UW-Eau Claire commencement speakers: ‘Homework’ required to live a full life never ends

While the homework that helped them earn their college degrees has ended, a new kind of homework is just beginning, Bert and Suzie Colianni told the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s December graduates during commencement ceremonies Dec. 22.

That new homework will lead to feeling truly successful in life, regardless of whether one accomplishes the highly visible, publicly recognized achievements that so many envision for themselves when walking across the commencement stage, the Coliannis told UW-Eau Claire’s newest alumni during the “Charge to the Class” in the university’s Zorn Arena.

The Coliannis, who married while they were students at UW-Eau Claire in the 1970s, also received the Lifetime Excellence Award from the university’s Alumni Association at a midday event between commencement ceremonies.

Bert Colianni, a 1976 UW-Eau Claire accounting graduate, is chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Marquette Companies and has served in multiple executive roles within the company since joining the organization in 1982 as a controller. Suzie Colianni is a longtime leader in volunteerism and philanthropy throughout the Twin Cities region and former co-owner and operator of Ski-Away Inc., a women’s alpine skiing and snowboarding school.

As they prepared for their address to the UW-Eau Claire graduates, the Collianis thought about the many commencement speeches they’ve heard over the years at graduation ceremonies for their four children. Almost none of those speeches were memorable.

But one stood out. It was delivered at their second son’s 2001 college graduation by Fred Rogers, the creator, producer and host of the beloved children’s PBS program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Suzie shared a quote from that address by Rogers 17 years ago: “Honest, enthusiastic living of our lives, no matter what our talents may be, can deeply affect others.”

“He said, and we fully concur based on our own experiences, that truly successful people take obvious delight in what they do,” Suzie said. “We personally get great inspiration from such people and hopefully you do also. Think of the impact that those honest and enthusiastic people have made.”

The Coliannis recalled people who provided such inspiration for them, including a high school literature teacher responsible for their love of great books; a 99-year-old neighbor who lived a simple yet enriched life; and a UW-Eau Claire professor, Dr. Larry Ozzello, who took delight in students’ learning and watching their careers take shape.

“We hope you have such identified honest and enthusiastic figures in your lives, that you express your appreciation to them, and that someday you become to others a Miss Harrod, Jim, Steve, Daniel, Larry or Patty,” Bert said.

To drive home a second piece of advice to graduates, Suzie shared another Rogers quote: “Deep down we know that life is much more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others to win too.”

Commencement speakers often are national figures whose influence and success are well known and who challenge graduates to aspire to similar achievements, Suzie said. She then proposed some alternative advice.

 “While such visible winning may be nice, a lifetime of quiet individual wins will be much more impactful to those you touch and give you a truer sense of worth as your years advance,” Suzie said.

The lessons he and Suzie hoped to impart in their message to graduates “seem to us quite honorable and timeless,” Bert said.

He and Suzie know from personal experience that UW-Eau Claire prepares its graduates for success in their fields of study, Bert said, adding that “maybe our words today will remind all of us that the required ‘homework’ to live a whole life never ends.”