Director of Logistics Rooney Coffman ’68

Keynote Address to the Class of 2023

Rooney Coffman, commencement speech 2023 at St. Andrews.

I have two questions: What do you want from your life? And what is the best way to get there? 

Your presence here confirms that you wanted a college education (or at least your family wanted you to have one!), and you have elected to do the work to receive it. In minutes you will have your diploma. Now, the question becomes; what to do with it? For some of you, it will be the key to vet school, while others will use it to enter graduate school. For many of you, it has opened or will open the doors to your first full-time job.

The next question becomes: How will you measure your success? By accruing material possessions such as money, cars, houses, or perks like air miles? By finding a spouse or life partner and raising a family? I will not be surprised if some of you consider it a privilege to be a stay-at-home parent and someday spoil the grandchildren! For others, nothing less than a high-stress job making life-and-death decisions will satisfy you. I want to suggest that success will be viewed differently by each one of you. I also believe that, in time, most of you will discover that success is measured by the quality of the personal relationships formed on your life’s journey. Friends are more than valuable: In my estimation, they are priceless.

Now you might be right if you think something big is missing from that list. Let’s have a show of hands: how many of you will, at least in part, measure your level of success in terms of your career? Quite a few of you. So, how will you define a successful career? For me, success has not been about the money. Nor do I measure success by titles and promotions. I started as Director of Logistics; I am still Director of Logistics. Instead, success has been doing the job to the best of my ability and striving to let the quality of my work and the authenticity of my actions speak for themselves. Or as former coach, Vince Lombardi stated: “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.

    I suggest that you commit to excellence as one of your primary goals. 
Excellence is achieved over time and maintained with diligence, flexibility, and continued scholarship. Excellence is a choice, or as former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare John W. Gardner pointed out, “Some people have greatness thrust upon them, and very few have excellence thrust upon them.” 

But while the pursuit of excellence takes determination, it will, in turn, reward you with a reputation for being at the top of your field. People will seek you out. My favorite example of this is a body man who builds metal car bodies living in the backwoods of Virginia with whom my family has done business. You give him a drawing of your desired car, and he can build the body. He needs to advertise and have a sign on his shop, yet there is a year-plus waiting list for his services. Why? He is simply one of the best at what he does. He has a long history of building show winners. His reward for excellence is that he is respected, and his expertise has become a highly sought-after commodity.

Gardner also believed that “Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”  In other words, maintaining the status quo by acceding to “It is what it is” is not a mark of excellence. Instead, strive to make each attempt, product, or accomplishment of higher quality than the last. This is achieved through an honest assessment of both your successes and failures. As a photographer, I always examine my photos to see how to improve my work and avoid repeating mistakes. Honing your craft puts you on the path to excellence and makes it a habit. Further, in many endeavors, the opportunity for a redo is rare (I’m thinking of photographers and surgeons here!), and if you’ve made excellence your gold standard, you’ll be better equipped to get it right the first time. 

Note that I just mentioned making excellence a habit. Why is it important?

Life has a way of delivering the unexpected: You never know where it will lead you. Here are three brief cases in point:

  1. One of my “elves” (or lab assistants) planned to pursue a research career and went to work for a major drug company. A year after she started, a trial failed, and the company shut down the research. She was laid off. Bills still need to be paid. The apartment complex she lived in needed an assistant manager, so she took the job to make ends meet while looking for a new job. She found she liked it and was good at it. Twenty years later, she is now the Director of Real Estate for the Northeast Division of a major property management company with 47 billion worth of property under management.
  2. Another elf went from being a lab tech for a major drug company to vice president with Electrolux, one of the largest household appliance manufacturers worldwide.
  3. One of our students planned to enter the military upon graduation, only to discover that the army did not want him. When he told his advisor that he had no idea what he would do, the advisor suggested graduate school and then used his contacts to locate a fall term opening for the student. This St. Andrews graduate used that opening and recently retired with a Doctorate and his name on over 700 research papers. As a leading epidemiologist, his research on heart disease has changed the way we treat heart disease today. 

I assure you that these graduates did not advance because they accepted “good enough” as their standard. They succeeded because they had made excellence a habit and excelled in whatever position they found themselves in. The simple truth is – What you put into a job or a relationship is what you get back.

Finally, strive to surround yourself with others who aspire to excellence.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of relationships, and I have been richly rewarded with the opportunity to work with many genuinely outstanding colleagues over the years and interact with many students destined for greatness.

Let’s look, without actually naming names, at some of the St. Andrews community who have made excellence their mantra. We’ll start with a few faculty examples:

  1. One member became a leading author of environmental science textbooks. One of his books is now in its 20th edition, has been used by over 3 million students, and has been translated into eight languages.
  2. Another member went on to chair the EPA Science Advisory Committee. (In case you’re not a scientist- this is a big deal!)
  3. And we had yet another member who seemed to know every writer in the Southeastern United States and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. He brought many of his literary colleagues to the St. Andrews campus to enrich the learning experience of our students.

I will pause the faculty examples here, and no, I did not list any current faculty. But St. Andrews still has outstanding people. Many great educators on our faculty genuinely care about our students and will doubtlessly one day be recognized as Distinguished Professors and further supported by a hard-working administrative staff.

St. Andrews has had plenty of exceptional students, too. For example: 

  1. One of our graduates became the first female dean of an engineering school and later traveled to Singapore to become the dean of the largest engineering school in the world.
  2. Another occupies the Clade B. Pennington Jr. Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at Louisiana State University.
  3. One of my suitemates in Winston-Salem Hall became the managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, and yet another was nominated for a Nobel Prize. (Yes, I am an S.A. graduate!)

Further, I need help counting the number of students who have become successful M.D.s, veterinarians, artists, and PhDs.  

Yes, St. Andrews has and will continue to provide a strong foundation for you as you advance through life. However, your advancement will ultimately be based on what you have learned and how you use it. Your success will be based on how significant a commitment towards excellence you are willing to make and the respect with which you treat others and the world around you. 

I want to leave you with two quotes. 
First from Michelle Obama:

“Success isn’t about how your life looks to others, and it’s about how it feels to you.”  

And last, from Billy Joel:

“Do it for yourself, your highest self, for your pride, joy, ego, gratification, expression, love, fulfillment, happiness- whatever you want to call it.”

It has been my distinct privilege to have been chosen by Dr. Malik and the administration to be your graduation speaker today.

I wish you all the very best success in your pursuit of excellence. Congratulations to each one of you on this significant step.

Thank you.