Daniel Conley '80 Commencement Address
May 20, 2012STONEHILL COLLEGE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS OF
SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY DANIEL F. CONLEY
MAY 20, 2012
Bishop Coleman; Father Cregan; reverend clergy and sisters; Stonehill faculty; distinguished guests; honored alumni, family, friends; and graduates of the Class of 2012: Please accept my warmest welcome and my deepest thanks for the opportunity to speak on this very special occasion.
Before I begin, I'd like to join the chorus of praise for my fellow honorees, Stonehill trustee Bill Devin, Mother Margaret Regina, and Dr. Jim O'Connell. It's a privilege to share the stage with three people of such tremendous achievement in the fields of commerce, health care, and human kindness. They're living proof that a person can find success and happiness through service to others.
I also want to extend a very special greeting to some of the classmates with whom I graduated in 1980. One of them asked me recently, "Aren't you proud to be giving the commencement address at our alma mater?" And I thought about it, and I've got to say it's quite the reverse. It's a humbling experience. In part because, again, my fellow honorees are so distinguished in the paths they've followed. But what's really humbling is that - if the Class of 2012 is anything like the Class of 1980 - in 32 years, you're not going to remember who spoke at your graduation, either.
What I do hope you will remember and work hard to keep, are the friends you've made here. As I just said, I have several friends with me today; we all graduated together in 1980 but our friendships go back even further - almost 36 years to freshman year. It's not easy to maintain those kinds of bonds. Life leads you in all sorts of directions. One of the members of our crew back in our days here - Greg Collins, whom we all loved like a brother - died only a few years after we graduated. His death strengthened our friendships, because it wasn't lost on any of us how short life is and how special a true friend can be. So to all of you, if you take nothing else from my speech today, I hope you remember to keep your friends close throughout your lives.
I was in a bookstore recently and I noticed that there was an enormous section of books all geared specifically towards college graduates. Even without reading them, you had to love some of the titles because they went head-on at answering the important questions recent grads in your position are really asking, like: "How to be Richer, Smarter, and Better Looking Than Your Parents," which I wish had been published when I was your age.
By far, the biggest collection of books was of the self-help and life-after-college advice variety. Some, like "What Color is Your Parachute" have been around forever, but others had titles ripped right from today's headlines, asking whether your college degree will be worth the cost, or spelling doom and gloom for today's graduates.
Do yourself a favor: don't buy those books. Each one of you is a college graduate in the United States of America. That places you among the luckiest people on the entire planet. Even within the United States, you just graduated from one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. Whatever anyone wants to say about the economy, student loan debt, or the value of an undergrad degree, you possess one of the only true keys to real economic opportunity.
I grew up in a big family, the oldest of seven kids. My mom stayed at home and my dad worked long hours for what back then we simply called, "the phone company." Up until that point, no one in my family had gone to college but my parents both knew-- that's where I needed to go. To be fair - and this is not a knock on my parents- I don't think they really appreciated the difference between say, an Ivy League university or some small college in the mid-west. And it didn't matter. What my mom and dad did understand was that they broke their backs every day to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. College would mean that their son's economic security wouldn't be limited to the health of his back.
I didn't really understand or appreciate much about college back then either. My parents told me that's where I needed to go, and that was it - I was going to college. In my senior year of high school, we were allowed to take several days off to go look at colleges. Being city kids, naturally, most of us hopped on the T and went to look at schools downtown like Northeastern, Suffolk, and Boston State, all of which were "commuter schools," built into the fabric of the city.
But then, later in the fall, some of my classmates were heading to Stonehill, so I tagged along. I can remember turning through the gates off of Route 123 and seeing this beautiful campus for the first time and right then, it hit me: "So this is what my parents mean by "college!" With that first impression, and that realization, Stonehill was immediately the place where I just had to go.
