My mother was 17 years old when she graduated as Valedictorian of the Rhome High School class of 1943. While she delivered her Valedictory to classmates and guests at the graduation, the man she would later meet and marry, my father, was serving as a U.S. Marine in World War II. He had entered service about 5 months earlier, two days before the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (He had to wait until he was 18 to enlist.) He fought in the Solomon Islands. After the war, he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Eagle Mountain Lake. Mama went to business school after graduating, then worked as a stenographer on the base. That’s where they met.
What follows is Mama’s Valedictory to her class. Her words take on deeper relevance to me as I consider the history we know now that she didn’t know then. I am struck by the intelligence and maturity her writing demonstrates. Did you know about The Beveridge Plan that Mama references in her speech? I did not until I read this and then looked it up – it’s worth a Google. I already knew Mama was smart, but here is evidence.
I wish there existed a video or audio of her presenting the speech. But you know – 1943. I’ll do my best to recreate it. I’m told I sound a good bit like her. If you’d like to hear me reading her speech, here is a link. (The applause at the end is for her, not me.) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1TduqUxF6H3Hl8OO1TunWwmuq6Ue0p3Am/view?usp=sharing
If you’d like to just read it yourself, here it is:
1943 Valedictory: FUTURE OBLIGATIONS OF THE YOUTH OF TODAY
THEME: The attitude of America in the years to come will be that of us who graduate today.
By Grace Imogene Johnston
Ladies and Gentlemen:
We who are graduating in this class of 1943 are facing the most important problems yet faced by any class to graduate during our lives. Many of us will soon be on our way to the fighting fronts. All of us will be doing our share in the great world war effort.
Graduating classes of the past have faced problems of local or national significance. Ours faces problems which can be answered only by considering the world as a whole. Already the airplane has altered forever our concept of time and distance. In the world which we face there will be no barriers of sea or desert. Business transactions and all forms of human relations will be carried on between all parts of a rapidly shrinking world.
Does all this still appear a vision to you? It is a reality. In the sky now are pilots, with their training planes, bombers, fighter planes, and transports. The purpose of it all now is to defeat an enemy and to preserve a way of life, to build the structure for a better world. Out of the victory will come a day bright with opportunity for all. With our opportunity in the future there is an equally great obligation.
Almost more significant, we are the ones who will be gaining our place in the world as the post-war civilization is being built. What the world is to be depends in a great measure on us, on the knowledge we gain in the next few years, on the type of mature adult we become. WE must soon become valuable workers and fighters. We must then develop into valuable thinkers as well.
What pattern the world we enter will have has not yet been fully cut out. Perhaps we shall have some part in the cutting of the pattern.
To be worthy of the responsibility which must necessarily be ours, we must yearn, read, study, evaluate – so that when the time comes, we will be equipped to take this part.
Our national leaders are even now studying, investigating the changes which will come to the world economy in order to make this world a better place, a place where wars of greed will not be necessary. These changes may be immense. They may need to be only small but changes there will be, and every man is but one of many seeking the solution.
We too will be among the seekers when this war is over. A few of us may be preparing the blueprints, many of us will be carrying out the work of these few. Therefore, we must be prepared to be intelligent citizens, informed citizens, so that through the democratic system of selection we may choose leaders who will truly represent us.
We must use wisely the tools of democracy. WE must learn to evaluate those who seek political office. We must learn the operation of the referendum, the recall, the community meeting, and the other instruments which we as American citizens will possess.
Too often do we think, foolishly, that the sort of peace we will have depends upon far-off obscure decisions by men whom we do not know. We hope that it will be a good peace and that it will ensure peace in the years to come.
We must not be content to hope. We must not be lulled into laziness by those who prefer to see us apathetic, disinterested clumps of earth who pay our taxes and believe that our responsibility in government ends there.
Our responsibility does not end there. This very war is being fought to preserve our right to do more than pay our taxes and be silent.
We cannot, however, think of ourselves alone. We cannot say, “Here in our community we have good government, we have a low disease and death rate, we have no poverty, we have no un-employment” and believe that we have achieved all that our position as American citizens demands of us. We cannot sit back and rest on our laurels until we can say this of the world.
There have been presented already many plans to ensure this security, notably the Beveridge Plan, which is intended to bring freedom from want to the people of Great Britain. There have been similar plans conceived in our own country and others.
We may not be the planners of these great reforms, but we will very likely carry them out and, perhaps, plan others. Therefore, we must be prepared.
The next four or five years, more or less, will be war years, and, as such, important years. But the years that will count most in the whole course of civilization are the years which will follow. Let us be ready to make the best of those years.
No high school class has yet graduated during our lives which faced as critical a period as the one ahead of us. No other such class has faced as many opportunities and responsibilities in the life ahead. No other class has had to consider so carefully along what lines it should work.
With the closing of this occasion today we cease to exist as a high school class and it becomes my duty to say farewell to the Board of Education which as so ably directed the school system. We thank you for your consideration and the generous application of your wisdom.
To the members of the faculty, we say farewell. They have endeavored to encourage the good in us and develop our individual possibilities. You have been good friends as well as our instructors.
To our parents we do not say farewell, but we wish to thank you for making possible for us a good public school education. As we say farewell to the school you have provided for us, we hope that our benefits will give you joy and pride and partly repay for your work.
Classmates, we may say farewell but there is no farewell between us. As we go different ways in our lives to come, we will be always held together through bright days and dark ones by the common possession of the principles and ideals taught in this school.