SARANAC LAKE - North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi delivered a funny and poignant commencement address to more than 300 graduates of North Country Community College on Saturday.
With sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s outside, the Sparks Athletic Complex gymnasium was brimming inside with excited graduates, as well as family and friends, for the 45th commencement ceremony. Onlookers sat on the floor in the back and crowded around the entrances to the gym.
Politi, 62, told graduates that at NCCC they laid the foundation "to advance in the direction of your dreams." He said whether students are moving into four-year degree programs or entering the work force, they all leave NCCC more prepared.
North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi speaks to graduating students during Saturday’s North Country Community College commencement ceremony held at the Sparks Athletic Complex on the college’s Saranac Lake campus.
Politi, who is also vice chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, mixed quite a bit of humor into his address.
"Ladies and gentleman, to many of you, this may be the last boring lecture you will ever have to endure," he said, "but I caution you, it's only until you get married."
Politi said when he attended St. Lawrence University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was in an era of sexual revolution, Woodstock, long hair and burning bras.
"I remember it well," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "Yes, those were the days. And over the years, I have surely recounted to many the reckless escapades of my youth. But I guess, in truth, as Mark Twain once said, some of my best memories are things that never happened."
Politi asked what a 62-year-old man approaching "grandfather status" has in common with an "assemblage of young, tech-savvy graduates.
"Not much," he said. "I don't have a Facebook page. I've never bought an iTune. I don't even know where to tweet. So to most of you, I'm probably nothing more than a hash-tag-loser."
But Politi said he could share some of the knowledge he's gained from his own life experience. He told graduates that work is an inevitable part of life's journey.
"Find something you love doing, and do it well," Politi said. "Find something that makes you happy, something that makes a difference. When you leave here today, your greatest expectations are for you to be a success.
"But the truth is, if you don't make a difference for others, personal success will never be fulfilling."
Politi encouraged graduates to consider giving more than taking. He said the real value of a person resides in what they give, not what they accumulate.
The speech also hit on some deeply personal notes for Politi, as he talked about his own experiences facing cancer.
"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick; sometimes your dreams and expectations take a back seat to the reality of the moment," he said.
Politi was diagnosed with an incurable form of lymphatic cancer on Jan. 19, 2010, which left him with a primary malignant mass in his upper diaphragm the size of, in his words, a Pepperidge Farm loaf of bread.
Politi said in those initial days and weeks after the diagnosis, he was overcome by feelings of numbness and denial. He said he then started to prepare to make the most of his final days.
"What I tell you today is, don't take your life for granted," Politi said. "Everything that happens in life is like a classroom: You find out something new every day. Your final exam may not come at the end of the semester; it may be facing you sooner than expected."
Politi said he now views his illness as an opportunity rather than an affliction.
"I'm not here today to counsel you on how to live the rest of your lives," he added. "But I do need to express that life is what you and only you choose to make of it."
In closing, Politi urged the graduates to live life with great enthusiasm.
"Or as Sophocles has inferred, 'One must wait until the evening to appreciate the splendor of the day,'" he said. "Congratulations, Class of 2012. You are our promise for a brighter future."
Retiring NCCC President Carol Brown said Politi's address was "by far the best commencement speech I've ever heard.
"I suspect, unlike him, 40 years from now you probably will remember some of it," she said.
Brown will be replaced in the coming weeks by Steve Tyrell, who was hired as NCCC's next president earlier this spring. Brown plans to spend more time with her family, and she said Politi's words were meaningful to her as she continues her own journey.
Brown handed out four Chancellor's Awards of Excellence on Saturday. Joe Keegan was honored for teaching, Don Paulson for faculty service, Trisha Greenier for professional service and Edna Bowers for classified service.
The college also honored Lucille Bowen, who retired this year. Brown said Bowen has been an integral part of the success and growth of NCCC's Malone campus. Bowen has served as program director of continuing education and assistant professor of social sciences.
"There will be so many ways we will all miss her," Brown said. "From her presence at every single event at Malone and often here at Saranac Lake, to her willingness to always be there for her colleagues, quite honestly for me and certainly for her students."
Graduates received degrees in numerous fields including liberal arts, environmental science, computer graphics and design, health science, fine arts, business administration, criminal justice and massage therapy.