On the day I was leaving home to start my college career, I had just finished packing all of my things into my buddy's car and I was standing on the sidewalk saying goodbye to my mom. My mother started crying and, I'll admit it, I started crying, too. I don't mean a little. We were really blubbering. My friend was taking all this in and must have been wondering "what's wrong with these people?" After all, we just lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, which is only about a half-hour from here.
Well, if that spectacle wasn't embarrassing enough, I came home after just one week at Stonehill and when it was time to head back to campus, my mother and I started crying all over again!
And then I put a week's worth of clean laundry in my duffle bag and made it back to Stonehill in about 25 minutes. Seriously, I think it took longer to find a Kleenex to blow my nose, than to drive back to school!
My mom and dad are here today and, fortunately, there were no tears when we made the drive down this morning. I want to thank them both for having a clearer picture than I did of where I needed to go to succeed and guiding me along the path to get there. And with that in mind, I think now would be a good time for all of you to acknowledge your own parents and the sacrifices they've made to get you to this point in your own lives.
Now, at this point, commencement speakers are supposed to tell you to go out into the world and just search for something that makes you happy and make that your life's pursuit. Or, I'm supposed to tell you to take this great opportunity you've created, choose your path carefully, and pursue your goals with a single-minded purpose. But neither of these paths really reflects the way life unfolds, who we are as human beings, and how we find fulfillment.
History books are filled with men and women who undertook their greatest achievements not by strict design but by accident, or at least serendipity. Take Nicholas Katzenbach, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 90. Katzenbach never attended his graduating class's commencement because he volunteered for the Army Air Force as a junior during World War II and he was shot down off the coast of Africa. When he came back after the war, he demanded college credit for all the books he'd read while in POW camps. They were probably as impressed with his bravado as they were with his reading list, because they handed him his degree.
If you'd asked Nicholas Katzenbach at that point what his goals in life were, I doubt he would have proclaimed an intention to stare down a segregationist governor to enroll two black students at the University of Alabama. He probably hadn't planned out the road to briefing the President of the United States on the legality of blockading Communist-controlled Cuba. But he did both - among many, many other things - in his long career as a government lawyer under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. By following what began as an interest in the law and politics, Nicholas Katzenbach was in a position to identify his strengths, find his true passion, and change the world around him, leaving it a better place for the generation that succeeded him.
This is something I believe young adults need to remember. Setting too strict a template for your life at an early age - and believe me, as college graduates, each of you is still at an early age - could cheat you out of the experiences that develop your interests and hone your skills. By the same token, wasting time in pursuit of temporary pleasures and self-indulgence will also cheat you out of the meaningful experiences you need to build on in order to lead happy, purpose-driven lives.
When I graduated from Stonehill 32 years ago, I had only a slightly better idea of what I wanted to do with my life than when I went in. I went to law school because it seemed interesting, suited to my temperament and curiosity, and I figured I could probably make a decent living at it. It turned out that I did enjoy law in general, but it was only afterwards, when I became a prosecutor, that I found what I truly loved.
It was also in the course of working at my job that I began to see myself as part of something bigger. I started off just trying cases, but over time, I found myself looking beyond the case-jackets and began recognizing real human beings: the victims, the good people who lived in the community, and the defendants, some of whom had simply made stupid, youthful mistakes, and others who really needed and deserved to go to jail.
In working within the criminal justice system, I also began to notice things that I thought needed fixing but that other people, whether in government or in my own community, either didn't know about or didn't seem to care about. That's where my interest in public policy began and that's why I ran for office, first for a seat on the Boston City Council and then, ten years ago, back to lead the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.
As a Stonehill graduate listening to my commencement speaker - whoever that was - I didn't plan to learn of innocent men wrongly convicted of terrible crimes. I didn't foresee the necessity to completely overhaul the way we handle evidence that led to those miscarriages of justice. And yet, after taking office, I found that this was the challenge and the opportunity that fell to me. It took a lot of research and a lot of work by a lot of very smart and committed men and women, but Boston and Suffolk County are recognized today across the country, not just by law enforcement but by defense attorneys like Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, as the leader and the leading agent of change for the steps we've taken to address, correct, and prevent wrongful convictions.
