2006 Commencement Speech
By Peter Agre, B.A (Augsburg 1970), M.D. (Johns Hopkins 1974)
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reflections of a Childe Ole
Thank you President Thomforde, Regents and Faculty. And greetings to all of you Oles, family members and friends. A special welcome to the Golden Oles, for your days here at St. Olaf coincided with my own. I am humbled and honored to present the commencement address here at St. Olaf. I would like to use this occasion to reflect on my life and share some of the lessons I have learned. I will illustrate several points with the wisdom of great voices from the past. Let me begin by reminding you of Abraham Lincoln’s view:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

That said, I will risk it all by spending the next 15 minutes opening my mouth.

The first decade of my life, the 1950s, was spent here at St. Olaf where my father was Chairman of the St. Olaf Chemistry Department. As we older people all know, our childhoods are always fresh in our memories for, in some ways, they may have been the most important days of our lives.

I often think of the fun I had here with my childhood friends from St. Olaf families named Finholt, Berglund, Lunder, Fredricksen and Hansen. We probably resembled Norwegian equivalents to Spanky, Alfalfa and the kids in the old Our Gang movies, and the entire St. Olaf campus was our playground. Of course, we knew the “Um! Yah! Yah!” song by heart and always cheered loudly for the Oles right here on this athletic field. We discovered that we could get ice cream cones if we politely asked sympathetic staff members at the power plant where the deep freezers were located. In summer, we climbed the rickety old ski jump that once stood at the top of Thorson Hill and would let fly our basketball. It reached high velocity and often bounced all the way across Greenvale, fortunately never hitting any of the astonished farmers as they drove their trucks into town. In winter, we coasted down Thorson Hill on our toboggans -- sometimes making it all the way to the front of our house on Lincoln Street.

When I was about seven years old, I had my first laboratory experiences in the St. Olaf Chemistry Department, then located on the top floor of Holland Hall. It was there that dad rigged little experiments -- like changing the pH of a solution that would turn brilliant pink. I will never forget when my third grade teacher, St. Olaf graduate Carolyn Johnson, asked us to draw a picture of ourselves when we had grown up. Dad was my greatest hero, and I drew a picture of a chemist at a lab bench holding test tubes. Sitting beside me was Jay Petersen whose father taught biology at St. Olaf, and I noticed that Jay was drawing a picture of a burglar. I often wondered if Jay had gone on to a life of crime or became a lawyer or lobbyist -- my apologies to any lawyers and lobbyists present.

The visits of the King of Norway were always very special occasions. We sat on the hillside of Longfellow School waving our little Norwegian flags as the Royal Family was motored from the train station up to the college in the back of the only Cadillac in Northfield at that time -- owned by Mr. Zanmiller the plumber.

And of course we were very aware of that other college east of the Cannon River, whose students we viewed with great suspicion. It was somewhat of an irony to learn as an adult that Carleton College’s most famous graduate, social scientist Thorstein Veblen, was indeed from a Norwegian family. One has to wonder if Veblen’s famous treatise Theory of the Leisure Class may have been inspired by the “conspicuous consumption” that he observed by his Carleton classmates.

Dad decided to take a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley, the year after I had finished third grade. In a way, the move from Northfield to Berkeley was the equivalent of leaving Lake Wobegon for Sodom and Gomorrah. We would have been heart-broken if we had realized that we would not return to St. Olaf. For after our year at Berkeley, dad took the Chairmanship of Chemistry at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

In truth, I have always considered myself a special kind of pediatric Ole, and every weekend I reconnect with my roots via Minnesota Public Radio. On Saturday I listen to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and at 7:30 Sunday morning I listen to St. Olaf Pastor Bruce Benson’s program Sing for Joy. And I can never sit through a public radio broadcast of the St. Olaf Christmas [Festival] without tearing up during F. Melius Christiansen’s arrangement of “Beautiful Savior.” For during those minutes I am once again a youngster back at St. Olaf.

College Is A Special Time And Place
I attended Augsburg College in the late 1960s -- an era notable for extreme turmoil in our country. During my years in high school and college, I lived through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Those years were remarkable for unprecedented social disturbances resulting from conflicts between white supremacists and civil rights workers, between supporters of the war in Vietnam and anti-war protesters.

Despite the rancor and consternation experienced elsewhere, the Minnesota liberal arts colleges were an archipelago of tranquility where issues and events of the day were discussed with respect and civility. It now makes me proud of our modest roots, for it was the late Kirby Puckett who reflected:

It doesn’t matter where you come from. It only matters how you play the game.

And I always felt that we learned to play the game extremely well here in Minnesota. This was due in part to the splendid college faculties here. Perhaps most outspoken among them was my father, Courtland Agre, whose unbridled enthusiasm and exuberant encouragement -- sometimes too exuberant -- directed many St. Olaf and Augsburg students into professional and graduate schools.

