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Your Life's Blueprint: From Pericles To Facebook

May 18, 2009
2009 Drake University Law School Commencement Address by

U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa

Your Life's Blueprint: From Pericles To Facebook

What a wonderful evening this is -- the pinnacle of the three most daunting years of your life -- reflecting your enormous hard work and diligent study. Each of you from the Editor-in-Chief of the Drake Law Review to those graduating Order of the Coif and especially to those in the bottom 50 percent of your class and especially to the individual graduating last -- 143rd in your class -- you have demonstrated a wide array of important skills that will serve you well in life -- perseverance, determination, and an uncanny ability and steadfast devotion to multitasking on your laptops through tedious law school classes while constantly and simultaneously updating your Facebook profile and friending new acquaintances. For this you have my unyielding admiration.

Last year Northwestern School of Law in Chicago - the U.S. News and World Report ninth-ranking law school in the nation -- announced on April 20th that their commencement speaker was Jerry Springer. The next day on a blog the following comment from a 3L at an Ivy League law school appeared on the Internet:

April 21, 2008 9:13 AM --

"Having Jerry Springer as your graduation speaker, instead of some boring federal judge, is awesome. That's a story to tell your kids. I'm jealous."

Class of 2009: In case you haven't noticed, I am not Jerry Springer and I do plead guilty to being a federal judge -- and I have been called a lot of things over the years -- most of them not repeatable in the presence of your family and friends -- but hopefully boring has not been one of them.

I am a strange choice to be your commencement speaker. While I am a deeply grateful graduate of the Class of 1975, I was not editor-in chief of the Drake Law Review, nor notes editor, nor articles editor. I wasn't part of the senior staff, nor junior staff. I think you get the picture; I wasn't even on Law Review.

I did not graduate Order-of-the-Coif, and although I was honored to graduate, I did not graduate with honors. I did not win or even place in a single Drake Law School student competition -- unless you are willing to count that as a 3L I ate the most 25 cent tacos on a Taco Tuesday at a local bar that was a law school hangout. I did not clerk for a prestigious federal judge or even a part-time unknown state court magistrate. I only applied for one job before graduation and that wasn't exactly at a silk stocking law firm -- it was the Polk County Legal Aid Society and guess what? The director gave me one of my lowest grades at Drake Law School in the one course he taught -- you don't need a law degree to figure out I didn't get that job.

There was really only one thing that distinguished me and made me stand out from my classmates -- especially the honor students -- at registration for classes I was the only law student carrying a Gilbert Law Outline -- which on the back cover listed all the courses for which there were Gilbert Outlines. I still vividly and fondly recall the green cover of Torts and the yellowish-gold of Civil Procedure.

I am here not because I showed potential at Drake Law School, but because Drake Law School gave me the tools to reach my potential and the faculty ignited deep within me my passion for the law as the most important tool for justice.

The Class of 2009, I am Mark W. Bennett -- raised in a working class community in Circle Pines, Minnesota -- an average Drake Law School student and I am deeply humbled and honored to be here tonight -- 34 years after I was sitting where you are. I predict this -- it is inevitable that some day in the future one or more of you will be standing here -- giving a commencement address to the Class of 2000 and something -- because we are Drake law school grads -- We are Bulldogs -- and earning the privilege of standing here is potentially in each of your life's blueprint.

President Maxwell, Provost Troyer, Dean Ullem, Dean Walker, distinguished law school faculty -- most of whom I consider good friends and all of whom I admire greatly --parents, relatives and friends of the Class of 2009 -- and most importantly the Class of 2009. We are all so excited to be here to honor each of you tonight for this extraordinary achievement. Whether you are first in the class or last -- you and I now share a common bond -- something I am extremely proud of: We are Drake Law School grads and we are Bulldogs for Life.

When I was appointed in 1994, I was the first Drake law grad to become a federal district court judge in Iowa since the law school was founded in 1865 and only the third Drake law grad to be an Article III Judge. Now, just 15 years later and one of the reasons I am so honored to be here tonight is that three of my four valued colleagues on the federal district court bench in Iowa are also Drake Law graduates: Judge James Gritzner ('79), Chief Judge Linda Reade ('80), Judge John Jarvey ('81), and the fourth -- my dear friend Chief Judge Pratt -- he went to that other law school 120 miles down Interstate 80 - no, not that one to the east in Iowa City -- but to the west -- at Creighton Law School.

