By Russell Worth Parker
Editor in Chief, Tom Beckbe
Commencement season is upon us. My child is too young for that to matter yet. But for those friends and family who set upon child rearing earlier than Katy and I, and particularly their children, I feel excitement for, and avuncular pride in, kids moving into new phases of life. I would be lying to you if I did not acknowledge that I hear my own clock ticking at these moments. But I am pretty sure I’ve already been gifted with time that could have as easily been taken forever, so my current demands on the cosmos are minimal. Still, I think about my precipice moments and how my life has swung between arrow-straight paths and those more serpentine and I have to wonder about a broader meaning to it all.
I went to law school when I was twenty-eight. I was anxious about leaving gainful employment for a career that could not commence before I turned thirty-one, an age I equated with long-term health care and mandatory distributions of my estate (at the time an eight-year-old pick-up, a Remington 1187, and approximately 197 cartons of books). Compounding that anxiety was my contemplation of marriage.
Broaching both topics in the same conversation when I asked my now ninety-two-year-old father-in-law for his daughter's hand may have been bold. But it resulted in one of several pieces of wisdom with which he’s gifted me over the years, “You’re going to be thirty-one anyway unless things don’t work out, and then it won’t matter.” This season of speeches and advice to graduates is a perfect time to think about that kind of earned wisdom. I am particularly convicted of that after listening to my friend Kacy Tellessen give the commencement speech at his own graduation from Gonzaga University School of Law.
Kacy and I only met in person on April 29, 2023, as proud recipients of writing awards from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, I for journalism, and Kacy for his magnificent memoir of service in Iraq, Freaks of a Feather. But we first connected because I read a beautiful, sad essay Kacy published in the New York Times in 2019. My own essay there that same year helped start whatever career I currently have, and after reading the short biography appended to Kacy’s, I realized we shared too many things for me not to reach out. And now we are friends.
We served in the same infantry battalion, albeit ten years apart, and saw combat in Iraq. We share a deep love for writing, for writers, and for their books. We run long distances in defiance of our relatively stout frames, perhaps so shaped from a shared love of smoked meat, I as a novice, and Kacy as a pitmaster. There are differences of course.
Despite a few tangents, I ultimately spent a career as a Marine officer. Kacy was a single enlistment Marine who admits to a streak of antipathy toward folks of my description. I’m a blood-and-bone Southern boy for whom sweet tea is life. Kacy is a farm kid from Spangle, Washington who recently asserted he would drink, “[u]nsweetened till the day I die,” presumptively not from diabetes. But despite his almost unforgivable attitudes about the elixir of the South, I see the best of what our nation has to offer in Americans like Kacy Tellessen: solid citizens who do what is needed on all of our behalfs and then get on with lives of quiet consequence.
But there more than our coincidental similarities explain why I so admire a man I’ve met only once. My Grandfather Robert Lee Russell, Jr. dropped out of Emory University to enlist in the Marine Corps. He could have avoided the call, his father was a Federal Judge, and his grandfather was the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Instead, like Kacy, he entered as a private in a time of war and served as a Marine machine gunner in combat on Okinawa in 1945. Shot three times at Sugarloaf Hill, he came home a private first class, having achieved that promotion a second time after losing it over an infraction now lost to time. He practiced law, was a friend of two Presidents, and was a sitting judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals when he died at forty-five. I never knew the man I deeply admire, but I can deeply admire a man I’m coming to know.
We need Americans of all kinds in our great melting pot, some to keep the lid on and some to stir it. A nation as vibrant as ours demands a host of different views to challenge, educate, protect, and preserve what is nothing if not an ongoing experiment in aspiration. We need people to look into the future and anticipate our needs. We need people to look into the past and ensure we stay on a perpetual course toward a more perfect union. And, apparently, we need yet another lawyer. One with a lot of tattoos and an award-winning memoir. One who earned an almost full scholarship to law school and graduated at the top of his class while a husband and father of two small children. One who knows the smell of machine gun smoke even more intimately than he does Mesquite. One who knows how to come home and get on with it.
Happy Graduation, counselor. You are one of many people who make this country worthy of her aspirations, hundreds of thousands of whom will begin new phases of their own lives in the coming months. It’s difficult work. Remember what you said in your speech, “Nobody cares. Work harder.”