"Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life"

A teacher, an author, a mentor and a fundraiser, Sr. Roseanne Murphy enjoys the distinction of having worked at Notre Dame de Namur University for 50 years! This year she had the great joy of presenting the keynote address to the class of 2011.

Sr. Roseanne Murphy

Sr. Roseanne Murphy

Dr. Greig, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, Fr. John LoSchiavo, faculty, staff, parents and most of all, members of the Class of 2011. It has taken me only 50 years to get everyone to finally listen to me and now is my moment!

When I was in college, there was a popular poster that simply read, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."  Pretty obvious actually, but guess what?  Today really is the first day of the rest of your life! You are just beginning to go into your future.  What will it be like?  Where will it take you? What choices will you make?  What is going to happen?  If anyone had told me when I was 21 and entering the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur what my life would be like in the next 50 years, I would never have believed it.  

Several of my friends advised me to tell you some stories about what I have done and what I have seen in the last half century at NDNU. There are too many stories, as you can well imagine, but there are a few I would like to share with you so you can get a picture of some of the major events that I have experienced throughout my tenure here.

I had taught high school for three years before being sent to the College of Notre Dame as it was called at the time, an all-women’s college of about 450 students. When I arrived, I lived in St. Joseph’s Hall, was on RA desk duty three nights a week, taught three classes, went to Stanford University once a week in a Navy surplus car that had been stripped of everything but the motor, the wheels and the seats, and kept the community schedule beginning with morning prayer at 5:30 a.m. I kept this schedule for two years until I completed my master’s degree in Sociology. We had a group of young sisters studying at the college then and they kindly planned to give me a surprise party at the completion of my degree. And lest I might have had the slightest tinge of pride at having completed my masters, when one of them looked at my diploma with the legal name Leland Stanford Junior University at the top, she said  "I didn’t know that Stanford was a Junior College."  So much for the master’s degree.

I came to the college in 1960 the same year the cornerstone of the chapel was laid. Sr. Catharine Julie Cunningham who was president for 24 years, had the courage to build a chapel and restore the Ralston Hall ballroom which had been a "temporary" chapel for 37 years. The construction of what is now called the Cunningham Memorial chapel was the kind that was begun by pouring the walls on the ground and using a crane to lift them into place when they were ready to be joined vertically. While the western wall was flat on the ground, the builders placed the frame of the Celtic cross in it so that darker colored stones could be placed in it. We made a ceremony of forming the cross by having a procession to allow each member of the faculty, staff and student body who wished to do so place a stone in the fame. I have had alumni come back many years later and tell me they remember exactly where they placed their stone. After the chapel was completed in 1962, we had a grand opening of the Ralston Ballroom after the covering of the mirrors had been removed.  Most of us saw the mirrors for the first time and were amazed by their reflecting the beautiful crystal chandeliers. 

In 1962, I was sent to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana during the heady days of the Second Vatican Council when there were major changes taking place in the Catholic Church. When I returned in ’65, we were on the verge of what in contemporary parlance is referred to as a "paradigm shift." Our small, liberal arts women’s college was experiencing the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights era which effected all schools and colleges across the nation. We had our measure of anti-establishment students but nothing compared to what was going on at the state universities. We had our teach-ins during the Vietnam War followed by many emotionally charged discussions. When the Shah of Iran was driven out of his country, we had a large number of Iranian students-mostly from the families loyal to the Shah who were targets of the new regime. There were tensions among them. Some were suspicious of other students thinking they were members of SAVAK the secret police. One of our students told me that he had been a member of the Imperial Guard and had 48 hours to get out of Iran or he would have been shot. During the tragic civil war in El Salvador, we had a student whose lawyer-father became interim president of that troubled country. Some of the other students were afraid that members of the Sandanistas would find out where she was and attempt to kidnap her. We had to make every attempt to keep her presence on campus a secret, especially from the press. Even though we were small, we were not removed from the events going on in the world by any means.