There are more Justices on the Iowa Supreme Court from Drake - three - Chief Justice Ternus, Justice Wiggins and Justice Cady -- than from any other law school. So you see that Drake is THE law school in the State of Iowa that's on the move.

I do want to take you back in time to South Philadelphia --

THE DATE: Oct. 17, 1967

THE PLACE: the auditorium of the Norris Barrett Junior High School in South Philadelphia

THE SPEAKER: Just six months before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King said:

"What is in your life's blueprint? This is a most important and crucial period of your lives, for what you do now and what you decide now at this age may well determine which way your life shall go…And when you discover what you will be in life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it.... If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: 'Here lived a great street sweeper who swept well.'"

This is the first of three of my Life Lessons that I will share with you tonight.

Life Lesson No. 1: Whatever you do in life, do it with unrelenting passion.

My calling in life was to be a civil rights lawyer. Martin Luther King talked about being a Drum Major for Justice -- I like to think I was a warrior or gladiator for justice and a ferocious one at that. Indeed, my current Facebook page has bumper sticker of a man in cape wielding a very large sword with the simple word "justice" beneath him.

I have been blessed to know that my calling in life to be a civil rights lawyer came at a very young age -- inspired by an African-American nanny named Tessie who helped raise me. I was 7 or 8 years old when we first met and I would snuggle up on her lap and she would regal me with her life stories, some of which included the racial segregation that was still rampant in St. Paul in the '50s -- not being able to be served in certain restaurants, having to drink from separate water fountains. I knew then that my calling was to be a civil rights lawyer and I never wavered from that for a single second.

When I was about 13, I wrote a paper about becoming a civil rights lawyer -- and my mother read it -- she was my editor with a M.A. degree in English Literature. I remember like it was only yesterday, her coming to my bedroom having just come home from a PTA meeting with tears of joy in her eyes after having read my paper that I left on the middle of the kitchen table on the lazy Susan, where I always left my work for her to read. And the soft touch of her hand on my cheek, which I can still feel today, woke me up and she said, "Buzz (that was my childhood nickname), I am so proud of you." The next day I came home from school and found her dead of a heart attack. Life is short and uncertain -- other good reasons to pursue all that you do with unrelenting passion.

Many of you do not yet know what you want to do or will end up doing -- that's fine -- Sorry parents, but there is no hurry. But I urge you to pick a calling, whether it is in private practice, corporate or government work -- nonprofit or public service work -- or unrelated to the law . . .maybe it's being a travel editor or an elementary school teacher. Whatever it is, bring your own unrelenting passion to whatever you do. And don't be afraid to change your mind and re-invent yourself. If you decide law is not your cup of tea -- that's OK.

Now there is an important corollary to this.

At some point in my life well after graduation from Drake Law School, I discovered and I know each of you will, too, that the most meaningful and important moments in our life are not the advertised ones: not this graduation, not the passing of the bar exam, winning that first victory in court, making partner, obtaining a fee beyond your wildest imagination, being appointed a federal judge, not even the weddings, the birthdays, the anniversaries, and certainly not your long list of great achievements.

The real important moments are much less obvious and more random. They tend to knock on our front door of life unannounced -- the unexpected thank you letter from a troublesome client, your firstborn's first step, the surprising words of encouragement from a skilled adversary that you fear, the e-mail from a younger lawyer that you mentored, the first text message from your son or daughter away at college that first semester, the unconditional love of a pet, the unexpected reading online of an obituary of a long-lost friend. Our lives are infinitely enriched by these simple moments, perhaps measured by them -- so take the time from your hectic life of unrelenting passion to value, cherish and celebrate them.

Let's practice this: Take the time today to open your heart for gratitude. You have many things to be grateful for, supportive parents and family, the great friendships you made at Drake Law School, the hard-working and industrious faculty, administration and staff that gave you an opportunity for a world-class legal education. The leadership and vision of President Maxwell and Provost Troyer and Deans Walker and Ullem, because they have made Drake University a school you will be proud of your entire life. Be thankful to Dean Ullem for taking a full year out of his life to captain the Drake ship in a year of transition.   

