Commencement speech: Craig Lang, May 5, 2012

Craig Lang of Brooklyn, an Iowa State alumnus and recently re-elected president of the State Board of Regents gave this May 5 commencement address to 3,000-plus graduates in Hilton Coliseum.


Graduates, parents, grandparents, distinguished guests, President Leath. It is an incredible honor for me to speak with you today. Congratulations on your graduation from this fine institution.

Because of your experiences at home and your education at Iowa State, you can be anything you desire to be…and what you become may be different than what you planned.

It took me nearly 30 years to realize the opportunities my education gave me. It took me another 10 years to realize that I have a purpose in life that is strongly tied to where I was born and the Iowa State instruction I received. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “The philosophy of waiting is sustained by all the oracles of the universe.”

For each of you, I hope finding your purpose doesn’t take nearly so long. I can without hesitation tell you working to fulfill your niche in life brings unequaled satisfaction and content.  Patience is a key characteristic to finding your niche because life’s greatest experiences, those things leading up to knowing your purpose, will come from where you least expect them.

You are college graduates. Be proud. Make the most of each day and start your journey in life  on the correct foot. No matter where you are in life, no matter what your occupation, no matter what your successes are or the number of setbacks occurred, the education you received here and the experiences you’ve had will help you along the way.

Life is a journey. Grasp each day with enthusiasm and look to find those things in life that bring you happiness. The journey to find your role as it relates to mankind may take a while. So ask the right questions along the way and never stop looking for ways to improve and strengthen those things in life you love doing. Face life’s defeats as learning points and your successes with humility.

As I look back over the years since I graduated, I would not have done anything differently to find my purpose, even though it did take nearly 40 years. I, like many of you, set goals for myself that were suitable for the year I graduated. Of course 39 years later, they seem small and easy thanks to the advancement of the technology and communication you’ve learned here on campus. I wanted to be the best dairy farmer in the country and, armed with a dairy-science degree from Iowa State, why not. I was so enthused to get started, I skipped my college graduation.

Graduation day, on the farm

There are important points in your life you remember, like a high school musical where you had a lead role and it turned out perfectly. Or the day you get married…and your first born baby. For some reason, I distinctly remember my graduation day from ISU. It was a warm, sunny day (in fact, it was hot). I was home tearing out a fence to make a larger cattle lot.  Before you jump to any conclusions, 40 years later I realize I should have been here. Because that day was not just about me or this day only about you.

This day is a celebration, justly as important to those that helped you with your education. FOR A MOMENT, THINK ABOUT WHO THAT IS IN YOUR LIFE and take a moment to thank them.  I’m sure the reason I remember the temperature and activity on my graduation day is because, deep down inside, I knew I should have been here. My mother made it quite clear to me how disappointed she was that I skipped my graduation.

I realize now that each step you take in life is not just about you or me, but they are footsteps that include others.  An unknown author said, “The future lies before you, like a field of driven snow, be careful how you tread it, for every step will show.”

I was eager to graduate, filled with vigor and determination to make big and bold changes to the world I was to live in. I had four great years at Iowa State, but I was eager to break out. As I think about it, I wasn’t the only one eager to graduate. There were a number of my teachers and professors just as eager to see me go. I wasn’t a model student.  And I’m sure my college buddies would not believe that I’m addressing your graduating class.

 Much has changed in the nearly 40 years, since my graduation. Such as: You actually have a choice for food after midnight. We had the truck stop or maybe a half empty vending machine. We watched TV shows like Floppy and Bonanza, while you probably watch "The Big Bang Theory" or "Modern Family." Yet the heart and soul of all of us remains unchanged. Your ability to achieve your personal goals starts with you and the tools you’ve received here.

As I look out at your class, I see proud parents and friends. I see educators who have helped equip you with the most modern in education and skills. I see grandparents happy and proud. But most important to me is, I see hope for tomorrow. I see a group of innovators and entrepreneurs. I feel enthusiasm for setting the world on a correct  path.

Let both sides unite

And finally, let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah to “Undo the heavy burdens -- and let the oppressed go free.”

Each and every one you have a responsibility to start the next chapter of life by helping one another conquer the needs of our world. We live in a world that seems so polarized around issues and policies that are incredibly important to life and sustainability. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Armed with your education, solve our world’s problems and strive to make everyone’s footsteps lighter and more productive.

Each day, every footstep you take is part of a larger plan for the reason you exist. Each step you take will leave a print towards your legacy on earth.

My story of an eager graduate turned out exactly as I planned for the first 20 years. Everything went along smoothly without a hitch: a college degree; more cows, greater production, more farm land, a great marriage, a terrific wife, healthy, wonderful and beautiful children. What a great start. The sky was my limit, and then, my health status changed.