When I sought the job of District Attorney, that wasn't the kind of work I had planned on, but it's the work that, perhaps more than anything else, has defined my tenure as DA.
More recently, I've found myself immersed in another challenging issue I never would have anticipated, and that's changing the way the public, the government, and law enforcement see and serve victims of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
I hadn't planned on these things. I hadn't made it my mission from a young age. I hadn't even entered this office with these issues in mind. But everything I'd learned along the way made it possible for me to do them: the importance of truth and fairness instilled in me by my parents. The critical thinking skills I was taught here at Stonehill. The legal education and political experience I gained later on.
Each was built on the foundation of the other, and each brought me closer to what I only later found to be my most important calling: not to continue to do law enforcement the way it was always done, but to change law enforcement, so that it is done right - legally, ethically, and professionally right.
Now, this might sound like my career just unfolded by chance. You might think that I'm advising you to pursue your careers without aim or thought, but I'm not. My experience is just closer to the truth of how we not only find success in life, but happiness. We start off not with a certain destination, but with certain curiosities and inclinations that set us down a path.
David Brooks, the great author and columnist for the New York Times contends that we have it backwards when we place ourselves and our wants at the center of our universe. What matters isn't what we want but what we do. As human beings, we don't usually find happiness or contentment when we go looking for it. Instead, we find these things when we commit ourselves to the hard work that needs to be done.
People like me who choose to be prosecutors don't get rich doing it. The hours are long and the criticism is near constant. And yet most of the people I've worked with through the years will tell you that it's the greatest job they ever had. At its core, the job of a prosecutor isn't about winning convictions, it's about service: service to victims and service to justice itself.
And what's completely counterintuitive but absolutely true for me as a prosecutor, is also true for any successful person in any career: our satisfaction and success come not from building our lives around what we want, but meeting the challenges that come before us. As Brooks says, "The purpose in life isn't to find yourself. It's to lose yourself." And we lose ourselves in the meaningful work that we do.
You are going off into a world where there is much work waiting and needing to be done. And here's the good news: whether you know what you want to do or you're still trying to figure it out, we are all in a position to serve. More importantly, in keeping with the Catholic teachings imparted to me both at my high school and here at Stonehill, each and every one of us is called to service. It doesn't matter if you want to be a teacher or a banker, if you want to work in a non-profit or a Fortune 500 company, the happiest and most successful human beings are those who answer that call to service.
Study after study shows that no matter whether someone is rich, poor, or middle class, or what they do for a living - priest or woman religious, lawyer or stay-at-home parent, architect or construction worker - people who make service to others a central part of their lives are happier and more contented than those who do not.
This life offers countless opportunities to do well while serving others. As members of a just society, I think the overwhelming majority of us recognize, accept, and even embrace our responsibilities to help each other out and do our very best for our communities and our country. The alternative, leaving the hard work to your fellow citizens or the next generation, is unacceptable.
This is a basic social compact. At the heart of any social compact is some surrender of self-interest so that today's deserving poor, and, importantly, all future generations have access to the same liberties and opportunities that are the political and social birthright of every American, and that the Catholic Church has argued for centuries ought to be the political, social, and spiritual birthright of every human being. Surrender of self-interest, what we call sacrifice, isn't easy. But it is the stuff upon which meaningful, happy and fulfilling lives are built.
I don't expect you'll remember all these words 32 years from now, much less who spoke them. But I do hope that you'll take them to heart and let them guide you in the years to come. There is much hard work to be done throughout our society. There are opportunities to do it in every conceivable career. Most importantly, there is no one better equipped to do it than you. And looking out upon all of you, I know that work will be done. It fills me with hope - and for that, I thank you very much.
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