June 16, 2006 | In St. Paul, Minnesota is a Catholic University, St. Thomas University. This Spring the commencement speaker was the college’s star defensive tackle, Ben Kessler, a kind, intelligent, well-respected and strong leader at the University. In recognition of his athletic excellence, unusual gifts of leadership, and outstanding generosity to the community, Ben was awarded the university's much-respected Tommie Award.

Upon granting Ben the award, the university had many complimentary things to say of this talented and caring young man, including the following, “Four years as a defensive tackle, he recorded 21 quarterback sacks and 165 tackles – that tough player on the field has another side in class. [a professor] ‘I think there is a calmness that comes with the wisdom that Ben has. Not much throws him off kilter. I’ve never seen him get thrown off kilter. He is thoughtful. He is deliberate about planning, asking people, getting input. I typically don’t see that until I’m with an older adult.’ ”

His commencement speech centered on the choice that we all must make in life – to be selfless or selfish.

However, Ben was heckled through the entire speech and some folks walked out in anger, apparently some faculty included. A few students were yelling, “F*** You”, and “You are selfish!" Others booed, jeered and sneered at him. The much-heckled speech ended up as a topic for the front page of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis newspapers. One girl was quoted as saying he ruined her graduation day entirely. 

What did they perceive as the problem? Ben reiterated the tenets of the Catholic faith. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

As a background, this past year, some faculty members decided to take on the Catholic foundations of the University with the intent of breaking them. They did so by first challenging the university's employee travel policies.  Unmarried faculty couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, insisted on being able to room together on university-sponsored trips. The university in response merely requested that faculty abide by the university's travel policies -- the same policies they agreed to when accepting employment at the university. In response, these faculty members went into a public tizzy.

Also this past year, students got in a food fight on campus that got so physical and out-of-hand that the St. Paul police had to be called to subdue an escalating situation. Not to mention the usual round of off-campus “Tommy” parties in which police or the administration had to be called to subdue other excessive behavior problems. 

In his speech Ben directly addressed these issues that caused such turmoil during this past academic year. He did so by merely reiterating the foundations of the Catholic faith. In particular, he emphasized God’s calling for us to think of others first and our self-interest second. He emphasized the personal choice we all have between being selfish or selfless.

Ben used a number of examples from campus life to illustrate the contrast. Overall, I don’t agree with his particularly strongly worded remark on birth control. However, in the context of this story told to me a few months ago, I do: A dad of a St. Thomas student bought his son a house in a well-to-do residential neighborhood, spending nearly a half a million dollars for the son’s luxurious off campus housing. It is a neighborhood packed with many couples with young children. However, the student repeatedly packed “his” house with parties more akin to a frat house than a home with young kids nearby and he callously disregarded requests to be respectful of his residential neighbors. When a next door neighbor woke up one morning to condoms disposed of in his yard, the neighbor finally called in for help to contain a growing problem. In the context of that student’s complete disregard for a neighbor’s decency in addition to the students' disregard of the innocence and health of young children nearby, Ben’s remark regarding the use of birth control by students is not so outrageous.

Overall, I’ve heard my share of offensive public speeches that rock my very foundation. I generally speak to the person after or contact those in charge and respectfully state my view. But yelling out profanities or stomping out of the ceremony pouting and booing in a fit of spoiled bitterness is childish and, frankly, selfish. Yet that is exactly what some of the attendees did. Yelling “F*** Him”  and “He’s a A**hole!” to me is never an acceptable response.

The angry, pouting attendees seem to have forgotten that they are attending, employed by, or teaching at a Catholic school. It’s hard to believe they thought they’d be sitting down to hear a commencement address denouncing Catholicism, or denouncing the roots of their faith, or a speech that reflects the views of an atheist. If they do, perhaps they should work at or attend a public university or consider becoming something other than a Catholic.

Here is the end of Ben’s speech, which followed his remarks regarding the events of the year. Although certain members of the audience were disrespectful during the entirety of Ben's talk, I’ve noted the more pronounced moments of yelling, booing, jeering and walking out. I think you'll find the places of continued jeering and swearing, nothing short of bizarre.

“Regardless of the past, regardless of what has happened in the past. We must change for the future. We must stop making selfish choices.

If we keep making selfish choices, each one of us will be figuratively throwing food, climbing on tables, and being escorted out by the St. Paul Police.

My friends, please do not despair on this graduation day. This is not a day to despair.

First of all look at these graduates in front of us. Look at this impressive group of young people sitting in front of me.

Second, graduations are for hope not despair. And I’m not here to bring you despair, I’m here to bring you hope.

How do we find this hope? We find this hope....[some in the audience scream out loudly at Ben]

We find true hope by completely giving of ourselves, emptying ourselves into our community.

Friends, I speak of selflessness here, of giving yourself completely to the community. The only way that human beings, you and I, can be truly happy is by emptying of ourselves. And I don’t mean happiness of instant pleasure, instant satisfaction. I mean true lasting happiness.

[more yelling and jeering]

The only people that in all of history that were truly lastingly happy were those that gave completely of themselves.

You know the people I talk about…Ghandhi, Martin Luther King Junior. St. Thomas Acquinas.  Dare I say Jesus [people walking out of the speech]

These people found true lasting happiness by emptying themselves. By not thinking selfishly. By thinking of others in the community.

Yes they experienced sacrifice. 

[more people walk out ]

They experienced pain.

They experienced tough times.

But they found an end of happiness that was better than any of those who chose selfishly.

Graduates, Staff, Faculty, Parents and Friends, to end today I bring two issues of good news. Friends the choice is yours, and each of us has a great amount of time to make this choice

Selflessness or selfishness:

The race is far from over. And winning the race is up to you.

I only hope to meet each of you years from now and see that you are happy. That you are happy. Truly happy. Truly happy because you gave, gave, gave and gave. [At this point the harassment against Ben was so loud that he was interrupted and thus repeated his words.]

Truly happy because you gave, gave, gave and gave with the end of the community in sight. Truly happy because you lived unselfishly."

Ben left the stage to applause, but also strongly vocalized boos and more jeering.

Following negative publicity by the local media and the bitter attendees, Ben was pressured to apologize. The University buckled in weakness. I’m not sure what there is to apologize about. I think the students and faculty should apologize for being selfish and disrespectful to a speaker, someone well recognized in the broader community as being a caring and thoughtful leader. By no means do they need to agree with the entirety of Ben’s speech, but they should understand that a strongly founded, loving, mature, selfless society values debating and disagreeing respectfully and thoughtfully. There is no place for stomping, pouting, hissing and profanity. Maybe all that hissing was just a sign that Ben is right?

Good luck to you Ben! I’m sure you will continue to make a wonderful, selfless contribution to the world.

Thank you.

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Jeannine Kellogg, based in Minneapolis, has a Masters in Business Administration and works in the technology field. Outside of work she enjoys writing, travel, and teaching piano.

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