I was invited by Mona Vroman to be the "featured dinner speaker" at this year’s Spring Student Leader Conference Alumni Dinner. It is an event at which Alumni of all generations mingle with current students in leadership roles. I have attended and greatly enjoyed this function for the last two years and was honored (eventually) to be asked to speak. Here is the text of my speech which I gave this evening.
I first want to thank Mona for asking me to be tonight’s speaker. When she first approached me, I didn’t want to do it. But she’s heard and enjoyed some of my Potsdam stories before and convinced me that my experiences and feelings for this place were worthy of sharing with you. I hope you also will enjoy a few of my memories.
I also want to thank my wife Amanda and my sons, Brady and Kyle for supporting me.
Amanda is home sick and couldn’t make it this evening. Kyle is here. Brady is on Res Life student staff and has training this evening. Working for a college is not always a nine-to-five job. There are long work days, missed dinners, and weekends that end up not being Family Time. But they’re always waiting for me when I get home.
In the fall of 1987 my parents drove with me to Potsdam to leave me, their only son, to the mercies of the adult world of college. I was not what you’d call a "Leader" in high school. I was a band geek, active in some extra-curricular activities, and the "non-jock" sports of soccer and bowling–but I didn’t stand out. Still, my parents–who are here tonight–did a great job of preparing me for life on my own, that is to say life without their day-to-day involvement. For them, mere thanks seem hardly adequate. Armed with 18 years of "experience" and some fatherly advice, I let them help me move in, hugged and kissed them goodbye, and watched them go.
I wasted no time in engaging with campus administration. 1987 was the year the campus had, for some reason, grossly over-booked the residence halls. Study-lounges became triples and no one had a super single that year. I found myself in an undesirable housing situation and I fixed it. How? By reaching out to and working with the office of Residence Life. Always interested in computers, I went in search of a job with CTS (then called Academic Computing). I did not qualify for work/study and they had no assistantships with which to pay me. So I volunteered. That year we set up the original Levitt Center, which I helped to monitor as well as working in the Academic Computing office. By my Sophomore year I had become valuable enough to Academic Computing that they saw to it that I was hired each year afterward. By the end of my college career I was managing all of Academic Computing’s student work force. Since Academic Computing couldn’t pay me my first year and my parents wouldn’t give me any money over and above paying for my tuition, room, and board (nor should they have); I had to get another job. Thank you PACES! I worked as night cleaner in what used to be the Bowman dining hall. In addition to my other duties, once a week I cleaned the grease trap under the floor by the main washing sink. This was a job so foul that they could only do it when the hall was closed and everyone else was gone. It’s no surprise they had trouble finding people willing to do it. I volunteered for the job, negotiating triple-time pay while on the clock and cleaning that trap.
College Union Board (now SES) used to show movies in the Union MPR. There was this massive booth on casters as big as your head that was so large it couldn’t leave the room. It was wheeled into the center of the room and had 2 16mm projectors and plugged into a sound system…and was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. I was always the kid in elementary school who ran the filmstrip and movie projectors, so I HAD to know more about this! After seeing my first movie, I went and talked to the projectionist. He gave me a tour of the booth, told me about CUB and invited me to the next meeting. I went, joined, and volunteered for the film committee which was in charge of showing movies. I was trained as a projectionist and was soon showing movies on my own. I eventually took over as chair of the film committee and became responsible for the largest student organization budget on campus at the time: about $30,000. I had to negotiate licenses with the companies that rented us the films, arrange for delivery and shipment of the movies, as well as recruit, organize, and train new projectionists. That led to becoming President of CUB, which position was, at the time, also a Board Member of PACES. That afforded me an inside look at the workings of a corporation including board meetings and the vetting of contenders for the campus vending contract. I was also part of the SGA executive committee that founded the Lehman Night Club–what you know today as Hurley’s. I didn’t work for PACES through all of college–I eventually became a student Union Manager, patrolling Barrington after hours, opening and locking meeting rooms and locking the building at the end of my shift. As a result of holding that position, I very likely also hold the distinction of being the only person to be one-man security for a Phish concert.
One of the reasons I chose to come to SUNY Potsdam was that it was close enough to my home town of Keeseville that I could go home pretty much whenever I wanted, but far enough away that I was AWAY FROM HOME. Keeseville is a small town–one of those places where it seems like everyone knows everyone. That can be good–it is often said "it’s not what you know, it’s who you know." But that can also be bad. If everything you have you got because of a wink, a handshake, or a favor; you’ll never be sure what you can get on your own. Potsdam was far enough away from home that I could be sure I wasn’t getting any favors. I earned the respect and responsibility I got on my own, and I take no small amount of pride in that.
SUNY Potsdam is awesome because it was and still is the kind of place that presents opportunities like the ones I had and of which I took advantage. But opportunities don’t just fall in your lap, and you certainly don’t find them staying holed up in your room or your apartment. You have to explore. You have to get out. You have to get involved. If you’re bored on this campus–in this town–it’s your own fault. I lived on campus for 5 years and boredom was not something I ever suffered.
Now I want to talk a little about giving back. I love SUNY Potsdam. I didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. Not because I didn’t think I was ready for the World. Just the opposite, in fact. This place, my parents, and my freshly-minted Liberal Arts background had me prepared to do just about anything. I returned home for one last stint at my summer job, temped briefly, sold office products, windows and doors, sold and serviced computers, and then, four and a half years after graduating, got a job here. That was 1996 and I’m still here, still working for CTS, and I tell everyone I’m paid to play. I don’t "work"…I have a job I love, and I’m doing it at a place I love. It’s the single biggest thing I can do to show my appreciation for what my experiences at SUNY Potsdam have given me. I didn’t realize this when I was hired, of course. A job when you are in your 20s is all about paying your bills and being able to eat. It was no different for me. But about 7 or 8 years ago, our Alumni Office did something very nice. Longtime Alumni Office secretary Laura Stevenson went to the office of every employee on campus who was also an alumnus and presented them with a gift. Mine was a decorative dried gourd with a note that simply said, "Thank you for making SUNY Potsdam your Life’s Work." I’ve never forgotten that. Second only to my Family, SUNY Potsdam IS my Life’s work. I just didn’t realize it until that moment.
Not all of you can graduate and end up working here, obviously. It will happen to a few of you, I’m sure. SUNY Potsdam may not be your life’s work. But never forget this place, and give back to it when you can. A lot of people hear "give back" and immediately think of money. I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be welcome, but that’s only one way of giving back. Come back when you can, for you will always be welcome. Help out when you can. There are Alumni groups all over the country that get together periodically–volunteer to head a chapter, or work with the Alumni Office to start one in your area if there isn’t one. We have Reunion Weekend every Summer–more than just coming back for a visit, volunteer to help out in some capacity, no matter how small, while you are here. Did you have a professor who really inspired you? Come back and be a guest speaker in his or her course or at a function like this. You are here tonight because you have already demonstrated above-average potential. You are already on the road to success. Consider sharing that success with your alma mater.
I mentioned fatherly advice in my opening paragraph. If anyone’s curious, it was this: Make friends with the lunch ladies and the janitors. (Today more appropriately called food service workers and custodians.) I didn’t see the wisdom in that advice at the time. If you don’t either, I suggest you try it for yourselves and report back to me in a few years!
I said earlier that I have a job I Iove. May you all be so lucky, and may you all never forget how you got there, and the foundation and opportunities SUNY Potsdam has provided you. With SUNY Potsdam behind you, I don’t think you’ll need much luck at all!