Jimmy Dunne: 2021 Commencement Address

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Before I start, I’ve been around campus the last couple days and it’s been a lot of fun. I went up to a reception at a new dorm on the North Quad, which is pretty awesome and a bunch of seniors talked to me about, “are you gonna speak about interviewing” and all those types of things?

And I said, well in the 11 minutes and 32 seconds that our esteemed chairman gave me to talk, I didn’t have that in my dissertation, so, I’m gonna tell a story. It was a good question. I should have thought of it.

It’s about a kid that I interviewed 25 years ago, Kevin Williams. When you’re going for an interview, it’s never perfect, ok, so you all are used to getting A’s. You’re Notre Dame students. You’re just exceptional. Perfect kind of leaves the building when you leave Notre Dame and nothing is perfect, ok. It’s a beautiful, messy, wonderful thing, but it’s not perfect. And it depends who you’re interviewing and what you are. Anyway, this kid Kevin Williams had come in and I didn’t really know him. I had seen him. He was a caddy at the place I played. He had a hustle to him. I liked him. His parents were both school teachers. He had kind of real blue collar smarts so I was attracted to this kid. And he came in and we started interviewing.

What I like to do when I used to interview people is to make them uncomfortable, because I want to see how they act when things go wrong. Are they defensive? What happens? And this kid was cool and collected, confident, didn’t strike back. Also he was a listener. Most people listen just to respond. You really want to listen to every word like your life depends on it. That’s how he listened. He had in his eyes this desire to succeed, it was a refined desperation, where I could just see how important it was to him. So net net, I make decisions pretty quickly. I had seen him for about 32 minutes. I had seen enough.

So I offered him a job right on the spot on the trading floor. And he took the job right on the spot on the trading floor.

And then, now, we leave the world of perfect. So he says, Mr. Dunne, I really appreciate it, I’m excited to come here, but I have a question for you. I said, well, you got the job, get out of here, but I thought maybe this guy isn’t as smart as I thought, you know and so… and I could be wrong. I was wrong once a long time ago, but anyway.

So I said ok, I wouldn’t do that, but ok, what’s your question? He said, I know you went to Notre Dame. I said that’s right. He said you’re a big supporter of Notre Dame. I said that’s correct. He said well, I went to Boston College. I said yeah, well, you see at Notre Dame we can read, and so on your resume it said Boston College, so I assumed you weren’t lying on your resume. He said no, no but that’s not my point. Now, it’s getting less and less perfect, this interview.

I said, well what is your point? He said, well, I was accepted to Notre Dame and I went to Boston College. And I just want to make sure that’s not going to hold me back here at Sandler. I said I have two things to tell you.

Number one, we’re in the advice business. We talk to clients. They’re expecting us to be smart, to anticipate, to listen. For your entire time at Sandler, you are not permitted to tell anyone that you were accepted to Notre Dame, and you went to Boston College. I do not want anyone telling Sandler Jimmy Dunne’s hiring idiots here all of a sudden, alright.

I said and number two, as far as what will affect you at Sandler, having the choice of going to Notre Dame and then going to Boston College, that will affect you every day the rest of your life wherever you go. So, forget about starting Monday, you need to start today and you need to sit four feet from me because I have to watch you closer than I thought.

Anyway, he did start and he was a terrific guy… there’s a whole other part of the story but… And, by the way, I don’t want to load the gun as my son says, Seamus, loading the gun for the Boston College haters by the way. I had four sisters, three who went to Boston College, two great brothers in law. I always root for Boston College as long as their interests do not come into conflict with Notre Dame’s interests.

Thank you, Father Jenkins for that awfully nice introduction.  I’m honored to be with you, my fellow trustees, our faculty, families and friends and - most of all - the Notre Dame Class of 2021. To my new fellow alumni: Well done, and congratulations.

You’ve achieved something great, and no one does this alone. Think of it: Here you are, surrounded by friends, celebrating success with family. They’re the ones who built you up, protected and prayed for you all the way through. It is a perfect moment to honor and thank the parents and families of the Class of ‘21. 

