Twenty years ago this month, I was sitting with thousands of other people on a football field in a goofy costume on an unseasonably hot day in Philadelphia. Many of my fellow MBA students skipped the university-wide commencement ceremony because we had our own separate ceremony later that day. I had to go because I was the graduate student representative on the commencement speaker selection committee.
Our commencement speaker was a celebrity, but he wasn’t our first choice. We had our hopes set on Nelson Mandela. The name Tom Brokaw had never been mentioned in any of our committee meetings, so when we were informed he was it, I felt a bit surprised and disappointed. Evening news anchors were big deals back then, but they weren’t Nelson Mandela.
Then I heard his speech.
Penn holds its graduation and reunion weekends at the same time every May. That year, the Class of 1946 was convening for their 50th reunion and Brokaw called them out specifically in the close of his speech.
“Fifty years ago – 1946 – another generation of young Americans marked a special spring in their lives… they had just won the war against Hitler and Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan. They had saved the world…They were born in the roaring Twenties and they came of age in the Great Depression when all was bleak and without much hope. They left their homes, many for the first time, and went thousands of miles away to fight… They won. They came home and they built the America we know today… I am in awe of them. Fifty years from now let another commencement speaker stand here and say of your generation, ‘They saved their world. I am in awe of them.’ This is your time. Take it on… We’re counting on you.”
Two years later, Brokaw published a book called The Greatest Generation. Without announcing it, he was giving us a sneak peek at a future best-selling book that would give that generation a name and special recognition.
I’ve forgotten every other commencement speech I’ve ever heard, but I never forgot that speech. Brokaw was brilliant to focus on a theme that tied together the grandparents in the crowd with the graduates on the field on a day they were together. He seized the opportunity to plant a seed for the thousands of conversations between family generations that were about to take place that day as soon as the ceremony was over. He inspired the future generation by praising the past. And he did it just in time before the Greatest Generation started leaving us in growing numbers.
I just got back from my own 20th reunion weekend at Penn and it made me remember that speech. Doing the math, my generation is almost halfway through the challenge that Brokaw laid down for us that day. So a reminder to my Classmates of 1996 from Penn and every other school: This is our time. Let’s take it on. People are counting on us.
Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on LinkedIn May 17.