James C. Hormel '55

You have disabled JavaScript or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Download the latest version of Flash Player.
Video: [11 min 42 sec] | Download

In awarding James C. Hormel '55, a philanthropist devoted to social justice and human rights and the first openly gay ambassador in U.S. history, the degree of Doctor of Laws, President Bloom noted that his "care for humanity, expressed in transformative activism and philanthropy, place you among the alumni of this College who have had the greatest impact on shaping a more inclusive and generous world."

Jim Hormel, your care for humanity, expressed in transformative activism and philanthropy, place you among the alumni of this College who have had the greatest impact on shaping a more inclusive and generous world.
President Bloom's complete charge.

President Bloom, Members of the Board, Faculty, Staff, Graduating Seniors, Families, and Friends,

It's humbling, to say the least, to receive this great honor in the company of two such extraordinary leaders and visionaries, both of whom I know well and hold in the highest regard and affection, who are universally recognized for their scholarship and administrative leadership, and who have given so much to Swarthmore. It's comforting, if not reassuring, to think that part of the reason I'm standing here today is that the Registrar's office must have lost my transcripts.

While the economy is currently facing one of the greatest downturns in history, I encourage you to always remember that nothing in life appreciates in value quite like your Swarthmore education — symbolized by the diploma you are about to receive. And even though you are technically still enrolled for a few more minutes, you have been accruing intellectual dividends and interest ever since you first arrived here. And the returns to come are many.

I don't necessarily mean monetary returns, although, whatever you earn, the greatest reward comes from giving back. To Swarthmore. And to others, people and causes, that is — not other alma maters. Please notice carefully: Swarthmore is a huge, bottomless pool of fortune. The knowledge you have collected and created here, the beautiful bonds you've deepened, the nourishment you've been provided at Sharples (the family does pronounce it Sharpless), the many concerts you've enjoyed in LPAC, the revelatory philosophies you engaged in late at night in your cozy and furnished residences — all of that is fortune which Swarthmore has bestowed upon you. Take stock of your blessings, share them, and you will create blessings for others.

My grandfather, George Hormel, left school at the age of 13 to help support his immigrant parents and his nine brothers and sisters. When he was about 30, he had saved enough to become a partner in a meat market in the farming center of Austin, Minnesota, which then had about 6,000 residents. Soon thereafter, the market burned to the ground, and, as I was told, the partner and the cashbox both disappeared. George borrowed 500 dollars on his good word, rented a little shack that had been a creamery, and began making sausage. His enterprise got me here, and I wear this hood in his honor.

I've always tried to keep myself reminded about how fortunate I was to go to school here. Needless to say, it's unforgettable after an occasion such as this.

I arrived as a transfer student in the fall of 1952, having taken a pretty circuitous path to get here. I marveled at the fervency of my peers and the scholars and educators who so believed in all of us. That first Saturday of my career here, the sun glowing, this glorious campus vibrant in all its colors, a group gathered on the Parrish porch, engaging in the ethically intelligent manner so characteristic of conversations around here, and Clothier chimed 1:15. It occurred to me that there was a football game that afternoon. Not yet informed on how to get to the athletic field, I decided to follow a group that had just risen en masse to go down the Parrish walk. We ended up at the Library, and I suddenly grasped what was in store for me. The character of this peerless educational haven hasn't changed much since I graduated. Neither has the Quaker Matchbox, which is how Michael — my personal WA for life — and I met in the spring of 2006.

Although the boundless energy and spirit of Swarthmore are remarkably constant, the curriculum, the buildings and grounds, the methodology, the technology, the campus community, and, indeed, the world in which we exist has evolved and become more complex. This institution, in many ways, bears little resemblance to the place that was my undergraduate home.

You have had course offerings and methods that didn't exist back then. You have benefited from facilities and working tools we didn't even dream of. The College no longer acts in loco parentis, the double standard that required women to sign into their separate dorms by 10:15 p.m., while men were free to roam at all hours. And you are now being launched into a post-colonial, post-cold war, high-tech world that fellow inhabitants have globally warmed and trashed for their aggrandizement and for you to clean up — if you can.

One of the most dramatic and far-reaching acts of my life has been coming out as a gay man. It was an act that called for a degree of courage I didn't know I had. When I finally opened that closet door, I felt an indescribable relief, together with a new freedom from deception and fear. And freedom to be. At last I was able to engage honestly with the rest of the world.

Of course, the time I had spent hiding taught me many lessons, blessed me with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and contributed to shaping me into who I am today.

The strongest advice I can offer anyone is to come out, and I don't mean from the closet, although for some of you perhaps it is what I mean. More broadly, I urge you to follow your dreams and desires, instead of following the crowd. I spent too many of my days under the spell of conformity — in the closet, of all places.

The process of coming out is like learning to walk. The first step may be tentative, but the next is inevitable, and soon one discovers the exhilaration of freedom. The next stage is learning what one can do with that freedom. In my case it became the quest for equality. I began that journey by joining in the successful effort to defeat a ballot initiative intending to prevent lesbians and gay men from teaching in California's public schools. The trip took me through many adventures up to 1992, when a member of the Clinton team suggested that I seek an appointment in the new Administration. The rest, truly, is history; the modest and conventional boy from Minnesota became the first openly gay United States Ambassador.

Heraclitus is quoted as saying, "Change alone is unchanging." Change is inevitable. How one responds to the forces of change is like a personal recipe for one's life.

All of you who graduate today have thoughts, plans, desires, and dreams. It is very possible, even likely, however, that destiny, or whatever you wish to call it, will point you in a different direction. It will be a time for you to evaluate and choose. The most important guidance will come from within you. The challenge is to be attuned to who you really are, and then to honestly be that person. In such instances, dreams and desires may be more useful than thoughts and plans. It is not a matter of daring to be different, but, rather, of daring to be you.