I concentrated on courses in science and mathematics, majoring in chemistry. But science was only part of my interest. On snowy winter evenings here in Northfield, our mother read to us from the Bible, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Robert Louis Stevenson and other classics. This certainly caused me to become a die-hard advocate for the liberal arts tradition and has caused me read widely ever since. I whole-heartedly agree with Thomas Jefferson’s statement:

I cannot live without books.

Role of the Lutheran Church in Education
In the 1960s the multiple Lutheran Churches were merging. It is perhaps not surprising that among the last to merge were the American Lutheran Church [ALC] and the Lutheran Church in America [LCA] -- presumably due to the suspicion the Norwegian and Swedish congregations had for each other.

Despite this amusing Norwegian-Swedish rivalry, the Minnesota Colleges were already widely recognized for being inclusive and non-judgmental. Although I was only a small boy, I clearly remember first meeting African and African-American students here at St. Olaf. I was later shocked to learn that this was not the case everywhere, and I am sorry to acknowledge that Johns Hopkins and Duke Universities, where I have spent my career, were racially segregated until the mid-1960s.

The role of the church as an agent for social change was emerging during my college years, and civil rights marches were being led by Father James Groppi in Wisconsin and the Reverend Martin Luther King in Alabama. Like many others at Lutheran Colleges during the 1960s, I always felt comfortable with the view articulated by President Kennedy when he said:

Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

It has always struck me that the Lutheran Colleges may represent the best example of how we can do God’s work by living the passage from I Corinthians:

And now these three remain: Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

For in what manner can we better show love than through service to humanity.

A Word About My Medical Career
A major goal of every college student is to prepare for a professional calling. During my final year at college, I took the examinations and prepared applications for medical school. In the end, I adhered to the insight of Frank Lloyd Wright, who stated:

The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines -- so they should go as far as possible from home to build their first buildings.

Thinking I would prefer not to bury my mistakes in Minnesota, I studied at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. So after years of clinical and scientific training I eventually attained a faculty position and our laboratory discovered the aquaporin proteins that control the entry of water into and out of cells. These proteins are responsible for multiple physiological functions and clinical disorders, including heat prostration. Chris is correct that Aquaporin-5 is present in sweat glands -- something that we are all aware of in this heat! This resulted in a call from the Royal Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee. Dad would have loved it, but he had died eight years earlier. Of all the commentary, my mother’s advice was the best. A South Dakota farm girl who married a St. Olaf chemistry professor, mom cautioned me:

Peter, don’t let this go to your head.

Words to The St. Olaf Class of 2006
Some day you may look back on your early life as I have, but our task today is to celebrate your graduation, and I have just a few thoughts that I wish to share with you.

To President Thomforde
First let me congratulate Chris Thomforde for his years of outstanding leadership and service to St. Olaf. (Much applause). Chris, I think they are telling you that they love you! We all owe you so much and wish you the best in the years ahead. You will certainly be missed here at St. Olaf.

To The Honors Students, Class Officers and Those Going On To Professional and Graduate Study
You are the high achievers, and your sparkling intellectual talents and prodigious achievements are truly impressive. We sincerely congratulate you, and we encourage you as you depart on your paths to distinguished careers. But let me remind you of a passage from the Book of Luke:

Unto whomsoever much is given, much will be required.

As you progress in your lives, remember that accumulation of personal wealth should never be your primary goal. Unless you use your talents for the good of society, your talents are wasted. At the time of his death, Martin Luther King left an estate of less than $6,000. Despite the modesty of his financial achievements, Dr. King left a humanitarian legacy that we still consider priceless four decades after his passing.

From the St. Olaf pantheon I wish to mention three exceptionally successful Oles that I am fortunate to know: former Congressman and Minnesota Governor Albert Quie ’50, renowned University of Minnesota cystic fibrosis specialist Warren Warwick ’50 and Director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Elizabeth Nabel ’74. Each of these Oles has attained remarkable professional achievements, and more importantly, each has placed the welfare of mankind above the generation of personal wealth.

To The Standard Academic Track Students
You are sometimes considered the middle-of-the-roaders, but you too have earned your baccalaureate and deserve to celebrate. While you may not receive as many accolades today, this in no way means that great recognition will never come.

I am reminded of a wonderful woman with whom I once worked -- Trudy Elion. Raised during the depression by a poor family in Brooklyn, N.Y., she aspired to become a scientist even though women were not accepted at graduate school and were not employed in laboratories at the time. In fact, her first job was to test the acid content of dill pickles for the A&P supermarket chain. When the men disappeared to fight World War II, Trudy finally gained the position of lab assistant at the Burroughs Wellcome Company, where she developed medicines now widely referred to as “chemotherapy.” Her remarkable insight and creativity earned her a Nobel Prize, and interestingly the Nobel Committee did not seem the least bit worried that Trudy did not have a doctoral degree. I hope that none of you will ever underestimate your potential.

