John Crowley: 2022 Commencement Address

Author: Notre Dame News

Well hello everybody, I have to tell you thank you for the great privilege, Father John, Jack and your fellow trustees, and the faculty and staff of Notre Dame,  for the privilege to speak to this class and for the great honor to receive this honorary doctor of laws.

I will tell you, many years ago when I walked out of Professor Murphy’s contracts exam first year, I thought for a time that my first law degree from Notre Dame might also have to be honorary.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging my family who is here. My wife, Aileen, my daughter Megan.

I’d also like to acknowledge our family that couldn’t be here. Our son Patrick and our son John Jr. and his wife Amanda, who is from South Bend, Indiana. They couldn’t be here because in the next couple of days they are expecting their first child. Our first grandchild, and the first member of the Notre Dame class of 2044, I’m so proud of Stella, who will be born in the next week or two. Amanda, you need to hold on for about another 12 hours at least until we get home.

You know, thinking of our family and the movie, and showing it. I know you guys began your freshman year by watching Rudy in the stadium and you got to finish here with your commencement watching this clip from Extraordinary Measures.

People usually ask me about the movie, a couple of questions. One of them is “How are the kids today?” Well Megan, after graduating from Notre Dame with the class of 2019, went on to earn a master's degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And Megan is now a social worker in the Princeton Middle School, working with the same social work team who supported her thirteen years ago. And again, watching from home, our son Patrick who is now 24 years old and works in a flower store in Princeton, New Jersey called Vaseful Flowers.

And most especially on this long awaited day… To the families, friends

and members of the great and forever memorable Class of 2020: Welcome home, Irish!

This day has been a long time coming! Third time’s a charm! And we are blessed with this glorious weather.

And I’m guessing that when you opened those emails more than six years ago, your senior year of high school and saw those words for the first time, “Welcome Home,” and you pictured what life as a Notre Dame student would be, you never envisioned that you’d be here, in this stadium on Memorial Day weekend in 2022, this week when this University celebrates the greatest decision that Notre Dame ever made, the decision to admit women, the 50th anniversary.

Well there are a lot of things that you probably didn’t envision back then about what would be your journey through Our Lady’s University. You probably didn’t think that, and Brady you were kind to mention that 12-0 year, you probably didn’t think your freshman year that the team would go 4-8. You most certainly didn’t envision losing to Duke, yeah that one stung, at home. But you also may not have imagined that the team would have 33 wins against only four losses the following three years. And that one of your classmates, Ian Book, would become the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history.

Well, as we all have learned all so well these past two years, life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan. We all have to respond to the world as it is today, not as we wish it were. And we all have to muster the courage to face adversity when it comes.

For your class, though, battling adversity has only strengthened in real ways the purpose for your journey to Notre Dame.

You see, God brought you here to Notre Dame years ago, not to provide you a path to an easy life. Not to punch some golden ticket to easy street. God brought you to Notre Dame to do difficult things. In your time here, and forever in your life.

For several seasons now on this big screen in this stadium and on television since 2007, we have all watched just before the kickoff of the second half of every home football game, a video presentation of the series, “What would you Fight For?” Now over one hundred of these powerful videos featuring students, parents, faculty and alumni fighting for just causes. “Fighting so the weak may be nourished.” “Fighting to End Poverty.” “Fighting to Protect the Innocent.” And so many more.

One of the most important lessons I have learned in our family’s journey, and throughout my life, is that you need to fight for what, and for who, you care about. Since its founding, this University has been focused as a “powerful means for doing good in this country and in the world.”

But good doesn’t just happen. Chance, nature, human nature, time and as we have all seen again so painfully this past week evil itself all conspire against doing good.

If you want good things to happen for yourself, your family and for the world, you have to fight. For our family, we realized early on that nature is not cruel, just brutally random. And that if we wanted to change that preordained outcome for our children and others, we would have to fight.

You will have to fight in your lives time and time again for what is needed. And for what is right. And no place in this world could have prepared you better for these fights ahead than this University. You see, this is the essence of who we are at Notre Dame. We are not the chill Irish. We are not the complacent Irish. We are the Fighting Irish.

So ask yourselves in the years ahead: what would you fight for? Your heart, mind and spirit and your education here will help tell you in your life what to fight for in your life.

What I’d like to offer here today are some perspectives on how you may succeed in those fights ahead. Lessons informed by some of the greatest and most enlightened leaders I have ever known, read about or lived with.

You all may recall on football weekends, at the Stayer Center for Executive Education, right toward that south end of this football stadium, right across from Legends. There’s a great big banner that hangs in bright green it reads, “The world is in urgent need of great leaders. Become one of them.”

My challenge to you today is the challenge of leadership.

