‘Inspiration comes, but it must find you working’
‘Don’t necessarily wait for the best opportunity. But make the best of a given opportunity,’ says Hal Gershman at UND’s Winter Commencement
Editor’s note: The following is the commencement address delivered by Hal Gershman, UND ’66, at Friday’s UND Winter Commencement ceremonies for undergraduate degrees. Gershman, of Grand Forks, is a longtime business owner, civic leader and philanthropist who graduated from UND in 1966 and received the Sioux Award in 2006.
This is a good afternoon. Thank you President Armacost and distinguished guests.
After graduating from Grand Forks Central High School in 1961 I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I was only 17. After the first semester my friends decided to introduce me to the library. You get the picture.
Well, after my second semester I received a letter from the registrar’s office informing me that I was being suspended for the fall semester due to lack of attendance and poor grades. I was devastated. What to do?
I decided to apply to UND for the fall semester, in order to not fall behind.
UND rejected my application because I was suspended from another university. Looking for a way out I asked for an appointment with UND’s President George Starcher. I was going to plead my case — as weak as it was. President Starcher was gracious enough to take the meeting.
He listened and then said, “Young man, get a job and grow up. Then you can apply.” I was gobsmacked. A wake-up call of the first degree!
But, I did exactly what he suggested. I got a full-time job selling clothes and quickly realized that was not the future I envisioned for myself. I applied for the spring semester at UND, was accepted, and got serious about school. President Starcher changed my life.
About 10-12 years after that life-altering meeting, I wrote President Starcher in Florida, where he had retired. I thanked him for telling me to grow up and get serious. I told him he changed my life. I received a wonderful letter back from him telling me that, while he often had to take a hard line with some students, he knew it was for the best. He then thanked me, for thanking him. He taught me humility and so much more. So, I have a great debt of gratitude to UND. Hopefully, many of you will feel that same sense of gratitude to UND, but … not because of the same circumstances I had!
The last time I was on a commencement stage was in February 1966 when I graduated from UND. When the dean of the business school, Tom Clifford, handed me my diploma, I said, “I never thought I would make it!” He smiled at me with that famous Tom Clifford twinkle and said, “I never did either.”
I held on to that diploma tightly as I quickly fled the stage.
First, congratulations to you and your families on this milestone day. Remember how hard your parents worked to get you to this point. You have made them happy and proud.
Second, don’t consider my UND career as a model for anything!
UND somehow prepared me to feel comfortable living in South America and Mexico City for almost 6 years in total. At the time, UND had about 6,000 students. I found a small group of international students to hang out with. We formed The International Club. Those friendships, my professors at UND, and James Bond movies (no joke) opened my eyes to the world. What a different campus today. I hope you took some time to meet and understand your fellow classmates from abroad and vice versa.
So, here I am again, 55 years later, with, hopefully, a couple of things for you to think about as you commence the next phase of your lives.
My experiences have taught me to take advantage of opportunities, even though sometimes they might not be the optimum opportunity I was hoping for. I wanted to go to Venezuela for my Peace Corps two-year stint. I was offered Bolivia instead. I took Bolivia. It turned out to be life- changing in so many ways. Probably the most important was meeting, falling in love, and marrying a beautiful, wonderful fellow volunteer from Boston.
Bolivia versus Venezuela. It turned out to be my best choice but not my first choice. Don’t necessarily wait and wait for the best opportunity. But make the best of a given opportunity.
Persistence is probably one of the most important characteristics of successful people. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or how much talent you have. If you are not persistent in your goals all the talent and degrees are most likely for naught.
There is an old saying that goes like this, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
In 1981, I heard about the Wine and Spirits Guild of America — an organization of the top 40 retailers in the country. I immediately applied and was told they were not interested in new members at that time. I reapplied every six months for two years. Finally, I received a call: “You sure are persistent. We’d like to invite you to our next meeting as a potential member.” I was accepted. I attribute whatever success I’ve had to being persistent.
A few years ago, I was on a long flight. I started searching for a movie. I found an Ecuadorian film in Spanish that was the first full-length movie ever made in Ecuador produced by the Ecuadorian government. The movie plot was about dreams, and it was a bit tedious to follow the plot. I persisted – there’s that word again – and especially enjoyed the village scenes. It reminded me of the Bolivian village I once lived in, so that was interesting. At the end of the movie, they interviewed the actors, cinematographers, set designers and others who worked on the film. They loved the experience, the camaraderie, and the work.
One was the hairdresser. She marveled at being part of a real movie. It was inspirational for her. Then she said, “There is a sign on a building in my small village that says, and I’ll translate, ‘Inspiration comes, but it must find you working.’”
Let me say that one more time: “Inspiration comes, but it must find you working.”
Get to work, be inspired and make a difference in the world.