As the spring of 1941 neared, my classmates and I were mostly concerned with the school year coming to an end. Then one day our principal announced that I had the highest grade point average of the class and was thus the valedictorian. One chore that accompanied this honor would be that of making a speech at our graduation exercises.
For this country boy to don his cap and gown and get up there was, to say the least, downright scary. Surrounded on the stage by my 25 classmates, I would be facing all of our teachers, many underclassmen who I knew well, all of our parents, our school board members, and at least a few local small town dignitaries who always showed up at events such as this.
But, what would I talk about? National and world conditions seemed to be good subjects. Our country was still trying to climb out of the Great Depression and there was little doubt but that we were heading right into another major war. Strange to say, some folks were already predicting that this huge conflict would finally be the long-sought “war to end all wars.”
To my surprise (and I suppose the surprise of many others), I got through the speech with almost no problems. I got a few compliments on my performance, and one or two on the quality of the speech itself. After graduation, my one copy of the speech was misplaced and soon my valedictory words had completely escaped my memory. And I thought “good riddance.”
Recently, my wife Gloria was looking through some various old books, papers, keep-sakes, and such. She said, “You will never guess what I found!”
And there it was! A folded, slightly crumpled sheet of yellow, lined notebook paper, and there, typed single-space, was my valedictory speech, complete with strikeovers and messy little penciled-in corrections and additions. Reading it over, I could hardly help but feel a bit satisfied with myself. And although written 68 years ago, the message does not seem all that far out-of-date.
Emil’s Valedictorian Speech from 1941
Friends, teachers, classmates:
We think of the days of our American Revolution as time of Great change but as we, the class of 1941, graduate we find ourselves in a world where the changes are even greater.
These are historic years, and the privilege of living in them is too little realized. Perhaps no graduating class ever has been or ever again will be confronted with conditions that compare with those of our present time. Since about 1935, Europe and its surrounding territory have been unstable. This didn’t seem very serious to us until Sept. 1939 when England and France again declared war on Germany, beginning a struggle which will soon enter its third year. There is doubt now in many minds as to whether or not we can stay clear of entanglements.
Although from some angles, the outlook for a country threatened with war cannot appear bright, this present state of affairs which has resulted in our vast National Defense Program offers us excellent opportunities for employment immediately, so that whether the jobs prove permanent or not, we will be able at once to gain work experience and acquire references and recommendations. Besides the selective service draft, and the extensive drives being put on by the Army and Navy for more enlistments, a good many young men and women are being searched for to supply offices and factories where the work of making supplies for the Armed Forces is going on.
No doubt some of you remember conditions of ten years ago –193l. The Depression was then nearing its worst stages. Students were graduating from high schools and colleges.Jobs were hard to get, and graduates with little work experiences and no references could not get a start, no matter how cheaply they offered their services. Five years ago, in 1936, the conditions of the country were somewhat improved, yet many graduates had to join the Civilian Conservation Corps or work by the day. Even last year–1940–when conditions seemed to be pretty good, they could not begin to compare with those of this year. Although most of these defense jobs require the employee to be slightly older than we are, the government is offering some of us apprentice training, and besides, the hiring of older persons will leave many vacancies in various civilian enterprises.
But there is reason to believe this rise in employment will not be a flash in the pan. Whatever the outcome of the war, the need for greater and greater defense will last for years. Besides, movements are stirring that give hope of vast new industries and many new uses of farm products, such as soy beans and casein being manufactured into automobile parts and furniture. The government has just set up four great laboratories in the four extremes of the country for the sole purpose of studying and discovering more of such new uses. If a motor fuel could be contrived from farm-grown products, think what that alone would mean toward increased industry for both country and city. So we of the class of 1941 have many reasons to look out with hope and ambition on our future.
About 1 out of 3 of the members of our class expect to attend college, to learn professions, some will doubtless be employed in the trades, and rest will probably stay near their homes, engaging in agriculture or other rural enterprises. In all cases, chances for success are good. Colleges report they now have more requests to fill positions than they have students qualified to fill them. There is a crying need for skilled mechanics and as for rural labor, many farmers are having ¬trouble securing help for their summer’s work. In our high school we have taken courses which should prove valuable in future life — vocational subjects such as business, agriculture and home economics. And so, with conditions as they are, and with high school training finished, any member of this class who seeks employment should be able to obtain it.
And now, speaking for the class, I would like to bid farewell to the school and to our schoolmates. We have had a lot of good times together and are really sorry now that we must leave. And to our parents, our teachers, and our other friends who made this course possible, we owe a lot. To them we express our deepest gratitude.
Copies of Emil’s notes from 1941
Emil Schmit is the father of Pam Buttikofer, one of the owners of Imperfect Women. Emil continues to write although age and health issues have slowed him down a bit. He is a is a self-trained poet, free-lance writer, public speaker, and journalist. His weekly column, “Rhyme and Reason,” appeared for over twenty years in the Dubuque, Iowa daily newspaper, the Telegraph Herald. You can read more of Emil’s Bio here. The typewriter pictured on the bio page is one that he sat at for over 50 years creating many of his “rhymes and reasons.”