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Commencement 2014 Address: H. Rodgin Cohen ’61

May 28, 2014

“Quirks and Bonds”

by H. Rodgin Cohen ’61

I am deeply honored to be asked to speak with you today. First, because it is such a momentous day in your lives. Second, because Deerfield has been such a meaningful part of my life.

And I am delighted, although perhaps mixed with a twinge of disappointment, that I am not sufficiently controversial to join the ranks of proposed college commencement speakers this year who have been disinvited.

Congratulations to the Class of 2014–these young women and men before us who, individually and collectively, have achieved so much during their years at Deerfield, and who will undoubtedly achieve so much more. Deerfield is a better place for their presence, and they will be superb ambassadors for Deerfield’s education and values. Your parents, relatives and friends who are here with you have every right to be so proud of your accomplishments.

When I began to prepare this speech, I came up with a list of 4 objectives:

  • First, to make you feel really good about what you have achieved–that is the easy part because it is readily apparent.
  • Second, at the suggestion of your class representatives, to inject a bit of humor into what is otherwise a rather solemn day. Now that’s more difficult. I only occasionally succeed in making my own family laugh at my jokes, at least after my children started to read.
  • Third, to dispense some advice without espousing platitudes or sounding pompous, another difficult task.
  • And, fourth, again at the suggestion of your representatives, to remember that brevity is the soul of wit. This was consistent with what I learned at Deerfield about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. President Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the ceremony. Rather, that speaker was Edward Everett, the most famous orator of his day. Mr. Everett spoke for about 2 hours, President Lincoln for just over 2 minutes–and the rest, as they say, is history. My speech today may not be witty or memorable, but it will be short.

In any event, I don’t remember a single word of what the commencement speaker said at my own Deerfield graduation, so, if I blow it today, probably only I will remember.

When I asked your representatives to describe the Class of 2014, they used two terms–quirky and bonding. Those two terms may seem almost oxymoronic but, when more carefully considered, work well in tandem.

Bonding on the basis of homogeneity is not only a flawed concept, but an inherently dangerous one. We are all individuals with our quirks, both attributes and faults. Bonding is more solid when these differences are recognized and embraced, rather than when they are the basis for exclusion. This is one of the most fundamental lessons that Deerfield tries to teach and that our marvelous group of graduates has obviously learned.

The more I thought about the term “quirky”, the more I realized what an ideal attribute it is for today’s fast-changing world. Quirky is actually an old word, with at least one published use as early as 1789. There are some dictionary definitions of quirky that are not so flattering, so we will discard “cunning” and “tricky”, and focus on the definitions your representatives presumably meant and I certainly mean: characterized by the different, unexpected, and idiosyncratic. Actually these more intriguing definitions go back to the first published use of the term, which refers to the “discussers and hearers of said Absurdities, with their quirky Declamation in the old Nature.” Or a modern reference: “We’re fascinated by strange quirky questions that can lead us into corners of reality most people never even think about.”

So we should all be delighted that you are quirky, that, in Linda Ronstadt’s words and Thoreau’s concept, “you travel to the beat of a different drum”, that you challenge what is old in nature and discover new realities.

As Wikipedia points out, the principal synonym of quirkiness is eccentricity. It continues that eccentricity is often associated with intellectual giftedness or creativity. Or as John Stuart Mill wrote, “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage”.

I also thought about the ultimate film portrayal of a quirky person–it has to be Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. But it wasn’t her fashion, her way of talking or her Bohemian lifestyle that made Holly Golightly special. It was her unstinting and abiding love for her challenged younger brother.

So even if you thought that your classmates were engaged in a bit of self-deprecation when they selected the word “quirky”, it was actually quite a compliment.

When I asked about the Class of 2014’s most memorable bonding experiences, I realized that some may seem a bit strange to outsiders–indeed, a bit quirky. The freshman year lock-in pool party, the 6:00 a.m. donuts, the difficulty in agreeing upon a class cheer. And I’m sure your classmates left out the really juicy stories to protect the guilty as well as the innocent.

But there were also bonding experiences that illustrate how this class really interacts with one another. As one of you said, “everyone has a group; everyone has a place. We agree to disagree because we have mutual respect.” Certainly, you have learned what Deerfield strives to teach.

And this is critical in a world where we so desperately need more bonding to overcome so many differences and those who would divide us. Your intelligence, grit and education give you special status. But they also give you special responsibilities. We all know what extraordinary injustices there are in the world, and, if you fail, not just individually, but collectively, to speak out against these injustices, who will be in a position to do so. This was said best 2000 years ago in the Gospel of Luke: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Your greatest legacy to Deerfield, and vice versa, would be that you improve the lives of those who will never hear of Deerfield.

Your emphasis on bonding is not surprising, because of what I suspect you will most remember about Deerfield. It will not be the education, the athletics, the arts or the bucolic, almost Brigadoon-like, environment. Rather, it will be the community of friendship and affection that you formed through living in close and continuous contact with your schoolmates, teachers and staff. As you move through college and then your chosen life paths, the centrifugal forces that shape the modern world will make it increasingly difficult for you to replicate that sense of bonding. So, if the importance of community is what you truly cherish about Deerfield, then you must try to preserve it in your future lives.