In 1968, we had  long and sometimes heated discussions about whether we should become a co-educational institution. Finally, to the satisfaction of some and the dismay of others, we opened our doors to male students. The first year there were three resident male students in Julie Billiart Hall. We had a partition built in the middle of the first floor. On one side was the men’s dorm allowing each man to have two rooms, and on the other side, we used the bedrooms for offices. As the male population of the student body increased, there came a time when some of the men wanted to start an athletic program. Ironically, it was the philosophy professor, Dr. Mark Sullivan, who was their greatest advocate  so he became our first Athletic Director and suggested the name "Argonauts" for our mascot.  I marveled at the spirit of the men who often had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get to the gym at Carlmont High School so they could practice their basketball for two hours before the high school students arrived. Our home games were played in the gym at College of San Mateo when it was available.  We were thrilled when we finally had enough resources to build our gym in the late ’80s.  Since then, we have evolved into having 11 different sports teams.

But perhaps one of my most memorable times during my tenure here was the "Rome ’70" program. I was asked to design, find faculty and to accompany the 32 students to our Congregation’s center in Rome for the spring semester of 1970. I have often said that it was either the bravest thing I have ever done or the dumbest. Walking down the street in Rome with 31 beautiful college women and one male student was an indescribable experience.  I heard enough "Hey, babies" to last a lifetime. It was probably one of the richest educational experiences the students ever had, but it was not without its dangers. Fortunately, we returned safe and sound–and when we reached New York on our way home, I should have copied the late Pope John Paul and kissed the ground. If there had been a red carpet laid out to meet us, I might have been tempted to do just that.

In the spring of 2005, just two months after Sr. Dorothy Stang had been murdered in Brazil, I got a phone call from our sisters in Ohio.  Their government team asked me to consider writing a biography of Sr. Dorothy, someone who had graduated from our university in 1964. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life to stand at the spot in the Amazon Forest where Dorothy was murdered.  Because of her nearly 40 years of working with the poor farmers there, starting schools for their children, helping the farmers start a union that is still in existence, and defending the rights of the farmers to the land that was given to them by the government but was being violently taken from them by the greed of the ranchers wanting to drive them from the land to extend their logging or cattle raising, Dorothy was on the death list of the wealthy landowners. Two of them finally hired gunmen who shot her thinking they would silence her. Instead, Dorothy’s story was told throughout the world.  She was honored by the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, at least five universities including our own who bestowed on her posthumously the Honorary Degree of Humane Letters, and many other organizations including the Brazilian Bar Association. Today, there are hundreds if not thousands of people in Brazil who honor Dorothy Stang and attempt to carry out her work there. We initiated the Dorothy Stang Center on campus which promotes the work and study of social justice and peace issues. When Evan Mack read the story of Dorothy’s life, he said he heard the music and he wrote an opera entitled "The Angel of the Amazon" which had its world premiere two days ago in New York.

Now I have told you some of the events that were in the future for me when I saw that poster many years ago. Most of the 50 years were filled with teaching, being department chair, and working with the faculty and staff. What keeps most of us here is not the salaries we get, ask anyone on this stage, but rather a spirit that pervades whatever we do. We want you to be good students, to get a fine education, and to be well prepared for whatever you do in your future. We want you to be smarter; but more than that, we want you to be better people-more compassionate, more caring, more giving, more understanding of others who may have a different background than yours. The Hallmarks that describe our aspirations for you challenge all of us to practice justice, honor the dignity of all persons, embrace diversity, and create community among those with whom we live and work. We want you to reach out to others as part of our human family and when you see someone in need and you can help, we want you to remember that there were others who helped you and extend your hand to them. Our hope is that we can count on you to be men and women of integrity and decency. That your lives–wherever your dreams take you–will be filled–not just by acquiring things but by your growth in goodness. We hope your experiences here have called you to reflect on the values that are guiding your choices right now-what are you willing to live and die for? Do you know? We hope we have challenged you to think deeply about the quality of your lives-not just the quantity. Take it from one who has been at this for over 50 years–life rushes by very quickly-we have just so many years to make a difference. What difference will you make? What do you want said when you reach the end of your years?  What kind of person will you want to have become?

