Professor Pimentel's 1988 Commencement Address
The Best is Yet to Come
In 1988, a year before he died, George gave the Commencement Address at the College of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, his academic home for more than forty years. Those who were expecting revelations about chemical lasers, infrared spectroscopy on Mars, or working in Washington, D.C. may have been disappointed. He simply spoke from the heart.
He was introduced by his own graduate student, then Dean of the College of Chemistry, C. Bradley Moore.
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Thank you, Dean Moore. College of Chemistry graduates, parents & friends:
Looking over this graduating class, I see many familiar faces. Many of you went through the freshman chemistry wars with me - either as teaching assistants or as students in my Chemistry 1A class four years ago. So you know me well and are probably wondering why you have to listen to me again here today. Well, I'm asking myself the same thing. How in heck did I get into this? I find that this question has a short answer and a long answer. I'll give you the long answer later; I'll begin the short answer now.
I just like parties. I know that this day of celebration belongs to you graduates and your loving parents and friends. So this is my way of crashing your party. And there's a lot to celebrate! No more finals, no more grades, no more all night studying, no more prelim examinations. But more important are the positive reasons to celebrate. Your parents, relatives, and friends are filled with pride at the significance of this occasion - at this evidence of accomplishment, persistence, and effort of your special one. And you graduates are equally full of gratitude for their support - not just material, financial support, but for encouragement and emotional backing to keep you going. Another reason for celebration is the feeling of self-confidence each of you is entitled to feel as you realize you have mastered a considerable body of human knowledge. This body of knowledge qualifies you to address the future needs and problems of our society productively. So this is a happy day for all of you in this audience and I am lucky to get to share it with you.
There is one disadvantage, however, that accompanies being Commencement speaker. Six weeks ago I received an urgent call to provide the title to this address. Six weeks ago, the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted my talk to have an upbeat, positive tone. So how did I decide on a title? Well, I thought back to my own graduation and all that has happened to me and to the world since. On my graduation day, my parents were proud, I felt grateful, I was glad my studies were completed, I was excited and perhaps a bit nervous about what was ahead. Just the way most of you feel today. As I pondered how to summarize in a few words my retrospective view of my life and the professional career that began with my own graduation, an appropriate title came to me - The Best is Yet to Come.
Your immediate response to this optimistic projection might be skepticism. Sometimes it does seem difficult to find things to be optimistic about. On the domestic scene, the economy is sputtering at best and we have a record federal budget deficit that no one can quite control. We have tensions between concerns about the environment and the economic implications of protecting it. Our quality of life is built upon our energy use, but the world will run out of oil early in the next century. We're afraid of nuclear power, nuclear fusion never seems to come closer, and turning to coal will tend to increase acid rain.
On the international scene, things are even worse. There is revolution in Central America and we can't agree how much the U.S. should be involved - or even on which side. There is the question of our fragile détente with the Soviet Union. Is Star Wars really a "defense initiative," or is it only the next step of escalation in the arms race? And we hear weekly about U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf being fired upon and returning fire. And how shall we deal with terrorism - the plague of our times - confounding and confusing our national policies.
In fact in this troubled world we occupy, it is easier to be gloomy than to be optimistic. That tendency can actually be seen in our national humor. For example, there is the Henry Kissinger joke about the coming election. Henry was asked what he foresaw at the two conventions and in the Presidential election. Kissinger knitted his brow and frowned, "Vell, ze Democrats, zey haven't got any good candidates, so zey vill argue for five days and zen, finally, agree not to nominate anyone. Ze Republicans haven't any good candidates either, so they will select George Bush unanimously on ze first ballot. Und so, Bush will run unopposed next November - and he will lose!"
Here's another example of that kind of cynical humor. President Reagan is having breakfast and the First Lady, Nancy, comes into the room. President Reagan says, "Good morning, dear, what's the good news and what's the bad news?" She answers, "Ronnie, there isn't any good news. But there is some bad news and then there's some horrible news. Which do you want first?" "The bad news!" "Well, Ronnie, the bad news is that nasty Don Regan claims in his book that you have made lots of bad decisions based upon my astrological predictions." President Reagan answered, "Gloriosky - that is bad news. What's the horrible news?" Nancy answered, "Your horoscope says that Mr. Regan is right!"