To The Future School Teachers
St. Olaf has always graduated many who have gone on to careers as teachers in our public schools. Today many of you will follow this wonderful pathway, and you will shape the future of our country. Education has never been more important than in the current time of growing anti-intellectualism in America. It is really shocking when you think that less than half of all Americans read a single book last year. For as Mark Twain informed us:

The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

And important among our deficiencies is scientific illiteracy. Four hundred years after Galileo, 20 percent of Americans still believe that the sun rotates around the earth. Half of all Americans believe that dinosaurs and cavemen coexisted in prehistory -- apparently because they saw it on The Flintstones.

While the value of public education is widely recognized, many still question how our country can afford to invest more heavily in education. But let me remind us what we already know -- ours is the richest nation in the history of our planet. If education is expensive, consider the cost of educational failure. The U.S. prison system presently accommodates 2.2 million inmates at an annual cost approaching $100 billion. The cost of a 60 second network television advertisement during the Super Bowl broadcast costs $5 million -- a figure equivalent to 200 times the annual salary of a starting teacher. I believe that the problem is not in our wealth. Rather, the problem is in our values. And we certainly need to value those of you who are dedicating your lives to education.

To The Future Special Education Teachers
Some of you will go on to teach children with learning impairment. When one considers not just the level of academic achievements, but where a student’s journey began, it is clear that many of your future students will have gone the furthest of all. I am one of four brothers. Due to no merit of our own, my brothers Jim and Mark and I were gifted in the ability to read, to calculate and to take tests; the three of us all went on to become medical doctors.

Due to no fault of his own, our brother Paul has never grasped the three Rs. Paul graduated from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis in the special education program, and he has gone on to be an exemplary custodian at the 3M Company for more than 25 years. In terms of personal generosity and altruism, Paul is the most successful of the Agre brothers. He is the glue that holds our family together. There are many ways to contribute to the well-being of society, and I feel that special education teachers will undertake a career with a unique purpose. You each have my personal thanks for accepting this calling.

The Importance of Giving Back
While my generation, the “Baby Boomers,” have achieved unprecedented prosperity, I sincerely feel that we have so far failed to improve the world to a state better than it was when we received it from our parents. In fact, I fear that the world is in worse shape now. If this continues, we may be the first generation in memory to fail in such an important endeavor. We all know what the problems are: damage to the environment; war; famine; untreated disease in the developing world; violent crime in our inner cities; the epidemic of drug abuse; failure to provide adequate health care to all Americans; and the staggering $9 trillion dollar national debt which will fall on your generation.

Again we can turn to Thomas Jefferson, whose reflection from 200 years ago seems especially poignant:

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.

I fear the emphasis in our country has now become one of fixing the blame rather than fixing the problem. The polarized special interests have caused gridlock in our national government where the two major parties can seemingly agree on nothing. Let me suggest that the hour is late and we must stop the face-slapping, join hands and concentrate all of our attention on fixing the problems. As eloquently stated by television news journalist Tom Brokaw in a recent speech to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences:

Throughout our long, distinguished history, the genius of this immigrant nation is that we have always been able to find our center.

I believe that we need to find our center urgently, and that center most certainly lies here at St. Olaf.

Finally, I cannot end without underscoring the importance of never taking life for granted. We often think that we will engage in activities such as giving back once we finally get established in life. I often refer to myself as “middle-aged” but I am 57 years old. Let’s see, if I am at mid-life, I must be expecting to survive until I am 114 -- probably not a likely event. It is certainly later than we think.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I think that all of us -- graduates, faculty, families and friends -- should stop and think how much we owe others for what they have done for us and for our country. On a Friday evening before Memorial Day two years ago, I was impatiently waiting at the airport in Boston as my flight back to Baltimore was repeatedly delayed. I had been away for several days on a lecture trip to Harvard Medical School, and I was very eager to return home. The airport was crowded with many holiday travelers, and I grumbled as the airline personal announced delay after delay.

While standing at a window looking out across the tarmac I noticed several patrol cars with lights flashing lined up outside the next concourse. As I looked closer, I noticed a hearse and a group of marines wearing dress blue uniforms and standing at attention. After some time, a flag covered casket was lowered from an airliner. As I looked around, the other passengers had all become silent, many with tears in their eyes. A young American, probably as young as our graduates here today, was being carried home. I felt so ashamed to have been irritated by the minor inconvenience of a delayed flight. My frustration seemed so trivial and small-minded.

None of us knows how much time we have, and we should all strive to use each day as a precious commodity. In addition to developing your professional lives, please become engaged in the problems facing our nation and our world. Be generous with your time, your wisdom and your personal resources. Please do not fall into the endless search for increased personal wealth. My generation fell into this trap and is justly known as the “Me Generation.” Rather, please make every effort to be a generation known for generosity and unity of purpose. I hope some day that you will be known as the “We Generation.” The future of our nation is riding on your shoulders.

In Closing
I wish to share a special blessing that may represent the thoughts going through the hearts and minds of your parents as you cross the stage to receive your diploma. These lines were composed by a fellow-Minnesotan who became the minstrel poet laureate of my generation: Bob Dylan.

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young.

Thank you and congratulations Oles.