Why is it that we, here at NDNU, in 2011 are still attempting to encourage you to make a difference in this world?  From the beginning of your years here, you have heard about community service. As part of a class or as extra curricular activities, we have urged you to give of your time and talent to people in need. I am very proud of the students who have worked for the homeless.   One of the students told me that her whole attitude about the homeless changed the day she spoke to a young person her age who was living on the streets in order to escape an abusive family and had no where to go. I was touched by another student who went to Solidad with Vince Fitzgerald’s class to put on a carnival for the children of the migrant workers there. When the student spoke to a young boy about going to college one day, he told her that he didn’t think that would be possible because of the gangs around him.  Our student came back with a much more profound understanding of the problems faced by children whose lives are impacted by poverty and the uncertainty of the life of the migrant workers. I am always impressed by the large number of students who go to the Tenderloin region in San Francisco to give the children there a Halloween party and take them "trick or treating" to houses that other students had scouted out to make sure they were safe. It is so gratifying to see over 200 students sign up for the "Call to Action" day when we shut down classes for several hours to allow them to volunteer in many social service programs on the Peninsula. These are just a few of the examples of our efforts to instill in you a desire to do something with your life that will make a difference for the good of your community. I loved it when an Sandi Passalacqua, class of ’64, told me that when she was in our college, she got the message loud and clear that she was to make a difference in the world. She is now principal of an innovative elementary school which she helped to design.

Who among you will be the heroes and heroines of your generation? Who will have the courage and the generosity of a Joe Wuelfing, ’93, who, in the name of his four year old son, Mark, who died after a long, and heartbreaking illness, started the Markei Foundation to raise funds to provide help for parents of terminally ill children. Or who will give her life to working for the poor and homeless like Carol Johnson ’91, who directs St. Mary’s Center in Oakland that provides medical and social service especially for the elderly homeless there, but also has a day care center for working mothers who could not afford to pay for it. Or who would be willing to be Director of Catholic Social Services for 14 years, as Maureen Shaw, ’72, who started over nine programs for the elderly, the homeless,  migrant laborers and the children in need in the Santa Rosa Diocese?  Or on a global scale, who among you would have the courage to do what the workers of the nuclear plant in Japan have done, walking into what they know would put them at great risk of dying of radiation illness but willing to do whatever they had to do to save hundreds if not thousands of their neighbors?  Who of you will be teachers, therapists, counselors, or social workers, reaching out to those in need and making a difference in their lives?  Some of you will undoubtedly become wealthy. We can handle that–as long as you don’t forget that if that happens, you will have the opportunity to make a difference by your support of programs helping those in need or providing the resources for the next generation to have an education like the one you have enjoyed at your own university.

Why would anyone want to stay working at NDNU for 50 years?  Well, it could be that I want to be part of a place that cares and is bringing a message of hope to our students. We CAN make a difference in this world that needs our love and caring so much.  Whatever you do, and wherever you go, you carry some of us with you. You have touched us by your lives here. We have been grateful for those who have shown us that you want to participate in bringing justice and peace to our communities. We were proud when the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center gave us an award for the work our students have done to help resolve conflicts among students on our campus. I am confident that among those of you sitting out there in front of me, there are some heroes and heroines among you. All of us can be an "everyday" hero by the care and concern we show each other every day. Some of you may rise to the level of a Sr. Dorothy Stang; giving your one and only life to serving humanity. Some of you may remember that line in scripture: "Greater love no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend." 

Whatever you do, and wherever you go, know that our prayers and best wishes go with you. All of us hope for the best for you. All of us have tried to give you the inspiration and the courage to live a life that embodies our highest  ideals. You carry our hope with you. You are the ones that make it all worth while. By what you do, you can make this world a better place. That is why I am here; that is why everyone on this stage is here. Yes, this is the first day of the rest of your life. "Vios Con Dios." God go with you and bless your journey into the future.