2013 Commencement Address

By Mary Lou Quinlan

Father Lannon, Father O'Connor, distinguished faculty and administrators, families, friends and members of the graduating class of 2013 . . . Thank you for this remarkable honor.

What a thrill it is for a girl from Philly to be standing in this arena of champions. I am Jesuit-educated and proud of it. So proud, I did it three times. St. Joseph’s University of Philadelphia. Fordham in NYC. And now this Creighton honorary degree in beautiful Omaha. Guess you’d say, I saved the best for last! Thank you.

For many years, I served as a trustee on the board of Saint Joe’s of Philadelphia, serving the most fantastic president we ever had—Father Tim Lannon.

We were so crazy about him, we thought we’d have him for life. But then Creighton called...and we were trying to figure out, “How can we keep Tim in Philly?”  It was hard enough to compete with his love for the Midwest. And oh yeah, being closer to his family. On top of that, coming home to his alma mater. (Even his Dad’s alma mater.)  But then, when you guys ran that campaign, Lannon for Pope! We couldn’t top that.

I have been so lucky to call Tim Lannon my friend and-- at some of the happiest and hardest moments in my life-- a part of my family. He lives the Jesuit philosophy as a man for others. You are so, so blessed to have him as your leader.

But today is all about YOU. And I’m trying to figure out what’s on your minds. I’m not a mind-reader, but I do listen for a living. I learned how to listen from my mom.

She had 360 degree peripheral hearing. She taught me the essential listening skill. Eavesdropping.  “Shhh. They’re breaking up!” Mom listened so she could help people.

I listen to help companies succeed. And over the years, I’ve learned the difference between a Half Truth and a Whole Truth.  Oh, you Omaha folks always tell the whole truth?  Really. You enjoying this so far?  OK, raise your hand if you just tweeted someone? See? Half Truth.

A Half Truth isn’t a lie. It’s just half the story. Like If I asked you, how are you doing right now? You might say “Great!”

But what’s your Whole Truth?  “Whoa, I’m going to miss my friends here.” “Am I taking the right job?” “Will I get a job?” Don’t worry. If you don’t have one now…you will. Contrary to what’s happening elsewhere, 96 percent of Creighton grads will be employed or in graduate/professional schools within six months. So, enjoy the summer!

But as you graduate, you may also be dreading that heavy question, “So, what are you going to do NEXT?”

Relax. I’ll let you off the hook. Let’s just focus on the Whole Truth of YOU.  NOW.  The YOU in your mirror. The dreams in your pocket. The hopes in your heart.

When I graduated, I had a lot on my mind, too. As I said, that was in Philadelphia on Hawk Hill, May 1975. I was 21 years old. Go ahead, do the math.

I was a Catholic school girl all the way. College. High School. Grade school. My Mom saved all my little kid report cards. They came in brown envelopes sponsored by the local funeral director. Theodore J. Geitner, a friendly and homelike atmosphere, completely air conditioned.

If you had asked me at my college graduation, “Now what?” I would have rattled off, “I want a career in business or PR or communications”. Half Truth. I really wanted to be an actress.

I had spent most of my college years on the stage...not the library. (You remember libraries…? buildings full of books?…before Google?)  But at graduation, my Dad said to me, “Acting will be your avocation. You need a career to support yourself.“ After four years working part-time as a bank teller to help pay for college, I knew Dad was right.

My parents always said, “You can do and be anything”. I guess I took them literally.

I had a lot of careers. Avon executive. Ad agency. Marketing consultant. Author. Speaker. Reality TV game show judge. (Ok, I admit there were some low points.) My mom saved all my business cards.  If you saw the pile of cards, you’d probably say, ‘This woman can’t keep a job.’

But each one taught me something, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. And each got me a little closer to my Whole Truth.

So I’d like to share some advice …from the clarity of my rear view mirror.

Take it personally. Find your purpose. And pay it forward.

Take it personally.

Guess that is the opposite of what you would expect from a businessperson, huh?  You know how they always say, ‘It’s just business, it’s not personal.’ People say that right before they fire you. To me, taking it personally means being responsible—to your family, your friends, your community—and most of all, to yourself. Believing that your signature means something, even if it’s typed at the end of an e-mail.

I asked to talk to a group of seniors here to understand what makes your class tick. I was given the choice to talk to 8 seniors…or else one phone call with Josh Jones.

Taking it personally? As senior Jack Erbs said, “This has been a four year love journey.” Here at Creighton, you threw your whole self into everything you did, whether it was an activity or a course or a cause. I was blown away by how many of you are double majors…are there triples out there? And on top of that, I heard that it’s typical to be engaged in at least five activities.

