You only have one chance to “get through this thing called life,” so make it your own — and no one else’s, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told Jacksonville University graduates Saturday in delivering his first commencement keynote address.
Highlighting the lyric from the song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince that has been played and sung over and over in the days since the music legend’s stunning death, Curry painted a picture of a future in which each student should never forget his or her dreams. He illustrated it with examples of his own determination to achieve his life goals – no matter how “crazy.”
“I appeal to you… if you can only recall a single thing from my talk, please remember this: You only get to do ‘this thing called life’ once. There are no do-overs,” the mayor told the graduates. “If the journey you’re beginning today is not your own … If you’re heading in a direction that you don’t want to go, that does not evoke passion, my advice is to — and parents may hate me for this — choose your road. Walk your path. Flip it all upside down. Follow your passion and your dreams … Don’t live anyone else’s version of your life.”
That was some of the earned wisdom from the keynote speaker as the University awarded nearly 900 degrees at its 2016 spring commencement ceremony on its Science Green. (Find the full text of Mayor Curry’s remarks below, and a photo gallery on Facebook.)
“I remember being your age – even though I’d like to think it wasn’t that long ago. I felt the world was mine… that I could chase any dream and become anything. I hope you feel that way this morning,” Curry urged the students before an overflow crowd of more than 7,000, some jamming second-floor balconies of surrounding academic halls to get a view.
Ultimately, “You are going to have distractions … smartphones, Netflix, beers and more; but ignore them and live your life! You must want your dreams as badly as you want to breathe,” the mayor said. “And you have to be willing to focus and work hard to achieve them.”
Curry received the inaugural “Distinguished Dolphin of Service” award for his dedication and commitment to the city. The celebration also featured the awarding of 28 Master of Science in Speech Language Pathology and seven Master of Education in Reading Education degrees, the first in the 82-year history of the university.
Of the total 894 spring 2016 graduates, 284 received bachelor of nursing degrees; 101 received master of nursing degrees; 93 received master of business administration degrees; and 111 graduated with Latin honors, which are earned by students with a minimum GPA of 3.50 with 60 graded credits at JU. In addition, 18 students graduated with their bachelor’s degree and earned University Honors. A total of 83 active-duty military, student veterans, dependents and reservists graduated as well.
JU President Tim Cost praised the graduates, who gained their educations during an unprecedented era of growth and improvement in the campus’ grounds, facilities, faculty and programs.
“You have excelled, and, even more than that, you leave your University having helped make it far better than the one you entered … a high compliment,” Cost told the students. “Now, go forward and ascend to your rightful place in the world — achieve your potential.”
Curry, who took office on July 1 of last year, invoked the mantra he lives by – “flip it upside down” — to show the students how he time and again changed paths and took advantage of opportunities in order to revisit his original dreams of starting his own business, getting into politics and coaching football.
Despite the distractions college life can bring, Curry managed to keep his football dreams alive by coaching youths in Pop Warner football. He earned an accounting degree, joined PricewaterhouseCoopers and climbed the corporate ladder with an ever-increasing salary.
The dream and desire to be an entrepreneur – his dad had owned a television repair shop — stayed with him, however, and after a friend pitched him a business idea, he got a little “crazy” and risked it all by ditching his lucrative corporate career, cashing in his retirement funds and borrowing against credit cards to start ICX Group, an accounting and finance consultancy.
“I was 32 years old, making six figures, and was on a path to make a lot more money. I was becoming defined by my circumstances – security and certainty. But one night, opportunity knocked,” he said. “We started with two guys in a car with two cell phones.”
All the while he nurtured his political dreams, too, volunteering for the Congressional campaign of Ander Crenshaw, emailing Gov. Jeb Bush late at night and reading biographies about John Adams, Lyndon Johnson, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and many others. Later, in 2007, he became Treasurer of the local Republican Party, using his accountancy skills to stay close to his political vision. Eventually he ascended to Vice Chairman and then Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
In 2013, pessimists, critics, loved ones and even his own circumstances told him again he was crazy to run for Jacksonville mayor. A loss, he was told, would end his political future. But he “flipped it upside down” once again, and won.