And there are three qualities of leadership that I offer here today that I believe are essential in all truly great leaders. Leaders of great fame and leaders unknown. Leaders who changed the world — and leaders who made just one life better.

And after I share with you these three qualities, I’ll end today by sharing the one secret necessary for great leadership and true success in this life.

So the three qualities essential in a great leader:

First, begin small. You don’t have to leave here and change the world. Great leaders often change just one life positively. But often the lasting and ripple effects of that positive change can have profound effects on many.

One of the greatest honors of my life was to serve as the National Chairman of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America.

Years earlier Megan and Patrick were Wish kids.

Let me tell you briefly how Make-A-Wish all began. Make-A-Wish started with one child in need and a few ordinary people who came to help. His name was Christopher James Grecious and he was only 7 years old. And in April of 1980 Chris was in the last stages of a struggle with leukemia.

Chris had mentioned to his mom that when he grows up, he wanted to be a police officer. So his mom, Linda, called some friends and asked if there was something “special” they could do for Chris.

A few days later, Chris came to the headquarters of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. He went for a ride in a police helicopter. He got to check out police motorcycles, ride in a squad car and perhaps most special of all, he was presented an  award and wore his own Arizona State Trooper custom fitted uniform. Despite the terrible suffering he had endured, that one day lifted his spirits more than anyone could have ever imagined. At the end of that day, Chris went home, he hung up his uniform by his bedside and he told his Mom, Linda, he said: “Mom, this was the best day of my life.”

Chris would pass away four days later. A few weeks after Chris’ funeral, Linda got together with the volunteers and the officers who had made Chris’ wish come true to thank them for all they had done. And around her kitchen table they got to thinking. “What if we could do this for other kids? To grant them their wish, whatever it may be?” And so from the tragic death of that one young child, the seed of a great and loving idea was born.

Chris’ Mom would comment years later that “There was so much love coming from total strangers. They made a little boy’s wish come true.”

Today, 42 years later, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted the wishes of  more than a half a million children with life threatening disorders — including many whose wish it has been to visit Notre Dame on a football weekend. Some kids, like Chris, don’t survive their illness. Thankfully, with the advances of modern medicine, a majority of wish children today do survive- and the power of a wish has been shown not only to lift their spirits, but to provide that intangible amount of strength to carry on. The wish is a chance to forget about medicines, and doctors and hospitals. To, for just a brief but powerful time, to just be a child. To have. To meet. To go. To be. To Give.

To be a great leader, start by changing just one life when you can. You never know the enduring effects it will have on that one life or countless others.

The second essential quality of a great leader is optimism.

I work in the field of biotechnology. That’s a great big word that for many just means — hope. It is a hope that with the power of great medicine, science and technology, that a mother with breast cancer might be there for her child’s prom.

Or that a grandparent living with Parkinson’s might just be strong enough to attend their grandchild’s college graduation.

Or that a young girl diagnosed with a rare disease might outlive all odds to become an adult. To go to college, maybe even a place as great as Notre Dame.

It’s the hope that with new medicines we can alleviate an enormous amount of human suffering- to extend and enhance human life. It’s the hope that a technology like mRNA vaccines, decades in the making, might save the world from a killer virus.

But this business of biotechnology is really hard. Because we take on some of the greatest challenges plaguing mankind, despite all the money we put at these problems. Despite hiring the most brilliant researchers and physicians. Almost everything we do, it doesn’t work. And yet still we persevere. Because what we do is simply too important. And when it does work, it is one of the most satisfying jobs you could ever have.

Your jobs, too, will be to solve problems. For the rest of your lives. Some problems will be small, some will be life altering — coming from a real tragedy in your family or another’s. But know always that out of hardship and tragedy can come compassion and meaning. Ground your careers with a sense of purpose and mission. Turn your jobs and those of everyone in your organization ahead into profoundly meaningful experiences. Don’t shy away from adversity. Embrace it. As Winston Churchill once described, “Step into each challenge creatively and aggressively.”

As a great leader, do everything in your life always with that sense of optimism- optimism often tempered with a sense of reality and the magnitude of the tasks ahead — but with that can do spirit grounded in hope, cheerfulness, and all the other qualities like humor, respectful debate everything associated with that quality of optimism and as Saint Mother Theresa reminded us: “Spread love wherever you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

To be a great leader, be forever an optimist.

The third essential quality that a great leader must possess is a sense of faith- knowing that who they are and what they are fighting for, whatever “it” is, that “it’s” bigger than them. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of us.

Whatever your faith, always have a sense that you serve a higher purpose in this world.

Through your Catholic education here at Notre Dame you have studied at a place that, as Fr. John has said: “Advances human understanding through scholarship and research programs to heal, unify and enlighten.”

