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Harrell’s hardware, located near my home in Austin, Texas, is the opposite of a big-box chain store. It’s an un-chained, small-box store with a knowledgeable staff willing to help customers figure out how to do most any project. Harrell’s slogan is: “Together, we can do it yourself.”
I borrowed that rich concept for a commencement speech I recently laid on high school graduates in my hometown of Denison, Texas. Like most commencement droners, I urged the bright kids in funny square hats to do “Big Things” in life. But my message was that bigness cannot be measured in terms of personal wealth and self aggrandizement, even though such narcissism is the ethic being preached and practiced by today’s corporate and political elite.
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Rather, only by joining with others in democratic actions can any of us achieve something bigger than ourselves – something for the betterment of the whole community. As Bill Moyers noted in an earlier speech, “Civilization is not just ‘what happens’, it is what we make happen.” The key word there is “We,” for no “I” is big enough to do the job. But together, as Harrell’s hardware says, “we can do it.”
The proof of this was sitting right in front of me at the graduation ceremonies. When I was in their place in 1961, every single person in my class and the audience was a white Anglo. Our schools and town were totally segregated. On this night, though, the ceremony was a glory of Anglo, African, Latino, Arab, Asian, and other ancestries.
Denison became a better, more civilized place only because so many people (including some of the grayheads in this audience) had dared to stand together to make it happen. The class of 2013 applauded this ethic of social progress – and they gave me hope, that we can pull our country together again, E pluribus unum.
Denison High School Commencement Speech, by Jim Hightower, Dennison High School, June 8, 2013.