History Department
History Department

History Department Spring 2005 Commencement

Sun, May 1, 2005

The commencement address was given by Lynda Johnson Robb, the eldest daughter of Lady Bird Johnson, who was also in the audience along with other family members. Both Robb and her mother graduated from the UT History department with honors. Robb presently refers to herself as a "professional volunteer" and an advocate for organizations for children's literacy. She also worked as a writer for McCall's Magazine and then as a contributing editor at Ladies' Home Journal for 12 years.

Among students graduating with BA degrees was Randal Boyd McDonald III, who graduated with a triple major in Plan II Honors, History, and Latin and is a Dean's Distinguished Graduate of 2005. History Honors students included Randy McDonald, Sabina Mora, Jon Grayson, Stirling Kelso, Abi Fisher, Shau Chang, Katie Shephard, and Daniel Guerra. Graduate students who earned their PhD or Master's degrees included David Lauderback, PhD; Robert Smale, PhD; Clint Starr, PhD; Mandy Young-Kutz, MA; Liz Day, MA; Franni Ramos, PhD.

Lynda Johnson Robb's speech to UT History graduates, May 20, 2005

There is no such thing as a bad short speech. If I didn't know this from my 45 years in politics, then history provides many examples,perhaps some of the best known being our 9th and 16th presidents. William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, gave the longest Inaugural Address on record, some 8445 words. He spoke for two hours in miserable weather, continuing on even though the vast majority of the audience had given up and left. He caught a cold, and died one month later.

Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in less than three minutes. It has been said that the photographer was unhappy because he didn't even have time to take a picture. And while the Chicago Sun Times may have complained that the speech was "silly, flat, and dishwatery," it has since come to be regarded as the one of the greatest speeches in American History.

So I will follow Lincoln's example on length and try to be brief, somewhat comforted by the knowledge that almost no one ever remembers the speech from their graduation.

Perhaps some of you became history majors for the same reasons I did. Forty-three years ago when I was entering THE University, I picked history for no better reason than because it interested me, it wasn't boring, and I was already good at it. I worked hard, read every assigned book, and made the freshman honor roll.

In retrospect, maybe that wasn't such a good idea, because once I did it the first time, my father figured I ought to be able to do it every time. So I studied a lot. In fact, I didn't discover until my senior year that you could actually skip classes and still do pretty well.

But it was okay because I enjoyed history, and in fact at one point I thought I might be an archeologist. That is until the summer after junior year that I spent working on an archeological dig in Grasshopper, Arizona. We were excavating a Kiva, which is a sort of Native American cross between a holy place and a men's smoking club--perhaps the modern equivalent of a Masonic temple.

The digging was actually pretty interesting. We found a lot of pottery shards, and tools, and I even had a skeleton to work on at one point, but I didn't like the tedium of cataloging everything and I was terrible at drawing. So the summer didn't lead to much job wise, although I did become an honorary member of White Mountain Apache tribe, but that isn't something you really put on a resume.

I had a chance to put my historical training to use when I moved into the White House. I decided to find out the history of my room, and all the famous historical figures I imagined had once slept there. As it turned out, I didn't uncover any Kings or Queens, but I did learn that little Willie Lincoln had died in my bedroom, and that it was the same room where they'd performed Lincoln's autopsy, which wasn't a particularly uplifting discovery.

After graduating, I got a job as a writer for McCall's Magazine, and then as a contributing editor to Ladies Home Journal, neither of which had any direct relation to history. I wrote a lot of pieces on everything from famous people's favorite children's books, idealistic Americans who volunteer abroad and one time I even went under cover as an airline stewardess. Fortunately, you write a lot of papers as a history major so I was more than prepared. It's a lot easier to write an article about 7 fun summer activities than it is to write a paper about the fall of Constantinople to Mehemet the Conquerer in 1453. I suppose it is pretty ironic, I was an eyewitness to history as it was being made--the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Society, Vietnam--and I was writing articles about being an airline stewardess. But my unique circumstances aside, the fact that I wasn't using my history degree, at least not directly, wasn't all that unusual back then.

And many of you won't go into a field that specializes in history, at least not directly. And that's okay.

With very few exceptions, you are not supposed to be a specialist at this stage in life. The good news is that as a history major, you have learned how to do research, to find patterns in information, to analyze events, to articulate ideas, and to write. These are all valuable skills that you will find helpful for just about any career you might pursue.

