Neil Armstrong @ USC and the Class of 2005

Ten years ago today, Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut and first person to walk on the moon, addressed the graduating Class of 2005 at the University of Southern California. The man who announced to the world, on a July afternoon in 1969, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” never mentioned his achievement.

The day was about the graduates. Not about the man who walked on the moon.

But even the youngest family member in attendance knew who was speaking. A little boy climbed up a grassy hill behind a giant screen projecting the event. He had not come to watch TV, but to see the astronaut for himself, in person. This was his connection to dreams beyond. “Mommy, that’s the man who walked on the moon.”

Can you imagine your life defined by one historical, ‘out of this world’ event?

There are few things today that take our breath away. We have forgotten the mysteries of space travel as we contemplate only the familiar. We go about our work day as a space station circles above, with no thought of the explorers at work outside our atmosphere.

On that May morning, the parents, graduates, faculty and staff shared an historic moment with a legend. And the legend expressed his doubts about his ability to give advice.

“I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions deserve your attention.”

He encouraged the graduates to “appreciate the elegance of simplicity” and continued his address following his own advice.

“The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident, you can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources.

What is not easily stolen from you without your cooperation is your principles and your values. They are your most precious possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man.

Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program on the human character. What will the future bring? I don’t know, but it will be exciting.”

His challenge to us all is to lead a life of continuous learning and continuous improvement, even after you have achieved your ‘signature’ career experience.

The LA Times Festival of Books 2003 & David Halberstam

There’s a book festival this weekend in LA and one of my favorite writers will be missing. Eight years ago next week, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author David Halberstam died in a car crash in Menlo Park, California on his way to conduct an interview for his next book.

I thought it would be a good day to share my ‘memories at a distance’ of a journalist whose work continues to educate and inspire.

I first heard Mr. Halberstam speak at the University of Southern California commencement. His remarks were measured as he sought to reassure the Class of 2002; the first graduating class after 9/11. Words that are as relevant today as they were on that  May morning in South Central LA.

“We should, after all, all be aware of the blessings of our lives. The truth today, which I suspect you already know, is that you are among the fortunate of your generation. You have been given a priceless education in an age where work is increasingly defined not by muscularity but by intelligence, and therefore you are already advantaged. More, you have not only been given an exceptional education, but perhaps more importantly, you have been part of a rare community where the intellectual process is valued not just for what it can do for you economically but as an end in itself. Learning is not just a tool to bring you a better income; learning is an ongoing, never-ending process designed to bring you a fuller and richer life.

In addition, you are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest, but the freest society in the world. Our courts continue to uphold the inherent rights of ordinary citizens to seek the highest levels of personal freedom imaginable. In this country as in no other that I know of, ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. In America we have the right to choose who and what we want to be: to choose if we so want, any profession, any venue, any name.”

The next time I heard David Halberstam speak was on the UCLA campus in 2003.

I have this small yellow spiral notebook with blotched ink notes from the LA Times Festival of Books in 2003. I attended as many panels as I could fit, purchased cassette recordings of those I missed (it was the dark ages), and stood in line to garner author signatures in newly release titles. I took copious notes at every panel including one moderated by Marie Arana, (then book editor of The Washington Post), with authors Carolyn See, Terry Brooks and George Pelecanos. At the end of the day, in my notebook, there is only the title and the names of the panelists for ‘The Politics of Sport’. I couldn’t multitask. I could only listen as three literary lions shared their thoughts with a packed auditorium audience.

Author Gay Talese moderated the panel with Mr. Halberstam and George Plimpton. There were 322 other authors at the festival that weekend, but this discussion brought together three authors whose careers included journalism, war, media, sports, politics, civil rights and the founding of a major literary review. If you are looking for a book to read this weekend here are three of my picks, one from each author:

David Halberstam   ‘The Best and the Brightest’

George Plimpton   ‘Paper Lion’

Gay Talese   ‘The Kingdom and the Power’

The 20th annual LA Times Festival of Books takes place this weekend in Los Angeles on the campus of The University of Southern California. It’s the largest event centered on books in the country, showcasing fiction, non-fiction, travel, cooking, politics and biography.

It’s an opportunity to create an intellectual memory, stock your library for the coming months, and continue the never-ending process of learning to bring you a fuller and richer life.