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John Ben Shepperd: Graduating Class of South Texas College

June 1, 1953

Graduating Class of South Texas College (Houston, Texas)

Graduation day is traditionally a day for words—words of congratulation, words of good-bye to friends and classmates, and commencement addresses full of philosophy and advice. As for philosophy, it is like molasses—sticky; and as for advice, you have reached the stage where you had much rather give it than receive it, and after having to take it for a number of years without being able to fight back.

Some of you younger graduates have your parents here looking proudly on. They are as happy as you are, because even though it might bring a tear to their eyes to see you passing into the full maturity of manhood or womanhood, there is something very normal and comfortable about a self-supporting son or daughter.

And some of you are married already, and have worked hard to make a living and get an education at the same time. They say married students do better in college than single students. That is hardly surprising, since the married student is using two heads. He apparently is more clever than the single student to begin with—at least he has the sense to be educating two people for the price of one.

Most of you are receiving degrees in law. I wish I could have talked to you before you took up the law as a profession. I could have told you 467 easier ways to make a living. I counted them up when I was halfway through law school.

You ladies present who are the wives or prospective wives of lawyers could profit from a few words of counsel. In order to be a lawyer you have to learn the laws that are laid down; but to be a lawyer’s wife, you have to learn to lay down the law. Even then you have will never quite master some of the things you will have to put up with. You will have to bow and scrape to the boss, smile at the clients and the senior partners in the firm, and share a large part of your home with law books. You won’t be able to leave the kids at the office for an hour while you go shopping, because it is a dignified place. Your husband will frequently spend an evening away from home, always with a legal excuse. But worst of all, you will sooner or later have to cope with “the legal mind.” The legal mind is simply a propensity for viewing everything—your new dress, the breakfast biscuits, and even the baby—from the standpoint of whether it will stand up in court. It’s a horrible thing to live with.

You’ll find your husband cross-examining the kids, “Where were you on the night before the algebra quiz?” and he will be constantly impeaching the testimony of his mother-in-law. It is difficult to run a home—particularly a home with youngsters—according to the rules of evidence and procedure, but you’ll be expected to do it.

Some of you are taking degrees in commerce, and some of you are junior college graduates. But no matter what you have prepared yourself to do, you will find that your time in college will pay for itself with interest. The doors are opening to better, fuller living for all of you. You have made the investment which will bring you new economic benefits and open up new opportunities, not only for earning a better living, but also for enjoying life to its fullest. You have worked hard, and you have reason to demand more of life, because you have put more into it.

I am confident that in acquiring learning you have also acquired understanding—that you have come to the realization that a head full of facts and precepts does not necessarily constitute an education. It is not what you know that counts, but how you apply it. For example, a great many housewives majored in home economics, and learned to can a jar of pickles and hold it up to the light to see if it was leaking air and was going to spoil in a few months—but they wasted their time if they applied that knowledge only in the kitchen. They should have used it in choosing a husband.

Every fact you have learned in college is sitting on top of an important principle, and the truly educated person is the one who retains the principle long after the fact has been forgotten. Your professors have finished testing every aspect of your factual knowledge, but your principles will be tested for the rest of your life. For every man or woman who fails in life for lack of intellect, a hundred fail for lack of moral character.

Whether you have studied to be a lawyer, an engineer, a businessman, a teacher, a housewife, a secretary or an architect, you can properly call yourself educated only if you have learned this: That life is a long course of study in living by great principles, and that only daily class attendance, not cramming, can prepare you for the final exam. An expanding mind, without an expanding soul, will only destroy itself. It has not been the purpose of this school to give you all the learning you will need, but to give you a capacity for learning, and a hunger for the wisdom that satisfies.

But too many words spoil the dictionary. You are closing a phase of your life on which you will look back with happy memories; as you cross the threshold of a new phase which will lead to even harder work, higher achievement, and greater happiness, let me stand beside your wives, parents, relatives and friends at the doorway and bid you welcome. God bless you all.

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.