Integrity Matters

  • F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield and Katie Machen '15 at McDonogh School on April 22, 2015. Image Credit: Office of the President

Below is the text as prepared for delivery of President Porterfield's Cum Laude Society induction ceremony keynote address at McDonogh School on April 22, 2015 in Owings Mills, Md.

Thank you, Mr. Britton, for that warm introduction. It’s such a pleasure to be here at McDonogh. I love the blue blazers; when you call a “special dress day” in college, that means all the students wear shoes.

I visited this campus many times in high school, competing against the Eagles in basketball, football, baseball, and cross-country during my years at St. Paul’s and then Loyola, and it’s great to be here when the crowd is NOT rooting against me.

Franklin & Marshall College has a long practice of recruiting and educating McDonogh students: Three 2013 and 2014 F&M graduates hailed from here, and this year four more Eagles will fly across our commencement stage: Dennis Chen, Laura VillaSanta, Paul "Babe" Berry, and Katie Machen, whose brother Jack is a senior and who is joined today by their mother.

It’s terrific to see Mr. Britton again—especially because he now looks calm. When I first walked into his office today, he tried to karate chop me. The word on the street is that he does a solid impression of Neil Young singing “Harvest.” Solid, not basic.

I’m used to seeing Mr. Britton on Franklin & Marshall’s campus for our soccer matches, sitting at the far end of the field, banished from even the peripheral vision of our starting goalie who doesn’t want any distractions—the one and only Trevor Britton, McDonogh Class of 2012.

Last fall, Trevor started at goalie for a team that was ranked in the top 10 in DIII soccer—but if you’d made that statement 12 short months ago, he’d have been the first to say, “No way.”

That’s because our returning starter for 2014, the intense and accomplished T.J. White, was one of the finest goalkeepers in DIII soccer in 2013 when F&M ran the table to the Elite 8 in the NCAA tournament. But then T.J. had to forgo his senior season because of a concussion—a very wise decision, by the way, that I respect immensely—and Trevor was propelled into a starting role he never expected to hold.

Everybody on the team respected and loved Trevor, who was a spirited, team-first backup goalie with an epic work ethic. But still, Trevor starting in 2014 wasn’t the plan. And so the team rewrote the plan.

The result? We finished 16-2-3 last season. And Trevor rewrote the record books in the process:

  • He was 15th out of 400 goalies in the country in goals against average;
  • He is now first all-time at F&M for shutout percentage in a season;
  • And he is now first all-time at F&M in “goals-against” for a career.

And yet, if you asked Trevor Britton if he is a better goalie than T.J. White, he’d say, again, “No way.” In fact our stunning success at preventing goals was partly because of Trevor and partly because the entire team raised its game for Trevor. We worked harder in the pre-season. We developed game plans around Trevor’s strengths. We learned our defensive assignments better than ever. The defense was inspired that their beloved teammate Trevor was thrust unexpectedly into the pressure position; it became a badge of honor that they were not going to let him stand out there alone, and then it became an inspiration as they saw him get better and better, elevated by their belief in him.

The power of this story is that the students in F&M’s soccer program possess a set of core values: Teamwork, hard work, respect, doing their best. Throughout the 2014 campaign they aligned their actions with their values. The acted on what they believed—and this allowed them to overcome adversity and the experience distinctive success. Yes, there were lots of wins—that’s one kind of success—but ultimately there was a loss, in the round of 16 in the NCAA tourney. The more enduring success, the one they will carry into old age, is that, when the final horn sounded and the 2014 season was in the books, they knew they had lived their values all season long—and that, my friends, is one of the most intrinsically meaningful feelings we can have.

Which brings me to my theme today… The value of striving for integrity in everything we say and do, in how we carry ourselves, always.  

I define integrity as the quality of character that we display when our actions are consistent with high values like honesty, honor, and respect for others. When the things we do consistently match up with the best things we believe, that’s integrity.

Because we are celebrating high academic achievement today, I’d like to emphasize the relationship of intellectual life to integrity.

In short, it’s like this:

In athletics, winning is good, but winning isn’t always synonymous with integrity. I think we all know that. Similarly, in academic life, high achievement is good, but earning A’s isn’t always synonymous with integrity, either.

Integrity is a higher value than achievement. And while there are many distinctions we cannot achieve—I will never be the best scholar in my field, for example—we all can achieve integrity.

Let me tell you three short stories about how people I admire have shown integrity in what we celebrate today—the “ongoing search for understanding.”  

