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Commencement 2024

Dr. Kevin Cherry, Vice President of the Richard Hampton Jenrette Foundation, former state historian of North Carolina, and this year's recipient of the North Caroliniana Society Award is a good friend of mine. Generous in his wise counsel and unfailingly courtly in his demeanor, Dr. Cherry looks out for his friends and associates. So, when General Colby Broadwater, President of the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, SC reached out to him for a recommendation for this year's commencement speaker, Kevin put my name forward. I was asked by General Broadwater and the college provost to consider this offer and I immediately accepted.

A few words about this unique institution of higher learning. I won't even try to improve on their published resume:

The American College of Building Arts (ACBA) is the only college in the United States that fully integrates professional training in the traditional building trades with a liberal arts core curriculum. Students study the humanistic traditions like architecture, history, and English; practical skills like math, foreign language, and science; and creative skills like drawing and drafting. Students earn a four-year baccalaureate degree in one of the following specializations:

Architectural Carpentry


Classical Architecture and Design


Architectural Stone

Timber Framing

I can attest to the fact that when you walk through the corridors and studios of this unique institution, it is like time travel to Florence during the Renaissance, or Monticello as Jefferson and Hemmings were drafting and building on that famous little mountain. Pictured in the mind, drafted on the page, and created out of wood, iron, stone, or plaster, these talented students are tying a ribbon around the past and offering it to the present and future. In the classroom, they are becoming educated artisans and in the studio they are learning at the hands of exceptional craft professionals. This is a wonderful place.

The restoration and preservation of America's architectural heritage will rely on the graduates of this unique school for decades into the future. To be in their midst was an honor and to speak to them as they graduated was a special touch point in my professional life. Here are my remarks from Saturday, May 18, 2024 at the auditorium of the Charleston Museum. The 250 seats were filled by not only the students, faculty, staff, trustees, donors, parents and family, but by a noteworthy number of previous graduates who come back to support and celebrate their alma mater.

Commencement Address for the 2024 Commencement Exercises American College of Building Arts, Charleston, SC


Good morning.

General Broadwater, Professor Urban, Dean Butler, Chairman Manigault, trustees, faculty, generous donors, amazed parents, and most importantly, the ACBA Class of 2024, greetings.

General, thank you for your introduction and the invitation to speak today. It is a great honor.


“I like old things that time has tried, and proven strong, and good, and fine.

I like old things, they have a depth, unknown by anything that’s new.”


Those words looked down at me each morning as I ate my breakfast before walking to school. They were painted in script on a framed decorative tea towel that featured an old red barn on the top, and a long out of date calendar at the bottom. They were a familiar part of my youth.

Kierkegaard said that we live life forward but understand it backward and looking back on those words on the wall, they doubtless have had a major influence on my life. They might well have led me to the College of William and Mary in Virginia where I walked the streets of Williamsburg and took in much that was strong, and good, and fine. They influenced my path to the National Archives, to Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and to you here today.

I do like old things. As you can plainly see, I now am one. (laughter)

We are told that we should like ourselves, so it is all a part of a theme. Though not old, I hope that you like yourselves today. You should. This is a big accomplishment. You have proven yourselves strong, and good, and fine.

I was never curious enough to track down the author of that poem on the wall, but for fear that someone would ask me that obvious question, I can now authoritatively report that it was written by Cora Mae Preble in the early 20th century.

I instinctively knew that it was written by a Yankee, and yes, Cora Mae was born in Maine in 1893.

You see, the fact that she wrote, “I like old things” was a dead giveaway. As Dr. Cherry or any proper Southerner would tell you, it should be “I loooove old things”. (laughter) Yankee’s have a harder time falling into a relationship with inanimate objects. You don’t want to declare your love for say an old red barn or a Georgian estate house on the first date.

That might be my first piece of obligatory advice to you graduates today. Be careful, old houses can break your heart.

So, full disclosure as you can tell from my resume. I know more about old documents than I do old houses. The National Archives of the United States has a lot of them, 10’s of billions in fact and it was my honor to call on Congress to fund that old ship for many years.

On the day we launched the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of World War II, Senator Bob Dole said this standing on the steps of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC...

“If the Smithsonian is our nation’s attic, and the Library of Congress our nation’s library, then surely we must call the National Archives the nations safe deposit box, holding in trust the records of our nation’s birth and the documentation of 215 years (now 248 years) of our national life.”

With documents, maps, architectural drawings, posters, photographs, motion pictures, video tapes, and now terabytes of computer files, the National Archives documents the decisions of our federal establishment, and the history of all three branches of our government. Other countries have divided their archives, we have chosen to unify ours under the stewardship of the Archivist of the United States.

As head of public affairs, it was my job to illuminate our mission for the American public. I left prior to the ribbon cutting for our branch in Mar-a-Lago, Florida in a now very famous bathroom. (nervous laughter) That move by a former President gave the Archives more publicity than I conjured up in my 20 years. (laughter)

Painful, but effective.

A brief word about the one American house with which I am associated before I move on to the obligatory commencement speaker advice.

