posted on May 31: Martin Short’s Convocation Address


Here is a transcribed version of Martin Short's address to McMaster University graduands at Spring Convocation 2001 on May 30:

Please be seated.

I can't tell you how humble your response makes a big star like me feel.

There are so many things that I could say about receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from McMaster University, but this hardly seems the time or the place.

I can tell you this. Receiving this honor is without question one of the greatest moments of my life, second only to that MAGICAL EVENING, backstage in Shelly Winter's dressing room, where I first became a man.

I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to all who are in attendance today: to Dr. Pierre Conlon on his honorary Doctor of Letters degree, to the students who have learned and persevered; to the parents who have sacrificed; to the grandparents who built the foundation on which this proud day stands; to the teachers who have imparted wisdom; and to the administrators who make it all happen. I congratulate you all.

The last time I studied at McMaster was 1972, although it doesn't seem possible that it has been 29 years. It doesn't seem possible for many reasons 1) because my memory is going and I can't remember how long 29 years actually is 2) I can't remember what “1” wasand c) because when I look in the mirror, it's hard for me to believe that three decades have indeed passed. And, for that I really must thank my plastic surgeon, Dr. Harvey Libon. What Di Vinci was to canvas, Dr. Libon is to saggy neck skin.

You are graduating into a time of immense possibility throughout our country and throughout the world. We are in the midst of a profound revolution, the most sweeping since the Industrial Revolution a century ago. Economic opportunity, however, is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end – to further liberty, to strengthen the bonds of community, to enable you to build families and enrich your lives. Before you lies a future of unparalleled possibility.

In 1855, a then-unknown poet named Walt Whitman published a book called, “Leaves of Grass”. American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson read the book and felt compelled to express his admiration. “I greet you,” Emerson wrote to Whitman, “at the beginning of a great career.” Today, I have the pleasure of greeting you at the commencement of your great careers.

And today the class of 2001 becomes another link in an unbroken chain of knowledge, accomplishment, and pride to McMaster University. You have the distinction of being only the second class to graduate from McMaster in the 21st century. As you leave this campus, you enter a world characterized by monumental change.

In North America today we have moved from an agricultural to an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. We've traveled our galaxy and traversed the geography of the atom. We've redefined and reshaped gender roles more fully than have any other people in any other era.

A philosopher once said, “Ambition and love are the wings of great actions.” So my first piece of advice to you this afternoon, because as you can imagine, being a clown comedian, I'm just brimming with wisdomis to encourage you to risk great visions; ones that are in keeping with the legacy that you take with you from this place. And I hope that you will give free reign to your ambition, so that you can achieve your vision.

Every generation exercises its right to believe that it is the most sophisticated in history and that it faces the most complicated and ambiguous problems ever encountered by the human race. I think your generation can fairly make that claim.

However, it has never been easy to know what to do from either the practical or the moral standpoint. Whether it is a blessing or a curse, the struggle with these questions is part of the human condition.

Winston Churchill put it more succinctly when he said, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

The university experience is a unique event in your life. You arrive here at the end of childhood and you leave at the beginning of maturity. You haven't learned everything there is to know. Some of you may have learned just enough to get by. But I think you will be surprised in the next few years at how well you have prepared yourself for those slippery problems that will indeed come your way.

For most of you, success in your careers is in your reach if you are willing to work for it. Success in life, however you define it, also is yours if you are willing to make the effort. The difficulty is not to avoid failure, but to avoid unrighteousness. Huxley said that experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do about what happens. You cannot predict what will occur, but you can visualize the future and then you can take charge of it. Life only becomes uncontrollable when you no longer lead it, but it leads you.

