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Commencement speaker encourages graduates to live full lives

RELEASED: Dec. 17, 2009

Dr. John Hildebrand
John Hildebrand

EAU CLAIRE — Graduates will find that the world is a complicated place, but complexity is often what makes life interesting, John Hildebrand, professor emeritus of English, said today during commencement ceremonies for 850 students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

"Presumably you knew this when you enrolled in college and took five completely unrelated classes every semester," said Hildebrand, who retired from UW-Eau Claire in June after 32 years. "You learned that the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire are many, that black holes are collapsed stars where the gravity is so dense no light escapes, that the lower Chippewa River holds 112 species of fish, most no bigger than a minnow. You learned that subjects which appear simple to the uninitiated may be worthy of the most intense study. Mainly you learned that there is always more to learn."

Life after graduation will likely be even more complex, Hildebrand said during his "Charge to the Class."

"You'll take leave of friends and family and travel to some faraway city to find a new apartment and a new job among strangers," Hildebrand said. "Only this time you're expected to pay your own way. Did I mention the crummy economy?"

Hildebrand said that after he graduated from college, he moved to Alaska in a Volkswagen van and started building a log cabin, intending to live a simple life.

"But it's hard to build anything if you have no carpentry skills and it's next to impossible to live off the land when you don't know how," Hildebrand said. "What I learned is that even a simple life is exceedingly complex."

Live long enough and you will get to be all the characters in the parable of the Prodigal Son: one year, the footloose wanderer, the next a dutiful worker, Hildebrand told the graduates.

"That's a happy way to view the story," Hildebrand said of the Prodigal Son story, which he referenced numerous times in his address. "Go out in the world, make mistakes, take risks. But don't be afraid to complicate your lives in the usual ways."

"Why complicate a simple life?" Hildebrand asked, noting that Zorba the Greek says in Nikos Kazantzakis' novel: "wife, children, home, everything. The full catastrophe."

"Well, for most of us, obligations — civic and domestic — are what connect us to the world; they are the world. So that's my wish for you — not a simple life but a full one. Don't worry. You can handle it. And when you come home to visit, we'll be waiting with open arms."

-30-

JB/DW

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