Commencement Address

Introduction of 2011 Commencement Speaker - Zell B. Miller, ’51

Cathy Cox

Young Harris College President
"It is hard—really hard—to give a good graduation speech. I’ve done it dozens and dozens of times over the years, and I’ve always known that your entire audience just wants me to finish and sit down so they can get on with the main event of commencement.

Now as a college president, I’ve found that it’s almost equally as hard to select a speaker that you will not want to sit down—to choose someone whose words will capture your attention and inspire you. For today’s occasion, with this historic graduation of our first senior class in almost a century, along with the celebration of our 125th anniversary, I wanted a speaker who could tie all that together—Young Harris’s rich history and its bright future; someone with a clear connection to your class—and I came up with the perfect choice: Senator – Governor – Zell Miller.

The public at large knows Zell Miller as one of the greatest public servants in Georgia’s history. From his first elective office as Young Harris mayor, to state Senator, to lieutenant governor, to governor, to U.S. Senator, Zell Miller’s life includes some 35 years of dedicated service to the State of Georgia. He is a United States Marine, through and through, and a prolific writer, having authored numerous books, many of which chronicle the history and traditions of this “Enchanted Valley.”

But for folks who know and love Young Harris College, there is no person who we associate more with the image and reputation of this College than Zell Miller. He is Young Harris College, and Young Harris College is Zell Miller. He was born right here behind this Recreation Center, and his father, who was then Dean of the College, died suddenly within weeks of his birth. His mother, an art professor here, raised him and his sister, Jane, right across from our campus, and when he reached the right age, she sent him here as a student. He graduated in 1951 and came back about a decade later to teach history and political science and coach our baseball team. In 1988, he became a trustee of the College and continues to serve us in that way. In fact, Senator Miller chaired the trustee committee that in 2006-2007 studied Young Harris’s future and recommended that it become, again, a four-year college. And today, he has a grandson, Bryan, among our graduating seniors!

I had the privilege of serving in the Georgia legislature when Zell Miller was governor of our state, and I honestly don’t think he ever gave a speech during those years in which he didn’t mention Young Harris College. He bragged about the College so often that when I was appointed president and would tell people we hoped to grow the College into a four-year institution, they usually responded that they thought it was already a university based on Governor Miller’s glowing comments.             

During those years when I had a first-row seat to observe Zell Miller at work in the governor’s office, I saw a man who believed that holding public office was a sacred trust and required that he give all his energy, intellect and abilities to the office every single day he held it. As a result, he will be known in history as one of the strongest and most active governors ever. The HOPE scholarship he created has benefitted many of you, and more than a million other Georgia students to date. He appointed more women to judgeships in Georgia than any governor before or since him. He made education a priority at every level and raised our teachers’ salaries to the highest in the southeast. He proposed and passed the largest tax cut in Georgia history, removing sales tax from groceries. He came to the legislature every year with a jam-packed agenda of things he hoped to accomplish in order to improve the quality of life for Georgians from all walks of life.

In all these ways, he has served as a great role model for me as the leader of Young Harris College as I, too, have tried to set and lead an ambitious agenda for YHC.

I invited Senator Miller today because I know he will inspire you, too.

Please join me in welcoming my friend—our friend—the Honorable Zell Bryan Miller."

2011 Commencement Address

Zell B. Miller, ’51

Former U.S. Senator and 79th Governor of Georgia
“President Cox, Chairman Jerry Nix and members of the Board of Trustees, this remarkable team of faculty and staff, proud parents and loved ones, and, most important of all, you who are making history today, who have done the work: the graduating class of 2011,

I am proud to be here on this historic day in your lives and also in the life of this college. Although this great and charismatic president was prone to exaggerate, I could have done none of those things she mentioned if it had not been for Young Harris College. It is a major part of who I am. Burned in my brain are six letters: YHC – IOU.

I am not the only one who feels this way. There are many. Perhaps you do, or will someday. For many of us it is where we discovered ourselves, where we realized the value of work, the significance of God, the pursuit of excellence and the thrill that will stay with you always of having an exceptional teacher. When I was sworn in as governor, I had my YHC English teacher sitting on the front row because I knew I would not have been up there without her.

YHC is where friendships begin that will last a lifetime. For some, it is where hearts speak to other hearts and a lasting love begins. That’s true with me and Shirley, my wife of 57 years.

YHC is all these things and more. They will combine to make you wonder for the rest of your days how empty your life would have been without your experiences on this campus. Just wait and see!

This college was started by a 28-year-old circuit rider from middle Georgia named Artemas Lester. He had been assigned to this circuit by the Georgia Methodist Church to save souls and preach the gospel at the few churches in the area. But Artemas wanted to do more. Artemas had a dream. He wanted to start a school.

