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Into a troubled world: George McGovern sends graduates off

Into a troubled world: George McGovern sends graduates off

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Grandpa George McGovern received one request from his graduate-grandson Timmy before delivering the commencement address Saturday at the University of Montana.

"Please Grandpa," said Timothy McGovern Mead, "don't come up with any weird ideas that might embarrass me."

And so came the carefully chosen advice from McGovern, the former U.S. senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, to 1,600 UM graduates who participated in morning and afternoon ceremonies on the Missoula campus.

Make learning your lifelong habit. Read. Be tough-minded, but tender-hearted. And - for Timmy, who received his degree in elementary education - pay teachers the salaries they deserve.

McGovern, recently appointed U.S. ambassador to three United Nations hunger agencies in Rome, flew halfway around the world to congratulate his grandson and speak at Saturday's back-to-back ceremonies. (UM has no indoor venue large enough to house a single commencement.)

Mead's intent to teach school, his grandfather said, "is just great. Our best teachers ought to be at the elementary level. Their work is at least as important as that of doctors, lawyers, farmers and ranchers."

"And I think their pay ought to more fully reflect the importance of their responsibilities," said McGovern, who was a professor of history at Dakota Wesleyan University for a few years after receiving his doctorate in history and government at Northwestern University.

McGovern's daughter - Mead's mother - also is a teacher, in Stevensville.

University faculty and students, too, earned McGovern's praise. "They are the custodians of our civilization," he proclaimed.

The admiration was mutual, with the senator receiving a quick and warm ovation upon his introduction by UM President George Dennison, and a nostalgic endorsement from education professor Rhea Ashmore, chair of the Faculty Senate and head marshal of UM's 101st commencement.

Ashmore, who led the march of faculty and graduates from the Oval to Adams Field House, not only carried the ceremonial mace, but also wore the red "McGovern" campaign button she had stored in her jewelry box since 1972.

Keepsakes sometimes evaporate over the years, Ashmore said, but the McGovern button endured - a bit worn, maybe a little rusty - but still intact after following her from Ohio, to college in Rhode Island, then west to Montana.

The memento was easily found, she said, when McGovern was named the university's commencement speaker. He got her first-ever vote for president, in November 1972. And he got her handshake, in Main Hall before Saturday morning's processional.

"It was wonderful to see him again," Ashmore said.

In his address, McGovern told graduates that they will need their educations - both to survive and to make a difference. "One reason to have an education is that the world always has problems," he said.

The former senator, who represented South Dakota in both houses of Congress during his career, remembered a commencement years ago at Georgetown University where comedian Bob Hope gave graduates this advice as they headed out into the world:

"Don't go out there," Hope quipped. "I was there last week, and things are in a helluva mess."

There have always been troubles in the world, McGovern said, and always will be. From his life in politics, he recalled his opposition to the Vietnam War.

"I regarded that war as a disastrous mistake," he said. "But I never once criticized an American soldier for fighting in Vietnam. Our soldiers were the chief victims of the mistake."

From his personal life, McGovern recalled his daughter Terry's death - on Dec. 12, 1994 - when she stumbled out of a bar in Madison, Wis., and either lay down or collapsed in an alley, and froze to death.

Terry, her father said, was an alcoholic and her struggles and death convinced him of the importance of talking publicly about alcoholism, something he never did during his political career.

Fifteen million other Americans struggle against alcoholism, McGovern said. "It is a fatal illness, unless you can find some way to get into recovery. I've come to believe that this issue is the No. 1 health problem in the United States, maybe the No. 1 social problem."

Twice as many Americans - 125,000 - die each year of alcoholism as were killed during the decade that U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam, McGovern said.

If he has any regrets about his relationship with his daughter, "it is that I didn't always understand. We have to learn to separate our hatred of the disease from our love of the victim," he said. "I have learned also that whatever happens in life, whether good or bad, is not as important as how we react."

McGovern alluded to, but did not discuss, the six-month jail sentence given his son Steven by a Boston judge last week. Steven McGovern pleaded guilty to beating and kicking his fiancee.

The elder McGovern said his new career, with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Agencies, is his source of strength - and optimism.

Feeding the hungry is noble work, he said. It is worthwhile. "Every religion in the world instructs us to feed the hungry," McGovern said. "I am happy to be a part of it."

So, too, can the Class of 1998 do good work, said McGovern - and, also, author and historian Stephen Ambrose, who spoke briefly after being awarded an honorary doctorate by the university.

"This is the American century," Ambrose told graduates. "Our greatest gift to the 21st century, which you will be running, is freedom."

It was earned by graduates past, said Ambrose, best known for his best-selling biography of Meriwether Lewis, but also for his history of World War II and biography of Dwight Eisenhower.

"America," Ambrose said, recalling the advice given at Eisenhower's high school graduation, "is the land of opportunity. Reach out and seize it."

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