May 21, 2011 — "Say 'yes' to more in life" was the charge to the University of Virginia's Class of 2011 from J. Brady Lum, president and chief operating officer of Special Olympics International, during today's Valedictory Exercises keynote address.
The ceremony, held on the Saturday of Finals Weekend, took place on the Lawn under a bright blue sky with scattered clouds. The welcome spring weather drew out a mix of women in colorful dresses and some men in casual clothes, though more formal attire was the norm. The lush Lawn and occasional light breezes added a scenic, comfortable feel to the ceremony, which included the cheerful sounds of birdcalls in the background.
Recalling the time when he was mulling the offer to become the leader of the organization, Lum cited a mentor's encouragement that "Special Olympics is about a leap of faith, the courage to brave the unknown."
His mentor was right, Lum said. "I look back on that fateful day three years ago, and I've never looked back."
A 1989 honors graduate of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, Lum told more than 1,500 graduating students, parents, guests and others that his powerful memories of significant life experiences led him to be an advocate of affirmation.
His speech followed recognition of several graduating students and U.Va. officials who were honored for their commitment and sacrifice beyond the requirements of their courses of study and occupations.
During valediction, Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards were given to fourth-year students Ishraga A. Eltahir and Ethan K. Heil, and to Valerie H. Gregory, U.Va. director of outreach in the office of university admissions. (A story about these Sullivan Award winners is here).
Other student achievements were recognized by awards from the Seven Society and the Class of 2011. Recipients of those awards are listed here. Also honored was Leonard W. Sandridge, the University's executive vice president and chief operating officer, who is retiring this year after a 44-year career on Grounds. Sandridge received the Gordon F. Rainey Jr. Award, bestowed by the Society of the Purple Shadows for vigilance to the student experience.
Members of the Class of 2011 presented President Teresa A. Sullivan with the class gift of $486,062, the second-largest in U.Va.'s history. The class' participation rate was an impressive 56 percent, among the highest ever by fourth-year students. Sullivan thanked the students for their contributions and cited the tradition that allows them to direct their giving to "areas of the University most meaningful" to each of them.
The Virginia Gentlemen sang at the beginning of the exercises. The ceremony concluded with farewell remarks from class president John T. Buttram, who lauded the achievements and experiences of his fellow graduates, while remembering "the candlelight vigils in the amphitheater, recalling the tragedies that have befallen our friends and fellow Wahoos."
In his heartfelt and personal speech, Lum spoke of the death of his father in 1999, when his dad was just 57 years old. But he shared the story of an unforgettable impromptu trip that he and his father made to the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., when the two joined in the excitement of the United States' hockey victory over Russia, then the U.S.S.R. This "memory is about a father and son his saying 'yes' to spontaneity."
Also vivid is Lum's memory of being humbled in front of fellow classmates in his third-year government honors class, when the professor, the late Robert J. Morgan, asked him to read his paper on John Locke and liberty. The experience did not go well. "He then sacrificed me like a hog on a spit at a Cajun cochon de lait – dripping with long-windedness, imprecision and utter babble. I shrank with complete humiliation." The experience had its intended effect, he said; it was "a humbling lesson in saying 'yes' to learning – even really tough feedback.
"I can assure you my level of precision in writing was changed forever after that day." Among his other U.Va. student experiences, Lum was president of the College of Arts & Sciences and chairman of the Honor Committee. He was a Jefferson Scholar, Echols Scholar and Lawn resident. After earning a bachelor's degree in government and foreign affairs, he later earned an MBA from Harvard University.
After graduation from U.Va., Lum won a Luce Scholarship to study in Asia and was a research associate at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. (He remains conversationally fluent in Spanish and Malay). Even as he leads Special Olympics, he is pursing a master's degree in music from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Lum's service to the University includes membership on the Jefferson Scholars National Selection Committee and the Mead Endowment Advisory Board. Prior to joining Special Olympics in May 2008, Lum spent 15 years at The Coca-Cola Company, holding a variety of senior management positions, including vice president for North America strategic planning and integration, and vice president and northeast region manager for Coca-Cola North America.
Near the end of his speech, Lum referred to the example of Special Olympics athletes in reinforcing his commitment to saying "yes."
"We can all listen more carefully to our own voices, experiences of joy. … Graduates, every day I have the pleasure to work with people with special needs, who put themselves out there, follow their joy and love of sport in spite of terrible intolerance and discrimination. Win or lose, they are always glad they entered the race." Graduation weekend continues Sunday with Final Exercises, also held on the Lawn, beginning with an academic procession at 10 a.m. The Lawn ceremony will be followed by individual diploma ceremonies throughout Grounds. The weather forecast calls for a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s and a chance of afternoon thunderstorms.