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Hendrix College 2024 Commencement Address

Ronnie D. Williams, Class of 1976, receives honorary doctorate of humane letters

CONWAY, Ark. (May 11, 2024) — The following is the full text of the 2024 Commencement Address given by Ronnie D. Williams ’76, who received an honorary doctorate of humane letters in recognition of his distinguished career in higher education leadership and commitment to community service. He delivered his remarks at the 2024 Commencement ceremony in Young-Wise Memorial Stadium.

Good morning, everybody. It is a pleasure to be back on the Hendrix College campus. I want to express my deep appreciation for this honorary degree to President Petersen, members of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, the honorary doctorate committee, graduates, and all who serve in this administration. I dare not receive recognition of this magnitude without giving honor to my heavenly Father, which I do so this day. And please know you are recognizing not just me but every person who poured into me and helped me become the person I am today, particularly my wife Connie, my parents, Johnie and D.V. Williams, and former members of the Hendrix College faculty. All of those individuals believed in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself. To those persons, I say thank you, and I love you.

I first set foot on this campus as an 18-year-old freshman straight out of East Side High School, an all-black school district in Menifee, Arkansas, eight miles west of here. As you might suspect, I had never sat in a classroom with anyone who did not look like was a significant adjustment for me. I was one of several student-athlete recruits in Cliff Garrison’s charter class. And though it was an adjustment for me, Hendrix College transformed my life, as it laid the foundation for a future of lifelong learning...learning that challenged me, pushed me, and helped me become my better self.

As excited as I am to receive this honorary doctorate, today is not about me but all of you. Dr. Michael Hargis, who is a good friend of mine, an alumnus of Hendrix College, and newly appointed Provost and Chief Academic Officer at the University of Central Arkansas, said during a recent presentation to campus – “Colleges and universities exist to prepare you for what’s next in your life.” And I know from my experience here that you have received what this institution offers the best over the past 4-5 years (for some of you, maybe 6). So, your level of preparedness is’re ready for your “next.”

For some of you, the next step in your life is to get married, make a lot of money, buy a lovely home in the suburbs, have a couple of kids, and live happily ever after. And there is nothing wrong with that.

However, I would challenge you to add to your “next” life that which dares to set you apart as a difference-maker in this world - a world and a country that is broken and needs a new generation of leaders to fix it.

As I’ve gotten older, I often think of my mother and her sayings. When things were difficult and brutal, she would say, “Baby, that’s a booger bear.” And that is how I would describe today’s America – a little booger bearish. Economic programs remain uneven; educational opportunities are still not where they need to be, and we live in a world that is too divided by two words – “us” and “them.” Or worse – Extremist this or Radical that. This level of discourse is unsustainable and, therefore, will put this country on a course that will cause us to implode.

So, today, in this time of trial, as you consider your “next,” you must ask yourself, what can I do to make a difference? I will suggest four things, and then I will take my seat.

First, choose a path that challenges your comfort zone. Seek friendships and experiences that challenge your beliefs and mental and physical limits. I could not have successfully served twenty-five years as Vice President for Student Services at the University of Central Arkansas had I not been willing to step into an environment that challenged me...and boy, did it challenge me! As future parents, educators, doctors, lawyers, business owners, and influencers, you should intentionally develop authentic relationships that cause you to do life together. It would be best if you valued those connections over the divisive chatter in this country. Please remain open-minded to listening and understanding the experiences of others.

Second, recognize that there is a need for peacemakers in this world. In today’s political arena, seeking common ground (or compromise) is nasty; it’s considered a sign of weakness, not strength. Divisiveness can be can make a lot of money if you come up with a set of talking points on how to divide us further. But that’s not what this country needs; we need young men and women willing to exercise incredible restraint in speech and deed. Be a peacemaker.

Third, be willing to stand against hate. I know personally how easy it is to succumb to hate because that is what I felt when I learned of the facts and circumstances surrounding my brother’s death. I managed to write a book about his death, something I never thought I would accomplish. But it was through the writing that I learned that hate is too heavy of a burden to carry for a lifetime. I believe that unconditional love will have the last word in reality. Why? Because our souls are inextricably tied – our souls still desire the same things that our brothers and sisters hoped for during the civil rights movement – and have longed for peace and justice for all since the beginning of time. If you, as the next generation of leaders, can feed those insatiable soul cravings with the nourishment designed by God and unconditional love, then we can heal this nation. Guaranteed!

And finally, I would encourage you to be “Truth Tellers.” Truth Tellers embrace our history. Yes, the good, the bad, and the ugly. They don’t wallow because the past can be painful and nasty. But it’s our history. And if we don’t learn from it, we will repeat it. We live in a time when attempts are made to selectively cancel those parts of our history that some find distasteful. I believe that to be educational malpractice. We need truth-tellers willing to participate in collective commemoration and honest conversation.

So today, as you leave this assembly, do not shy away but embrace the willingness to have difficult conversations. It is through these conversations that we can achieve true reconciliation.

God Bless you, and congratulations to all of you on this special day. Thank you!