Commencement 2005

Ron Kiss, Departing President,
Webb Institute, Saturday, June 18, 2005
Looking Back and Moving Forward Ron Kiss

Fellow trustees, faculty, honored guests and most importantly graduates of the Class of 2005, today is a momentous day for each of you and me as we prepare to leave Webb and begin our lives outside of this environment. I believe we may be experiencing many of the same feelings today. Is it really over? Yes, for you and me, it is. Did I neglect to finish some project? Obviously not - you have made it. "Hope this doesn't take too long! President Kiss has been known to go on and on." I'll try to be brief, but unfortunately for you this is my last chance to have your attention, I'd like to share a few insights I have gleaned over the years.

All too often I have heard leaders in our profession bemoan the difficult times which seem to plague the marine industry. For example, a former president of SNAME lamented as follows: "the ship-owner in foreign trade has nearly passed away. The practice of the art in that field slumbered, but that the art of shipbuilding has not expired with you, is shown in the magnificent types designed and constructed for the trade of our coast, our lakes and our inland waters..." He went on to talk of the success of American naval architects in the design of America's Cup yachts and naval cruisers. That SNAME president was Clement Griscom, the year was 1893 - the time when the first students were entering a new school called Webb's academy. Today things are very much the same - yacht design in the U.S. is robust and exciting with advanced materials and technology. Some lament about the meager numbers of naval ships being ordered, but while that is a concern - it is also a great challenge. The Chief Engineer of the Navy, Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan, told me that he has 29, yes, I said 29, new ship designs in process as you graduate. The world's energy needs are dictating ever more challenging energy exploration and production projects in ever deeper waters. For every door that closes in our profession, new ones open. You are superbly prepared to pass through those doors and make a contribution immediately. Webb graduates hit the ground running - and you too can do that. The challenges are great, but the opportunities to accomplish great things in ship design and engineering are greater today than ever before. You have my admiration for having successfully completed your preparation, and perhaps a bit of envy as you move off to grapple with, and I hope solve, some of the most stimulating problems ever faced by naval architects and marine engineers!

Shortly after you arrived at Webb, the nation experienced a great tragedy. You are the class of 9-11. Having grown up in a period of relative peace - most of you were just beginning school when the Berlin wall fell and the cold war ended - yet you began your adult lives in a way few college classes ever have, with your country under attack. I will always wonder what impact that had on your development. For the survivors here today, I hope it has served to make you appreciate the gift and the obligations we have in being U.S. citizens.

  • You have the gift of free speech - and the obligation to use judgment and prudence in how you use that gift.
  • You have the gift of freedom of religion - and the obligation to be open and non-judgmental as our founding fathers were.
  • You have the gift to freely pursue life, liberty and happiness, and the obligation to do so in a way that does not take those freedoms from others.

As you plan your life after Webb and start your professional careers, I urge you to cherish the gifts your country has bestowed on you. Our benefactor and founder, William Webb, thrived on the freedoms he had, and he built a fortune that allowed him to leave a legacy called Webb institute! It is my hope that each graduate will emulate the character traits of William Henry Webb. Specifically, I hope:

  • That each of you will meet the trials of life with the courage and integrity that he displayed in all his dealings, and so earn the respect and devotion of those you meet along the way, as he did;
  • And that each of you will have in no small measure the vision, generosity of spirit, and compassion that Mr. Webb possessed so abundantly.

If you strive for these things, you will be good citizens - and our nation will be better for having you as citizens!

A few weeks ago Andrew Berko asked me what I thought was most special about Webb, and I told him it was the staff and faculty who did so much to make Webb so special. But there is another, most important aspect - the students - and better still the opportunity for the president of the college to know them. Today I want to say goodbye to each of you seniors in a special way.

Goodbye Caitlin - One of two women in the class who earned the Girl Scout Gold Award in high school - here you displayed the ability to work hard and be a happy and cheerful presence on the Webb campus - thank you.

Goodbye Lauren - You are a leader. When I asked a classmate of yours who was the most responsible person in your class, he responded almost without hesitation that it was you - thank you.