Being an enlightened leader educated in the Catholic tradition, you have the leadership and holiness of the saints as your guides and mentors. You have the love and compassion of Our Lady, always. And you know the impact that one solitary life can have upon the whole world. One solitary life so humble and yet so powerful. One solitary life to consider that, as reflected in a nearly hundred-year-old poem, reminds us that:

He never wrote a book. Never held an office. Never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things usually associated with greatness. Yet nineteen centuries have come and gone and today Jesus Christ is the central figure of the human race. And the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that have ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned put together, have not affected the life of mankind on earth as powerfully as that one solitary life.

To be a great leader, you have to have great faith. Know that the emptiness that you feel at times within yourself will be filled with either a lifetime of problems and anxieties, or with God’s presence. And try whenever you can to live the lessons from the most humble leader the world has ever known.

So to be a great leader, try whenever you can to:

Positively change one life

Be forever an optimist

Be a person of great faith, striving for something always bigger than yourself

And now, finally, the secret to great leadership and true success. And I’ll tell you, this one took me a long time to figure out. Perhaps it’s because I was lost in the noise of our lives or our everyday struggles. Perhaps it’s because, ultimately, we tend to have to suffer our way to some measure of wisdom in this life.

But the secret. The secret to great leadership and true success in life is to gain the wisdom to know why, why are you fighting.

Let me take you back for a moment to a day that crystallized for me why we were fighting to make life saving medicines for rare and devastating diseases.

It was a number of years ago and we had just completed a successful two-week IPO roadshow for our company. I was on CNBC, we got to close the stock exchange. When it all was finally completed, I headed back home. And like many of your parents have done, and you will do, when you come back from a long business trip, you go in and check on the kids.

Our boys, John and Patrick, are pretty sound sleepers. I went in and checked on them and gave them a kiss on their heads and they didn’t stir.

And then I went into our Megan’s room where she was asleep, beside her night nurse, with her ventilator humming away. I gave Megan a kiss on her head. Megan is a light sleeper and she immediately opened her eyes and she looked at me, threw open her arms for a hug and said “Daddy! You’re home. I missed you!” I told her, “honey I missed you, too.”

She asked: “Daddy, how was your big business trip?” And I said, “well Megan, you’d be pretty proud of the old man. We did well.” And she said, “I know, Daddy! I saw you on TV!”

And so I asked, “Thanks, Megan. So how did I look?” And Megan, laying there in her bed, she looked up at me and she said, “well, daddy you looked really, really…”

Now I had had a really good couple of weeks. You don’t always have that in business. I felt pretty good about myself that night. Megan looked at me and I’m thinking she was going to say, “You looked important or successful.” She looked at me and said, “Daddy, on TV, you looked really, really... short.”

Then there was this moment of awkward silence. To break the silence, Megan said: “But Daddy, on TV that tie looked really sharp.” Megan has always been the master of how to damn with faint praise. And then she asked: “Are you gonna be home in the morning?” And I said, “Yes, I’ll be home.” And she then asked: “Daddy, will you drive me to school?” And I said, “Yes, Megan, I’ll drive you to school.” And then she said: “Awesome! Good night! I love you.” And I said “Good night, honey. I love you, too.”

And I realized then as I walked out of her room that night why, why we were fighting for life saving medicines. It was because in that moment, I realized that then ten-year old Megan Kathryn Crowley, who unbeknownst to all of us at the time would 12 years later graduate from the University of Notre Dame. Megan really, truly, honestly did not care about how much money we raised in an IPO or what television show her dad was on.

What she cared about was that her dad had been gone a long time on a long business trip. And he was home now. And he was going to take her to school the next day. That is what she cared about. And I realized then that is why, why we had fought so hard all those years and still fight today. It was to create more simple moments like that. Moments that collectively make up our journeys in life with the people we love.

Moments and memories like your years on this campus. Moments like your weekend here together, even if it didn’t happen exactly how or when you envisioned it when you began your journeys to Notre Dame six years ago.

Class of 2020, a class forever etched in the history of this great University, the world indeed is in urgent need of great leaders. You have had a two-year head start. Continue to be those leaders we need.

I hope that my words today have conveyed not just some of my or our family’s learnings in life and some measure of truth, but also a call to action. A call to fight forever in your lives for what is right, for what is just and for what is so very needed. To be moral and enlightened leaders. To know that as human beings we are defined at our core by how we respond to hardship. To know the tenuousness of this life on earth. To do small things with great love, and big things with great faith. To know that all we really have, and all we really are pursuing is time - time with the people we love. So grab onto each precious moment in your lives, cherish it, celebrate it, laugh at it, cry in it, and hope for another even as we all together continue on the journey into the unknown and the unknowable, that we all call life. And to always be the Fighting Irish.

Thank you. God Bless you. And, as always, Go Irish.