My mother, who passed away at age 94 during this COVID-19 pandemic, taught me to believe in the American Dream. She was a first generation American; her mother had fled political persecution in Germany with her family as a child. My mother’s American Dream was not a grandiose Horatio Alger, “rags to riches”-style dream of overnight success. It was instead a patient, modest dream of security, dignity, freedom and self-sufficiency, grounded in the hope of generational progress, built upon layers of education, endless hard work and resilience. My German grandmother began her working life in America as a seamstress and hat maker, but learned to be a citrus farmer in the Great Depression, when no one had money for new dresses and hats. During WWII, at age 16, my mother became the first woman in our family to attend college, heading out alone on the day-long bus ride from her family’s subsistence farm outside Tampa to Tallahassee, when Florida State was a women’s college. Years later, when my father was having trouble holding a job, my mother went back to college to become a school teacher. When my father suffered cardiac arrest at 56 and was unable to work again, she paid his medical bills and supported the family. As a 3rd and 5th grade teacher, she taught hundreds of children the same lessons she gave me at home: get an education, honor the work you have, be frugal, be honest, be ethical and it doesn’t matter where you start, you can build a good life for yourself and your family.
Like many baby boomers, it was altogether too easy for me to outstrip my parents’ modest income while I was still in my 20s. I began my American Dream story by fulfilling my mother’s charge to “go to the best college I could, no matter the cost.” When I was admitted to Harvard from my public high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, it was a source of immense pride and deep fulfillment to my parents. It was also incredibly hard financially—my father’s hospital costs had depleted our savings and the total cost of attending Harvard was more than my mother’s annual salary. But with strict budgeting, grants from Harvard, help from relatives, scholarships and working summers and term-time, we made it happen.
I knew, however, that after four years of sacrifice, the well was dry. Graduate school was my responsibility alone. On my second try, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from Rotary International for graduate study in Ireland, where I eventually received my PhD from Trinity College, Dublin. Thirty years later, as I was being inaugurated as the first woman president of Babson College, with Drew Faust, the first woman president of Harvard University sitting by my side, I reflected on the debt of gratitude I owed some anonymous, generous small businessmen (as Rotary was all men at that time), who had selflessly supported my success and helped make this progress for women possible.
My father lived long enough to see me elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and to sit with my mother by the USS Constitution, “Old Iron Sides,” docked in Boston Harbor, as I gave a speech commemorating the sacrifices of veterans like him on the 60th Anniversary of V-Day. These are the moments I see in my mind when I think of my parents’ sacrifices for my future. My successes were theirs.
My American Dream story is one that took three generations of strong women and more than a century to build. It took the philanthropy of well-heeled Harvard alumni, the generosity of community small business leaders, and all kinds of minimum wage jobs to finance. It took my parents blind love and sacrifice. It took hard work—my own and others’. In short, I know I did not get here alone. I had loving parents, the support of key mentors and a life partner, and even the support of people who did not know me personally but believed in my future. As for me, I always have had an optimistic nature, and am clear-eyed about the advantages I’ve enjoyed. Most importantly, though, I believe that “paying it forward” -taking what I was given and giving it to others—is the path to a life well-lived, the true American Dream. For me, this quote describes the Dream of a life well-lived best:
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I've got held up for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” (Shaw, Man and Superman, 1903)
This Center is devoted to making the torch burn brightly for future generations. We come to our lives with endlessly diverse starting points, hurdles and goals. The American Dream is as broad and deep as America itself and limited only by our imagination. What unifies us is the right of each of us to dream, each to have the same rules by which to play, and a bias toward recognizing and protecting human dignity.
These are difficult times. And as I think of my children’s lives—beginning with 9-11, experiencing the global economic collapse of 2008, and now coming of age in this unprecedented global pandemic—I see echoes of my mother’s hardships, growing up in the poverty and panic of the Great Depression, losing the friends of her youth in WWII, and I think of her courage, strength and unshakeable belief in the promise of America. We need to give our next generation the institutions, the education, the skills and the mindset necessary to take the next step toward the Pursuit of Happiness imagined by America’s founders. Please join us in our dream of expanding opportunity, imagining a better future for everyone and re-building a stronger America to inspire the World.