Leon Charney Commencement Speech University of Indianapolis May 18, 1985

I feel like I’m swimming now to be before such an audience. First of all let me tell you that it is my pleasure to be here with you and I consider it an honor that you have bestowed upon me to allow me to speak to you. It’s very nice to be a council to a president of the United States, to be a council to a defense minister of Israel, to a prime minister of Israel, to members of the Knesset. I was counsel to the United States senator from Indiana for six years, Sen. Vance Hartke, who by the way is friendly with Sen. Luger today in case there are any people here who voted one way or another, they pull together we are all united. It’s ecumenical as the doctor would say.

What I want to do is talk to the graduates and I want tell you a little bit of how it feels to rise to become part of the peace process. Perhaps rise is the wrong word. Perhaps the word is to be fortunate enough to be put in the position to allow oneself to serve in such a great undertaking as the peace process. As being part of a process that stops killing. As being part of a process which brings people together. There is a trustee in the school named Don Tanselle who is sitting behind me, and he is the man who worked very hard with me to help bring this process together.

But that’s the pinnacle, let’s talk about the beginning. I come from Bayonne, New Jersey, which is a small town probably about as small as Wabash or one of the other smaller towns in Indiana where I’ve been, and when I was seven years old I was a shoe shine boy. Neither my parents are going to college. They came from East European countries and I was the first college graduate in my family, along with her brother, and it was a big day in my life when I got my degree. Then I went on and became a lawyer and got my degree in law. But through the process of working oneself up from Bayonne, New Jersey to Wall Street, to the White House, to the Knesset, a lot happens within a person and what is important for you people to understand, if I can impart this to you today, is never forget your roots. Never forget how far and how important faith is and how important spiritual life is to you. I am of the Jewish faith. I am being honored here today because I participated in a work which brought peace between Egypt and Israel and I felt, although I am not an Orthodox Jew, it would be inappropriate for me to drive here on my Sabbath, so I chose to stay in the campus motel. I felt that this is an institution that has become a family to me. I felt part of something that was inexpressible for a moment. I had a speech written here and there is nothing that I am saying from this speech because everything in my speech transformed when I came here last night and I met Dr. Sease. I knew him before hand because we’ve met before, but I didn’t understand this university, I didn’t know what it was. Forget the swimming pool which was a good exercise for me. When I ate with a few students, everybody was happy here, everybody felt that they had really received an education. I had spoken at Yale, I’ve spoken at West Point, I have spoken at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve spoken at least 20 universities. I did not get the same feeling as I have here today. I know that you people will be back here and have that feeling because in me it is a feeling that I’ve become part of the family.

There’s a Jewish or Hebrew statement that comes from our Torah which says “If I am not for myself, what am I?” which is very interesting. And then it says “And when I am for myself, what am I?” it is a very, very deep statement. It was made by the very famous Rabbi Hillel and it means that no matter how far you rise, no matter how far you think you are in life, remember the routes, remember the faith, remember the spirit, because without that it is empty, it is meaningless, it is useless.

I know one of the fascinating experiences of my life was flying in Air Force One. I was on the plane with Pres. Jimmy Carter and Bob Strauss and I said to myself, “My Lord, (and I meant that parenthetically) there’s nothing between the power of this airplane and God. There’s only clouds. This man controls the western world. He controls 2, 3 billion people.” what is between us, and I got such a sense of humility on that day, that I began to think of my Yeshiva training, my days as an undergraduate, 

my days when professors told me things that I’m telling you now. Walk on, walk on with hope, with faith and you’ll achieve it, but when you get there, and you will get there, if you will it.

If the shoeshine boy from Bayonne, New Jersey can become the Special Counsel to the President of the United States and become the “unsung hero” of the peace process, there is no one in this audience who cannot fulfill the role that he or she seeks to fill as an individual. And one need not be part of the peace process or one need not to be part of the dramatic event that gets tremendous publicity. One needs to be part of self-fulfillment, and that self-fulfillment will only come from the spiritual feelings that you receive and this must come from within yourself. So you’re going to get your degree, you’ve completed for years, or five years of laborious efforts. Many of you I know are going to become occupational therapist and you won’t get piece awards, but you will be doing something for humanity. You will get that feeling which I had when I saw the peace treaty being executed by Pres. Carter, Menachem Begin and Sadat. And I remember again, the prime minister at the time saying “And ye shall beat your swords into plowshares.” and I sat there and I cried. You’ll get that same feeling if you do it in business, if you do it in physical therapy, if you do it in nursing, just remember that what you were doing touches another human being, reaches out, gives him or her a feeling that is important and that is the essence of life. Not for glamour, not the glitz, not the newspapers, not the book. People have asked me “How does it feel to write a book and to have a book that is nearly a bestseller or that toppled the government?” Well it feels wonderful to the professors to write a book because it shows that I can write and so it proved to my professors that at least I wasn’t a retard. But the most important thing was the substantive aspect of what we’ve accomplished. We brought an Arab country which had been at war with a Jewish nation for 3000 years, we brought that peace and we stopped the killing.

We who worked on that, and I struggle with some people who do not have my feelings, had lost what I consider a spiritual faith. They begin to think that they really run the world. Well, you know what, nobody runs the world! The world is run by spirit and by your heart. So, my prayer to you is that each of you seek the filming within yourself and I believe, in my personal example, that that will be accomplished only if you have strong faith in the roots from where you came. And don’t be embarrassed about anything of your past. Don’t be embarrassed if your parents were not college graduates, or they were not Kings, or Queens, or ministers, or prime ministers, we were all simple people. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, Leon Charney was a shoeshine boy, the president of your university’s father never went beyond the fourth grade. So you people have a bright future and I implore you to remember your roots, to remember the example that this university gave you and I feel that you people are much luckier than I am because you had four years of the wonderful feeling that this university gave you. I had four hours. I hope I shall be invited back to share many more instances, but I am impressed to no end with what this university is. It is a system of education which makes the human being feel a very important part of life. It is not a massive grand place that just marches people out and gives degrees. You have learned to know one another. Your education here is vital, not because of what you learned from your professors and the books, but because of what you learned between each other as people. I saw at lunch today and I saw that breakfast. It didn’t take me very long to see it. Thank you very, very much for allowing me to address you.