“Great Necessities Call Out Great Virtues”

School of Public Affairs and Administration Graduation Ceremony (April 20, 2012)
Comments Delivered By Brian Handshy
Brian has been named a 2012 Presidential Management Fellow. Fewer than one percent of applicants are selected to take part in this prestigious program, which matches outstanding graduate students with federal leadership opportunities and employment. Click here to read the full article regarding Brian’s accomplishment.

I speak tonight on the ideal of dedication of self to public service.

I ask, on what occasion should humanity withdraw from personal interests and self-absorption, and rather tilt forward toward calamity, toward peril, toward possible obscurity, to preserve the hope and future comfort of its posterity?

Abigail Adams, wife and confidant to our second president, John Adams, in a letter to her son, once said what I consider to be the answer, “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are found in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”

“Great necessities call out great virtues” and signal best the occasion for serving others’ needs.

We, who are alive today, face no real shortage of ‘great necessity’.

Our world is smaller, faster, and daily becoming more crowded as technology extends and improves life for some, even as it exacts famine, strife, indifference, and death upon others.

Who then amongst us will answer the challenge of ‘great necessity’? I tell you tonight that in my experience, answers abound everywhere. For instance, I think of:

-Blue Hills Community Services (BHCS), a Kansas City, Missouri based non-profit affordable housing developer, who has used a block-by-block approach to urban revitalization.

In 25 years of service, BHCS has rehabilitated over 200 family units, eliminating blight, decreasing crime, creating local employment, and helping older residents to remain in their homes.


-Beth Sarver, a local artist, is committed to the idea that humanity is more than our productive capabilities. She has helped adults and children learn about the world around them through play, storytelling, and creative outlets of all kinds. Her efforts in working with local governments, non-profits, and numerous private organizations have led to the improved cognitive and social awareness of metro-area at-risk children.

Or perhaps,

-One of our own recent graduates, Chris Hoyt, who demonstrates service above self in a way that I can only aspire to; mentoring and educating not only hundreds of at-risk children in the rural villages of Mexico, but coordinating and training dozens of new volunteers, often outside of his normal work hours.

-Perhaps one of the best examples of public service that transcends any one sector of employment is the city of Greensburg, Kansas. In the aftermath of a tornado on 2007 that completely wiped away the infrastructure and physical presence of its town, when others might revel in despair, the people, government, administration, and businesses of this small town came together to re-imagine what a rural community can be in the 21st century. They have become a world icon of green-energy solutions, collaborative power, and the immense durability of a society that values the potential of the future, rather than the constraints of the past.

It is important, I think, that we see in these examples that public service is not the story of one person’s challenge or endurance, but the narrative of a committed few working to inspire and reach out to others.

Public service brings about a familiar vision of bureaucracy and politics. A vision that of late, has met with distrust, disgust, and contempt in many citizens’ minds. I don’t blame them, considering the examples of service in popular news media where servants have squandered both the financial resources and the delicate trust that they have sworn in many instances to uphold.

But, with this in mind, I challenge all of you to remember that together we have done wonderful things as a species, things greater than any one mind could imagine possible.

With this in mind, as some of us move on from graduation to career advancement and potentially more responsibility, and as others leave this graduation banquet to resume daily duties; I ask please that you endeavor to improve the lives of others around you.

Endeavor to work as a volunteer, or run for office, or offer your ideas and skills to your local government. Conversely, if you are privileged to serve the public as a government employee already – remember to listen and engage. These are not just customers, but your neighbors, family, and friends.

I began this speech with a quote from Abigail Adams, and so too will I close with one. One that I think best presents the challenge and the power of public service.

“Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

Here’s to celebrating those with the wisdom and courage amongst us – those who accept this challenge on our behalf.