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The Purpose of Honors: Stepping Stone or Legacy

Dr. Boyd Rorabaugh
Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Cell Biology
Honors Day Convocation
May 7, 2011

ImageStudents, Parents, and Distinguished Colleagues,

When I was asked to give the address at the Honors Day Convocation, I must admit that I was caught by surprise.   It seems to me that these addresses are generally given by a faculty member who has been here for 20 or 25 years -  folks who have much more life experience than I.   Thus, I am privileged to be standing here today to help honor our students and to recognize their achievements.   Many students have lived rather ordinary lives.  Others have overcome financial hardships, difficult family circumstances, physical handicaps, and other barriers to arrive where they are today.   We are here today to recognize your achievements, to celebrate your successes, and to recognize the milestone that this day represents in your lives. 

Today I want to talk about two types of honors.  The first group of honors consists of those that we receive for something that we have accomplished, a goal that we have obtained, or a challenge that we have overcome.  These awards are displayed prominently in our offices, homes, and trophy cases.  If you visit my office you will find several framed diplomas from various universities.  You will also find a certificate indicating that I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a plaque designating me as the winner of a competition.  All of these honors, diplomas, and certificates represent stepping stones in my career.  First a baccalaureate degree, then a masters degree, then a Ph.D., then a postdoctoral fellowship, and finally a real job.  Some offices display other types of recognitions: perhaps teacher of the year, an award for an accomplishment in scientific research, or awards in writing, engineering, or theatrical performance.  Some people prominently display a certificate indicating their membership in an honorary or professional society or their success on the athletic field.

What role do these awards and honors play in our lives?  What is their significance?  Why are they important?  How long do they last?  Most importantly - how do they impact the world around us?  Some people view obtaining an award as an achievement in its own right.  It calls attention to the one whose name is displayed.  It provides an additional line on the resume.  These awards are stepping stones toward reaching one’s desired destination.  They enhance a job application or an application to graduate school.  They enhance one’s career and potentially allow us to earn more money or gain a higher rank.  However, unless we review our resume, stepping stone awards are often forgotten once we have used them to achieve our goals.

Honors, awards, and recognition of our achievements can also teach us something about ourselves.  They help us to realize what we are truly capable of.  They reward us for overcoming our limitations.  They show us that we can push harder, run faster, and achieve more than we may have previously thought.  They teach us that we can have victory in the face of adversity.  Dan Rowe was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, a form of cancer in 2008.  He underwent radiation treatment and a radical surgical procedure to remove a substantial portion of muscle tissue from his leg.  Following surgery, Dan had to undergo physical therapy to help him learn to walk using a different set of muscles.  However, he did not allow this obstacle to hinder him from pursuing his dreams.  Dan was declared cancer free in 2009.  Although a substantial amount of muscle was permanently removed from his leg, Dan celebrated his one year anniversary of being declared cancer free by running the Portland marathon- with an average pace of 7.5 min / mile.   He has participated in other running events since then, including a 35 mile “fun run”.  This sounds similar to the story of David Dellifield, director of the McIntosh center here at ONU.  Last Sunday David completed the Flying Pig marathon in Cincinnatti despite being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.  He trained for the marathon while taking chemotherapy.  The day after the race he finished his last radiation treatment.  Despite the challenges that Dan and David face, they continue to inspire us by setting high standards for achievement under less than ideal circumstances.  Their accomplishments demonstrate their capabilities even in the face of adversity.  I hope that the honors and recognition that you have received today will challenge you to reset the bar to a higher standard that will enable you to find out what you are capable of.

The second type of honors and awards recognize something that we accomplished on behalf of others.  In one way or another, these honors recognize something that we have done to change the lives of those around us and those who will follow after us.  They leave a legacy.  Such recognition is generally not pursued as a goal in its own right.  Sometimes the recognition is even unwanted.   Let me illustrate this by telling you a story about a man named Harry.  Harry grew up on a farm in Clearfield county Pennsylvania.  In 1943 Harry was drafted into the United States Army.  Following basic training and subsequent training as an Army Ranger Harry was sent to Liverpool England with the 9th infantry division.  At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of June 6, 1944 Harry and his team of approximately 25 rangers were transported in inflatable rafts to a location between Omaha beach and Utah beach in Normandy, France.  Under the cover of darkness, they scaled the cliffs along the beach and attempted to destroy enemy firing positions located on top of the cliffs.  This was done a few hours prior to the arrival of the main forces that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Harry’s group of men was detected by German troops.  It is difficult enough to scale a cliff in the dark without someone shooting at you.  Their detection by the enemy made it even more difficult.   Harry survived D-Day.  His group of men spent the next several months fighting their way across France, enduring  all that war has to offer- shellings, injuries, lack of sleep, the death of close friends, and the destruction of lives and property.  On September 3, 1944, Harry and 300 other men crossed the Meuse River in Belguim.  They were unaware that enemy troops were waiting for them on the other side.  After the ensuing fire fight, only eight American soldiers were alive and 6 of them were wounded.  My great uncle Harry (my grandfather’s brother) was one of them.  He was taken to a German hospital for treatment and subsequently became a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany where he experienced beatings, malnourishment, a forced march of almost 1800 miles, and other experiences that he would not talk about.  He was finally liberated by Allied forces in April 1945.

