Winter Commencement remarks from James Wainscott

Topic: Administrative

December 16, 2013

Commencement Address

Ball State University 
Winter Commencement

Remarks By
James L. Wainscott

Chairman, President & CEO, AK Steel Holding Corporation

Worthen Arena
Ball State University 
Muncie, Indiana

Saturday, December 14, 2013

10:00 a.m.

Ladies and gentlemen, Distinguished Faculty and Staff, Moms and Dads, Brothers and Sisters, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Friends, Family, Guests and Graduates of Ball State University, welcome one and all!

This is a marvelous day, and thank you for letting me share a portion of it with you.

As a Ball State alum, and a former resident of Jeep Hall at the “Zoo,” some 34 years ago I sat where you sit today with a variety of emotions and questions.

Final exams were over, which was great.

Friends were going in different directions. That was not so great.

And, soon, work in the “real world” would begin. Simultaneously exciting and daunting.

With my bachelor’s degree in hand, I was asking myself: 

  • What am I going to do with this great Ball State education?
  • And, how am I going to make a difference in the world

Perhaps these questions are similar to the ones you are asking yourselves.

Or, more likely, you are asking yourselves, “When will this guy be done with his remarks?”

In either case, I promise to be brief.

Let me start by taking this opportunity to thank President Jo Ann Gora for this marvelous recognition – the President’s Medal of Distinction – from my alma mater, and for the outstanding job she has done leading our university, Ball State! 

I was sad to hear of her announced retirement next June. She will be greatly missed, and I know I speak for all alumni and friends of Ball State in wishing her great health, good fortune, and happiness in all of her future endeavors. 

I also want to take this opportunity to encourage each of you here ….. each of you who has worked so very hard to accomplish your goal of getting to graduation day and receiving your diploma ….. to take just a moment today to acknowledge and be proud of your accomplishment. 

Far too often in our hectic lives, we are hurrying to get somewhere ….. only to find that when we get there – exhausted and out of breath – we rarely stop and celebrate important events or accomplishments.

Today is one of those days to stop and celebrate. Acknowledge the moment. With that in mind, let me offer my congratulations to each of you graduates on a job well done!

As Thomas Carlyle said, “nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence [quite] like accomplishment.” Today, graduates, you have accomplished much.

And, on the subject of graduation, former New York City Mayor, Ed Koch, had it right when he said “each diploma is a lighted match and each one of you is ….. a fuse.” 

May your education light the way for your life, and may you use your light to enlighten others.

It is my distinct honor and privilege to share in this special day with all of you gathered here in Muncie, Indiana. 

As a native Hoosier, I am delighted to be “back home again in Indiana” to deliver your winter commencement address.

Ball State commencements are among its greatest traditions. Many distinguished Americans have graced this stage in years past.

Because of that, I have to say that I was more than a little shocked when President Gora called and asked me to do this. 

I mean, after all, I’m no David Letterman. 

And, I am no “Papa John.”

Who I am is …. one of you. 

Like many of you, I came from very humble beginnings, enrolled at Ball State, received a fantastic education, and it changed my life forever ….. for the better. 

It made my life what it is today. And, for that, I will be eternally grateful. And, because of that, I could not say no to Jo Ann.

It is hard for me to believe but, nearly 40 years ago, I received notification that I had been accepted as a member of the Ball State class of 1979. 

I was thrilled to follow in my brother, Ed’s, footsteps in coming here to study accounting. 

The fact is that Ed is the genius of the family, having ranked as the top student in his graduating class here at Ball State and having scored the highest grade on the CPA exam that year.

Simply put, Ed was a tough act to follow. 

I had done OK for myself, making good grades in high school, graduating in the top 10% of my class, making the National Honor Society and being named a Hoosier Scholar. 

However, the Ball State admissions office paid a lot of attention to my SAT scores. And, that was another story.

You see, although I had good grades and was active in athletics and the community, I did poorly on my SAT’s. In fact, I bombed them. 

The truth is that I overslept for my SAT’s! 

I woke up on Saturday morning at about 10 a.m., headed for my high school to apologize for my lateness and Mr. Zielenski told me, “I’m sorry, son, but I can’t let you in. The test started two hours ago.” 

I was crushed. My life was over. No one would ever believe this story. Completely irresponsible. What a failure I was. I would never be able to go to college. Never be a success. In the days before iPhones, why hadn’t I invested in a better alarm clock?

As my late father used to say, “never measure success by how far you climb ….. but by how far you bounce back.” And, bounce back I did. Fortunately, the following Saturday morning, I bounced out of bed and was able to take a make-up SAT test at a neighboring area high school.

And, even though my scores were not stellar, Ball State took a chance on a fledgling accountant. And, that started me down a path that would eventually bring me to this marvelous University today. 

By the time my four life-changing years at Ball State were complete, I had been the beneficiary of great wisdom from the faculty and staff here at BSU. It is here that I learned what hard work and dedication were all about as I earned my undergraduate degree in accounting with honors. 

It is here that I learned the “language of business.” The language of business is spoken fluently at Ball State. And, it has been a language that has served me so very well since my graduation in May of 1979.

Since then, the campus has changed significantly, but the quality of education has remained absolutely superb.

No matter what you studied here, I have every confidence that you are prepared, well-prepared, to meet the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead in your chosen field. I am certain of this because the education you received here at Ball State takes a back seat to no one! 

