Commencement Address: Ambassador Nancy Brinker

May 15, 2010

Thank you Dr. Bolla and President Glasser for this great honor. A degree from Bradley University has special meaning for me. As the parent of a proud Bradley alumnus, Class of ’98, I intend to hold this beautiful degree you’ve given me up to my son Eric and say, “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

But in fact, all of you who are graduating today are here because you worked hard. Your determination and drive brought you across the finish line.  This is a tremendous achievement. I join your families and your friends in congratulating you, applauding this milestone, honoring your accomplishments.

And in the tradition of graduation speakers everywhere, in the next few minutes—very few, I promise—I am going to remind you that didn’t cross the finish line. You got to the starting gate. The adventure is just beginning. A degree from Bradley is a great place to be starting from.

I know this because I grew up in this wonderful city. Bradley University has always been part of my life. I have friends, neighbors and family members who worked for the university, or earned their degree from Bradley, or spent evenings here in the Carver Arena cheering for the Braves. I know the legacy of Bradley; I know the wonderful value of the education you have received here.

I also know that Bradley is not just located in Peoria. It is very much of Peoria; it exemplifies so much of what is admirable and truly wonderful about the heartland of the Midwest. 

This is a place that honors the art of the practical, and the value of the straightforward approach. Bradley began as a polytechnic institute, a school to teach “practical things” to practical people. Even the campus reflects this ethic of common sense, where the sidewalks are laid out to take you in a direct and straightforward path to your next destination.

It’s sensible, efficient and reasonable--all things, unfortunately, that the world is not.

We lay out our sidewalks and our cities in neat grids. University Street heads north to south and Main Street east to west. But life presents us with a crooked path.

Life is messy and unpredictable. More is beyond our control than we ever care to admit or accept.

I learned that my life was not going to take the neat and orderly direction I had intended the day my older sister Suzy called to tell me she had found a lump in her breast that was going to need to be biopsied. Suddenly all our many plans for the future—of growing old with our children and spending our retirements with grandchildren and traveling the world together—no longer seemed so solid and predictable. Life had taken one of those unexpected turns. The path had begun to meander. We didn’t know where we were heading. It didn’t make sense. It was disorienting. And it was frightening.

The woman who founded this university understood this from her own heartbreaking experience. Lydia Moss Bradley was from sturdy pioneer stock who came west to build a new world. She married her husband Tobias Bradley when she was 20. Their first child, Rebecca, was born when she was 22.  For Lydia and Tobias, the world was all before them. They were determined to make the best of it. They moved to Peoria and bought land and prospered in their business ventures. Their daughter Rebecca was followed by Clarissa, Tobias, Laura, Mary and William. By the age of 36, Lydia Moss Bradley had given birth to six children. But none of them survived to adulthood. Then, three years after she lost the last of her children, Lydia’s husband was killed in a carriage accident. At the age of 50 she was left alone.

The life story of Lydia Moss Bradley could have been a tragedy. Instead, she made it a triumph. Always a shrewd and successful businesswoman, she determined that she could best honor the memory of her own children by creating a school that would benefit generations of young people to come.  In the end, she provided for generations of “her children”—and all of you graduating today are part of her legacy. She lived to the ripe age of 91, long enough to attend many graduations and see the Bradley campus flower.

Lydia Moss Bradley understood that while we can’t choose our paths, we can always determine our direction. No matter what happens, we can always choose to have a sense of purpose.

It was more than thirty years ago when my sister Suzy called to tell me she had a suspicious lump in her breast that was going to be biopsied. I was living in Dallas at the time. The next day I flew back home to Peoria and my father met me at the airport. One look at his face told me everything. At the age of 33, Suzy had breast cancer. We were devastated.

In those days there was a tremendous social stigma involved with all cancers, and especially breast cancer. It was the disease you didn’t speak aloud. It was the illness that was kept in the shadows. The words ‘breast cancer’ couldn’t be said on television. When the legendary actress Judy Holliday had a mastectomy in 1960, the papers reported she was hospitalized for a bronchial infection. When she died of breast cancer five years later, the New York Times said she died in her sleep. Many people thought the disease was contagious. After Suzy’s diagnosis, people would see her out for a walk and literally cross the street to avoid her.

Suzy fought with all her wonderful spirit for three long years. When she died on August 4, 1980, she was thirty-six years old.  Her children were ten and six.

A few days before she died, Suzy looked at me and said, “Nan, we’ve got to do something to help other women--so they know; so they don’t die. Promise me you’ll make it change.”

That was my promise–a promise between two sisters that came to give my own life a sense of purpose. When Suzy died, a new part of my life began. 

We started with a group of us sitting together in my living room in Dallas. We all pitched in and at the end of the night we had some big ideas and about $200 in a shoebox. We believed we could make a difference. We were determined to bring breast cancer out of the shadows. We were sure we could fund new treatments and new therapies, and one day, help find a cure. We named our organization after my sister, Susan G. Komen, and we committed it to work for the cure.

We’ve made remarkable progress since we began in 1982. Today, we are the largest breast cancer charity in the world, recognized as the leading catalyst in the fight against breast cancer. We have more than 100,000 volunteers working in a network of 125 U.S. and international affiliates. Recently, the Harris Poll ranked Susan G. Komen for the Cure the nation’s most recognized charitable brand and one the most trusted nonprofit organizations in America. But what’s truly important is what we have been able to help accomplish for breast cancer patients and their families since 1982, aided by new drugs and therapies. In that time, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught before it spreads beyond the breast had increased from 74 to 98 percent. Nearly 90 percent of women with breast cancer now survive the disease at least five years.

What was once a disease hidden in the shadows is now out in the sunlight, and we owe this remarkable transformation to people like your own president Glasser, who made the brave and difficult personal decision to be candid when she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. We are all so pleased that she is one more among the more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors living in this country today. And we are especially grateful to you, President Glasser, for co-chairing the 2010 Peoria Race for the Cure in its 25th year last Saturday, which attracted more than 16,000 participants.

The paths of our lives cannot be predicted, but so often we discover they’ve come round full circle. Lydia Moss Bradley lost six children, but lived to see this university succeed, and to enjoy the company of succeeding generations of students she called her own.  In much the same way, Peoria is the wonderful town where I was born and raised. My sister died here, and there is a city street along the Race for the Cure course that was renamed in her memory. Some day I will be buried here with my family, and laid to rest next to my beloved sister and parents. My mission before then is to see breast cancer cured, and women across the world freed from the fear of this disease. The cure for breast cancer is not yet fact; it is just our dream. But in the end—going forth—your dreams are really the only things that remain always within your control.

Make them count, and never let them go.

Thank you.