At the end of the war, Uncle Harry was awarded numerous honors.  He received a purple heart in recognition of the fact that he had been shot.  He received a bronze star in recognition of an occasion in which he ran out into no man’s land under enemy fire to retrieve a wounded officer and bring him back to safety.   He was also awarded a POW medal in recognition of the hardships that he endured as a prisoner of war.

Uncle Harry did not display his medals in a prominent location in his home, and he rarely talked about them even to his immediate family.  There were people who worked with Harry for decades day after day and never knew that he had been a POW or that he had been given military honors for valor on the battlefield or that he had been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He just never talked about it.  These honors and recognitions were not stepping stones for him.  They were not just another line on a resume that would help him get a job or a promotion.  More importantly, they were not honors that were given on the basis of something that he had done for himself.  Rather, they were given in recognition of what he had done for others.  It was not the medals and recognition that were most important to him.  What was important was the fact that his actions made a difference in the lives of other people: the wounded soldier that he rescued, the men that he protected, the nation that he served, and those for which he would serve as a role model.  He left a legacy.

Many other people have received honors in recognition of the sacrifices they have made to positively impact the world around them.  Some have done so on the battle field.  Others have been honored for discovering innovative solutions to problems in the fields of science, medicine, engineering, business, or education.  Some have positively impacted their world by simply caring for those in need.  Consider Mother Theresa.  Her goal in life was not to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Rather her goal was to serve God while caring for the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying.  She was not famous because she won the Nobel prize.  She was famous because of her compassion and the example that she left for others to follow.  She left a legacy.  So what are the differences between honors that serve as stepping stones and those that leave legacies? 

First, stepping stone honors call attention to something that we have accomplished for ourselves.  They improve our position in life.  They are used to get where we want to go.  In contrast, honors that leave a legacy call attention to something that we have done for others.  They improve the position in life for other people.

Second, honors that we receive for our own achievements are often filled with fanfare and wide recognition.  Just like Uncle Harry’s war medals, honors that we receive for what we do for others sometimes go unnoticed.  However, it is not the medal that is important.  Rather, the object of importance is the experience that the honor represents and the change that it brings to our world.

Third, stepping stone honors are quickly forgotten.  They are used and eventually discarded from our memories.  Take the honor of “Superbowl Champion” for example.  I once scheduled an exam for the Monday following superbowl Sunday.  That was an honest mistake.  Surely I would not force my students to choose between studying for the test and watching the football game that would determine the identity of the world champion football team.  Because of circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to change the test date.   I asked the class of 160 students the following question: “Who was the superbowl champion 5 years ago?”  Nobody could remember.  My response was “five years from now you will not remember who won the superbowl during this season, but if you don’t study for the exam you will remember whether or not you had to repeat this course.”  So it is with honors that recognize our own abilities or our own talents – they are eventually deemed unimportant and forgotten.  In contrast, recognition for things that we have done for others tend to be remembered for a long time.  I was in Washington D.C. last month to attend a scientific conference.  By the last day of the meeting I had heard all of the scientific presentations and received all of the intellectual stimulation that I could handle, so I went jogging through D.C. around the capital building, the mall, and white house.  There are many monuments there that honor the achievements of different people- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, world war II veterans, Vietnam war veterans, Korean war veterans.  These people have been honored and remembered for what they have done for their nation and their world.  Some of these people gave up their fortunes, their families, or their lives for the sake of a nation that they loved.  On the other hand, I did not see a single memorial to someone who had done something for himself.  The honors that we receive for ourselves tend to be used as stepping stones that are quickly forgotten.  Honors that represent something done for others tend to make a lasting difference.  They leave a legacy.


Finally, stepping stone honors that recognize our own achievements may change our circumstances.  However, the honors that are bestowed for what we have achieved for others change our view of the world.

A  little known fact about Boyd Rorabaugh is that I am a boxing fan, and I particularly enjoy reading quotes from Mohammad Ali.  Some of them were rather flamboyant and arrogant.  He was well known for saying things like:

                           “I am the greatest.”

                           “I am the prettiest thing that ever lived.”

                           “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

A student once asked Ali if he should stay in college or drop out.  Ali’s response was “Stay in college, get the knowledge, stay there until you are through.  If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can make something of you!”

A quote that is relevant to today’s theme is this: “The man who views the world at 50 in the same way that he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  Let me repeat that.  “The man who views the world at 50 in the same way that he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  What we do for others changes the way that we view the world.

What does all of this have to do with Honor’s Day in 2011?  I hope that you do display your awards in a prominent location, and I hope that you do include your honors and awards on your resume.  You deserve to be recognized for your achievements and that is why we are here – to celebrate your success and your accomplishments.  I also hope that the awards that you receive help you to get a job, to get into graduate school, or whatever your goals might be.  However, remember that in the long run, few of us will be remembered for the honors that we received on behalf of our own achievements.  They may serve as stepping stones that benefit us professionally, academically, or socially.  However, there will eventually be someone who runs a faster race, scores more points in a season, brings in more grant money, writes a book that sells more copies, or delivers a better speech.  I challenge you today to invest yourselves in the lives of others.  Choose to intentionally make a difference in someone’s life- even if it is only the life of 1 other person.  Let me finish with a short story written by Lauren Eisley:

 One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed
a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. 

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. 
The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? 
You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish,
and threw it back into the ocean.  Then, smiling at the man, he said…”
I made a difference for that one.”

I challenge you today to commit yourselves to making a difference in the lives of others.  Leave a legacy -  not necessarily to millions or thousands or hundreds of people – start by changing the world for just one.



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