“I was able to pursue this dream because I always stayed close to it… Over the years, I built up a business, nurtured civic and political relationships… I continued to be driven and determined. I taught myself how to build teams – winning ones,” he said. “I am standing here today because I pursued my version of my life. Even when my path wasn’t clear, I always stayed focused and disciplined.”
“Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” he closed, the music of “Let’s Go Crazy” reverberating through the Science Green.
At the commencement ceremony, Cost bestowed the degrees and presented the Fred B. Noble Gold Medal for Scholarship to the graduating students with the highest cumulative grade point average (4.0) in JU’s Class of 2016: Allison Kathleen McClain of Jacksonville and Jia-Siang “Ben” Leong of Malaysia.
The President’s Award for Outstanding Leadership-Undergraduate went to Sable Alexandra Lee of Oviedo, Fla.; the President’s Award for Outstanding Leadership-Graduate went to Grant Henry Gibson of St. Johns, Florida; and the University Award for Outstanding Service and Co-Curricular Involvement went to William Ellis Harr of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Also Saturday, Dr. Colleen Wilson, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Education in the School of Education, was recognized as Professor of the Year.
The spring 2016 JU graduates hail from throughout the United States and 19 other countries. The University’s more than 26,000 alumni come from all 50 states and 92 countries.
About Jacksonville University
Jacksonville University works to prepare each of its more than 4,000 students for lifelong success in learning, achieving, leading and serving. Its 250-acre riverfront campus is just minutes from downtown Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean. The private university has been named one of “America’s Best Colleges” for 12 straight years, ranks in the top 13% of all U.S. colleges in average alumni salaries, and is in the top 1% among all Florida colleges for Return on Investment for its graduates. With a 12 to 1 student-faculty ratio and full-time faculty percentage of 80 percent, it offers small class sizes, inviting campus grounds and engaged faculty and staff in a setting that promotes community, ambition and responsibility. JU has nearly 200 full-time faculty and offers more than 70 majors, programs and concentrations. Additionally, it offers graduate degrees in business, choreography, education leadership, marine science, mathematics, nursing, orthodontics, public policy, speech-language pathology, reading education, and visual arts. JU is accredited by, among others, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI) and Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CAPCSD) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
JACKSONVILLE UNIVERSITY COMMENCEMENT SPEECH
Mayor Lenny Curry
April 30, 2016
as prepared for delivery
Good morning. Thank you President Cost, JU Faculty, the Board of Trustees and staff for this distinguished opportunity. As mayor, I’ve given countless speeches throughout this city, but this is my very first commencement address. And, I couldn’t be more honored than to share this memory with the JU Dolphins. Congratulations graduates, parents, loved ones and educators.
As in most well-constructed speeches, one should always begin with a purpose… “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today… to get through this thing… called life.” Over the past week, we’ve heard and seen this lyric highlighted and displayed in a backdrop surrounding the death of its author – music legend Prince. However, his message of life is most poignant and fitting for this occasion – live your life.
Throughout today, you will receive a great deal of advice from family members, friends, professors, and even your commencement speaker. You will forget most of it. Few in this room can even recall who delivered their commencement speech; much less, its message. But I appeal to you… if you can only recall a single thing from my talk, please remember this: “You only get to do “this thing called life” once. There are no do overs. Live your life with the motto “YOLO.” You Only Live Once.
People will try to define you; tell you where you should go, and what you should do. In fact, your circumstances will try to define you some days. Reject them.
If the journey you’re beginning today is not your own… If you’re heading in a direction that you don’t want to go – that does not evoke passion – my advice is to (and parents may hate me for this) choose your road. Walk your path. Flip it all upside down. Follow your passion and your dreams… Don’t live anyone else’s version of your life. And don’t let your circumstances define your life.