Among the several homes in which he stayed, one was on the corner where two dirt roads came together, where today our one and only traffic light is. It was the home of a Mrs. Sanderson: a widow named Nancy Louise.

One day Artemas mentioned his dream of a school to her. She jumped at the idea and suggested a vacant room in the store owned by her son across the street.

Recruitment of students was difficult. Youngsters were expected to do daily chores and work in the fields and forests.

But, on the first Monday in January 1886, 125 years ago this year, the school opened with seven students. Sometimes that first year there would be as many as 20. That was the birth of this college.

A wealthy judge in Athens heard about this new school in the mountains. He was an active Methodist layman who had already contributed to Emory University and even a church in Shanghai, China. His name was Young L.G. Harris.

Judge Harris never came to this valley, but he did something even better: he sent money—enough to really get started. Money for more land and to build a chapel named after his late wife, Susan Beverly, Susan B.

The local people were so thrilled they changed the name of the town from McTyeire to Young Harris.

Because of the reputation of Judge Harris, the word quickly spread throughout Methodism. Soon there were 100 students from around the state, then 200. And it continued to grow. When Judge Harris died, his heirs sued his estate claiming this great benefactor had given away all his money to good causes and not to them.

Such was the beginning of this college from which you graduate today. For more than a century this college struggled, yet made great advances. Giants walked this campus, too many to name: Sharp, Lance, Clegg and many others.

You have been here during its greatest years: four-year college accreditation, more new facilities, including this one, springing up everywhere with the biggest still to come: the Rollins Center. All of this happened chiefly because of the remarkable leadership of Cathy Cox, whom I once heard someone describe as “lightning in a bottle.” She built a team, and that team built a state-of-the-art four-year college.

It has been said that an education is more than the filling of a pail; it is the lighting of a fire. As one who has taught at four excellent colleges—two public, two private—I submit that none light a student’s fire quite like YHC. If you don’t feel that way today, wait a while and that fire will flare up. It’s that “spirit” of Young Harris College you hear so much about.

For most of you, it was your parents, with their sacrifice, sweat and struggle, who have helped you get to this day. Whoever it was, after this program, tell them thanks. And they will tell you how very proud they are of you and how hard they know you have worked to be here today. You not only have taken the courses and passed all the work required; you have done these things under a demanding faculty and staff unsurpassed in knowledge and the ability to best dispense it.

You deserve so much credit for this accomplishment. You are part of a special group, a distinguished group. Forty of you have a baccalaureate degree. Sounds important and is! Less than 28 percent of Georgians have one. Most important is what this and those associate degrees that many more of you have worked so hard to earn will mean over the years in potential income. Congratulations to all of you for a hard job well done.

But, in this day and time, even with a degree it is not going to be easy out there. Even with a degree, you are not promised a rose garden. Even with a degree, there were by adversity, challenges, disappointments, and, dare I say it, even rejections.

So, as you go about your life, never assume a door is closed until you push on that door—hard. And never assume a door closed today will be a door closed tomorrow.

And remember always, you can reject the rejections. No one knows that better than I. Three times I was rejected in elections. I rejected the rejections and, you see, they are not even mentioned in my introductions.

There is another one on this stage today who has felt the stinging disappointment of rejection—also in an election. This woman rejected the rejection and is largely responsible for you being in this building receiving these impressive degrees. Without her, this event would never have happened like it has.

Beginning a few short years ago, most private junior colleges in this country were becoming extinct. YHC was at a crossroads. Its future was uncertain. But, with a dream as farfetched in scope, substance and economic challenge as that one 125 years ago, a second Miracle of Brasstown Valley has occurred.

There are many examples of persistence overcoming everything and anything. When Theodore Roosevelt tried to join the Army at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898, he was rejected because he had such poor eyesight. He rejected the rejection and organized a group of civilians. They called themselves the Rough Riders. He stored 11 pairs of glasses in his saddlebags just in case he broke a few. They went to Cuba, stormed up San Juan Hill and into the history books. He later became President. He rejected the rejection.

A graduate student at the University of Bern had his Ph.D. dissertation turned down as “irrelevant.” The young graduate student’s name was Albert Einstein. He rejected the rejection.

Many people believe Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II, was the greatest leader of the last century. When he was a young student, his parents got the note on his report card: “Shows a conspicuous lack of success.”

When he was an old man, Churchill was invited back to the school to make a commencement address. He went to the podium, looked out over the students and said, “Never give up. Never give up. Never, never give up,” and then he sat down.

Just like I’m going to do. Congratulations! God bless you! And always remember: YHC, IOU!”