As General Broadwater told you, I am in my second 4-year term on the Board of Directors of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. This octagonal villa retreat outside Lynchburg, Virginia was begun by Jefferson during his second term as President.

Everyone associates Monticello with Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, everyone in Jefferson’s presidential and post presidential years did as well and many rode up that little mountain to visit, seek favors, or just gawk. Between that and the fact that daughter Martha moved in with her 12 children, Thomas Jefferson needed a retreat. The Poplar Forest plantation was inherited from his father-in-law John Wayles in 1773. It was 90 miles from Charlottesville and just far enough off the beaten path for a respite.

Jefferson’s last visit was in 1823. Rescued by a group of local citizens in 1983, the house has been restored to Jefferson’s design using local materials, methods, and painstaking care. For 35 years Travis McDonald and his team devoted their lives to this project, and it is open to the public seven days a week and awaits your visit. Please come.

And now...advice.

As I was beginning to craft this part of my remarks, it occurred to me that like most of you, I do not remember one spoken word from any of the commencement speeches I have endured in my 74 years on Planet Earth. So, the pressure is off. Like most of what your parents told you, you aren’t going to remember any of this anyway. (laughter) But it could get you a job next month, next year, or someday down the line, so…passively aggressively speaking, it’s up to you.

First, when you interview for a job, in the living room of a homeowner, in the construction trailer on a job site, or in a fancy office, you have one job…to differentiate yourself from the person that interviewed before you and the person who will interview right after you. In spite of your excellent preparation at ACBA, they may have the same skills as you, the same or more experience than you, and the same need for this very job. So, how are you going to make your 30-minute interview memorable?

First, you are going to be unfailingly friendly to everyone you meet that day. The family dog, the administrative assistant, the potential employer. You are going to walk in confidently with a big smile on your face…thus, according to behavioral scientists, making it 70% more likely that you’ll get a smile in return. (this smile will make YOU more comfortable). You are going to look them in the eye and give them a firm handshake. You are going to be ready for the question asked by interviewers since the time of Caesar Augustus, “Tell me about yourself”. You will give them a brief (one to two minute) elevator speech of who you are in relation to the skills necessary for this particular job…not that you like cats and can sing…but your passion for your craft.

And two final things…you are going to incorporate a brief story about one of your projects…people remember stories. And you will have three questions to ask them about themselves, their company, or their project. The questions will demonstrate interest which is naturally flattering…and will remind you that you are a valuable commodity and are interviewing them to see whether there is a match…is this somewhere that you want to work? None other than Napoleon Bonaparte, in his 16 Letters on the Fine Art of Leadership said “do not blush to ask questions, and know how to listen to the answers.”

My second piece of advice is to keep a journal of your work, preferably a daily journal. No matter how tired you are before you turn out the lights, write down a few sentences at least about your day. What did you learn? What went well? What went not so well? Who were the people that you met who might help you later down the line?

When you read back over the journal some years from now, you will smile at the roller coaster of your life. You will have soared like an eagle and crashed like a dodo bird. You will learn that life is not a straight line and needs above all else patience and perseverance. And as a good friend of mine once told me, rock bottom is a firm foundation on which to build the next day, the next month, the next year.

The best thing about a journal is that when you close it, it is a great reminder that what is past is past…and the blank pages that follow are all about the exciting opportunities yet to come.

So, I offer my hearty congratulations to you and your families today. You have worked hard to develop a set of skills that will enable you to tie a ribbon around the past and give it to the present and the future…and God knows that we need that balance and stability, as we all face the years ahead.

“I like old things that time has tried, and proven strong and good and fine. I like old things they have a depth unknown by anything that’s new.”

Oh, and one last thing. Take your work seriously, (here I reached behind the lectern and donned a ridiculous tall black stovepipe hat complete with rabbit ears), but never take yourself too seriously. (laughter and applause)

Congratulations to the ACBA Class of 2024.

Good Luck and Farewell.

4 comentários

Carson Speight
Carson Speight
27 de mai.

Congrats, John. Love this. You've inspired us long-past graduates, too.


26 de mai.

John - this was a fantastic read! You know (FB 🤣) that I have been overseas and, finally today, I am making time to read and listen to many things. This post is a much appreciated one! What a school! Such an environment in which to study, watch, create, learn and build with others. I need to learn more! Your speech was spot on. I shall write down the verse from the old linen calendar. My father was a civil engineer. In 1942, he supervised the building of the first landing strip in Guantanamo Bay as a Lt. Col. in the US Army. A few years later he was building the pontoon bridges in France and Germany to…


26 de mai.

Congrats, John, on a great honor and a great speech. I skipped graduation at U of Maryland, but I did attend my Masters ceremony at Cal State. We were lucky enough to have Dr. Sally Ride as a speaker before her untimely death. I do seem to remember the "reach for the stars" theme!


26 de mai.

I must say John your's, was the first commencement speech I have really listened to and absorbed!

What an honor to have spoken at such a unique college. I really enjoyed your speech. Please say hello to Hayden!

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