One of our many traditions at Notre Dame is that when there is a new president of the United States, usually they come and speak at our commencement. So, you all had that to look forward to. And yet, after all this class has endured – the daily health checks, the mask wearing, limited social interactions, no tailgating, football atmosphere not the same, and the presidential tradition gets snatched away.  Instead, you end up with me.  I’m sorry, but it’s just not your year. Although, on the plus side, I notice the bookstore basketball hoops are back, alumni hall remains the center of the universe, and we beat Clemson in this building.

At two o’clock this morning I was at the Morris Inn, bathed in sweat, as I thought about just how this would go.  But it puts me at ease to have my own family here: My wife Susan, our daughter Jacqueline, who is studying in Paris and wears her Notre Dame bomber jacket all around the city, and our sons, Seamus from the class of ’16 and CJ from the class of ’19. 

It’s comforting as well to see so many old friends here, including my fellow honoree Tom Burish.  Tom graduated summa, and as provost elevated our academic standards to where they are today. I graduated without distinction, although as manager of the Senior Bar, I did elevate its profitability. Enough to say that Tom and I have left our mark on campus in different ways. 

After graduating, I wasn’t done with Notre Dame – the problem was that Notre Dame was done with me. I applied to the law school but got rejected. So you can imagine how sweet it is to receive – finally – this honorary doctor of laws degree. And Marcus Cole would’ve let me in, I guarantee it. If he was chairman, I would’ve gotten in. [to Dean Cole] And congratulations on all the work you’re doing.

You will be relieved to learn that I’m not here to lay out life’s path for you. This won’t be the gospel according to Jimmy Dunne. You’ll choose your own way. Because that’s part of life, figuring things out for yourself. 

All I can really offer are some of my own experiences. They explain what we owe to this university, and what anyone stands to gain from the lifetime gift of a Catholic education. Some of my experiences were pretty raw. It is still very difficult to talk about them. Forgive me, it's impossible for me to speak about 9/11 and my alma mater without getting emotional. I don’t want anyone to feel awkward about it. I have done this before – never, like, in a stadium full of 20,000 people, but I’ve done this before, so stay with me, I’ll get through it. If you like cool, clinical detachment in people, I’m not that guy. But bear with me, and we’ll get through this together.

Try to remember how you first ever heard about Notre Dame. Me, I remember the exact moment.  I was six years old and I had a lot of friends who went to public school. My parents sent me to Saint Joseph’s Grammar School in Babylon (NY), which cost them five dollars a month. Remember those days, parents? That seemed like a lot of money to me. So I asked my mother, “Why not send me to public school and save the five bucks?”

She sat me down and said, “Jimmy, your dad has worked very hard. We can afford this. And if we can’t, we’ll find a way, even if I have to clean the floors at Grand Central Station.” I know she would have done it, because that’s what a Catholic education for her children meant to my mother. And I asked her if that went for college as well. She said, “Absolutely, and the finest college in the country is Notre Dame.” It’s true; Notre Dame is the finest school in the country. I’ve been here a long time, ok? I’m not interested in hearing any empirical data. My mother was right and that’s the end of the story.

My mother had conviction. As it turned out, she didn’t live quite long enough to see that I got accepted here. But she was right. It’s been almost 47 years since my dad and I first pulled up in front of Alumni Hall. So many times in my thoughts I’ve thanked them both for setting me in this direction. I hope you can recall who first planted Notre Dame in your mind.  Because whoever it was, that person did you a wonderful favor. 

Start with the enduring friendships we take with us when it’s time to leave here. I’ve always felt myself surrounded by truly good people, in a way that doesn’t always repeat itself in other times and places. I mean the kind of friends who lift you up and improve your game. As a rule, when I think of my Notre Dame friends, I think of integrity, dependability, loyalty, kindheartedness – and with all of that, a million laughs along the way. How lucky can you get, to fall into company like that? At Notre Dame, it’s practically guaranteed. In fact my roommates are here today, Rich Riley, Stan Ziherl, John Coyne, and looking down from heaven our beloved Jim Martin. 

The mark of a great university is that you learn more than they’re teaching. Here, we talk about forming “the whole person,” and it’s a true commitment grounded in real things, permanent things. The aim is character, not just knowledge, moral aspiration, not just ambition. You’ve all got degrees in different disciplines, but you have a single major in common – and that is leadership. 

