Originally created 06/03/04

Harlem High's principal graduates with his students at end of his career



Graduation speeches - and I've heard a bunch of them over the years - usually are delivered with few real emotions and little lingering substance.

I wasn't expecting much two weekends ago when I attended the Harlem High School graduation of my nephew, Richard Spence, in the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.

When Principal Barry Hemphill rose to deliver the commencement speech, I pretty much expected the standard "good luck, get out of here and succeed" kind of talk.

But my ears perked up when I heard him say to the Harlem High Class of 2004, "As I shake your hands and (you) walk off the stage today, I will be graduating also.

"It took you 12 years, but it took me 38; the last 17 and happiest having been spent at Harlem High School. You are leaving to find a direction. I am leaving to find a good place to fish."

What followed was some of the best first-hand bits of wisdom I've ever heard. Here are some highlights:

l "I believe that all people have talents. Identify your talents. ... While you are developing your talents, look for moments when you can love what you are doing. Working well is not enough to have a complete and happy life. You have to love what you are doing."

l "Look for fun. When I think back over the years of working with young people, I remember moments of great joy ... Never once in my career did I have a day without some laughter or a day without some fun."

l "Set high goals, but don't be so goal oriented that you forget to celebrate the steps of progress along the way ... Celebrate the steps both big and small."

l "Enjoy life in each of its smallest bits of time. Then and only then are you truly happy."

l "You have to dream big enough to envision and encompass what for you would be perfection. No limits are set on these dreams. Vision leads you always upward in your journey of becoming."

l "Know as many people as you possibly can know. Take time to ask for names, to learn personalities, to care about how others feel and perceive life. Each person you meet has the potential to lift you, teach you, to touch your heart. No one is insignificant. No one is expendable. Build bridges and cross them. Maintain the bridges you already have built."

l "Be sure that you like and take care of the person who you are now, and then you (will) have good company as you create the person you will become. Essentially, each of us is alone many hours of the day. Make certain that the person you are with when you are alone is someone you admire."

At the close of his remarks, Mr. Hemphill said poignantly, "Thank you for asking me to speak this afternoon. You have allowed me that last time to teach on the day that is one of my favorite days of the year.

"I love graduations. It is what we begin working for before any of you every reach the front doors of Harlem High. You have been a great class, a best class, the class that I will not say goodbye to. You are the class that I will leave with, and I couldn't be in better company."

As he ended his remarks, I couldn't help thinking that Mr. Hemphill was mistaken in those final remarks. Rather, it was his pupils who couldn't have been in better company.

Don Rhodes has been writing about country music for 33 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or don.rhodes@morris.com.