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Justice Speeches

St. Joseph Academy Commencement Address
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
June 4, 2013

Good evening and thank you Mary Ann for that introduction.

President Corrigan-Davis, Principal Cantwell, Sisters of the Congregation of Saint Joseph, academy board of directors and faculty, distinguished guests, friends and family, and the Saint Joseph Academy Class of 2013, it's a high honor to serve as your commencement speaker tonight.

My biggest challenge will be to keep your minds from wandering for the next ten minutes, because I know that you are eager to receive your diploma, update facebook pages, and make appearances at all your friends' graduation parties.

The best commencement speakers meet two important objectives. First and foremost, they are brief and second, she should impart a message.

My message to you tonight is simple, although it might not be one you would expect.

I'm not going to tell you to change the world, although I certainly hope each of you works to do that in your personal and professional career.

I am here to tell you this: please continue your path of non-traditionalism.

Attending St. Joseph Academy is a nontraditional choice. I too am a product of single-sex education, both in high school and in college.

Without a doubt, that educational arrangement afforded me opportunities for leadership that I would not have experienced otherwise.

So pay attention, absorb and embrace what I'm about to tell you. It will help guide your future. Based on my experience, here's where that penchant for non-traditionalism could lead.

As you are about to embark on the eye-opening, mind-bending life experience called college in a few months, I urge you not to waste this time.

You will encounter classmates who don't look like you, think like you, or behave like you. That's a good thing.

Talk with these students and find out more about them. Ask them about their backgrounds.

What are their likes and dislikes, besides studying?

Diversity is an underappreciated quality in our world. Take advantage of the beautiful minds you will encounter and share your story as well.

You will also be faced with many choices from academics to free time. Carry that spirit of non-traditionalism with you.

Don't be like every other college student and avoid the eight a.m. course taught by the demanding professor. Now is the time to challenge yourself. Saint Joseph's has instilled in you a passion for learning and a knack for critical thinking. Use, develop, and refine those skills.

Seek out new challenges.

These next few years will be exciting times filled with discovery to be sure. But please don't put blinders on and charge headlong into the one and only career goal you've had in mind for years.

It would be a wonderful thing if your master plan works out, but please keep your options open. Chances are you will reinvent yourselves a thousand times in college and change your major because of it. Again, that's a good thing.

I thought I wanted to be a doctor then a teacher, but look where I ended up.

It's only by experiencing things that you know what you want and don't want...and deciding what you don't want is just as valuable. I was finishing up a master's program in education and decided after my student teaching experience that I really didn't want to teach...I realized that I had neither the patience nor attitude that teaching takes. That was a valuable lesson and I thank God that I didn't pursue teaching just because it would have been the easiest thing to do...I'm sure there are untold thousands of student who benefitted from my decision not to teach as well.

As the generation coming forward to take leading roles in society, you should expect that your journey along the way will not be easy in the coming months and the coming years.

But that doesn't mean the experience won't be worthwhile. To the contrary, you will be better because of it.

Better because you will have traversed peaks and valleys.

Better because you will have tried and failed.

And better because you will have earned your spots. You are Jaguars, after all.

The adversity you are bound to encounter will bring fulfillment, and ultimately, wisdom.

The road to an unfulfilling and meaningless life is smooth and straight.

The road to greatness is steep and arduous.

Which road will you choose?

I will grant you that adversity will not always feel like it's leading you in the right direction but trust me it is.

Being that I once sat where you are and you are wondering where you might end up, here are some additional career tips from a proud non-traditionalist.

To be quite honest, my career path has been more like a winding road than a straight and narrow one.

I've had to explore my leadership potential and develop my own leadership style even before those quote-unquote leadership roles materialized.

Obviously my law degree opened many opportunities for public service work as a magistrate, judge, county prosecutor, lieutenant governor and member of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

I've served in all those roles, but one job didn't necessarily lead to another.

However, each step along the way prepared me for another.

And, I was fortunate to do well at every step so the doors of opportunity remained open.

I also paid attention and learned from my mentors and colleagues.

So I would encourage you to absorb what others can teach you.

Whether it's positive or negative, there are lessons to be had in just about every situation.

It's also important to excel in whatever pursuit you are engaged in.

By doing so opportunities will come your way.

And don't be afraid to take a risk and seize the opportunity.

That nontraditional spirit that we share also played a part on the road I traveled toward eventually leading the judicial branch of Ohio.

In 1977 I wanted to do two things...bum around Europe and go to law school. I decided to apply to Cleveland Marshall Law School and if I wasn't accepted, I would bum around Europe to see what opportunities would present themselves.

I was accepted to law school and I never got to bum around Europe...she said wistfully

So I went to law school at a time when there were few women taking that path.

I am one of only a very small number of women who have ever served as a county prosecutor in Ohio.

When I joined the Supreme Court in 2002, as the sixth woman to ever serve on the Court, I was proud to be part of the first female majority.

And in 2011, I became the first woman Chief Justice in the 200 plus-year history of the Ohio Supreme Court.

You should all be as fortunate in the pursuit of your passion.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, my message to you today is to dedicate your lives in the service of others.

Career is important. Advancing in your profession, making money, so you can support yourself and your family is important. Your education here will serve you well in these pursuits.

But they will mean nothing. Nothing. If you do not do as the Lord commands and help the least fortunate among us. Incorporate service in your lives.

The particular form of service to which you will be called may not be what you expect. It doesn't matter. Just always remember that you are called to serve.

Jesus: "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Like many of you, I grew up Catholic and still am a practicing Catholic. I love the motto of St. Joseph Academy...susum corda. Lift up our hearts...but let's not stop there. Lift up our minds, our bodies and our spirits, all that we have, in the service of others in the name of the Lord.

Take heart, God has guided you to this point in your nontraditional choices; trust that He will do the same in your future as a committed nontraditionalist.

Thank you, good luck, and God bless.

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