When I went to Deerfield, my senior English teacher was a truly extraordinary individual by the name of Robert McGlynn. He was the one teacher who, more than any other, widened my educational experience and taught me truly to love learning. To this day, I remember almost every poem, novel and play he taught in our class.

I mention Mr. McGlynn for two reasons. First, I have heard from a number of today’s graduates about their similar experience, or multiple such experiences, with teachers while at Deerfield. And how could that not be the case with such an outstanding and caring faculty.

Second, this class’s view of itself as quirky and bonding is perfectly expressed in a poem Mr. McGlynn lovingly taught us, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty. If you listen carefully, you will hear a paean to the worth of the differences among individuals in the collective universe.

Glory be to God for dappled things–

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

So I guess we’ve now come to the inevitable time in one of these speeches when the speaker is supposed to give you advice based on her or his experiences. I limit this to 4 brief anecdotes.

First, I had the opportunity, as well as the deep dread and multiple sleepless nights, to be involved in the 2008 Financial Crisis. That the Crisis did not descend even further into a global financial and economic catastrophe was a function of several factors, including the courage of a small number of individuals in leadership positions.

But the crucial factor was that the people involved tried to work together–to bond. It was almost never us versus them, the public against the private sector, appointees of a Republican President against Democrats, Wall Street and Main Street. There were differences, often profound or sharp. But almost everyone involved understood that we could minimize the damage only if the effort were to compromise, as opposed to sharpen, those differences.

So this brings me back to the importance of bonding despite differences and gives me confidence that your class already gets it.

Let me mention one incident that has not been reported on in the deluge of Financial Crisis books because it helped me recognize that I’m not as persuasive or influential as I might fantasize. In the late morning of what became known as Lehman weekend, Treasury Secretary Paulson informed the President of Lehman and me that Lehman would not be saved because the British authorities would not permit a rescue acquisition by a British bank, Barclays. After a moment of stunned silence, I rashly spoke up and said that I had known the lead British regulator for many years and would call him to try to persuade him to change his mind. After surviving a withering look of disdain from Secretary Paulson, made all the more glaring by his 9-inch height advantage, I called the regulator and started what I thought was an eloquent plea. I did not even finish my third sentence before he interrupted and said, “I told Hank Paulson ‘no’, Ben Bernanke ‘no’ and Tim Geithner ‘no’. What makes you think I’m going to say ‘yes’ to you?” When I reported back to Secretary Paulson and other U.S. government officials, I just said the answer was “no”.

The second anecdote relates to my career as a lawyer representing financial institutions. Was it due to some sort of special insight that I recognized when I started that this would be perhaps the most innovative and challenging area of the law in the next 40 years? Only if you believe in fairy tales.

Actually, I never intended to specialize in this area of the law, which was then a dull part of the profession where nothing really exciting ever happened. But when, shortly before starting at my law firm, a senior banking partner asked me to fill a gap, I said yes–probably because I was too scared of what would happen if I said “no”. And within months, major banking legislation occurred, and there have been multiple major laws and regulations since then, making this area an epicenter of legal innovation.

The lesson here is not just that fate and luck are likely to play a huge part in our lives. Rather, it is to expect the unexpected and embrace it, particularly in a world that is rotating on its figurative axis far faster than at any previous time in history.

Third, I believe the ultimate value of any work of art is that it makes you think. I recently saw a play in which there was one line that fascinated me, and I could not wait to try it out today. That line was short–just eight words: “Doubt is the basis of all moral life.” Can you truly be a moral human being if you do not think for yourself, if you do not question the accepted wisdom? Quirky, if you will.

During the last year, I had the opportunity to write two major briefs in cases coming before the United States Supreme Court–one challenging a statute limiting federal benefits to only heterosexual married couples and the second imposing a prohibition on gun possession by convicted spousal abusers. I was told that the effort was quixotic, a waste of time; the Court was sure to rule against the potential client in both cases. Fortunately we did not accept the accepted wisdom, and neither did 5 members of the Supreme Court.

Fourth, all of us wish for your happiness and success, as you define it for yourselves. But life is rarely linear. When I graduated in 1961, there was a widespread feeling that not only was everything possible, but that it would be achieved. Then, within just 7 years came the three horrific assassinations and a war that the United States not only failed to win but began to tear this country apart. So if the roses do wilt from time to time, I urge you to remember two of my favorite lines. The first is the conclusion of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” And the second is Adlai Stevenson’s eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Okay, that’s all the advice stuff. I hope not too pretentious. Well, almost all, because actually the best advice I can offer the graduates today is: Don’t forget to give a very special hug to your parents, teachers and friends. They have always been there for you, and you are standing tall, but on their shoulders.

In closing, let me try to explain why this is a commencement speech, a beginning and not an end.

Of course, all of us hope that you will always look back with great fondness on your years at Deerfield. What you learned, the friends you made, your accomplishments–and, of most importance, how to think and how to empathize. I can assure you that the Development Office will seek to remind you.

But I hope, even more, that Springsteen’s great song “Glory Days” will not become an anthem, or more aptly a dirge, for you. Deerfield is a beginning and not an end; it is a way to help you reach your goals and not a goal in itself. What we all wish for you is that Deerfield has taught you in countless ways, large and small, to lead more satisfying lives. That 10, 25, and even 50, years from now you will continue to describe yourself as quirky and bonding.