek an understanding of views that counter your own, challenge your status quo rather than retreating to "safe places." In the end, you will strengthen your core and enhance your understanding of the world around you. Don't give in to the easy path of restricting freedom in order to avoid the discomfort.

I am concerned that the presumption of freedom may be eroding. Researchers Foa and Mounk recently found an alarming trend. Whether it be the declining confidence in government or the changing attitudes toward values of civil liberties, fewer than 30% millennials today believe it is "absolutely essential" to live in a democratic country versus over 70% for those born prior to 1940.

For my own experience, I relished the freedom and opportunity and didn't just seek the comfortable. After 12 years at St. Mark's, I left the cocoon and went to Princeton. It was foreign to me. But, being well equipped and prepared, I was able to navigate and thrive, blissfully working toward my graduation intending to go to law school.

Not having a meal plan my senior year changed my life. I saw an ad in the Daily Princetonian for a "shrimp dinner" information session for the firm of Morgan Stanley. I had become good at finding free food around town.

I thought it was a law firm AND it promised a free meal just for listening to their pitch. A two- fer! But when I got there, I was told that it was an investment bank. I had no idea what that was. I said "bank?" like a checking account -- I had one of those. They said that no, their clients didn't have checking accounts. I was confused, but the shrimp was good. So I listened. Then, I was intrigued. I had opened my mind and my mouth.

I interviewed and got a job went off to New York City. Totally uncomfortable.

Upon arrival, they placed me in the energy group since I was from Texas. However, my folks were economics professors. Man, I didn't know the difference between natural gas and gasoline. There I was, a liberal arts student in a finance job focused on an industry I knew nothing
about. Again, completely uncomfortable. But I dove in.

Since that time, I maintain that if you aren't completely uncomfortable on your first day on the job, you're probably in the wrong job! Put yourself out, set a high hurdle, back up, run and then clear it. Let the fog of the future excite you!

I learned about the financial side of the energy industry and then after business school, I was fortunate to connect with a partner who thought it would be an interesting idea to buy natural gas assets since prices were low. A simple, buy low, sell high, strategy. Unfortunately, our smart thesis was dead wrong! Prices declined for 7 straight years. Man, did we look stupid! But, rather than succumb, we changed our business model and found a strategy less dependent on commodity prices.

In hindsight, we didn't oppose forces, we used them. In so doing, we built a business based upon things we could control - lowering costs and increasing output. That felt better.

To accomplish this, our secret was that we developed a different mantra --to invest in people. Since we didn't know how to operate an oil or gas well, our job as investors became to identify and serve the entrepreneurs who could. Whether we owned 1% or 99% of the company, our job was the same -- back great managers, align our interests and support their leadership of the companies. They were doing what mattered in the field.

By doing this, I ended up making a good living in an industry I know nothing about. Talk about uncomfortable. I can't read a seismic line to save my life. I can't read a well log and you don't want me anywhere near the wellhead.... But this perpetual state of discomfort pushed me to rely on my instinct around backing great people. My currency was integrity, fairness, honesty and reputation - all traits I trace back to 10600 Preston Road. Given the violent industry cycles that occurred, key elements of partnership and integrity were critical. We survived a few near-death experiences. We did it with tenacity, wit and creativity and became one of the largest and most successful private investment firms in the country.

Along the way, I learned a few key lessons from the "people" business:

 1) Be the kind of person who would make others proud if they could see how you act when they're NOT in the room. Be Decent. Fair, and honest.

  2) Stay far from the foul line; there is a lot of gray area in life and how you navigate that will determine much about how your life will unfold. As mentors taught me, if I wouldn't want something to appear on the front page of The ReMarker, then don't do it.

  3) Relationships matter...if you treat every interaction as if it will be one of many, you will approach each differently.

I wasn't afraid to ask a question and I wasn't afraid to try new things. Along the way, Discomfort was replaced simply by uncertainty. In fact, the fog of the future excited me. When the industry cycled down, I didn't quit. I stayed in there, reacted and moved forward. Ultimately, the industry turned and our strategic moves paid off.

Then, somewhere deep in the recesses of my past, I tapped into a new sensation -- the good feelings that comes from service. I always felt fortunate to be here and the school was good to emphasize service so often. Today, it is even more pronounced. In addition, just walking the halls and seeing the names on these walls evokes a feeling that others who have passed through helped pave the way for the next generation. I wanted to find ways to give back. In fact, as I have said, this campus, even if it is barely recognizable to the school I attended, is "home." I feel welcome here. COMFORTABLE! Serving with both my time and resources has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my life. It has served as the model for my community service since. I can't imagine what my life would be like if it were not for this place.

