Back in 2012, I was asked to give the commencement speech for the 8th grade class of Start Jr. High. I took that opportunity to tell the story of Dr. William B. Hatcher, who went on to become the President of LSU, among other notable roles along the way. His story of humble beginnings however, have an interesting Richland Parish connection. Here is the audio, of that speech, which runs about 20 minutes long. I’ve also included a transcript of that speech. – Luke Letlow
Transcript of 2012 Speech On Dr. William B. Hatcher
There is a story that I would like to share with you that has been largely untold until today. It’s a story about a little boy named William. I think you’ll agree that William’s story represents a GREAT EXAMPLE of someone that followed his passion, recognized opportunity, and never gave up.
His story begins nearly one-hundred and twenty-five years ago, where he was born in 1888 just on the border of Tennessee and Mississippi. His parents were poor like so many others during that time, and his family was always moving so that his father could find work.
Throughout William’s young life, he saw his family struggle a lot just so there would be food on the table. They were always on the move.
First from Mississippi to Texas, and later, all across Arkansas and Lousiana. And it was during these hard times that young William decided very early, that he would seek a better life for himself once out on his own.
Now as a small boy he found IN himself a HUNGER and a PASSION for history and science. And he dreamed about one day becoming a great teacher and a great leader in the big city.
But in 1898, this wasn’t what most school aged kids were thinking about. In fact most kids in 1898 in the deep south didn’t have much of an opportunity to even get beyond the 4th or 5th grade!
But William was clearly a dreamer. He believed in himself and he believed in the great potential of his life, the places he could go, and the people whose lives he could change for the better. And he told himself that when he saw the OPPORTUNITY, he was going to take it.
As a student he wanted to learn more about the great explorers of the world, to share his passion for science, and to watch others grow just as he was, by gaining an education.
But he most surely also thought to himself that the small farm towns throughout the south were MUCH to slow for the world that young William wished to conquer.
William knew in his heart that he was destined for great things, and he set his mind to the fact that NOTHING could stop him.
But William’s path wasn’t necessarily as easy to walk as it might initially sound.
Flashing forward in today’s time, each of you students by now have already begun to learn that not everything in life IS EASY. Mark Zuckerberg, the famous creator of Facebook recently said at an 8th grade graduation much like this one “anything WORTH DOING is actually pretty HARD and takes a lot of work. He added that “You’ll find in time, that there really are no short cuts.”
So in looking back at young William’s life during the late 1800’s, its not hard to see that this young man had multiple speed bumps that in one way or another, would always try to slow him down.
William knew that he had to finish school, and so even as others around him didn’t make it, he persevered, graduated High School in 1904, and soon set his eyes on the bright lights of the big city.
But the bright lights were not meant to be — just yet.
You see no-one in the city wanted a teacher from the country. In those days, rural, country folks were looked down on. In fact even the small town that William lived in had no room to hire him to be a teacher in their community school.
Now a lot of people might have given up on their dream at this point. How much easier would it have been for young William to settle down in his town, start a family at a young age. Maybe he could have learned to farm like his neighbors, or even work for the newspaper or start hisnown store. All might have been good for William, but he knew that was not his gift.
William knew in his heart what it was he would be best at doing. He knew in his heart that he could be a GREAT teacher and a GREAT leader. He looked inside himself and found himself excited at the idea of changing others’ lives with the gift of an education.
So in 1904 at just 18, with little more than his shirt on his back, and the motivation to make a difference, he signed up for the most unlikely of jobs.
Some 23 miles from his family’s hometown, there was a new school being built. But to a lot of people, it was a laughing stock and a joke. They thought it was a complete waste of money to build a school for poor kids way out in the middle of nowhere. But despite his neighbors’ criticism, William took a chance on what was then, the only job in teaching that he could get.
Each morning, he would catch the train at the depot in his town, and he’d ride through 2 or 3 other smaller towns until he reached what must’ve felt like at the time, the end of the world. It was there in a small, newly formed settlement where the newly built schoolhouse was located.
And on his first day when he showed up for work at the new school as the schools new teacher, and he thought SURELY he would at least get the chance to teach the older kids at the school in Junior High and High School. After all, his studies were all focused on history, the arts, and the sciences.
But this too, was not meant to be. In fact when young William got his teaching assignment, he must have been shocked to learn that he would be teaching none other than, 1st Grade. At just 18 years old, you might imagine that he undoubtedly, had his hands full.
Now young William – I am quite sure – NEVER envisioned THIS, as his dream job. This wasn’t the dream he’d had as a kid, where he had envisioned teaching scholars and kids in the city.
