2013 Academy Commencement Address by Jeffrey S. Kimpton

  • At the Academy's 51st Commencement Ceremony, Jeffrey S. Kimpton addressed the class of 2013 with a speech titled "The Gifts We Are Given."

The Gifts We Are Given

Honored graduates, trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, Academy alumni, family and friends, it is a privilege to share a few brief remarks with you today at these 51st commencement ceremonies of Interlochen Arts Academy.

Good morning, graduates of 2013, on this very special day.

This morning there is a spirit in this auditorium, a spirit that you have brought to us by your achievement, amplified by the hopes shared by all who sit here today in support of you and your future. Today is a gift, for it is a day of boundless expectations.

I spend much of the year thinking about the theme for these thoughts. I collect quotes and experiences and memories that I think might serve as seeds. This year however I had a bad case of writer’s block; I wasn’t finding anything that interested me enough to write something that would inspire you. Every other day, Mr. Farraday and the Education Office would ask, “What’s your speech title?” and remind me that the program printing deadline was nearing, and that just made it worse. And then in late-April something happened to me, a deep loss in my personal and professional life, the death of a long-time friend. As I reflected on this friendship, I knew what I had to say to each and every one of you.

Thirty years ago this year, I met a remarkable person named Paul Haack. We were thrown together by coincidence, named to serve together on a national commission on the future of teaching in the arts.

We first met in an airport changing planes on our way to that first meeting of the commission. I knew Paul only by reputation as one of the nation's premiere music and arts educators, with a distinguished career in teaching and research. Paul was suggesting important changes in the preparation of arts educators; at the time, as the director of one of the largest public school music programs in the nation in Wichita, Kansas, I was leading some changes that had received a lot of national attention. We were in many ways kindred spirits: 25 years apart in age, of totally different generations, but speaking the same language from our different experiences.

What started out as a serendipitous occurrence quickly grew to a close professional relationship, and then friendship, and finally the best mentorship I could ask for. Paul was best friend and father figure all rolled into one, and he gave of himself to others so much more than he asked from any of us. We traveled the country for three years on our national commission, and when that ended we often edited each others reports and articles in professional journals, collaborated on research and creative projects, even gave speeches together. We stayed in each others homes, and watched our families grow. Paul’s wife Maggie always remembered to make my favorite cookie--peanut butter--and my wife Julie always remembered Paul’s--lemon bars. Paul was influential in giving me the courage to take the position as director of the school of music at the University of Minnesota where we actually worked together in an improbable relationship that I always thought would be the other way around: Paul ended up reporting to me as director. Working with him every day was a privilege, no matter the reporting relationship. And yet in a final act of selflessness, Paul helped me realize that to fulfill my true potential I needed to leave there to come here, and take the job Interlochen was offering.

Over the last ten years I did not see Paul as much as I would have liked. We emailed pictures of grandchildren, the occasional visit when I was in Minneapolis; me fighting the time constraints of this job and my own family, Paul fighting Parkinson’s disease and his wife’s Alzheimer's. So when I tried to call earlier this April and the senior living community said Paul and Maggie were no longer there, and had given no forwarding information, I knew something was very wrong. Days later I learned from his family that Paul was in hospice with a rare and aggressive blood cancer and then died, just three weeks after diagnosis.

In those three weeks however, Paul continued to give gifts. At his funeral the family chose a musical mass setting that Paul had written a year ago and his children and grandchildren, all of whom he had taught the gift of music, were the performers, along with his swing band members of 20 years.

My reflections on the plane ride home after that service just a few weeks ago were about Paul’s gifts to all of his family and friends and the many arts educators who were inspired by Paul and made better teachers because of him. And it caused me to think about the gifts that we are all given in this journey of life, and the gifts we choose to give to others. Paul Haack was a gift to me, to teaching in the arts; someone who came into my life and gave me so much because he gave others so much.

You too have been given gifts. You may have already unwrapped a few in your young lives, Interlochen being one of them. Others remain unwrapped, like the one gift you might receive at a holiday or birthday party that you are excitedly told “you can’t open that until last!”

There are many kinds of gifts, some obvious and tangible: the love of your parents or grandparents, your artistic gifts and talents, a scholarship from a devoted donor that made the gift of your Interlochen education possible, or a check that your grandparents may have placed in your graduation card to give you over dinner this weekend. Remember to write a thank you note to everyone!

Other gifts remain elusive or unknown, yet these are the priceless gifts; the ones that will help you make a difference, gifts that will take the time, space, and distance of life to give you the perspective from which you can understand how to appreciate them.

Here are a few.

The gift of friendship. My father told me when I graduated from high school that if you have but one friend from each period of your life, someone you remain in touch with and care about for a long time, you are indeed a lucky human being. Look around you graduates. You’ve just completed one, two, three or four years with a remarkable collection of people that were here for you; some friends only now, others long friends into the future. At no time in human history have you had so many ways to stay together and continue your friendships--through technology, collaborations, the ease of travel. Yet many of you will drift apart, and when that happens, those are gifts that are lost. Remember your friendships as the most precious gifts; nurture them, care for them. They will give you gifts in return upon which no value can be placed, and that might allow you to change the world.

The gift of place. Even as we sit here on this cold weekend, look about you. You have been given the gift of nature here, of wind and waves, the full moon last night and the bright sun this morning, the sights and sounds of art being made and performed while mingled with the smell of pine and earth. This place of beauty and solitude, full of friends and experiences, gave you something; as you leave here for bigger places and larger spheres, think what this place gave to you, and how you use that as inspiration to give the gift of Interlochen to future generations.

The gift of the senses: touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. As Interlochen graduates and leaders of the arts in the future, I want to put these five senses or gifts in a different perspective for your lives.

Sight = Vision: to anticipate what our lives and contributions will need in the future to help us use the arts to negotiate an exciting, meaningful and complex future.

Sound = Hearing: the ability to listen and learn from the many voices and sounds of our world so that your gifts have meaning and understanding to future generations.

Taste = Exploration: that you might choose to experience new things always to remain vital as creative forces.

Smell = Perception: the ability to smell the differences between goodness and evil, truth and lies, excellence and mediocrity, and all the things that make us better human beings.

Touch = Feeling: to have the sensitivity to understand the impact that you can have as a creative force of nature.

Now it is time to do what all good commencement speakers do: assign duties, guilt and responsibilities to the next generation. We’ve all heard the phrase “It is better to give than to receive.” And that is what must happen now. Today is not really just about you; it is about what you choose to do for others. It is this final gift that may be the hardest one to understand today but the one that will allow you to give so much tomorrow.

It is the gift of your creativity.

You have been given a remarkable education and experience here, one that will be amplified as you accumulate yet more experiences in life. And then, like my friend Paul, you must decide how you are going to give to others, create something beautiful that could enjoyed by just one person, or something of great power and magnitude that could last for generations.

And so my friends, it is time to go. Travel safely in your journey. Keep in touch. Visit often. Make wise choices. Make a difference with your gifts. Leave gifts for others. It is your destiny.