I remember being your age – even though I’d like to think it wasn’t that long ago. I felt the world was mine… that I could chase any dream and become anything. I hope you feel that way this morning. Keep that feeling throughout your life, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. And if you don’t have that feeling, you should. You get what you believe. Stay focused, work hard, and always keep an eye on opportunity.
I hope my personal story will help reinforce the importance of living your life and pursuing your dreams.
I am privileged to serve as mayor of this wonderful city that I love. The journey was long; and I had to “flip it upside down” many times. I’ll admit… going from CPA to mayor is an unlikely path. If I had listened to my critics, pessimists, those who cared for me, and even my own circumstances, I would not be standing on this stage today. I had to fight and continue to fight for my dreams.
I am sharing my journey with you today, and how determination and discipline have guided me.
For most of my life, at least as far back as I can remember, I always knew three things: (1) I knew I wanted to start a business someday, (2) I knew I wanted to get involved in politics…though I didn’t know how, and (3) I knew I wanted to coach football.
Well, I actually wanted to play in the NFL – but it wasn’t until I was 17 years-old that someone pointed out that I was 5’8″, and 180 pounds. So, coaching it was!
Throughout my life and career, I’ve always sought to make decisions and take actions that brought me closer to these goals. There’s a quote that asks, “Is what you’re doing today getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow?” It’s not enough to just want something. You have to work for it… you have to be focused… and you have to put yourself in the position, so that when opportunity knocks, you’re at the door holding the handle. I want each of you sitting here today to have your hand on the handle when your opportunity presents itself, whether it’s in 1 year, 5 years, 10 or 20… you have to be ready.
A common thread you will find in my journey is that I always committed the time and effort to staying attached to my dreams – no matter what else was going on in my life… to be ready to open that door… ready for the moment opportunity knocks. It’s important to stay connected to your dreams. It will keep you focused, and motivated too. For example, to keep my football dreams alive during college, I coached 9 and 10 year olds in pop warner football. College, as you all know, has a lot of distractions to offer.
I earned a degree in accounting because I thought that would provide a good foundation to start a business. After college, I accepted a job with the world’s largest accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers. While I was working 60 hours a week, in addition to late night dinner meetings and corporate events, I managed to maintain my focus and discipline and stay close to my dreams.
I signed up to volunteer for the Congressional campaign of Ander Crenshaw. I emailed Governor Bush a late night letter, even though he had never even heard the Curry name. I read biographies about John Adams, LBJ, Alexander Hamilton, Lincoln and many others. I spent many evenings brainstorming and throwing around crazy ideas for new businesses at lunches, or at the gym.
As I was climbing the corporate ladder at PwC, it didn’t take long for me to realize that partners make good money. I grew up in a middle-class family – in fact, I worked in my Dad’s Television repair shop – so, the earning potential was indeed enticing and tempting. Entrepreneurship was becoming less likely. I was 32 years-old, making six figures, and was on a path to make a lot more money. I was becoming defined by my circumstances – security and certainty. But one night, opportunity knocked.
A colleague and friend pitched a business idea to me at 11:00 p.m. while we were sitting in the office. He jotted the idea, the plan, and the required capital on a piece of paper. It would require that I walk away from a lucrative career, cashing in my retirement funds, borrowing against credit cards, and starting over… that is to say, flip it upside down. I pondered this decision for weeks, as colleges and friends told me I was crazy. My circumstances seemed to be defining my decision. I did not spend my free time those 8 years brainstorming business ideas for nothing. I decided to start the business – YOLO.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lenny Curry, CEO of ICX Group, an expert resource in accounting and finance, consulting & IT Recruitment. We started with two guys in a car with two cell phones. I remember one of the first clients we pitched… we were up until 4 a.m. preparing the presentation.
While we were successful, there were a lot of long hours, long weeks, stressful times and uncertain years. Nevertheless, I found time to get involved in politics. I was asked to volunteer as Treasurer of the local Republican Party in 2007. Although it wasn’t a role for which I aspired – I wanted to be the big dog – after all, I am 5’8 and 180 pounds. Yet, I was afforded the opportunity to use my expertise as an accountant to stay close to my political dream. Opportunity came knocking again.
