In 2011, I was privileged to speak to graduating students of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. Following is the main content of that speech:
I’m going to tell you two stories. They’re related, and each of them will illustrate a point. I’ll then close my remarks by making a request of you graduates.
Here’s the first story. After they won the state Class A championship, Indy Met’s basketball team was invited to Washington D.C. They visited a lot of the places tourists usually visit – the U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, part of the Smithsonian. They also visited Ben’s Chili Bowl and learned of its history and the history of that part of the city.
Ben’s is a little restaurant near the intersection of 12th & U streets. It was started by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 – an exciting time on U Street, which was then known as “Black Broadway.” A lot of famous people frequented the area and many of them ate at Ben’s from time to time: people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King Jr, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby. Times were good.
Then came 1968 and the assassination of Dr. King. Riots broke out in many cities, and U Street was in the middle of the riots in our nation’s capital. Businesses closed down or were burned down. That part of Washington was a war zone, and it looked like it. I know. I moved to Washington in the fall of 1968 and drove through that area – once. That area – in fact, much of Washington – was no longer safe. I found that out the hard way when, a few months after moving there, I was held up at gunpoint about a mile from where Ben’s is located.
Obviously, I survived. And so did Ben’s. It stayed open. But then in the 1970s that part of Washington was taken over by drug dealers and the entire area suffered. Still – Ben’s survived. Business began to improve, but then in the 1980s construction began on the Green Line of the D.C. subway system, the Metro. That part of U Street became a big hole – the construction went on for five years. Still – Ben’s survived.
Gradually, the area came back. Business improved, and Ben’s became increasingly well known. Barack Obama ate lunch there a few days before his inauguration. Ben died in 2009, but two of his sons continue to operate the business, which has expanded and is thriving.
Many times it would have been easy for Ben to quit or move to another part of town. But he what he started has become a Washington institution. And that leads me to the second story.
There’s another institution in Washington D.C. that started four years after Ben started his restaurant. It’s called the Community Club, and it operates in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. Volunteers come there every Thursday evening to tutor young people. During its first 40 years, the Community Club had only two directors. They, too, were volunteers who made long term commitments to try to make a difference in people’s lives, and thousands of young people benefited.
I attended that church, and shortly after I moved to Washington I started volunteering in the Community Club, where I tutored two boys one-on-one for over a year. They seemed to benefit, but so did I. In fact, it changed the course of my life. I got so much personal satisfaction from that experience I started searching for a place where I could use my educational background, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid at least enough to live on. That search led me to Goodwill Industries and started me on a career that lasted more than 40 years, during which I helped start a school – Indianapolis Metropolitan High School – that educates a lot of students very much like those I tutored in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s.
Here’s my point. The greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments. It might be a commitment to go further with your education or to start and grow a business; it might be a commitment to a job or a career or some cause you deeply believe in. Or it might be a commitment to another person – a spouse, for example, or a kid you mentor or tutor. Nothing really worthwhile in life comes quickly or is easy, and no job is fun all the time. But if you make the commitment and stick with it – like Ben Ali did – through the inevitable ups and downs, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish and how full your life can be.
So here’s my request of you graduates. As you enter adulthood, and if you really appreciate the people who have helped you get to this point in your life, make it a point – and a priority – to do something good for someone else. It might be a kid you tutor or mentor or an elderly person who needs some help. Regardless, do something good for someone else – not just once, but over an extended period of time – at least a year – and don’t expect anything in return. You’ll make someone else’s life a bit better, you’ll get a lot of satisfaction from the experience, and you just never know where it might lead you in life.