And you’re not just engaged. You’re electric. Look at the results! Four teams—men’s and women’s basketball, men’s soccer and women’s volleyball-- went to the NCAA’s! And now you’re in the Big East! Can you even imagine the rush of blue that will be storming arenas across the country next year?

What I love about the Big East news is that you see it as not just a tremendous achievement for athletics, but as a recognition of all of Creighton. The nation will know what Creighton is made of, what you have known all along. This is your moment.

I just have one small, tiny, little favor to ask? Could you PLEAAASE do to Villanova and Georgetown what you did to St. Joe’s last year?

And your championship season belongs to academics too. As Merike Coenraad, -- a double major in Elementary Ed and Spanish-- told me, “Creighton attracts a love of learning. We just love to learn”. And you’ve got the proof. Congratulations on the new chapter of Phi Beta Kappa joining Alpha Sigma Nu on campus—a phenomenal evidence of academic excellence.

When Creightonians set your heart on something, you just don’t quit. Jack Erbs told me, “Energy begets energy. This is an environment that pushes us to be better.” That kind of energy breeds success … in life.

Amber Schaffer added that “Everyone here wants to become a leader. We inspire each other to participate.” That’s great. And you will be leaders in your chosen field. I can feel it.

Like you, I guess I was in a hurry to do it all. Born that way. Hardworking Type A good kid. Maybe you are too, even as an adult.  The one everyone depends on. Taking on the extra assignment.

But while you are doing and being and giving it all, I want to offer a caveat. And a confession.

We all love to believe we can multi-task our hearts out. It’s exciting. But it’s addictive. And in the hurry to burn bright, you can burn out.

It’s ironic that the number one business book in this stressed-out world is by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. It’s called “Lean In”. The author urges you all to lean in…hard…to your careers. Work like there’s no tomorrow. I did that.

But I have to admit, that for many years, to get to the top, I leaned in so hard I lost my balance.

I tried to stay true to myself, but I got hooked on the perks and the titles and spent years traveling like a human FedEx package, too much overtime with too little downtime. Never missed a meeting, but friends? I was late for them all the time. “Sorry…I’m so busy.”

I would walk by a mirror and I didn’t even recognize myself. By 1998, I realized that I had interpreted “you can do and be anything” to mean I should try “to do and be everything to everybody all the time.”

My dream career bumped into my real life. I realized that running a big ad agency wasn’t like an episode of Mad Men. (Well, it sort of was, but without the martinis and cigarettes.) The stress, the round the clock hours, the trade-off’s.  My heart just wasn’t in it. I finally said, “Enough” and walked away from the big office and the nice shoes. (Well, I still have nice shoes.)

Take your life’s work personally…but don’t let work take over your life. Took me until I was 45 to learn that.

I finally took a break and created Just Ask a Woman, a company aligned with what I loved. Don’t wait that long. Stop, step away every once in a while, lean back…and ask yourself, “Am I really happy? Am I doing what I am meant to do?”

Instead of just making a living, make a life. Keep your eye on the prize…your health and happiness, your relationships and yes, your soul.

You will need to hold true to who you are in ways you never imagined. Make it matter that you were there.

Oh, and I would like to add a couple other quick pieces of advice from my experience in business. Please don’t wear rubber flip flops to the job unless you’re a lifeguard… or Mark Zuckerberg. While your boss is talking to you, don’t text. And think really, really hard before you hit ‘reply all.’

My second thought is: Find your purpose.

I know I could have said, Find your passion. But I have found that asking “What’s your passion?” just makes people crazy.

No, I would rather suggest that by finding your purpose, you may discover that your passion naturally follows. How?

What’s your purpose? If you are sitting here today, wrestling with the question, how can I become a super successful accountant or a lawyer or a teacher…and still find time for my life’s purpose...don’t separate your soul from your paycheck. Bring your self to work.  Fight for justice. Lead with ethics. Create change that counts.  And if you’ve got a dream to heal our world, to bring it more tolerance, more kindness, more humanity… take that dream out of your pocket now.

Too many people spend their lives saying “If I’d only…” Listen to your heart, to that inner voice. Don’t downplay your dreams because you are afraid of disappointing someone.  Nobody else lives your life but you.

But give it time. Take some chances, try things out. It’s okay if you don’t have it all worked out right now.

It’s not as important that you know what you want to do, as knowing who you are and what you love.

As I told you, I always wanted to be onstage. But, instead of hitting Broadway, I headed into the business world. For 38 years.

