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Candlelight Vigil - 09/11/09

Have you noticed how people can jar your memory by asking where were you WHEN X HAPPENED--X being a historically important event?

When I am asked, "Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?", I remember sitting in my 6th grade classroom as the announcement came over the speaker and school was dismissed. Then I joined my parents at home watching TV as Walter Cronkite announced the death, wiping away a tear in an unprecedented display of journalistic emotion. As events unfolded, we watched the funeral--culminating with John John” saluting his father's passing casket, draped in an American Flag, a scene now familiar to all. That small gesture and many others brought our country together giving us hope for the future.

Then, a few years later our nation was again gripped by sadness with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I remember where I was each time, and I remember watching my parents solemnly shake their heads in bewilderment, asking what was happening.

Amidst such sadness were historical moments of great pleasure. Like in 1969, when the world watching TV saw American astronauts exit Apollo 11 (the first manned mission on the moon) and Neil Armstrong said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," followed by planting the American Flag on the moon--and fulfilling President Kennedy's dream from 1961 to put a man on the moon. And, we saw Reverend Martin Luther King's dream being fulfilled--a dream that everyone would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

We wish he had lived to witness the recent election of our nation's first African-American President--another step in fulfilling his dream!

Like you, I saw our nation at war, but I never saw an attack on our own soil. That suddenly changed just eight short years ago, when some of you were in the 6th grade, and we were horrified by an unprecedented assault on our nation's soil.

When people ask where were you on 9-11 like me, you probably remember. As a loaned executive from Boise State University, I was working as a Senior Policy/ Education Advisor to the then Idaho Governor, Dirk Kempthorne. I remember huddling around TVs with others in the state capitol watching as the second building was hit and wondering with the rest of the nation if more attacks were imminent. The Governor immediately implemented emergency procedures. We scrambled to consider if Idaho had targets in danger, to make sure the government would run in the event of an attack, and to protect critical functions and people.

Questions came like wildfire. Who attacked us? Why? What was next? Was the President safe? In the hours immediately after the attack, we worked feverishly to keep government working, but with hearts burdened by a deep and profound sadness at what just happened.

Thinking back--do you remember your personal thoughts of family, friends, loved ones asking, “"Are they safe? How can I reach them?" Like me, you might have wondered if you knew anyone in the Twin Towers that day and if they were safe. Having worked as a second lieutenant in the Pentagon, I worried about the safety of Pentagon employees. And, like me, if you didn't know anyone, you probably felt for them as fellow citizens whose lives were tragically taken, those ranging from an innocent 2-year-old killed on Flight 175 to an 82-year-old killed on Flight 11.

Do you remember your feelings as the initial shock wore off and we began grasping the enormity of the attacks? The stock market closed, streets were barren, and no planes flew our skies.

The attacks shook our nation to its core but, then, over the ensuing days, months, and years, we learned the attacks couldn't destroy the American spirit that makes our nation so great! In fact, we strengthened our spirits by rallying together offering our time, talent, & treasure to help each other, the victims and their families and our spirits soared with an unwavering conviction that as Americans we wouldn't let this tragedy change the content and character of our nation. And again spontaneous gestures of significant proportions served as reminders--like when rescue firefighters covered in soot stopped momentarily to raise an American Flag from the rubble of the Twin Towers and onlookers saluted!

Since 9-11, the United States has faced many challenges at home and abroad including the recent economic crises. And we continually meet those challenges just as we have done throughout history--with our indomitable spirit that makes this a nation of hopes and dreams. This United States of America--an inspiration to the world.

In the face of disaster it's difficult to see a brighter future--to be optimistic--but that trait is a mark of leadership. As you reflect on these events, you will see this trait in each leader. And, as we spend time with you at Shippensburg University, we hope to help you cultivate this trait as we know you will help cultivate it in us.

We university presidents have an advantage developing optimism, we just need to look into the faces of our students--as I do now and see, as I do now, the outstanding adults that you are future leaders of our nation and the world! At Shippensburg University you honor us by sharing your lives with us and letting us work with you to develop your leadership potential and build hope for our future.

As we work together to cultivate this sense of leadership and optimism, you, like me, might find it helpful to think about Sir Winston Churchill's famous advice--"A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

While mindful of the 9-11 tragedy, we are also mindful of how in disasters we seize opportunities for hope by joining together with a renewed sense of friendship—and we remember the many reasons we have to be optimistic about our future. And, never forget how your spontaneous gestures might give hope to the future.

Thank you for the opportunity to join you and share this special occasion and for giving me a daily dose of optimism!