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The Odds

  • Date: 08/23/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • As many of you have heard me say, The University of Akron provides something special to its students, and how you measure up is what we measure ourselves by.

    As university graduates, you now have completed the first of many stages that will continue to define you. And as you now move forward in your career, there will be those who inspire you, those who encourage you, and yes, those who resent you. That is human nature.

    And while success is the American dream, our competitive nature, unfortunately, has a darker side.

    A case in point is the apparent "open season" on Martha Stewart.

    As you know, she is now facing charges for selling stock based, allegedly, on an insider tip.

    However, the bigger issue may be what Jennifer Grossman has called "Martha Envy." And that is the fact that many people believe that Martha Stewart "...is too perfect...(and that) we can feel better about ourselves by feeling worse about her."
    (Jennifer Grossman, "Martha Envy," The Wall Street Journal, OPINION, June 21, 2002)

    According to Grossman, "...tracking (Martha's) mounting troubles, is apparently more fun than smashing an artfully carved pumpkin..."
    (Jennifer Grossman, Ibid)

    "Let's face it," she writes, "there's something about Martha that clearly makes so many of us feel frumpy, unimaginative and plain."
    (Jennifer Grossman, Ibid)

    "But the real ugliness...lies...in the age-old anti-rational impulse to destroy what we ourselves cannot create."
    (Jennifer Grossman, Ibid)

    Of course, we all are competitive - whether in Martha Stewart's kitchen; on the athletic field; in the classroom; in the corporate boardroom; or simply within, as we compete against ourselves.


    A well-rounded and effective game plan in the human competitive drama requires goal setting, flexibility and attention to detail. Character and integrity play equally important roles and often determine the real significance of the outcome. Determination usually wins out, and as many competitors discover, the real winners are those willing to step well beyond their own boundaries. And yes, sometimes conditions align themselves propitiously to make our success happen. We call that luck.

    A good example is the incredible 1930's career of a horse named Seabiscuit. Perhaps you have already seen the movie? But I will tell you that while the movie is good, the book by Laura Hillenbrand is even better!

    It is an exceptional story, a story of triumph over tragedy. A true story in which a horse, a half-blind jockey, a mustang-breaker and a bicycle-repairman-turned-overnight-millionaire come together against seemingly insurmountable odds.

    Seabiscuit, through his sire, Hard Tack, was the grandson of the celebrated Man O' War - - one of the great horses of all times.

    Man O' War's massive 28-foot stride gave him 20 wins in his 21 starts - his only loss was a second place. He set three world records, two American records and two track records.
    (Websites, "What You Need to Know About Horse Racing" and "Kentucky Horse Park")

    But while Seabiscuit carried the bloodline, there seemed to be no family resemblance.

    Nicknamed "the runt," Seabiscuit was ugly by thoroughbred standards and had been judged as unworthy to compete at the national level. He was knobby-kneed, undersized and, under his first trainer, exhibited a nasty temper.

    However, the world soon learned that what Seabiscuit lacked in looks and stature, he more than made up for in spirit and sheer athletic ability.

    He became a 1930's icon, won "Horse of the Year" honors in 1938, and people would say that his performance was determined more "by the size of his heart", than by the size or shape of his body.

    News of his remarkable achievement spread across a country that was desperately looking for an emotional release from the hard-times of the Depression years, and he gave horseracing - a sport reeling from past scandals - a new lease on life.

    So much so, in fact, that in 1938 Seabiscuit garnered more newspaper column inches than President Franklin D. Roosevelt or any other national or international public figure.
    (Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: Four Good Legs Between Us)


    Today, more than 60 years later, his life-size bronze statue continues to greet race goers at Santa Anita to remind us all that success is attainable, and that, often, the only impossible barriers are the ones that we seem to create for ourselves.

    Today, we honor two University of Akron graduates who, like you, once stood at these crossroads with their whole future ahead of them. Indeed, their hard work and sheer determination paid off. And the success they garnered now has brought them full circle, to where their careers began, to receive the University of Akron's highest honor.

    Mary Schiller Myers, class of 1943, is a nationally known contributor to the arts. Her contributions, her advocacy, her expertise and her philanthropy have made her one of the most respected in her field. You will shortly hear a recitation of her achievements, including the fact that the University of Akron's School of Art was named in her honor in 1997.

    Peter Burg, classes of 1968 and 1970, is chairman and CEO of FirstEnergy Corp. With $34 billion in assets, this Akron-based corporation is the nation's fourth largest electric company.

    In addressing our Alumni Association Breakfast Series several years ago, Pete shared the story of a "...traveler who stopped at a small town to rest. When he asked what this town was known for, a longtime resident replied, ‘Our city is the starting point for any place in the world. You can start right here and go anywhere you want to go.'"

    "The University of Akron is a lot like that town," Pete said. "You can get there from The University of Akron."

    And then he added something that Mary Schiller Myers and so many others have said in their own words so many times, and that is that "As you venture through life, part of the excitement is never knowing exactly where you'll end up. But I believe that I speak on behalf of all the alumni by saying that you'll never forget where you began."
    (Pete Burg, Alumni Association Breakfast Series, The University of Akron, October 8, 1998)

    Like Mary Schiller Myers and Peter Burg, The University of Akron has graduated some of the highest achievers in their fields, and today we honor two of the best.

    Like you who graduate today, their careers began on this campus, and we wish as much success for you, as well.


    And so, as you now move on through life, I hope you will understand that not everything will be easy and that the finish line won't always be in sight.

    Treasure what you have learned, nurture it, and continue to learn. Your continued learning will create a better future for yourself and for those around you.

    Remember that dreams are simply adventures waiting to happen. And that often, sheer determination is what will separate you from the competition - that same inner spark that has helped you to earn your degree at The University of Akron and to give you the opportunity to walk across this stage.

    Congratulations!

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