Bill Gates Sr. told the 385 young men and women in black robes seated before him on an unusually warm Commencement day that when he graduated from college some 60 years ago, men wore hats (not baseball caps), and the Los Angeles Lakers were the Detroit Gems.
Despite the ways in which his experience might differ from theirs, Gates observed: “My premise is that there may be value to you in hearing what an 82-year-old man has to say about the ingredients that cause him to look back at that life with satisfaction.
“There is nothing wrong with learning to hit a golf ball straight. Nothing wrong with learning to appreciate beautiful paintings or plant a garden.”
By far, he added, “the most rewarding part of my life is — and always has been — that top item on my list: raising a family.” Be deliberate about the job of raising your family and developing lifelong friendships, he advised.
“Private life has many rewards,” Gates counseled. “But my life would have been much the poorer if I had not experienced the times when I felt like I belonged to something larger.”
That “larger” something for the past few years has included traveling on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization that Gates, his son and daughter-in-law founded.
“I have seen the stirrings of a movement for global equality,” the senior Gates said. “I see it in all the attention the foundation is getting. I see it in something like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. ... More than anything, I see it when I talk to people and hear what they’re concerned about.
“And I have begun to perceive that this movement for global equality might just be your civil rights movement,” he told the graduates. “How can a world of plenty have a billion hungry people? How can a million infants die of disease and diarrhea, for which the treatment is Gatorade?” Gates asked. “This could be the world-historical problem that you solve through billions of ordinary acts of citizenship.”
It is important to note that the civil rights movement cannot be explained in terms of heroic public service alone, Gates said. For every Martin Luther King Jr. there were “thousands of citizens whose names we don’t know.”
“So I don’t care if you carry a banner or if you stand near the back ... You just need to be part of the public will to make life on this planet a little bit better.”
Global poverty is not primarily an economic or national security issue, Gates said. “This is a humanitarian issue. People are dying and we can save them — that ought to be enough.”
Unlike Gates, who graduated from college when there was no Internet, graduates in 2008 would have to work hard not to learn about the wide world, he said. “And when you are aware of suffering, you will act on their behalf.”
And so Gates exhorted the students to go fishing, get a massage, find the way to pay the rent, love and be a learned parent and a joyful friend.
“But I leave aside any exhortation to go out and change the world. Because you will change it. Not because I say so, but because you are who you are now — graduates of Whitman College — possessed of all of the qualities this fine institution has taught you.”