Early on in my career as an actor in a very unstable profession, I learned that the true mark of the person could not be determined by one's success, but by how successfully one handled defeat. Success in your career is but a small part of determining the success in your life. For me, what has helped immensely in maintaining a balance is what I like to call, “MARTY'S NINE-CATEGORY SYSTEM”. What is “MARTY'S NINE- CATEGORY SYSTEM” you might ask, assuming you're still listening? Well, the “MARTY'S NINE-CATEGORY SYSTEM” is simply treating your life as if you're taking nine challenging courses at University; each one of equal importance. And every Monday morning, I sit down and appraise how each category is doing and what I can do to make them more of a success. The categories are as follows:

1) CATEGORY ONE: YOURSELF! How are you doing? How are you feeling? How's your heart? How's the plumbing? How can you improve and protect your mental and physical well being. Simply the day to day maintenance of oneself. Because let's face it, you can be on top of the world, but if that rash refuses to clear up, you're not going to be in a great mood. Simple as that.

2) CATEGORY TWO: WIFE AND CHILDREN – How is your wife? How are your children? Or if that hasn't been your choice, how are your cats?

3) CATEGORY THREE: Your original familyyour brothersyour sistersyour mom and dad. As an actor, I'll sometimes actually include in that list, people who have played my parents in movies. Sometimes I'll just phone up Brian Dennehy and say “Hi dad.” And before he hangs up, I get a warm feeling all over.

4) CATEGORY FOUR: FRIENDS – Are you attentive and caring enough to your friends? Let's put it this way. If you're Matt Damon, have you phoned Ben Affleck today?

5) CATEGORY FIVE: CREATIVITY – Always a fascinating oneespecially when you feel that you're a big faker and have none.

6) CATEGORY SIX: MONEY – It's nice to have some money. As the comedian Joe E. Lewis once said, “I've been rich and I've been poor. And rich is better than poor.” It seems to make great sense.

7) CATEGORY SEVEN: CAREER – Or as it says on my answering service: “I'll take it.”

8) CATEGORY EIGHT: DISCIPLINE – This is a category that former U.S. President Bill Clinton has occasionally had problems with.

9) CATEGORY NINE: LIFESTYLE – “Are you actually having fun in your life?” You don't have to ask me. I'm here aren't I?

I think it's unbelievably important to try to balance your life, because from my experience, it's the best route to the ultimate goal; happiness. A sense of feeling happy and content with your life's journey. And I say to the graduation class of 2001 that your success in life, and the success of our world, is going to depend on the integrity and other qualities of character that you will continue to develop and demonstrate over the years ahead.

Now I'm pretty confident that there are many graduates here today not 100 per cent sure of what you want to do. And I think it is okay not to be sure, to be willing to take a risk, to not feel as if you must have it all planned.

This is what I know:

1) It is our hopes and dreams that move us forward, and it is the hopes and dreams of the young that propel us in the right directionmy wife Nancy and I see it in the eyes of our children every day.

2) I know a perfect plan does not exist in life.

3) I know great things are not achieved by cynics; they are achieved by believers. Pessimism is for the faint of heart; the doers, the leaders will always be the optimists.

4) And I know you must have a dignity-level that is non-negotiable. In the face of personal or material temptation, or in the face of a threat to your career, your dignity must remain non-negotiable.

So now as you get ready to graduate, think back to the laughter, the heart breaks, the smiles, and the good friends. Look around you, even though you won't always be together physically, there will still be a connection. Memories have a way of transcending time and place, even through separation. They sleep in the back of our mind, completely unnoticed and then come alive at the oddest of moments, sending us back to a place, to a person and time that may soon no longer exist, but in our minds.

But if we stay open, you will find new friendships, and our old friendships will grow stronger if you commit to communicate. Each of you will carry a special collection of memories that you can return to as often as you like.

Twenty-nine years ago I was not unlike any of you; bursting to get out there and claim my stake in the worldto try anything! And I am sure that each of you feels the same way, and I encourage you to do it all. Don't be afraid of trying, of dreaming.

There is a wonderful Hopi Indian saying, “Men become what they dream.”

Dream well graduates of 2001. Dream well.

On behalf of my co-honorary degree recipient I thank you for this remarkable honour and may God bless you all.

Thank you.