Perhaps in a different day in age, young William would have said no-way, when that job of teaching the 1st grade was the only option he got. After all, these students were all the children of poor farmers and many of them probably thought at the time “cared nothing at all about an education.”
But William chose instead to take the job. It was after all, teaching that he loved. And everyone has to Start somewhere, right? So for the next two years, William taught the First Graders of this poor, rural, cotton planting village.
William’s passion for teaching soon overtook any frustrations he felt, and before he knew it, the parents, other teachers who had been watching him, and even neighboring towns and communities began to hear about what a difference young William was making in these young students’ lives. And before he knew it, OPPORTUNITY began to present itself in many different ways.
He left that small school house in 1906 after teaching for two full years, when he was offered a job as principal in Junction City Arkansas. And then just ten years later, he was offered an even bigger job, as the Superintendent of Schools for East Baton Rouge Parish.
Throughout each of these bigger jobs – William continued to have a thirst for learning, and in 1937 he completed his doctorate in history at LSU. You see no matter where William went in life, people knew him to be someone who followed his passion and yearned to make a difference.
And in 1944, the bright lights of the big city had finally arrived, when Governor Jimmie Davis named William Hatcher as the President of LSU.
Now students, in four years maybe some of you will find yourselves on the campus of LSU, and if you look closely, you will see there JUST under the shadow of Tiger Stadium, a building named Hatcher Hall, built in William’s honor.
In the present day, sometimes we are presented with opportunity, day in and day out.
But what will you do – when opportunity presents itself to YOU. Will you see it? Will you always wait for something better? In William’s life, he would have never reached the heights of being President of LSU, had he not first taken the steps of teaching those First Graders sonmany years earlier.
I hope that you will remember as you prepare for the next steps of your journey, these three simple things.
– Always Follow Your Passion
– Be Willing to Recognize Opportunity, Even If It’s Not What You Expected
– And Never, Ever Give Up
To the parents, family and friends, thank you for being here today to support and encourage our graduating 8th graders. As they leave the Start community and begin their High School days elsewhere, never forget the foundations here in THIS community that have been lain by the educators and all who come here each day, so that Start, Louisiana can continue to be one of the greatest places in America to grow up.
Continue to encourage these children to do great things. And continue to show the appreciation and gratitude to those here who will continue changing the lives of future generations.
To You, the Teachers, on behalf the thousands of lives each one of you have touched, I say Thank You. Thank you for never losing your PASSION to teach, and CONTINUE to be PASSIONATE, in all that you do.
Thank you for never forgetting that with each day that you spend in the lives of children, a new OPPORTUNITY is being created for them down the road.
To the Students – EACH one of you has achieved something very special, which is being recognized here today.
Just 100 short years ago, students your age didn’t have the simplest of opportunities of a thorough education.
My advice to you is to never view education as something that you HAVE to do. Instead, KNOW… that it is something you GET to do.
You have achieved much, but there is SO much yet to achieve. The world is yours to conquer, and there is nothing so great that can stop you as long as you don’t give up.
In my own life I have been a dreamer at times, and I have sought things that some have viewed as impossible.
Sometimes I’ve won and sometimes I’ve lost. But in my own life I have always believed in people, and I make no apologies for believing in each of you here today.
Having sat in your very same seats as you nearly twenty years ago, I can tell you that I have never regretted believing that ANYTHING is possible.
As you we back and look back at young William Hatcher, his success wasn’t created over night. While many people would have given up on their dreams when they didn’t immediately get where they wanted to go, young William chose the better path. He followed his passion.
And each morning, as he boarded the train, he did so, in town we know, as Delhi, Louisiana. And when he stepped off the train each day to teach those poor farmer’s kids, he stepped off in a place we know even better —
William was the very first, first grade teacher in Start, LA.
Dr. William B. Hatcher went on to do many important things in life. And there is no doubt that he ultimately achieved his goal of sharing the gift of education to thousands of students from all walks of life. But You see for him though, it all started at the age of 18, in Start, Louisiana in a small little schoolhouse, just across the railroad tracks from where we are right now.
Most people don’t remember Dr. Hatcher as the very first, First Grade teacher, of Start School. They remember him more as a Superintendent for one of the largest school systems in Louisiana.
And of course they remember him for holding one of the highest honors in Louisiana, in being named as the President of LSU.
To most historians, the story of his first job and his first real opportunity is only a footnote in the archives. But had he not taken the chance with that first tough job. And had he not followed his passion and just given up, his story might have been much different.
So today, students, I will leave you with some parting thoughts, very simple really, very much like I began, with Dr. Seuss.
STUDENTS, you’ll move mountains.
“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
And soon it will be time… to get on your way!