From there, I moved from Treasurer to Chairman of the Republican Party of Duval County… and eventually to Vice Chairman and then Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
By staying focused, working hard, and keeping an eye on opportunity, I was now living my dreams, growing my business, and serving as head of the State’s Republican Party during a presidential year. Folks, it doesn’t get much more exciting than that. I was working with elected officials across this country – now talking with people who, a few years earlier, had never heard my name and were receiving late night emails from me. CNN, FOX News and other networks were calling. All of this – from Treasurer to Chairman – at the most opportune time – was preparing and helping me build the skillsets and networks required for a successful campaign… one day.
That day came in 2013, when I and others thought the City needed to go in a new direction, leading to my consideration of a run for Mayor in the 2015 election. I had to assess my viability. Simply put, would I be able to build the team, pull together the resources and win the campaign – the opportunity to contribute to a city I’d chosen to live in and raise a family? Most importantly, how would my wife Molly and our kids – Boyd, Brooke, and Bridget – feel about this endeavor?
Again, the pessimists, critics, loved ones, and even my own circumstances told me I was crazy… that I couldn’t win. Most people told me I would end any hopes of a political future on this failed effort. Those voices were loud and persistent. But this was my life…YOLO. A life I only get to live once. So I chose my road, walked my path, and flipped it upside down… to follow my dream.
I was able to pursue this dream because I always stayed close to it… Over the years, I built up a business, nurtured civic and political relationships… I continued to be driven and determined… I taught myself how to build teams – winning ones.
I am standing here today because I pursued my version of my life. Even when my path wasn’t clear, I always stayed focused and disciplined.
What will the next phase look like? I hope I have a few decades left… I’m not exercising every day for fun… I am staying close to my dreams and serve as head coach of my 11-year-old son’s football team.
As I talk to my son and his teammates about striving for success, I often remind them of a story about a man that wanted to know the secret of success, and sought the advice of the guru.
The man made the long journey to the guru’s hut to ask for the secret of success. The guru said nothing, but stood and gestured for the man to follow… leading him to the banks of a nearby lake.
The guru gestured for the man to enter the water. He walked out until the water touched his knees and turned back. The guru waved at him to go deeper. He went until the water reached his waist. The guru sent him farther… to his stomach, his chest, all the way to his neck. The guru sent him deeper still.
When the water was at his nose, the man felt a hand on the back of his head that forced him under the water and held him there firmly. The man, thinking it was some kind of test, sat still.
A minute passed, and he was growing breathless. The grip on his neck hadn’t weakened. Another minute crawled by, and now he was getting anxious. His heart beat heavily in his chest, his throat tightened, and his lungs screamed for air. He struggled against the grip on his life, but he was pressed farther beneath the water.
The man panicked and thrashed around wildly, trying with all his might to loosen the guru’s grip. Seconds passed, and he felt his strength slowly ebbing away… and just as he was about to give up, the hand let go.
The man climbed onto the shore, breathing in heaving gasps. Oxygen flooded his lungs. His vision grew clearer, the hammering in his throat slowed, his hands stopped trembling. Angrily, he faced the Guru and screamed in protest. The Guru stared at him for a long moment and then spoke. He asked the man if he remembered how badly he wanted to take that breath… That’s how badly you must want success.
The moral of the story? Well first, don’t let a strange old man lead you neck- deep into a lake… but more importantly, you must want your dreams as badly as you want to breathe. And you have to be willing to focus and work hard to achieve them. Ignore your phones, get off Netflix, put down the beers, and live your life!
Yes; that sounded preachy… but most commencement speeches are. Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, said the same thing – perhaps a bit more eloquently:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Dearly beloved… this is your thing called life. You only get to do it once. Make it yours. Follow your passions. Flip it upside down! Stay close to your dreams. And pursue those dreams with focus, determination, and an eye on opportunity… and live your life your way.
Thank you for the opportunity to share this special day with you. Now, let’s go crazy.
Jacksonville University Spring 2016 Commencement