Live an active life among people who are doing worthwhile things, keep eyes and ears and mind and heart open to absorb truth, and then tell of the things you know, as if you know them. The world will listen, for the world loves nothing so much as real life. ― Dale Carnegie, The Art of Public Speaking
If you would have told me thirty years ago that I would have the opportunity to present a commencement speech for the Florida State University 2013 graduating class on a Saturday morning, I would have called you delusional. But, last year, on May 4th, 2013 I spoke to graduating students at one of FSU’s graduations in the Leon County Civic Center. This definitely was an once in a lifetime experience. Here is the speech I presented:
Good morning and congratulations to all of you! When you walk out of this building today, you will be a proud graduate of the great Florida State University.
You may be wondering what in the world a middle-aged guy with a funny last name can say this morning that is interesting or relevant. On the other hand, I am looking out at you —remembering— you’re young and ready to take on the whole world.
You took a step towards a better life by pursuing your college degree and I salute your accomplishment.
Never underestimate the power of one small step in a forward direction. Let me tell you a bit about the journey that brought me to FSU.
At the age of 30, I became a student here — Married and poor with a low paying job, a wife, and a son on the way. There were no Bright Futures Scholarships to help pay my way. You see, I was born Amish and the Amish Mafia was not interested in paying way to attend FSU. As a side note, Amish Mafia makes for great TV—fantasy TV, that is, there is no such thing as Amish Mafia.
In an Amish home in Pennsylvania, learning English only after learning German, one of 9 kids—our life was without electricity, can you imagine? No cars, no TV, no pictures or films of any kind; but we did have National Geographic magazines. It was a life of many rules and working dawn ’til dusk on our family farm.
At the age of 6, I was fortunate enough to enter a small public school— a bit unusual for an Amish kid. This was the first small, but vital step. I was introduced to art—color, Disney movies, and the Beatles. My teacher, and inspiration, Mr. Jere Brady, didn’t seem to mind that I smelled like cows. He taught me about primary colors and basic art designs.
After the completion of eighth grade and part of the ninth, my formal education was over. There was no negotiating—this was the rule— in my home and in my church. At the age of 15 I was working 10 hour days—long, tiring, tedious days—working on a potato and dairy farm. Somewhere in the back of my dreams, there were still memories of creating art — and a sense that there was this big grand world out there just beyond my reach. And so, I left the Amish community. I bought a car, bought a camera, and joined a traveling band; All big taboos in my former world. This was an even bigger step….
Along the way, I fell in love with a a sweet southern girl with a pretty accent, and ended up marrying her and moving to Florida, the place she called home. My wife was a constant source of encouragement as I considered the daunting task of going to college—years after my education was declared ‘finished’ by the Amish church.
Another important small step was when I enrolled at Chipola College in Marianna. There I learned to write english papers and understand Algebra. Through Humanities classes, I discovered the glorious art of Peter Paul Rubins and Picasso and the soul-stirring Eine Kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart.
Chipola was a beginning, but I had a dream of doing something that no one in my family had ever done –– graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. A diploma signed by the governor. I wanted to go to FSU—home of the the Seminoles. This was a BIG step! —and was probably one of the hardest steps of my life. I can vividly remember walking down the brick sidewalk of the Westcott building. Heart pounding, lump in my throat, this nervous ex-Amish man took this big step—and it changed my life. I didn’t know a soul and felt like I didn’t know a thing. But I wanted to learn about communication, about media and film. It was here, at FSU, that I learned how to produce media material, how to create compositions, and how to craft stories that add color to life, stories about nature, stories about people, stories that educate, inform and entertain.
I have worked in the communication world and media industry for almost three decades. The small and big steps necessary to get an education were the tools that helped me become an independent documentary filmmaker.
Last year was one of the highlights of my career—I was one of four individuals who embarked on a 1000 mile in 100 days expedition. From the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia we hiked, kayaked, and rode horses throughout the vast state of Florida to create a documentary for PBS-TV. Plenty of small steps to trek across the vast state of Florida, I guess for some people this would be a huge step. The many small steps in my education and career prepared me to tell the stories about conservation issues, wildlife observations, and gave me the opportunity to interview many of the great conservation leaders across Florida.
By creating an in-depth collection of stories, the projects that I produced and worked on reached millions across the state and our country. These media stories are windows of education that can lead others to take steps in creating a better future.
The small steps that changed my life so many years ago lives on in the lives of my two children. My small steps toward getting an education allowed them to continue on to high school and college, an opportunity denied to me.
My son Nic graduated from FSU last spring, and is now teaching English in Japan. He studied Japanese here, and worked with international students to earn a TEFL certificate. My daughter Laura is pursuing a hybrid Bachelor’s to Masters program in Communication here, graduating with her BA a few months ago. Some of you may have had her as a TA for Public Speaking this semester.
My commitment to education provided my children with a future brighter than any I imagined. I would not be here now without the brave steps of those who taught and inspired me, and I hope my journey can teach others the importance of an education and inspire you to reach for your own dreams, even if they seem outside of your grasp.
As you step into a new world of new opportunities, remember, your efforts in taking small steps in a forward direction will continue to open doors and provide new paths for you, as well as those who follow after you. Be courageous. Take risks. Be bold. Take BIG steps. Leave today and go change your world!