Plainly I'm on the wrong tack to convince you my title is well chosen! Where is the evidence that The Best is Yet to Come? I think that the evidence is right here, today, in this graduating class. As society tries to face the problems of today and build the future of tomorrow, there is nothing that will contribute more than a well-educated and enlightened citizenry. And that's what this Commencement here today is all about! We're here to celebrate the fact that each and every one of you has successfully completed your educational program - you've had the opportunity to become well-educated and to gain enlightenment. You will now join the citizenry - and they will be looking to you for new ideas, fresh thinking, guidance, and leadership. And you are qualified to take your place in this leadership role through your technical expertise in chemistry and chemical engineering. Chemistry is a central science with exciting new frontiers that extend all the way from understanding in exquisite detail how chemical reactions take place to understanding life processes at the molecular level. With such advances, chemists and chemical engineers can help respond to society's needs - providing enough food to feed the world's hungry, enough energy to maintain our quality of life, better medicines to prolong life, better processes to protect the environment. That's one way you will surely help guarantee that The Best is Yet to Come.
But that professional expertise may not be your most recent contribution to a better future. To explain why I say that, consider what it means to be well educated and to be enlightened. The answers to these questions are highly subjective and personal. Let me tell you my answers.
To be well educated means:
What about enlightenment? What does it mean to be an enlightened citizen? Here the answer is even more subjective. Here is my answer - you can compare to your own.
To be enlightened means:
I have never had any doubts that Berkeley graduates leave well-educated. Now I want to contend that you young folks are beginning the rest of your lives with enlightenment as well. I can offer some real and tangible evidence of such enlightenment in an article that appeared just a week ago in the newspaper. It reported a voluntary "graduation pledge" offered here at Berkeley and at other universities nearby. The pledge commits the signer to investigate the "social and environmental consequences" of his or her future job. This move is entirely consistent with my third component of enlightenment: to be aware of your responsibility to others, and your responsibility for yourself.
Someone who looks ahead with optimism, and more eloquently, is Czeslaw Milosz, the recent Nobel Laureate in Literature. Milosz said "every day one can see signs indicating that now, at the present moment, something new, and on a scale never witnessed before, is being born; humanity as an elemental force conscious of transcending Nature."
So, call me and Milosz optimists if you like. I contend that this graduating class is ample evidence that The Best is Yet to Come.
Now I suppose it wouldn't be a proper Commencement Address if I didn't give some inspirational advice on how best to succeed in your professional career, whatever it may turn out to be. I have a personal formula that may fit the bill. My formula consists of three elements - work hard - be smart - and be lucky.
Now I realize that it isn't easy to plan to be lucky, so you have to take that element as it comes. My own experiences is that it isn't so easy, either, to plan to be smart. But the third element you can do something about. You can find something you think is worth doing, something that you enjoy doing, and then you can give it your best effort. I guarantee that it will work for you as well as it has for me. I find that whatever rewards came to me from working hard, I treasured above all other things. And while I was working hard at things I liked to do, every now and then I would inadvertently do something smart, enhancing still more the pleasure of the outcome. And finally, inevitably, every now and then, something lucky is bound to happen.
Then I'll add to this formula two more suggestions.
To conclude, I'm going to return to the beginning when I spoke about why I volunteered to give this Commencement Address. I already gave you the short answer - I wanted to join your celebration. I admit that this is a selfish reason. But I mentioned also that there is a long answer to why I volunteered to give this address. Most of your life and your career is ahead of you. Most of mine is in the past. And I have something from my life that I want to share with you. It is a feeling about UC Berkeley that develops over time. As for me, it will be for you - your memories of your years here will become richer and more precious as the years pass. You will remember in mellowed tones the trauma and stress of succeeding on this competitive, challenging campus. More important, then, you will see how this experience permitted you to measure yourself and to reach deep inside for your very best. And all of this will be embedded in a fond recollection of the beautiful, exciting, intellectually stimulating, and socially tolerant environment that we all enjoy here at UC Berkeley. You will vividly recall strolls down Telegraph Avenue, cappuccinos at Café Roma* studying in the chemistry library surrounded by towering redwood trees, peaceful walks on the Grizzly Peak fire trail, cappuccinos at Café Roma, baseball on Kleeberger Field, pizza at La Val's or Blondie's, restful moments in Morrison Library, cool swims in Strawberry Canyon and, perhaps, just one more cappuccino at Café Roma. You will realize then, as I do now, how fortunate you were to be a student at Berkeley. In case you can't tell, I love this place. That's what I want to share with you.
So now, I congratulate you all - you, the parents, who brought us this fine class, and you, the graduates who are about to receive your degrees. I wish you Godspeed and good luck, and I thank you for letting me join your celebration and share this joyful occasion today.
Copyright © 1988 George C. Pimentel