John Ben Shepperd: The Sign on the Door

May 28, 1957

Commencement Exercises of Knox City High School (Knox City, Texas)

The Sign on the Door


I have frequently observed that on the day of their graduation from high school, seniors don’t know whether they are coming or going. When I graduated, the commencement speaker noticed me in the audience and pausing in his address, he remarked that the flat hats worn by graduating students appear to by symbolic of what lies under them.

But on this occasion, it is indeed hard to know whether you are coming or going because you have come to one of those doorways in life that are marked with two signs, one saying “Exit” and the other saying “Entrance”. When you cross this threshold, you are both going out and coming in. You are leaving a period of life that you will always look back on with pleasure and happy memories and you are entering a phase of life that you have looked forward to with eagerness.

Although it is not my purpose or intention to preach a sermon, I’d like to pose a verse of Scripture over this doorway in your career. In the 121st Psalm, Verse 8, we read:

“The Lord shall preserve thy going
out and thy coming in, from this
time forth and forevermore.”

I hope you will remember this when you are surrounded with the responsibilities of citizenship and locked in the struggle to maintain the freedom that is yours by inheritance.

There are two kinds of country you could have been born in. You could have lived in a totalitarian country where people are governed by dictators—where everything that isn’t forbidden is compulsory and where the individual is unimportant, having no freedom of choice or of opportunity.

Or, you can grow up in a country and a state like ours, where we still place a premium on individualism and where we govern ourselves on the premise that every individual ought to be as free and unrestricted as possible. This can only happen when the high schools of our country graduate young men and women of moral character who will govern themselves instead of having to be governed—who will assume the responsibilities of good citizenship.

Here in the United States, and especially in Texas, we believe in the right of every graduating senior to go out and find a job, a college, a husband or wife, and a place to live, a career to follow, a church to worship in, and a purpose for living, without being told how or where to do it.

I hope that in your studies of science, mathematics, government, history, English and all the other subjects you have mastered, you have not been given the impression that a head full of facts constitutes an education. I trust you have not been fitted with a pair of rose-colored glasses and led to believe that the world will respect your right to exist and to be free just because you have learned to recite from Wordsworth, take shorthand and work Algebra.

I am confident that your teachers, your parents, your school administrators, the members of your school board, the Parent-Teacher Association, and the sponsors of your high school clubs and organizations have all worked together to teach you the real facts of life—that it is better to be right than to be rich; better to be fair than be famous; better to be honest than to be exalted; better to be good than be clever; better to be free than be secure; and better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

But above all, I hope and trust that you have been taught to stand on your own two feet, like a Texan—to do your own thinking and act on your own convictions. A wise man once said that an educated person is one who can sit in a room, alone, for one hour and not be bored. But I believe a person truly educated in heart, mind and backbone is the one who can worship his own God, cast his own ballot, carry his own load and look for a helping hand at the end of his own arm.

I could talk for a long time about the wonderful opportunities awaiting you in this growing state of ours, with its new industries, increasing population and growing wealth. I could talk about the good jobs, the chances for advanced education, the prospects of long life, the new frontiers to be conquered, and the unlimited horizons that offer you great challenge and promise you great happiness.

But I must tell you the truth. Your happiness does not depend on these things. It does not depend on how the world treats you, but on how you treat the world. The only achievements that will bring you respect and love are the things you do for others; the only things you can take with you through life, and beyond it, are the things you have given away.

And the only way you can remain free is to turn your own government by taking a personal part in it. An educated citizen is not one who can solve great problems by sitting in a swanky office and drifting into the cool stratosphere of abstract thought, but the one who has sense enough to put his hand in God’s hand and pray like a lost sinner while he totes the barges and lifts the bales.

We need you young people. We need you to build homes in which the family Bible is in as much demand as the family car. We need you in business and the professions, wherever people are less concerned about the dots and dashes in the Constitution than they are about the dollar signs on the ledger.

But most of all we need you in politics and public affairs, because men are making laws today which attempt to do for us what we ought to do for ourselves—they’re trying to give everybody a benefit at everybody else’s expense; trying to live high on money borrowed from our children’s unborn children; expanding the Federal Government in an effort to erase state lines, nullify state laws, and not only to bring us into subjection to strong, centralized authority contrary to the Constitution, but also to impose upon us a national conscience to replace our individual beliefs and principles.

You probably do not fully understand this yet; but you will, because your generation will have to right the wrongs, or pay the penalties. When the time comes for you to do this, you may not remember my words, but I believe you will remember what you have been taught, what your fathers and forefathers have stood for, and what Texas stands for.

It is time for you to prepare for your responsibilities, because we need you. We need you at every precinct and county convention, at every political rally, at every meeting of the Commissioners Court, the School Board and the City Council.  We need young people of character in public office on the local, state and national level, where constitutional government is dying of cold feet because public officials are afraid to get in hot water. We need you at the polls, where great principles are suffocated under the weight of the ballots that are never cast and where people are voting their prejudice instead of their principles.

And don’t think that I am talking to you young men any more than young women. Women are especially equipped for the job of public leadership. Any Home Economics major who learns to can a jar of pickles and hold it up to the light to see if it is leaking air and is going to spoil in a few months can do the same to a politician. A girl who can keep three or four boys on the string at the same time, and make each one think he’s her favorite, would make a good politician herself. If you’ve ever seen a girl wrangling with her father for a new dress, you’ve seen a soft-soaping lobbyist at work; and if you’ve ever seen a teenage girl on the telephone, you’ve seen a filibuster.

This is a very important occasion for all of you. This is a door though which you will never pass again. Here are your friends, some of whom you may be seeing for the last time. Here are your teachers, whom you cannot appreciate enough and can never repay for giving you a part of themselves to take with you through life. For many of you, this is goodbye.

But it is also a time for promises. You should pledge to each other that someday when you sit in such a place as this as parents and teachers yourselves, watching your own children graduate, you will have handed them a heritage of freedom un-soiled by lethargy and compromise. You should promise one another that you will keep this country the kind of place where men and women will rise high by staying on the level, and get to the top not by climbing, but by growing—where anyone who is willing to stay on his toes can reach for the stars.

Someday when you are weighted down with two-fold responsibility of earning a living and preserving the only successful Democracy ever established by man, your lives will seem to be dominated by those two things—gold and government. That is the time when you must remember that the truly good things of life have to be lived for—they cannot be voted into existence nor paid for with money.

Nobody can go down to the bank, open a safe deposit box and file away a title to a Texas sunset or the memory of happy days in high school.  Nobody can lay gold on the counter and buy the bitter-sweet pangs of first live.  Nobody can write a check for the companionship of a true friend, or trade hard cash for the devotion and sacrifices of a kind mother and father, or purchase at any price the love and loyalty of a good wife or husband.

And in every life there comes a time when all the dazzling wealth of the Universe if not half so precious as the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a strong, free man.

Freedom is old, not young,  yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing; yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who, is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.

May the lord preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech 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.]