(This address was given to the Portsmouth Abbey School community at the Veteran’s Day commemoration, November 9, 2012.)
Ladies and gentlemen, I have the honor of addressing you in this Veteran’s Day Commemoration, probably my last one with you.
So it is fitting to talk to you today about something that I was introduced to when I was your age and which then was nurtured and enriched throughout the rest of my life, both in my military career and in my career here at Portsmouth Abbey. It is something that at once informs the way I think but also it is something close to my heart. And those 6th Formers who have had me in the War and Morality course remember what Clausewitz said about objective, concrete factors and subjective, emotional ones: the head is important but emotions—things of the heart—are also important.
I would like to talk to you about “integrity.” Now, integrity is a very “big” word. There are lots of words out there; this is one of great import and significance.
The first recollection I have of him is watching him kick field goals on our high school athletic field, very long field goals. I was a freshman in high school, one of a hearty team of 13 players on our freshman football team. During that season he taught me many good football techniques as we, though small in numbers, achieved a nearly undefeated season.
Mr. Mez or Coach Mez, as we called him, coached me my high school years in football and baseball and also taught me English. But he taught me more than how to drop back and pass the long one in football, more than how to pick and roll in basketball, and more than how to avoid dangling modifiers in English class. He taught me also much about life.
During my last few years at the high school, he was no longer an English teacher but rather the Vice-Principal, the Mr. Chenoweth of Hasbrouck Heights High School. When I had time, I would drop by and visit him in his office, to “shoot the breeze” as he would say.
One day we walked through the halls talking about life. Passing Ms. Stahl’s Latin class, he turned to me and said in his Boston accent, “Hey, Freddie. My philosophy of life is to bring a bit of integrity to any situation I’m in.”
Well, that sounded awfully nice, but I was not fully sure what he actually meant “to bring integrity to a situation.” For the last 45 years I’ve been trying to clarify just what “living with integrity” means.
July 1, 1966, I entered the U. S. Military Academy to begin initial military training or “Beast Barracks.” This is eight weeks of tough and challenging physical and military training to convert a civilian into a military person. Toward the end of these two months, we were told that it was time for us to decide on our class motto. We had a contest to determine this motto. The winner was: “Serve with Integrity.” This became our class motto. This is the motto engraved on the ring I wear.
Twelve years ago at my class’s 25th West Point reunion, our class dedicated a beautiful stone fountain at the Academy. Engraved in a semi-circle of stone in large letters about 20 feet long is our motto: “Serve with Integrity.” It is the only class motto so engraved at West Point. We were told that one of the reasons the Academy allowed this is the strength and timelessness of the motto. This is not a motto for just our class, but for all academy graduates.
It is remarkable how this simple motto over these years has become etched not only into our rings but also into our hearts. Most of us when emailing each other sign off with it: “SWI.” It is clear to me that it is a very, very strong glue which binds us together.
A few years ago we visited our good friends, Ann & Steve, in Northern Virginia. We had first met over 35 years ago when our families were very young. We both had three children about the same ages and sexes. For two years while I was in graduate school, we shared many great experiences as we lived across the street from one another. We played silly board games together; shared holidays and weekends.
Her children now all grown and out of the house, Ann had taken a job outside the home. She was explaining some of the frustrations with her new job. But then she followed with, “But that’s OK Fred. I know who I am. I have my integrity.”
A few months ago my friend Brad and I were at an informal social event with some friends. Brad was talking with a young man who had started his own business a few years ago. The young man complained about the tough decisions he had to make and how tough it was to make a living for himself and his wife and two children. Brad, in the construction business for many years, advised him always to be honorable and trustworthy. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a stone which he said he always carried with him. Etched into the stone was the word integrity.
I’m still not sure that I can give you a good definition of the word integrity. The dictionary definition of integrity: honest, sincere, open & upright in character and actions. I know that it is close to honor, certainly contains acting honorably as one of its components. I think it also suggests openness, being above board, nothing under the table, no smoke and mirrors, no speaking with forked tongue. In one’s dealings with other people, acting in an open, honorable, and fair manner. No hypocrisy. Acting according to high ideals—doing the right thing.
My friend, Gus Lee, who teaches at West Point defines it as being able to discern the highest moral action in a given situation … but then also being able to act on it. He has a great metaphor to describe the difference between merely believing in or talking about integrity and actually acting with integrity. He says that we must be able to cross the “river of fear.”
No, it’s not easy to live and act with integrity, to cross that river of fear. Yes, in the easy times it is. But as we get older we face increasingly difficult choices in life, professionally and personally.
A few years ago a student here at the Abbey broke a major school rule and covered it up. She was protecting herself but also another student who violated the rule and did not want to be exposed. After a few weeks when the truth came out, the student said. “This situation forced me to compromise my integrity.” It was truly wonderful to hear these words from her mouth. May I ask you: do you value your integrity as much as this girl did?
Enshrined in our mission statement are the three Rs: reverence, respect, and responsibility. Like Integrity these are also big words. Although the word Integrity is not specifically mentioned, I think we can agree it is closely related to them. Here is what I ask you to do: Reflect occasionally on our three Rs. Incorporate both them and the word INTEGRITY into your way of thinking, your mental habits, as Coach Mez would say, into your philosophy of life.
Young people of Portsmouth Abbey. My hope and prayer for you on this Veteran’s Day is that you accept integrity as a guiding principle of your lives, to “live with integrity.” That you engrave this onto your character. Don’t ever put anything above your integrity. I have found when I do, I may lose not only my integrity but also the thing I misguidely placed above it.