Andrews Scholars Program
Notre Dame University
September 18, 2003
By Thomas C. Fox
I want to begin by thanking Kathy, John and Susan McMeel and the rest of the Andrews family for their continued generosity, which brings us here this evening.
Let me congratulate any Andrews Scholars program parents who are here tonight. You took a risk. I assure you that you will be amply rewarded. I can only imagine what it was like for you to have your son or daughter come home and talk with you about doing volunteer work for the summer. Your reaction is “What? We need you to earn money for next year’s tuition.”
And most of all I want to congratulate to all you Andrews scholars. Although you don’t know it yet, you have probably had the most transforming experiences of your Notre Dame years. You responded to a call deep inside you. You responded to a call to service and to adventure. You responded to a need, planted years ago within you by some person, circumstance or family setting. It allowed you to take the risk of joining in a mission to do something for needy people, for people marginalized by forces out of their control. For reasons you might feel deeply but yet not fully articulate, you decided to give of yourselves in special ways. I honor you for doing that.
So now you are in on a secret at a relatively young age. It is a secret that others have learned who have worked in the Peace Corp or other voluntary organizations. You set off to give, but you received more than you ever gave, more than you ever imagined you would. You've learned to take generous risks. So you have confronted one of life’s important lessons. It is this. In giving you receive. Of course, this is also central to Christian living. Christianity is about paradox. We believe not only that in giving we receive, but also in dying we live.
Life is a mystery. But it’s one that slowly can be unraveled, at least in part, if you are attentive to yourself and what's happening around you. As you look back on life you can eventually see more clearly how certain decisions early on brought you along your life path. I rather suspect that most of those of my generation here tonight remember a unique event, something generous they did for someone else many years ago, that actually has brought them to this gathering tonight.
I want to tell you a personal story and then I want to conclude with several thoughts that might help guide you in your careers and life paths.
Years ago, when I was finishing my Freshman year at Stanford University I was invited by the dean of freshman to join a group of students to do volunteer work in Hong Kong for the summer. We saved up money and flew to Asia where I worked in Hong Kong teaching refugee children from Mainland China and laying cement on a road outside a TB sanatorium. It was hard work, some of the hardest I ever did. It was work much like the work you did, as volunteers, this past summer in the Andrews Scholars program.
In my case my volunteer Hong Kong experience got me interested in Asia. That, in turn, moved me to apply to work in Asia after graduation. I applied to the Peace Corps and to a nonprofit group called International Voluntary Services, or IVS. In June 1966, I went to Vietnam with IVS to work in a refugee camp where I lived among Vietnamese refugees and where I learned to speak Vietnamese. I was there for two year.
Those two years got me even more interested in Asian studies. Eventually I returned to Yale to study Southeast Asian studies and returned to Vietnam where I met my wife, then a Vietnamese social worker. We married in Vietnam, eventually returning to the US where she gave birth to three children. Each of our children eventually graduated from Stanford, my old alma mater. Our youngest daughter became a two time Olympic Gold Medallist in swimming, the first Asian American to win a gold medal.
I remember it clearly. I was in Vietnam as an IVS volunteer in January 1968 during the Tet offensive. Those were days when war was raging all over Vietnam. It was a very scary time and I remember hiding among several hundred Vietnamese as we walked to the center of Saigon where I hid in a hotel for five days as gun battles raged on the streets below us.
1968 was quite a year. First there was the Tet offensive. Eventually I left Vietnam in May 1968 for Paris. After I arrived there the students shut down the city and they fought police on the streets. Paris was totally locked up in a major strike. Two weeks later, I flew to New York and was on the campus of Columbia University when the students shut it down. From there I flew to Detroit to be with my parents. One evening in June, while in Detroit, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Only minutes earlier I watched him, smiling ear-to-ear, having just won the California primary. Weeks later I flew to Chicago to be at the Democratic Party's nominating convention where I found myself on the streets again in the midst of tens of thousands of protesters who were angry with the way Mayor Daly was running the show.
It was also during the summer of 1968 that Jim Andrews and Robert Hoyt invited me to come to Kansas City to talk to them about my Vietnam experiences. I remember being in Jim’s and Kathy’s home one evening. Jim was on fire. He had just joined NCR and had just written the book, “Citizen Christians.” He was engaging and alive and very funny. He was outraged by the Vietnam War but also hopeful that we could all turn it around and somehow stop the war. He believed that we could work together to build peace. He believed that we could reform the church. He encouraged me to return to Vietnam and write more about the war and life there. After spending some time at Yale, getting a master’s degree, I did just that.
Jim was instrumental in moving me into journalism. He encouraged me when I needed encouragement. So it turns out Jim has had an impact on all of our lives here tonight. My journalism career started in Vietnam and it spanned work with the New York Times, Time magazine, the Detroit Free Press and the Washington Star before I came to NCR as its editor in 1980. That was the year Jim died.
This is a small world. At one point I worked for Jim. At another I worked for John McMeel who joined the NCR board and became its Chair in the late 1980s.
My volunteer work in Hong Kong actually led me to this podium tonight. I took a risk like you have - and it has made all the difference. It set my life path. Jim’s encouragement, meanwhile, moved me along that path. We just never know when encouragement can make a difference in someone’s life.
I started by congratulating you for responding to a call. I venture to go even further. I believe you have been chosen. We are all here tonight because each of us has been chosen in a special way. Our call is not unlike the one we witnessed in the movie classic, “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.” Those people were called to Montana, but did not a clue why they were being called or to what. I think we are being called. The good news is that you seem to be answering the call.
But how can you know if you are responding as you should? Let me give you some guidelines. I have six. Live by them and you will find fulfillment, meaning and happiness in life. You will respond to your call.
6. Remember, when you feel you have nothing left to give you can always offer encouragement.
So be agents of change. The world needs you idealism. The world needs you to make a difference with your lives. The world needs you to make this a more just and peaceful place for the whole human family.
I will stop here. Jim, you have done well. Here come some more scholars bearing your name. Some more agents of change. Thanks for calling them. You’ve made some great choices.
Fox is publisher of the National Catholic Reporter.