The first is an F&M alumna from the Class of 1991 and a mother of three children who died of metastatic breast cancer this spring. Her name is Lisa Bonchek Adams, and she was a friend of mine and many.

Lisa had been a superb student at F&M—a voracious reader, a majestic writer, and a fiercely independent thinker who prepared her mind for brutal challenges she couldn’t have anticipated.

When she developed breast cancer eight years ago, she decided to use her mind and her talent to share with others the day-to-day emotional and medical realities of being a woman, a mother, a spouse, a daughter who has to cope with this disease.  

She used social media to share the facts and feelings of her days. On her blog she would write deeply thoughtful reflections about talking to her children about mortality or about the gentle beauty of her garden or about her objections to metaphors that equated getting treatment to “fighting a battle.” She would tweet 10-15 times a day with small details about her chemo or her doctor’s knowledge. She would give practical knowledge like this: Don’t send flowers that have a strong smell to a sick person. Don’t visit people in the hospital when they’re tired. Don’t tell my children that I’ll be an angel watching them from heaven. No bromides, no sugar coating.

Lisa came up with a slogan that many now keep close as if it’s our own: “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”

I can’t tell you how much I learned from her. And when my own mother developed ovarian cancer, from which she died this fall, I felt that Lisa Bonchek Adams’ honest, generous, well-honed mind and voice helped me become a better son. That’s what integrity does: It draws out the best in others.

A second person is, like you, from the Baltimore area—a 37 year-old independent filmmaker who went to Park School named Matthew Porterfield. And, yes, he is my much younger brother.

Growing up in the Hamilton section of Baltimore City, Matt was into music, drama, and the arts. He developed an artistic sensibility and loved his neighborhood. He went to NYU and studied film. Baltimore is represented a lot in television and film—in The Wire, Homicide, The Diner, Hairspray. They all have their power, but Matthew knew the city that helped make him—and he was looking for cinema with a different kind of realism and a deeper kind of authenticity.

So he decided to go make the kind of film he yearned for. Against my advice, he dropped out of NYU before his senior year and used tuition money saved by his grandmother to start working on a movie.

A few years later he had saved enough money to shoot the rough cut, largely using amateur actors from the neighborhood. The plot is very simple—showing a slice of life in a working class neighborhood as a teen mother tries to find the father of her child before leaving for a vacation.

Then he spent several years waiting tables to save the money to buy the equipment that would allow him to edit the film. Six or seven years he left NYU, that film appeared at a couple film festivals and was seen by several hundred people. But one of them was a reviewer for The New Yorker who called it brilliant. Matt’s next movie, called Putty Hill, returns to working class Baltimore and shows how everyday people express themselves creatively—playing guitar in the kitchen, making tattoo art, performing on skateboards, writing graffiti. This is Matt’s vision—the people that other movies show cursing and fighting and killing each other typically don’t live those kinds of lives at all.

He’s used his mind and his art to share and celebrate his respect for the people he grew up with and lives with. That is integrity too—artistic integrity combined with the personal integrity of portraying people generously rather than by stereotype.

The third person is even younger—It’s a 2011 graduate of McDonogh and a 2015 graduate of F&M, Katie Machen, who is here today.

Since coming to F&M, Katie has been a generous other-centered campus citizen. We’re lucky. She came to F&M valuing community, creativity, and helping others. Since arriving, she has acted on those beliefs.

She has volunteered with refugee children in Lancaster to help them adjust to life in a strange new land. She has taught Lancaster youth creative writing so they could find their own voices. She has worked in our writing center and has been a generous participant in writing seminars on campus. One of her classmates told me the following about Katie:

In our class we are asked to comment on each other’s writing. Katie always writes the longest and most thoughtful responses, really trying to understand what the other is trying to say. We write five of these letters a week. Katie never mails it in. Her effort conveys respect to each person in the class.

This kind of respect creates community. It creates cross-cultural learning. It creates the trust that allows others to take intellectual risks. This is true leadership—when others look to you as an example. Sometimes such integrity is expressed in quiet ways that no one observes; other times, when it happens to be seen or described, the light it casts gives inspiration to us all.

I admire the way Katie has grown by giving—the ways she has pursued learning both for its own sake in directions that speak to her and out of an emerging sense of the good for others that she can do with her mind. She loves learning so much she wants to share it. These are very much your school’s values. I read it in your beautiful mission statement—and I see it in how Katie and Trevor carry themselves and live.

A McDonogh education is a gift for life. It calls you to integrity. I congratulate all of you for pursuing it, and wish you the very best.