Lessons on Leadership and Service

A look back at Governor Joe Kernan’s 1998 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame

Twenty years ago, I lived in what could generously be called a dilapidated house on Corby Street, just a few blocks south of the Notre Dame campus, in South Bend, Indiana.

That’s where my mom called me from across town — on a landline, no less — to ask if she could come over right away. This was an unusual request to say the least (it was one of two times she ever stepped foot in that house), but she needed a working computer and a printer to make last minute revisions to the speech her boss was going to deliver in a couple days at Notre Dame’s graduation.

Her boss was the Lt. Governor of Indiana at the time, Joe Kernan.

The reason for the frantic, last minute changes is indicative of the kind of person Joe is — and the sense of responsibility he has for others. As I recall, there was a joke in the written remarks that included a punch line about a dog going to the bathroom in someone’s yard. The joke itself was not offensive in the least, but the valedictorian of the Class of 1998 was Tim Cordes, who was blind and would be accompanied by his service dog, a German Shepard named Electra.

Joe being Joe did not want to do anything that could be perceived as disrespectful to Tim, so the joke had to be removed from the written text before it was provided to university officials. And while my mom’s computer was not cooperating, my roommate Jason’s Gateway 2000 did the trick.

The lead up to Joe’s speech — which he wrote himself, and included suggested advice for graduates that friends had provided — was not without controversy. Some students complained that he was not prestigious or high profile enough for their liking. Joe could have responded with some sense of entitlement or bitterness, but instead he laughed it off by making a self-deprecating comment in the speech itself.

It’s the kind of magnanimous approach you might not expect from someone who was shot down over Vietnam 46 years and 10 days ago, and imprisoned for the following year. But, that’s Joe — always quick with a joke or a bit of goodwill extended your way.

There are a few more anecdotes in the speech itself that show his sense of responsibility and service. I got to see some of that firsthand, as an intern the summer following his commencement speech and later as a campaign staffer in 2004.

Joe has always favored grace over self-aggrandizement, and in navigating tricky political dynamics he invariably opted for what was right even if it wasn’t good politics. And since I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him walk by a piece of litter without picking it up and putting it in a trash can.

All of this is a long way of saying that there’s something to be said for leaders who consider, and actually care about, how their words and actions affect other people. There’s something to be valued in leaders who understand that not everyone gets a fair shake and we’re all in this together. And there’s something to be truly admired about leaders who accept and act on the kinds of responsibilities we have to one another.

It’s hard to truly account for how broken our collective politics — and our sense of service to others — have become without the contrast of leaders who conduct themselves with humility and empathy, and who treat everyone with the respect and dignity that we all deserve.

And that’s why I’m sharing the following speech, 20 years to the day that it was delivered by someone who served his city, his state, and his country.

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