The fashions that wash over higher education don’t get far at this university. Our goal is an independent mind, in the service of truth instead of fads or groupthink. The great problems and moral obligations of life are not suddenly discovered here. Those obligations have been the core purpose from the start. If you’ve got a Notre Dame degree, then the cause of justice, the hurts, the needs, the wrongs in this world, shouldn’t ever come as news to you.  Notre Dame is here to inspire leaders of conscience.  In my lifetime, never before has that leadership been more important than it is today. And you’re the ones that are going to provide it. 

It is rare – I’m on the clock here, I didn’t factor in any applause but it’s gonna hurt my 11 minutes, 39 seconds – It is rare that just the name of a university can say so much. When someone is called a “Notre Dame person,” it means they’re solid, reliable, up to the job. You can count on them. Everyone in this class has been prepared, in more ways than you know. And you’ll often go back to that foundation of character, only more when things get hard, and they will.

Father Jenkins touched upon what happened at our company on 9/11. We faced a passage through the dark side of life – the kind no one is ever ready for. So many colleagues, gone all at once. Wives, husbands, children left to suffer loss and find a way to keep going.   

Normally I would have gone straight to my two partners I knew best, but we had lost them, too.  The question was, How do we recover? . . . and more than that, What can we do for those families left behind? 

At such moments, there isn’t time to reflect and figure out what you believe. All you have is your foundation, and you’re about to find out if it’s a good one. If you can get through, it’s going to be on the strength of what you have already. How we conducted ourselves would define who we were and what we stood for. If we were not honorable, then we stood for nothing.

So our attitude was, we are going to make brave decisions. If we fail, we fail. If we lose everything, we lose everything. But that’s what we’re going to do – especially for the children of our friends. They had lost a person in their lives who would fight for them. So, from now on, we would fight for them. We would keep faith with those families. I’m sure I could have done some things better. But as I closed my eyes at the end of each day, I knew I had given it my all.

We set up scholarships, and this year several more of those young men and women are graduating from college: Colin Farrell from Syracuse; Margaret Smith from Cornell, Brendan Fitzpatrick from the aforementioned Boston College – which, by the way is where his dad went. His dad and I had a lot of going back and forth over the years; he was a heck of a guy – and Robert Wright from Villanova. 

And there’s one more. A close friend of mine who died on September 11th was an outstanding man named Kevin Crotty. He was a superstar at our company and was always giving other people encouragement. Kevin had two sons, and a daughter, and they have a great mother.  One of those boys, Kyle, graduated from here three years ago, and the other is graduating today – your classmate, Sean Patrick Crotty. [asks Crotty family to stand] 

For a company once located on the 104th floor of 2 World Trade Center, nothing is ever the same.  The aftermath never quite ends. And we all learn that this is the deal in life. It won’t always be fair, but we take it as it is. Along with the good experiences, there’s no way around the tough ones.  

But I’m here to tell you this: In the days after 9/11, I had convictions to follow, and I know where that foundation was built. As unready as I felt in the time of trial, what I most needed were the things that Notre Dame provided me.  

A great author once said that if this institution didn’t exist, we would have to create it. Because there is a wisdom and a spirit here that the world needs more of. 

At times in life when you discover that you’re stronger and more persevering than you ever thought possible, you’ll recognize how much a product of this school you really are. 

Whenever you hold yourself to the highest standards instead of just the latest ones, doing the right thing instead of just the easy thing, you’ll be putting into practice what you learned here. 

And as you grow in faith – aware of life’s greater purposes, and of whose purposes they are – you will see that, too, as the gift of Notre Dame. 

This school will always be here for you – a home base for the rest of your life. I come back often, and this morning I paid my usual visit to the Grotto. I promise you, the feeling of going there is something you never outgrow. But for me the high point of this return to campus has nothing to do with nostalgia. It is the view from where I’m standing right now. 

What a joy it is to see the work of four years completed, in the form of such impressive, outward-looking, talented, true-hearted men and women. It almost makes me feel bad for the (U.S.) president, because he missed this wonderful sight of a graduating class as promising as any in America. 

You’ve earned all the happiness of this day. I wish you many more days just like it. Thank you, good luck, Godspeed to the class of 2021 – and Go Irish!