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Carl Kohrt Commencement Address (2014)

Carl Kohrt

Commencement Address

Furman University

May 10, 2014

“The Curious Weaver”


On behalf of both my wife, Lynne, who has gladly served Furman as the Interim First Lady and has always been my first and only lady, and myself, we thank the Board of Trustees for the confidence shown in us by entrusting Furman to our care this academic year.  It is a responsibility and a burden we could not have born without the gracious help of so many in the community, the faculty, the staff, and the student body.  Speaking of students, I want to add my appreciation to my fellow speaker, Allie Simmons, for her fine remarks—well done, Allie.

So!! Welcome family, friends, esteemed faculty, and candidates.  We are gathered here on this auspicious occasion to recognize and to celebrate the culmination of multiple years of study, of contemplation, of fun, of special relationships with friends and professors, of exploration of new ideas, of days of anxiety and self-doubt now hopefully left behind, and, finally, the elation of ultimate success as you receive your degree.  You may feel that you are now on the launching pad awaiting us to light the fuse as you cross the stage in just a very few minutes so that you can blast off on your own into a continually changing and perhaps nebulous future.  But it is a journey that you, like I nearly 50 years ago, are well prepared to navigate with your very own liberal arts compass in hand as a graduate of Furman University.

I stand here today in awe and with great envy of your youth, your intelligence, your opportunities, and your command of the many aspects of a contemporary world that were unknown to me as a 1965 graduate.  Phones in my day were often stuck to walls, not stuck in your pocket.  Dinner was prepared with heat waves, not microwaves.  Books were stored on shelves, not in the cloud.  Three pointers only happened if you made both the basket and the free-throw—and then only if fouled in the act.  And, MOOCs were called correspondence school, with postage stamps, not electrons used to communicate between the teacher and the student.  Yes, many things have changed since the trees on the Furman Mall were but 6 feet high and students from Sterling High School bravely demonstrated for their civil rights in downtown Greenville.  But at least two things have remained wondrously the same for the graduates of Furman University both in 1965 and today in 2014.

The first of those is the quality and character of a Furman graduate as a leader in their family, their community, their profession, and in society—a characteristic demonstrated by the thousands of alumni who have gone before you.  I believe that there are four elements underlying a Furman-trained leader of character. Beyond personal integrity, which is an absolute must, the other three elements of leadership that I have come to value in others during my international business career and observed in Furman graduates over the years are intelligence, passion and curiosity.

Intelligence is certainly important, for it is the engine that enables one to better understand and deal with the uncertainty and complexity one encounters throughout ones’ lifetime.  But intelligence without humility becomes arrogance – and in my experience, arrogance is a serious barrier to generating followership and successfully influencing others.  The second is passion and its hand maiden—persistence; for together, they help one overcome those inevitable speed bumps that are sure to arise—and undoubtedly have at some point in your Furman career.  However, passion without respect can become terrorism and persistence without purpose is merely theater.

The most important ingredient of leadership, in my opinion, is curiosity. The spark of curiosity that has been ignited in each of you here today by your daily close interactions with faculty and with one another is a hallmark of a residence-based Furman education and has been so for decades.  Liberal arts education is often cited for training its students to think critically—I believe that curiosity is the key to critical thinking.  A curious person naturally looks deeply into things of interest and is not satisfied with merely the superficial.  A curious person confidently learns from others, and by doing so, is rarely satisfied with the status quo.  A curious person is often a non-linear thinker who confidently collects ideas and information from many sources and then connects the dots in new and often unexpected ways.  A curious person is a life-time learner who is very rarely bored and who embraces change as an opportunity rather than a threat.  So the character of a 2014 Furman graduate as a curious person and leader has not changed from those who have gone before.

But what about the second item that has not changed?  The history of Furman and of Greenville have been interwoven for over 180 years—one as a place where curious students of character learn, and the second where the world of textiles thrived for nearly as long–where cloths of many colors were woven from threads of many types and for many uses.  Today, it is a city that respects its heritage as the textile center of the world, but continues to add confidently to its history in new ways as a progressive city that attracts artists, international businesses, and entrepreneurs because its leaders are curious about what might be, and so like typical Furman graduates, are not satisfied with the status quo.  It is a city that has embraced the Class of 2014 and to which I am sure each of you has returned the favor as you enjoyed some of its many special offerings on a Friday night—several of which, I am sure will stay in Greenville as the saying goes.    

Hence, in a curious way, your lives as Greenville-based Furman graduates are much like the woven fabric once produced in Greenville that began merely as a collection of spools of thread—each spool representing some element of your life or piece of knowledge or experience that are now part of your own unique  personal fabric.  Many of your first spools of thread were put in your life’s sewing box, so to speak, by your parents—spools of love, of respect for others, of purpose, of compassion.  Your Furman education has added many more to that original starter set with spools representing the basic elements of knowledge –philosophy, history, mathematics, chemistry, art, music—or the experiences you may have encountered during your time with us—sports, leadership, service, internships, Friday nights on Main Street.  Each spool is figuratively wound with thread of a particular texture, strength, length and color.  With them you will continue to weave your own life’s tapestry first begun by your parents for all to see.

But pause for a moment and ask yourself–will I use only the spools I walk off the stage with today to weave that tapestry of my life in the future?  Will I only seek to add spools with which I am comfortable or that look exactly like those I have used before?  If so, that is perfectly fine.  The resulting tapestry of life that you will likely weave will reflect a life’s work that will surely be strong and well-constructed but, perhaps rather monochromatic in character, and predictable in its design —a tapestry limited in its ability to interest or to inspire others who see it.

Or, like the curious person I hope that you have become, will you courageously seek other spools of thread to add to your box?  Will you experiment with the new or the unfamiliar? Will there be spools of many different colors or textures or lengths or strength?  Perhaps there will be some that you collect out of mere curiosity, or borrow from others, or which might represent new skills you have invested in learning, or relationships such your family and even new cultures that have enhanced your life?  With this more varied box of spools fostered by your curiosity you will be better able to weave a life’s tapestry that is unique in design, multi-textured, rich in meaning and an inspiration to those who engage it.

So, Class of 2014, you have a choice—to be a good, but ordinary weaver in life or to be a courageous and curious weaver in life.  Either is appropriate.  I hope that as you walk confidently from your current world of the familiar across this stage this evening and into the next adventure, you will do so not only as a Furman graduate and leader of character, but as a curious weaver of your own, unique, life story.

Mrs. Kohrt, Lynne, and I chose to do the latter long ago.  Our box is filled with spools of many colors, textures, purposes and come from many sources.  With them we have, together, woven a life tapestry with much character, color, and impact—and we are certainly not yet finished.  There are yet other spools to be discovered and we are certainly curious about what our life tapestry will become in the years ahead.  Similarly, since we have known you, the Class of 2014, for this entire academic year and for this evening as “our fellow graduates”—our adopted class so to speak–we will be doubly curious to see how each of your life tapestries develop.  And, we will celebrate each of them knowing full well that Furman is a part of its woof and warp.

But in each case whether you choose to become an ordinary weaver or a curious weaver you must be sure that, like ours–your life’s tapestry has Paladin purple throughout and forever!!

Congratulations Class of 2014, and thank you for who you are.

Last updated May 2, 2014
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