 A diagnosis that I had a form of muscular dystrophy. A short time later, I underwent major back surgery. Combining the two would ultimately limit my farming career. I love working with nature and especially dairy animals. But you really need good ambulatory skills to work with livestock.  Muscular dystrophy forced my wife Mary and I to really ask ourselves some honest questions. What are we going to do now? Mary was a full time nurse, but everything we had built together depended upon my ability to grow the farm and continue to milk more cows. For the first time we needed to consider something different. We made a decision to follow opportunities in what I loved doing -- growing food and farming.

 During this time of uncertainty, a state farm bureau organization director position became available and we decided I should run for that position. After all I had been a county director for a few years because Mary felt I needed a hobby, something to add value to my life beyond working 80 hours a week.

Mystery or miracle

Mystery or miracle, you decide. There were five candidates running for this position in my respective district of 11 counties and my good luck was running thin. I could not find anyone to second my nomination for this election. It seemed like everyone I asked had a reason to nominate or second someone else. What would you do if you knew you needed a second and no one was willing to commit? Mary and I decided to let fate predict the outcome.  That is something I would not do today. I was the first to be nominated by my county president. Our strategy was, by being first nominated, someone would be kind enough to second me. Didn’t work. When the chairman asked for a second, no one spoke up. In fact he asked for a second twice and then a third time. No response. Can imagine how we felt? I remember whispering to Mary, “I guess that’s it.”

As the next four candidates were nominated and received their seconds my spirit continued to drop lower and lower until finally there was one last call from the chairman for any more nominations for district director. And mystery or miracle at its finest from the back of the room a young man stood up and said it would be his honor to second the nomination of Craig Lang. Totally unexpected. The rest is history. I won that election and many more.

I never planned to rise through the ranks of Iowa’s largest volunteer organization to become one of their longest serving president. I never planned to be chairman of a billion dollar insurance and financial company.  I never planned to be the one who would shepherd this same billion dollar company, through the world’s worst financial meltdown since the great depression. But I did and I know my college education helped.  

And I never planned to be president of the Iowa Board of Regents. And the list goes on.

My college education and the lessons I’ve learned along the way and the support of true friends have helped me in every footstep I’ve taken.

Without question, what drives me and carries me each day is a desire to make a difference. I feel compelled to help others improve their position, whether it is an affordable education, a better job or the ability to help others learn to feed themselves. I’m thankful that my previous job introduced me to a world full of need, not just Iowa’s farmers and rural communities. Far beyond our farm fences and community skylines lays a world that doesn’t treat its citizens with parity. This obvious lack of parity has led me to believe that everything in life happens for a reason and every citizen should do their best to help someone else.

I believe my health, was an introduction to what God really intended for my family and me. Muscular dystrophy is not a weakness. To me it has become a turning point of opportunity.  This disease has strengthened me to look at our world in a more accurate way, to help me focus on more important needs. My international trips to India, China, Africa, South America and other far reaching destinations have given me a strong sense of purpose. You can’t travel the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, Changchun, China, or New Delhi, India, and not come back changed. My experiences traveling to some of the poorest areas of the world have influenced my resolution in life and, more importantly, those same experiences have strongly influenced the way I considered policy. I am no longer satisfied with status quo nor am I willing to only consider popular viewpoints. The disparities of our world, both locally and internationally, will not be solved by popular opinion.

For each of you graduating today, the direction and heights of achievement you reach are also determined by your perceived failures. Defeats and setbacks should be considered as simply an event in learning. I never anticipated losing a re-election for president of an organization I had given everything to for nearly 20 years.

I can now say because of personal experience, “You haven’t fully lived until you’ve been defeated in a race you knew you could and should win.” For each of you looking to lead in your field, you will find that as your experiences in leadership build and requests for your personal attention multiply, you will without doubt make a few mistakes and consequently a few enemies.

You will also find a career setback has a ripple effect that reaches far beyond oneself.  It affects your family, the business you represented and your friends, too. In the end, what is really important about a loss is do you know you made a difference and improved the field for others while you were there.

I also know that we don’t always have certainty as to what is best for ourselves, but we have a divine Creator who does. Treating a defeat as a learning experience will help you develop stronger character, stronger determination and stronger values. How you react to life’s larger defeats and victories will leave vivid footprints for others to either follow or avoid.

Lead with integrity, honesty, honor

The good news is: Graduates, if you lead with integrity, honesty and honor our world full of new adventures and opportunities will find you. 

Graduation is a beginning. Keep close the things you love doing. For each of you graduating, be patient. Regardless of the length of time it may take to hit your stride, continue to listen to your heart. Seek the help of your friends and don’t shy from unknown territory that offers opportunity.

Life’s greatest victories are ones that are shared with others and life’s highest compliment is to have others want to walk in your footsteps.