As I look back now, St. Mark's provided the foundational elements of my life. The value of hard work, the feeling of being challenged, overcoming the initial discomfort, and succeeding ... all unbelievably satisfying. Added to that, a healthy dose of service and the result has been and continues to be an incredibly fulfilling life.

Then, something happened.

With my son and daughter no longer around to tell me my ideas were stupid, another chapter of my life opened up. It's amazing how smart I got once my kids left home!

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I enjoyed talking baseball and Midland oil deals with the son of the 41st President when he moved to Dallas and became co-owner of the Rangers. We had a lot to talk about back then.

When he returned to town after his political career, I was happy to support the Bush Presidential Center on the SMU campus. I had no idea where it would lead.

Last year, after the prior CEO left to undertake a new endeavor, I was in conversations with a board member encouraging them, as a donor, to find a successor who had ties to the Community and who was able to articulate the mission of the Bush Center and how it matters to people. Well, a word of advice. In the non-profit setting, be careful. If you ever find yourself suggesting that a board do "X", then, chances are, you've just volunteered to do whatever "X" is. President Bush then asked if I would take the CEO post. Happily, but a bit uncomfortable, I agreed.

Now, around the principles of economic and political freedom, less government dependency and a strong and compassionate county at home and abroad, we execute our strategy of developing leaders, advancing policy and taking action to solve today's pressing challenges,

I get to support the agenda of a former US president who served in consequential times. However, I didn't have any background in President Bush's agendas; I wasn't part of his administration. But I had the confidence, and the discomfort didn't bother me. In fact, the fog of the future excited me. I embraced the uncertainty.

I have been able to hear first-hand what principled leadership is all about. -- the obligation to look at ourselves in the mirror and be intellectually honest, regardless of the issue. There are social ills in society today for which we may have reactions, explanations and justifications. But do we have empathy? A real leader needs the empathy to understand the totality of an

issue. We need to get outside of ourselves and put difficult issues in full relief. For cohorts of which we are members, we are more forgiving and understanding than we are of communities to which we don't belong.

As President George Bush said in July of 2016 at the Dallas memorial for the slain officers: "Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions."

Leaders must lean hard against that slant while still standing true to a set of guiding principles.

While strategy and tactics can be debated, principles are constant, and

Without principled leadership, our elected officials are little more than a mood ring on the hand of the American people.

This year, St. Mark's had the chance to pull out the mirror and see which principles we were made of. The question left the legal realm and entered the personal. We got to ask ourselves: What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of an alumni association do we want to be? What kind of "home" will we have -- one of unconditional acceptance and comfort or one where there is an obligation of some sorts.

For me, while a family is always a family, and alumni will always be alumni, there are circumstances where the core values need to be reasserted and amplified, even if that means challenging one of our own graduates. Sometime, it takes an impetus to get us off the couch.

We want to be open to ideas that may make us uncomfortable and challenge conventional wisdom. That is how conventional wisdom changes... Without that, women and other minorities may still be without votes... However, the challenge we all need to confront is where the uncomfortable becomes the intolerable.

That is a difficult and personal issue that we need to challenge without breaking the law or violating another person's protected rights. While we don't want to stoop to acting on vengeance or becoming vigilantes, we don't have to remain standing when it crosses our personal bright line. We can object, but should always be civil.

That is one of the essential elements of our freedom. In his 2005 Inaugural address, President Bush so eloquently charged us:

"to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character. America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility."

He went on to say,
"...Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of truth over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment."

And finally, let me conclude by saying that “it is ok to be uncomfortable.”

But don't just take my word for it. Check the authority on everything -- Google! Co-founder of Google Larry Page was asked for a summary on how you change the world, to which he said, "Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting."

Don't just tolerate that uncomfortable tux, break it in, wear it out! St. Mark's has not only made us welcome the discomfort, it has made us better men who are able to tolerate differences of opinion and know how to counter the repugnant in a civilized and democratic manner. You wear it well! As Marksmen, let that fog of the future excite you. Stand up with the pride, honor and integrity worthy of this great institution! Congratulations to the great class of 2017!

And Go Lions!

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About Struck By Living

In Struck by Living, Julie Hersh picks apart the irony of her life with humor and brutal honesty. Despite a loving husband, healthy children, financial security, Julie attempted suicide three times. With the help of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), Julie broke the deadly course of her disorder. Now well, Julie promotes the importance of mental health with collaborations with other artists and organizations.

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