Goodbye Courtney - Sometimes it's hard for the President to know who the responsible students are (and all college presidents like the responsible students), but I learned about you when you were the sophomore van chairman and I complained to you about the stinking food mess in the vans after a student trip. You responded by email as follows:

President Kiss,
I understand that the vans have been quite dirty lately. However, I am doing the best I can. It isn't always easy when you do have two beavers and one chairman and no one can arrange their schedule to fit it in. The usual beaver is for Wednesday; however, the past few weeks the freshmen have had a statics test or something else come up. And for some reason or another they both can't do it on Thursday and the next week is never good either. Last semester, the freshman always had their welding class on Wednesday and the two assigned to me were always inconveniently there. Sometimes the freshmen were available, but I had class or a deadline for work. Then they would each clean a van. I do not try to do it that way because I know it is my responsibility, too. I understand that it is the chairmen's job to get everyone together, but when not everyone will cooperate with you, that makes it very difficult. I will request two beavers as usual for tomorrow and they will get cleaned. Maybe we can also tell the freshman that these beavers are a priority over a sports practice or something else, so that the vans will not be so awful. I realize that school comes first, and I know they should take as much time as needed on a test, but it is impossible to find a time in the week when no one has a practice or a meeting of some sort. Also, it would be helpful to the van chairmen if the school as a whole had at least a little respect for the vans and not always leave their trash, dirty socks, etc. in them. I am sorry for the inconvenience and hope that in the future this will not be a problem. Courtney

Whew!! I learned a little about you that day - and I liked what I learned. Thank you, Courtney.

Goodbye Vince - (Yes we have men at Webb too) during your interview I learned that your grandfather was accepted at Webb, but couldn't come because he needed to work during the depression, and that your great-grandfather knew Mr. Webb and ran a shipyard! You have demonstrated a strong will and a commitment to personal integrity that will serve you well in the years ahead. Thank you.

Goodbye Eric - I will miss my Student Organization President with the fuzzy head and flip flops on his feet. Despite your somewhat casual look, you led the students very well this year. I asked you to help make our last year go smoothly and you did that very well. Thank you.

Goodbye Evan - A fellow "joysy" guy - you are the quintessential Webbie, strong in math and science, hardworking and active in much of what happens at Webb. I wish you well at MIT where I'm sure you will be a credit to Webb. Thank you.

Goodbye Aris - You can be zany, irreverent and sometimes insulting, but you can also be suave, engaging and sincerely thoughtful. You once thanked me for taking a risk in admitting you. The truth is your interest in ships was most encouraging and your high school class notes which you showed me during our interview lead me to write that they were "usable for teaching." Your success at Webb demonstrated the confidence of the admissions committee was well placed. You, too, will do well at MIT. Thank you.

Goodbye Mike - you once told my wife, June, you thought I didn't like you because I glared at you! In fact you are one of the most entertaining students I've met at Webb. My expression may be one of disbelief at what I hear you say sometimes, but your intellect is most keen - in fact my admission notes for you said "A winner! Did everything well in the interview...he's for sure an engineer in the making." The fact that you're here today is testimony to reading you right. Thank you for your sense of humor and one word of advice - sleep on your emails before you send them. Thank you.

Goodbye Evelyn - Your enthusiasm for Webb was evident from the interview forward. My admission notes said: "Very talkative and open young lady." Was I right? Thank heavens we began doing plays at Webb, you were a star in every comedic role you played. Your academic performance was stellar and I am confident that you will be a successful engineer. Thank you

Goodbye Emily - Independent and self reliant are the words I'd use for you. I recall meeting you on march 2nd 2001, and learning you made your way from Charlottesville, Virginia by train, by yourself as a 16 year old. You were very blasé about that. I believe those traits allowed you to get the utmost from the Webb experience. You were the other Girl Scout Gold Award winner in the class, and you are another winner at Webb! Thank you.

Goodbye Tristan - As a former army enlistee, you were the "old man" in the class. Your love of boats and boat design has been a beacon from your interview to the present. I am confident that you will do what you like in naval architecture - and - you will like what you do. Thank you.

Goodbye Matt - I believe you're the only eagle scout of four admitted four years ago who managed to be here today! You are a man of great ability! And you were my honor council chair for the past year. As with Eric - you did it right. I needed very few, if any chats about how you maintained the integrity of life at Webb. Enjoy your summer respite in Europe, and then I'm certain you'll be a valued naval architect at some fortunate company. By the way - happy birthday!

Graduates, you're all winners! You deserve to be proud of your accomplishments and of the degree you received today. In a sense I see you as my youngest children. The faculty, staff and I have done our jobs, and though I'm sad to part with you, I'm sure we'll hear many good things about you after you leave the nest at Webb.

God bless you all!