And, in the years ahead, you will be amazed at how many Ball State alumni will cross your path. With that in mind, I encourage you to keep in touch with your classmates and build upon the Ball State network. Being a BSU alumni is a powerful thing.

And, when you can, I encourage you to give back to this wonderful place in accordance with your means, the place where it all started. For the record, Jo Ann did not ask me to say that, but I felt obliged to do so to continue to meet the needs of the future.

Before you grace this stage and accept your diplomas, let me offer my list of the “Top 3” things – not the top 10 – that you can do with your degree from Ball State University. 

Yes, I know that David Letterman has his “Top 10” list but, as you already know, I’m not David Letterman! But, seriously, here we go. 

Number three ….. You can use your degree from Ball State to help make things in America, even steel. 

Manufacturing. Manufacturing is the backbone of our economy. It is the engine that creates jobs, real wealth, and sustainable growth in communities all across our country. 

But, for some reason, it has a bad reputation. Perhaps it’s the images of smoke-stack industries. But, the reality is that it’s a high-tech, globally competitive and responsible industry. And, to compete effectively, American manufacturers need smart graduates – the best and the brightest – like each of you across all academic disciplines.

So, if it’s not too late ….. and it’s never too late, I encourage you to consider a career in manufacturing. Embrace the challenges and the opportunities offered in manufacturing, and do what you can to help us make more things in America. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Because when we make things in America, we make America stronger. And, a stronger America is a good thing – a very good thing – for the entire world. 

So, number three is make things ….. or make things happen!

Number two ….. You can use your degree from Ball State to help build, or rebuild, something great and lasting. 

I would be lying if I told you that doing so would be easy. It’s not, but it’s worth it. And, I can assure you that your experience at Ball State will help you rise to meet any challenge. 

When I was named President and Chief Executive Officer of AK Steel in 2003, I became the leader of one of the largest and most historic steel companies in America. There was only one problem. And, it was a big one. The company was on its death-bed, and that’s a real problem for a new CEO. 

We were in deep financial trouble and destined to join 40-plus other steel companies that had not survived ….. unless we got busy. So, we got busy. Instead of pursuing bankruptcy or a bailout, we chose the tougher path. We changed our business model. 

And, unlike dozens of steel companies at the time, we refused to abandon our retirees in order to fix our financial woes. Rather, we chose to rebuild AK Steel without forgetting about those who built the company in the first place. Our retirees. 

Our “legacy” would be to honor our so-called “legacy costs.” That was our higher purpose, a calling – if you will, to put service before self-interests.

As Herman Edwards, former NFL player and coach, and current football analyst said it well, “Your problems are never bigger than your purpose.” Said another way, “your destiny is greater than your difficulty.” So, don’t let your past deter you from the marvelous future that is in store for you. 

We believed and we succeeded, but not without our challenges. My Ball State education prepared me well for making some very tough decisions – making the right decisions – while facing a tough set of problems.

With a steely determination, a lot of hard work, and the tailwinds of an improving market, AK Steel overcame adversity and emerged as a world-class, globally competitive steel company. 

And, our 6,000 employees continue to provide pensions and health care benefits of more than one million dollars per day to our 30,000 retirees.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a legacy that we are all very proud of at AK Steel.

So, number two is build ….. or rebuild something great and lasting. Apply your education and values to create long-term value.

And now ….. the number one thing that you can do with your degree from Ball State University is ..... You can make a positive difference in the lives of others. 

In my business, that’s leading according to the Golden Rule. Treating others the way that you would like to be treated. Plain, pure and simple. I believe that all of us should aspire to this standard.

As you progress in your careers, you will assume increasingly responsible roles. But, I encourage you to never forget who you are and where you came from. Stay grounded.

Everyone wants to be appreciated for what they do, no matter how large or small the contribution to the enterprise. In a leadership role, you can set the tone. 

Recognize employees for a job well done. Encourage open communication and idea exchange. Treat others with respect. After all, these are the things you want and deserve. So, lead the way.

Remember that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but ….. people will never forget how you make them feel.

My BSU education and experience helped me prepare for life and for leading. And, I am confident that yours has done the same. 

So, the number one thing you can do with your Ball State degree is ….. to make a positive difference in the lives of others! 

Let me once again offer my sincere congratulations and best wishes to the graduates! I am proud of all of you and look forward to your significant contributions to our world in the years ahead.

In closing, I would like to share a saying that was given to me in my youth by my Mother. I liked the saying so much that I put it on a wood plaque that hung on my bedroom wall and looked at it everyday as a kid.

Mind you, that austere bedroom was about 10 feet square and it was shared with my brilliant brother, Ed.

I know Mom gave me these words to inspire me to think that one day, perhaps I could use my talents – whatever they might be – to make a difference in the lives of others.

The saying is entitled, “Whatever Your Gift.” And it goes like this …..

What is that you hold in your hand?

Nothing you say? ….. Look again.

Every hand holds some special gift.

Be it a hammer, a broom, a pen …..

A hoe, a scalpel, an artist’s brush …..

A needle or a microscope …..

A violin’s bow, or a way with words – 

In the giving of faith and hope.

What is that you hold in your hand?

Whatever your gift may be,

It can open your door to abundant life.

….. You hold in your hand the key!

So, whatever your chosen path – whatever your gift – do it well. Do it with gusto and zeal! Make a real difference. Show ‘em what you’re made of! 

And, when you do, remember how important Ball State was in helping you develop those gifts.

Good luck and may God bless you. And, may God bless Ball State University. 

Thank you all very much.

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