GE leader Immelt urges graduates to be "our greatest generation"

Author: Arts and Letters

Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric Co., urged graduates at the University of Notre Dame’s 162nd Commencement exercises Sunday (May 20) to be “our greatest generation.”

The principal Commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree, Immelt spoke of his admiration for Notre Dame, poked some fun at himself, and offered advice and encouragement to the 2,800 graduates.

“I have had a lifelong fascination with your school,” Immelt said. “You represent everything that is right about this country … scholarship, values and excellence. I like recruiting Notre Dame students and I like televising your games. As a young boy, growing up in Cincinnati, I used to hum the Notre Dame fight song while riding my bike to football practice. By the way, that was the closest I got to playing football here!”

Immelt joked that he was required to take a test to receive his honorary doctoral degree.

“I had to complete one of the following tasks,” he said. "I had to either provide a complete explanation of the universe through a unified field theory, tying together electricity, magnetism, gravity and quantum mechanics; or, throw a football farther than Brady Quinn; or, spell GE.

“So, you see, I did work hard to earn my honorary doctorate.”

On a more serious note, Immelt told the graduates – including 25 who have accepted jobs at GE – that they “must be our greatest generation” by adhering to three principles.

*"First, live with passion," he said. “Passion connects the mind to the heart. I had no idea where my journey would lead when I left college. But I did know I would go at full speed. My passion is innovation. I know that technology, creativity and risk-taking can change the world.”

*"Second, live with purpose," he continued. “Purpose turns passion into reality. Distinguish yourself through your determination. Commit yourself to build competency. Have a purpose to your life. You will define your own success. Some of you will be doctors or lawyers or teachers or parents. Work hard and do it well.”

*"Lastly, bring people with you," he said. “When I graduated from college, I knew that I could compete for myself. What I have learned over the last 25 years, is that teaching teams to compete is a lot more fun.”

Immelt was among nine honorary degree recipients. The others were: Valdas Adamkus, president of Lithuania; Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap., Apostolic Preacher; Archbishop Elias Chacour of Galilee; Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan; Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health; Kenneth Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services; Richard Hunt, internationally renowned Chicago sculptor; and Immacule Ilibagiza, author, activist and survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Michael Rossmann, a double major with a 4.0 grade point average in theology and economics from Iowa City, Iowa, delivered the valedictory address.

“Fellow graduates, as we leave this University, many of us have the enormous privilege of being able to live relatively comfortable lives when compared to the majority of the world’s population,” said Rossmann, who plans to enter the priesthood. "At the same time, whether or not we live materially comfortable lives, we are ultimately called to live complicated lives. Respecting the principles of Catholic social teaching means that the lives of millions killed around the world by treatable diseases matter, just as the economic, social and spiritual poverty that exists in our own neighborhoods deserves our attention.

“Such realities necessitate concern, sympathy and action. Though the answers to these problems are not always obvious, turning the page of the newspaper and failing to ask `why’ would betray what this place, with its Catholic foundation, stands for. We now share the opportunity and duty to live out what Notre Dame, grounded in both faith and reason, has planted in us.”

The Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics, was presented to Patrick F. McCartan, senior partner of the international law firm Jones Day, Notre Dame graduate, and for the past seven years chair of the University’s Board of Trustees.

“I’ve always thought that success is a journey, not an event,” McCartan said. “But, as I join the other recipients of the Laetare Medal, this certainly feels like an event. I’m not sure I can find the words to thank Notre Dame for this honor.”

McCartan encouraged the University to continue to be a great institution of higher learning with a distinctive Catholic character.

“While there does not appear that there is anything more Notre Dame can do for me,” he said, “I am certain that this special place has more to give to the Church, the nation and the world.”

The ceremony ended with the band leading an unscripted, but moving, rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president for 35 years, who will turn 90 on Friday (May 25).

Originally published by Dennis Brown at on May 20, 2007.