Remember the words inscribed high on the wall outside the courtroom of the Neal and Bea Smith Legal Clinic. Every time I walk through that building, I pause and I read those words  -- "They that instruct many in the way of justice shall shine like the stars forever." --Daniel 12:3

Which brings me to:

Life Lesson No. 2: You will never stand taller or shine brighter than when you extend your hand of friendship to someone facing life's low points.

It is easy to be a friend to people in good times -- but friendship is needed most and most
difficult to find in tough and bad times. So when a law school classmate or fellow lawyer in your community, or anyone who falls from grace -- like getting disciplined by the bar, or being charge with a crime, or going into rehab, extend them your hand of friendship and remember they are a fellow traveler on life's journey.

And if it be someone in the community who never had a chance to fall from grace because they never rose above their life circumstances high enough to fall -- they need your friendship even more. I think that's the real measure of who you are. Yes, you will be ostracized by some for extending a hand of friendship to those in need, but do it anyway -- it is great chicken soup for the soul.

Possibly the most meaningful thing I do as a judge is to visit federal prisons. Earlier this month I was in Florida, where I visited five federal prisons and led a discussion group with inmates. Last month I was at another federal prison, leading a discussion with inmates, of six of whom I had sentenced. I find it very meaningful and when I have discussions with inmates, I always tell them one thing -- the line between me and them is a very thin line. But for a few decisions I made or they made, our roles could well be reversed.

Look at the first item in the left-hand column of my Facebook profile and you'll see one of my favorite quotes. It's from Pericles, an Athens statesman, who said: "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."

Weave your friendship wherever you can and extend the hand of friendship to others regardless of their calling or station in life. And this is made so much easier by Facebook and MySpace. Technology has given you the tools to enhance your personal and professional friendships -- my generation didn't have e-mail, the Internet, Google or social networking Web sites. So, you have no excuse not to be faithful to Life Lesson No. 2.

If you work hard at your friendships, you will be richer -- whatever you wind up doing -- than Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined. You have my personal promise to you on this.

Life Lesson No. 3: Always stand up for what is right.

Mark Twain said: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

Represent a client in an unpopular cause -- and feel the wrath of the community -- not because it is fun, but because it is the right thing to do. Speak out against oppression and injustice as you see it at every turn. Take pride in being a lawyer and resist the temptation to tell lawyers jokes that demean our beloved profession -- and when a racist or sexist joke is told in your presence, tell the person why that's not appropriate behavior.

I am supposed to be able to say that my generation is leaving to you in the Class of 2009 a better world than when I graduated in 1975, but that's not true. It's a mess -- in so many ways. So, Class of 2009, this is your time. I urge you to rise to the calling -- and I know you will. This is an exceptionally talented class.

You come from all walks of life backgrounds and life experiences and your J.D. degree from Drake will open unlimited doors and professional opportunities for each of you. It's like 143 different admission tickets to your life's blueprint. Each will be different, but the one thing we have in common is our Drake law degree.

Let me summarize the three Life Lessons:

No. 1: Whatever you do in life, do it with unrelenting passion.

No. 2: Be a good friend, especially in time of need.

No. 3: Always stand up for what is right.

I feel the sweeping hand of history coming over the class of 2009, unleashing your unlimited talents and unsurpassed potential for good and justice. "To those to whom much has been given, much is expected."

Let me close with my favorite quote. The last time I heard it I was standing just a few hundred yards away from here. It was uttered by Dean David Walker in April of 1991 at the groundbreaking for the Opperman Law Library. It's from the great Victorian Poet Robert Browning: "Ah, but a person's reach should exceed their grasp or what's a heaven for."

Remember, we are Bulldogs for life. <Unzips robe to expose Drake Bulldog T-shirt.>

In the tradition of the original stewards of our land, may the Great Spirit, the Great Maker, what the Sioux Native American Tribe
called Wakan Tanka, and whom we know as God bless the Class of 2009,
everyone in the Knapp Center, all Drake Bulldogs everywhere and the
great United States of America. Thank you so much for letting me share
this incredible evening with you.