Despite some of the skepticism you had to put up with, and the concerns your parents might have, you have a lot of job opportunities open to you. Some of your prospective fields may pay well, such as law or consulting. Others such as teaching, journalism, or public service, may not be as lucrative, but can still be very rewarding. Then there are the careers that you haven't even thought of right now. You might find it worth knowing that Jimmy Buffet, Wolf Blitzer, Conan O'Brien and Martha Stewart all started off as history majors.

It comes down to this. If you have spent your college career pursing what you love, it was time well spent. And even if you secretly wanted to be a biochemistry major, and you gave in to pressure from your parents to study history, you still have time.

The world is crying out for smart people who can solve problems. It is not so much what you study, it's what you can accomplish. What's encouraging is that you have made it this far to graduation, a feat which--according to the latest census records--only about one fourth of Americans succeed in accomplishing.

But there are other reasons why history is worth studying, apart from getting a job, reasons that will make it a good tool for the rest of your life. Done right, history is entertaining and it's informative. History makes you feel connected to your past, something you will find becomes more important as you grow older. History gives you perspective. You learn that we didn't create civilization, and that great empires have existed before us, and will well after we are gone. The ancient Minoans had pipes with running water and elaborate baths in their palaces, thousands of years before my own mother, who grew up in a nation where outhouses were the norm at the time.

Sometimes, history will prove useful in unexpected ways. I didn't use my historical training right out of college, but later in my life it was essential in preparing me for my career as a political spouse in Virginia. Nowhere do people more revere the past than in Virginia. With 7 American Presidents born on their soil and both the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars fought there, you can hardly back out of your driveway without running into a historical marker. So when my husband's Virginia credentials were challenged when he first ran for election there, I dug into the history books and put together a state map listing relatives buried in cemeteries all over the great state of Virginia. I found great, great ancestors from his mother's side who had come to Williamsburg as far back as 1680. There were the Lewis's who founded the town of Staunton Virginia in the 18th century, and even the Treasurer of the Confederacy, who had his office in the same building where a hundred years later Chuck clerked for a federal judge.

But your collegiate experience is more than just what you major in, it is everything that happens to you while you are there.

I loved going to THE University and being a Longhorn. It is one of the few times in my life when I knew that everything I accomplished I did so on my own merits. Three generations of women in my family have gone to Texas, and if my children ever get around to doing their God-given duty and providing me with grandchildren, perhaps we'll have a fourth.

One of the wonderful things about going to UT, is that even after you graduate, you will continue to be part of its proud tradition. Right now you have a pretty impressive concentration of schoolmates here in this auditorium, and Saturday when you line up, you'll reach something like a critical mass of parts per unit Longhorns. But even once you disperse into the world, you'll find that your Alma Mater has a great influence on your life. You attended a big school. There are people in your class that you haven't even met yet, but that you will run into later in life, and who will become your friends, your work colleagues, your mentors, and for some of you, perhaps even your spouses. And when you do finally meet, whether it be one month from now or ten years, your experiences at UT will be a bond that you share. Once you've gone to the University of Texas, you'll always feel connected to a wider community.

Now mind you, there is a more organized connection in your future as well. Even if you move to a remote mountain in Tibet, live in a stone hut, and devote yourself to transcendental meditation, the Texas Exes will find you and hit you up for money. And when they do, make sure you give something, even if it's just a few dollars. You may or may not know this, but one of the factored-in metrics for the US News college rankings is the percentage--not the amount, the percentage--of alumni who donate. Your making a donation, however small it may be, is your vote, your way of saying that you value your school and the education you received. I don't mean to suggest that you should give something in a cynical effort to manipulate the rankings, but in a very real way it reflects your commitment to see your school continue to improve and thrive.

My husband and I made a deal when we got married, that I would always stand for the Marine Corps Hymn, and he would always stand for The Eyes of Texas are Upon You. As it so happens, in Washington there are a lot more opportunities to stand for the Marines, but I mention this because they are both great institutions, which are fortunate in the deep loyalty and respect they command.

I watched the Rose Bowl this past year with my mother and daughter, both UT graduates as well. My mother had a stroke two years ago, and now her words are very few. But in one of those mysteries that is the human brain, scientists have told us that sometimes, even when you cannot speak, you can still sing. So when the Longhorns won, Catherine and I helped my mother stand, we hooked our horns, and sang the Eyes of Texas, together. That will always be a treasured and happy moment for me.

I'll admit it, I can't even remember who spoke at my graduation when I was in your place so long ago, or anything he said, and as I said before, I don't imagine that you'll remember this speech tomorrow, much less a week from now. But I hope that for the rest of your life you will take pride in your association with this great university. Perhaps someday you can have the pleasure of hooking horns and singing the Eyes of Texas with your family and future generations.

Thank you.

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