Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Commencement Reunion

Take responsibility

Posted on May 18, 2013

Former judge Nancy Gertner urges graduates to lead the way

Norton, MA—In a rapidly changing world in which the best way forward is not always clear, take responsibility—do something rather than nothing—and create your own path, former federal judge and attorney Nancy Gertner told the Class of 2013 during Wheaton College’s 178th Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18.

"Every generation seems to have had a defining moment. My parents' generation was shaped by World War II and the Great Depression. Our generation was clearly shaped by the Vietnam War and all the protest movements of the day. Sadly, this generation seems to be shaped, at least in part, by 9/11, and now the abomination that was the bombing of the Boston Marathon," said Gertner. "At a time of Internet disconnectedness, that bombing was a shared and horrifying moment. One reaction, perhaps the most understandable, is fear; how to create a safe space for yourself and your family. You might say, "I can't control the world, the economy, the politics, so I will build a wall in which my family and I can live....But you can't."

Referring to the title of renowned historian Howard Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the keynote speaker encouraged the 372 graduating seniors to instead view the world as a moving train that we are all responsible for directing, and to remain flexible about how they go about that obligation.

She pointed out that her own career has not been the expected. "I thought I was plotting a clear path when I was sitting where you guys are sitting now. I thought I had worked it out, as if it were a simple decision—I will be an X—that that decision would be part and parcel of a neat and linear life. It is not. No one's is."

"It's not about fashioning your life's plan today. It's not about drawing the linear path for you to follow. It is really only about taking responsibility for the direction of your country, for our neighbor's plight, for our really pernicious politics. It's about changing the direction of that train and the world,” said Gertner, who is known for her championing of civil rights, civil liberties, and the rights of women, often in highly controversial cases.

Gertner was appointed to the federal bench of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts by President Bill Clinton in 1994. She retired from the bench in 2011 and now is a professor of practice at Harvard Law School, a position given to outstanding individuals whose teaching is informed by extensive expertise in law practice, the judiciary, policy and governance. She also taught at the Yale Law School while a judge.

Named one of “The Most Influential Lawyers of the Past 25 Years” by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Judge Gertner has written and spoken throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. She has published widely on sentencing, discrimination, and forensic evidence; women’s rights; and the jury system. Her autobiography, In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate, was published in 2011.

She is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University, and holds an M.A. and J.D. from Yale University. She has received numerous awards, including the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Hennessey Award for judicial excellence in 2011; the Morton A. Brody Distinguished Judicial Service Award from Colby College in 2010; the National Association of Women Lawyers’ highest honor, the Arabella Babb Mansfield Award, in 2011, and, in 2008, the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association, Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, which recognized her contributions to advancing human rights and civil liberties.

During her entertaining and inspiring keynote address, Gertner pointed out that many things in this country have gotten off track: We don’t see equality issues and criminal justice issues clearly; and we focus on what we have while ignoring what is missing in the lives of others, she said.

Encouraging a better world in the hands of the graduates, she left them with the words of three great leaders to ponder, including the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“So, read the directions of life,” said Gertner, “but don’t always follow them. Know where the lines are, but sometimes step outside of them. And understand how you contribute to that moving train, but more importantly, learn how to stop it.”

During Commencement, Gertner was presented with an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws. Honorary degrees were also presented to two distinguished Wheaton graduates: Patricia Flaherty '83 and Diane Leshefsky Troderman '63. Flaherty is senior project manager for Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services in Boston, and Troderman is a noted philanthropist in education and Jewish culture.

Located in Norton, Mass., Wheaton is a selective college of the liberal arts and sciences with a student body of 1,600. Since 2000, more than 161 Wheaton students have won prestigious international scholarships, such as the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright awards. Wheaton continues to rank among the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the nation, when it comes to preparing students to win Fulbright Scholarships for advanced study and work abroad.


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