Gen. Dempsey: An uncommon life
requires stubborn commitment © May 17, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at Norwich Commencement on Sunday, May 13, 2012.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffGen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at Norwich Commencement on Sunday, May 13, 2012.

The country’s senior military official welcomed the Norwich University Class of 2012 into the working world with the uncompromising message that hard work without results would not be enough.

“If you aspire to lead an uncommon life, you also have to deliver. You have to have an impact,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and guest speaker at the May 13, 2012, Commencement ceremony.

Furthermore, Dempsey told the room of graduates and their families, there was no time to rest on their laurels. They must accomplish goals from Day One.

“This is not something you can back your way into,” he said.

Dempsey, whose 40-year military career has included time as an English teacher and leadership positions in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, told students the country’s need for their leadership skills was categorical, but that does not mean they have to be perfect. During a 15-minute speech laced with humor, he told a story about writing his English master’s-degree thesis on poet William Blake at Duke University. Figuring a year of hard work had produced a paper of exceptional quality, he was crestfallen to learn it had been graded a “C,” and he went to the teacher for an explanation.

“Where’s the reward here in all of that?” he had asked the professor.

The instructor’s reply—that a high grade was rewarded to a great paper, not a great effort—has stuck with Dempsey over the years. This is a unique country that needs people to accomplish, he said, and requires the best from all of us as well as a profound sense of trust. If students trust in their country, its people and themselves, they will succeed no matter what life throws at them.

“Life will sort of reach up and happen, and some of you will have to adjust and develop a whole new set of goals and dreams,” he said.

Fortunately, he told graduates, their selection of Norwich University, the country’s oldest private military college, already suggested they have determination and values that will serve them as they move away from college life.

“Realize it or not, you have already internalized Norwich’s values of courage and honesty and temperance and wisdom,” said Dempsey.

Visiting Norwich for the first time, Dempsey added he was honored and impressed by what he saw in the leadership of President Richard Schneider and trustee Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, who gave his introduction.

“Just as common sense isn’t all that common, neither is that kind of genuine commitment to our young men and women,” said Dempsey.

Dempsey joked about people’s disinclination to remember graduation speakers, Sullivan’s fondness for the Red Sox and whether local drinking establishments were open for business. He even teased graduates that he was aware they were hoping for a short speech in order to get on with the business of collecting their diplomas, but felt no reason to humor them.

“I am the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” he said, “and pretty much can do what I want.”