But along the way, I kept learning--how to make a pitch, how to write books, how to conceive big ideas. But I didn’t find my true purpose until I lost the most important person in my life.

Seven years ago this month.  My mom, Mary Finlayson. My best friend and my soulmate. We had our own language. One of our words was More. We’d be talking and one of us would say More and the other more, more, more, more…it meant, I love you more.

And at the end of every phone conversation, we would put our hands to the receiver and say “Hands On.” That meant we are never apart.

My mother left something behind for me … her God Box. What’s her God Box?

Well, whenever Mom had a wish or worry, she would write a little letter to God, like a pen pal, and put it inside a little wicker box. She’d grab a pen, a piece of paper, whatever it was, date it, address it ‘Dear God’, write down whatever the concern, sign it ‘Love, Mary,’ fold it, put it in the box and let it go. She gave her worries over to stronger hands.

The day after she died I found not one but ten of her God Boxes, filled with scraps of paper. Twenty years of her every wish and worry and prayer for me and our family, friends and neighbors.

She inhaled a worry, she exhaled a prayer. Pure compassion.

I knew I had to tell her story which is why last year I published my book, “The God Box.” And that’s what gave birth to my purpose…and my passion held inside so long.

I wrote and am now performing a one woman play “The God Box, A Daughter’s Story” in theaters around the country and giving the money to charities devoted to cancer and hospice care. Such as The Hospice House here in Omaha.

I guess I’ve gone from Mad Men to Happy Woman.

Which brings me to “Pay it Forward.”

What’s your plan? I love that senior Jessie Bolander was honest enough to ask me, “Can we make a difference? Are we ready?” And Laura Shircliff added, “Is now the time to begin?”  Yes, yes and yes. Yours is a generation with a huge heart coming into a world with bottomless needs.

Here at Creighton, you have grown up in a culture of service. I love that Father Bill Harmless SJ wrote this preface for the core curriculum, “The power of a Jesuit education is that it unifies and gives a depth of purpose to liberal education; by preparing students to treasure the God-given gift of life….and…to share that with others by working for a more just world through a life of service.”

These are not just stirring words. You have lived this mission every day. Your community service is breathtaking. Do you know how many hours of community service that Creighton students volunteered this year alone? 389, 252! Amazing.

Among the law graduates, not only have 13 of you already been published, not only did you win prestigious competitions, you went to the Dominican Republic for service projects and met with their Supreme Court.

What a wonderful step toward living your lives as men and women for others. Seeing everyone… as your global brothers and sisters.

I believe that this fingerprint of your alma mater will stay part of you always.

And, in the future, if you’re looking for a way to pay it forward, remember where you came from.

There are folks here—faculty, staff, counselors, coaches-- who are rooting for you with all they’ve got. You know that so well. You see how much they have given to you, especially the unseen heroes who have kept this campus so beautiful, cooked your meals, answered your calls. And the faculty…As Virginia Barack told me, “Our professors are really the coolest mentors, people to look up to. They care about us as people, even more than they care about us as students.” And Merike Coenraad added, “I have never encountered a group more committed than our faculty. They would bend over backwards to make our lives better”. Must be hard to imagine not being around them tomorrow.

But, as the years go by, will you remember? Will you drop them an email when you get that job? Will you tell them they inspired you long ago? You have no idea how rarely they hear it and yet, how much it means. Right now, you get your last chance as a class to tell them.

I invite you to let the faculty and staff of Creighton University know just how much you appreciate what they’ve given you.

Look around to your parents and family. How many years have they waited for this day?  How hard have they worked and sacrificed so you could be here?

How many nights did they worry or miss you or just dream of your success?  Please show them now how much their love means to you.

And a special word to the mothers here today…or those in the audience who are the ‘mothers’ in your lives: As a grateful daughter, I want to personally congratulate you.

Your love gave them roots. Your belief gave these Jays their wings.

To the class of 2013, remember that even as you go in different directions, you will always be part of what Father Lannon calls, “ONE Creighton.” One family. One mission. There for one another.  And when life gives you bumps, the university will always be here for you. Whether you become rich or famous or just star on Youtube….this is a place where you can always be YOU.

Give back—your time, your energy and someday your dollars. Help the next generation soar brilliantly. Just like you did.

Thank you for letting me be an honorary member of the class of 2013. So, go ahead. Take it personally. Find your purpose.  Remember to lean back. Pay it forward. Live your Whole Truth. And never forget, even though you leave Creighton today…you are never, ever really apart. Hands on.