Maybe you remember the commencement speaker from your college graduation; maybe you don’t. But it is safe to say the spring 2018 graduates of the California State University Maritime Academy will never forget the wisdom award-winning journalist, author, and—most importantly—son of a ship’s cook Dr. Rick Rigsby shared with them on their graduation day.
In an homage to his late father and wife, Rigsby said that the best advice he ever received was from his father, who was a “third grade dropout” and a “simple cook,” and he proceeded to pass it along to those in attendance with the hope that they too would come to understand that while times might get tough, it is vital to wake up every morning in search of greater knowledge and go to sleep every night asking oneself: “How you living?”
“It’s not oxymoronic for me to say the wisest man I ever met was a third grade drop out,” Rigsby said while introducing the audience to his late dad—a man that had to stop going to school in third grade in order to help out on the family farm but never allowed his lack of education to keep him from learning.
Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education,” and Rigsby’s father lived the same way. He taught himself to read and write, and he taught his children the power of combining “knowledge and wisdom to make an impact.”
“My father decided he was going to be a man—not a black man, not a brown man, not a white man—but a man,” Rigsby recalled. “He literally challenged himself to be the best that he could all the days of his life.”
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While Rigsby has earned four degrees and his brother is a judge, he said the two of them have never held a candle to their father’s wisdom or smarts. He told the graduates that there were a few rules his father chose to live by, and they are rules that ultimately saved him personally when he found himself “at rock bottom.”
“We never knew what time it was in my house because the clocks were always ahead,” Rigby explained. “My mother said, for nearly 30 years, my father left the house at 3:45 in the morning. One day she asked him, ‘Why Daddy?’ He said, ‘Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.’”
Rigsby and his brother learned the importance of being on time, but they also learned the that “excellence is a habit, not an act,” and that, while we all may be raised to be “tough,” it is of equal if not greater importance to “always remember to be kind.”
“Don’t ever forget that,” he declared.
Raised by a humble man, Rigsby said that his father also taught him a thing or two about pride and ego. Giving the example of champion UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who was known to grab a broom from the closet and sweep the gym floor himself after practices, he explained that one must “make sure your servant’s towel is bigger than your ego,” for “ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity.” Moreover, “pride is the burden of a foolish person.”
“You want to make an impact,” he asked. “Every day of your life, find your broom. You grow your influence that way… If you’re going to do a job, do it right… good enough isn’t good enough if it can be better and better isn’t good enough if it can be best.”
Rigsby said that he was not concerned about the likelihood of success for any of those gathered before him. Instead, he was “worried” that the graduates wouldn’t “fail from time to time.” He believes that it is through failure that true success is born.
“I’m not worried that you won’t be successful. I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time,” he said. “Wisdom will come to you through the unlikeliest of sources, a lot of times through failure. When you hit rock bottom remember this: while you’re struggling, rock bottom can also be a good foundation on which to build and on which to grow.”
In closing, Rigsby shared the deeply personal story of his late wife’s, Trina Williams, passing, which he believes was the darkest time of his life. He credits his faith in God and two sons for helping him press on, but he believes it was three simple words his father said to him as they laid Trina to rest that reminded him of the reason for living.
“Trina was the only woman in college who gave me her real phone number,” he joked. “We get married. We have a few children. Our lives are great.”
But then everything changed:
One day, Trina finds a lump in her left breast. Breast cancer. Six years after that diagnosis, me and my two boys walked up to mommy’s casket. For two years, my heart didn’t beat. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If it weren’t for those two little boys, there would have been no reason for which to go on. I was completely lost. That was rock bottom.
You know what sustained me? The wisdom of a third-grade dropout. The wisdom of a simple cook. We’re at the casket. I’d never seen my dad cry… [but] my father shared three words with me that changed my life right there at the casket. It would be the last lesson he would ever teach me. He said, ‘Son, just stand.’ You keep standing. No matter how rough the sea, you keep standing. and I’m not talking about just water… No matter what, you don’t give up.
And as clearly as I’m talking to you today, these were some of [Trina’s] last words to me. She looked me in the eye and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me most is how I live.’
With that, Rigsby had one simple question for the audience: “How you living?”
“Every day, ask yourself that question,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, you do it the right way. It’s never wrong to do the right thing. How you do anything is how you do everything. In that way, you will grow your influence to make an impact.”
Just as Rigsby’s father never let his lack of a formal education get in the way of his learning, he concluded by encouraging the graduates to never take their knowledge or opportunity for granted.
“Enhance your life every day by seeking wisdom,” he said, “and asking yourself every night: how am I living?”
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