Beneath the mortarboard

During this past year I have had to speak at a lot of places, before audiences of varying sizes.

But never — not even when on the stage at Mater Christi High School in Astoria Queens — was I facing an audience this large. And rarely have I given a speech that was actually written up as one. I am more the index card notes for an extemporaneous address kind of guy.

This could not be the case for the 101st commencement at Nicholls State University. I had been asked to address them because somebody believed I had something to share with those graduates, something valuable enough to make this so. And so for weeks upon weeks I was drafting this speech, reaching a point where there were actually two separate speeches, each with a slightly different take on some lessons learned and advice I might have.

So last Saturday was a red letter day for these students, stepping out into the world as they were. Was a to be a siren, luring them to take risks, or a plodding mule urging them to keep it safe?

I wasn’t quite sure, because there are times to do both.

The fact of the matter is, the best knowledge I could share with those assembled at Guidry Stadium was not anything bordering on tales of success. I never learned much from my successes other than knowledge of a brief chance to rest before shuffling off again on my path. I have learned immensely from my mistakes.

The mistakes, quite frankly, are what have saved me from later doom, because in most cases, though not all, I have not repeated them. Well, that’s not entirely true. But it’s close enough for our purposes here.

I could not tell them all of the mistakes I made because if I did there would not be time, and if I did they all might have ended up realizing that all is lost for those who enter anywhere.

This is as good a time as any to mention that during commencement I was to be honored with a Doctorate of Letters from Nicholls, which is something that still amazes me. It is something I shall always cherish.

But this day was not about me in any way, it was about them.

During the speech I told the story of a couple I met while covering Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I had gone from a shelter at a Houma school to their home in Dulac, or what was left of it after Andrew’s mud and water destroyed the floors and crept into the crisper. The storm knocked over a dresser with all their childrens’ clothes getting sucked into the mud and it was obvious the children had no other clothes.

But then Elma Verret called out because something had caught her attention, and her husband Glen came running and she pointed go the top of a closet and told him the clothes the kids had outgrown were up there, and they could bring them to the shelter so other kids could have clothes and her smile was radiant.

And I have never before seen someone who just lost everything look so happy because something they had could help someone else. I told the story because it says a lot about people who live here, who grew up here, because I have seen that look a lot down here since then.

I left the stadium as Dr. DeSantis — which still makes me shake my head — and there was a stop at Big Mike’s in Houma for Bar-b-Q with my dear sweet sister who came all the way down here to see me and with a friend. And it was there that I saw the tweet.

The people I had spoken of, the woman said, were her mother Elma and former husband Glen. And my heart skipped a beat. And I shall never cease marveling at simple twists of fate. JOHN DeSANTIS Litt.D. (Honora Causa)