1999 John Hersey High School Graduation Speech

By Michael Paul Shay

From the Fall 1999 issue of Hopes & Dreams, newsletter of the Illinois Chapter, Huntington's Disease Society of America.

I would like to thank you, the class of 1999, for the privilege of standing before you today. I am truly honored! I promise, as King Henry the VIII allegedly promised each of his wives, "Don't worry, I won't keep you long."

October 8, 1990 was a very memorable day in my life. Due to an advance in medical science, 23 years of silence and worry were removed when an envelope was opened. The words "You do not carry the deadly gene that causes Huntington's Disease" were read. A disease that took the lives of my father (age 52) in 1976, my brothers Billy (age 15) in 1980 and Kevin (age 29) in 1991, and most recently my sister Paula (age 42) in February of 1998. Currently, I have a brother Rick (age 42) who is afflicted and presently in a nursing home. Myself and three sisters are healthy and living without fear of suffering from Huntington's. Colleen (48), Val (47), and Mary (38). Yes...I was raised in a good Irish Catholic home!

You may be asking why am I telling you this! I am divulging this information because I believe that sometimes God gives us a difficulty in order to bring out the fighting spirit. Everything that happens to you can happen for the good.

I believe that Huntington's Disease has had a lot to do with who I am. The possibility that I might have succumbed to this long term illness drove me to complete a college education, which I truly value. It has forced me on a continuous journey to search for purpose in life. It has taught me to appreciate people.

- Coaches who encouraged self discipline.
- Teachers who discussed life's lessons.
- Friends who were supportive during difficult times.
- Family who showed unconditional love.
- Carol, who has been my wife for 28 years.
- My mother, who is here today from St. Paul, Minnesota, as she was 33 years ago in 1966 when I was sitting in a chair much like you are now. At that time, I was very troubled about life after graduation. Concerns were Viet Nam, college, and a job. I was not confident that I belonged anywhere!

Bob Dylan in 1963 wrote and sang "The Times They Are-A-Changing." He was right!!! They've changed and times will continue to change at an excellerated pace. You will have to accept change and acknowledge diversity if you are going to be happy in the years ahead. We must learn to work together and appreciate each other's differences: black or white, Judeo- Christian or Atheist, homosexual or heterosexual.

Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic Gold 10,000 meter champion spoke in this gymnasium a year ago. He stated that "diversity can build strength." This country was and is continuing to be built by different people, from different places with different ideas. We must use these differences to make us stronger. As the great poet W. H. Auden wrote, "Love Each Other or Perish."

At a university commencement address several years ago, Brian Dyson, CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises, spoke of the relation of one's work to other commitments: "Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them: work, family, health, friends, and spirit - and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But, the other four balls - family, health, friends, and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life."

Because...there will be times when each of you will confront adversity. Times when you will find it difficult to keep those balls in the air. It is those times that you must fight with integrity. Integrity that is based on personal principles.

Today as you leave with a diploma in hand, remember the encounters, good as well as bad, you've experienced here at John Hersey High School. Remember the promises you made to yourself and others. Keep in contact with those who have touched your lives. Come back and visit! I know, teachers love to hear from former students, it gives them a feeling of worth or "a reason for being." Take time today to thank the people who have helped you make this day possible. Treat them as you would treat fine treasured glass.

Finally, I would like to end with a quote from the book Tuesdays with Morrie, "Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning."

Thank You! I am honored to have worked with you!

Created and maintained by Renette Davis. Send comments to Renette by clicking here.

Created: Oct. 9, 1999
Last updated Sept. 14, 2010