Jill Abramson's message to new graduates (and herself): "Show what you are made of"

While the media continues to gape at the "pushy" former editor, Abramson shares a message of resilience and thanks

Katie McDonough
May 19, 2014 6:27PM (UTC)

Jill Abramson's commencement address to the 2014 graduating class of Wake Forest University will be relentlessly scrutinized by critics in approximately T-minus ... oh wait, it's already happening!

But for the moment, let's just reflect on what she actually said. A warm, generous and funny speech about heading into the unknown, the sting of loss, human resilience and the power of gratitude.


A few of the major takeaways.

On bouncing back. 

President Hatch suggested I speak to you today about resilience, and I am going to take his wise counsel. ... Very early last Thursday, my sister called me. She said, "I know Dad would be as proud of you today as the day you became executive editor of the New York Times." I had been fired the previous day, so I knew what she was trying to say.

It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back, than to watch how we handled our successes. "Show what you are made of," he would say.

On not getting something you badly want. 

Graduating from Wake Forest means all of you have experienced success already. But some of you -- and now I'm talking to anyone who has been dumped ... have not gotten the job you really wanted or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the sting of losing, or not getting something you badly want.

When that happens, show what you are made of.

On her continued admiration for the Times. 

New York Times journalists risk their lives frequently to bring you the best news report in the world. That's why it is such an important and irreplaceable institution. And it was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.

On whether or not she'll get that New York Times tattoo removed. 

Not a chance.

On resilience and her personal heroes.

We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize. Resilient and persevering. And there are so many examples of this.

For me professionally, three heroes are Nan Robertson, a groundbreaking reporter for the New York Times. And Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, which broke the Watergate story.  They both faced discrimination in a much tougher and more male dominated newspaper industry, and they went on to win Pulitzer Prizes.

My colleague Jim Risen, who is standing up against an unfair Washington leak investigation, is another hero.

I coauthored a book about Anita Hill, who testified about sexual harassment before an all-white, all-male committee in the 1990s. The senators portrayed her as being ... a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty. She turned that potential humiliation into a great career teaching at Brandeis University and writing books that tell truth to power.

Losing what you love can hurt.


Sure, losing a job you love hurts. But the work I revere -- journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable -- is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of.

On being scared and excited. 

What's next for me? I don't know! So I am in exactly the same boat as many of you. Like you, I'm a little scared, but also excited. ...

When I was leaving my office for the last time, I grabbed a book off my shelf. Robert Frost speaking on campus. In closing, I am going to leave you with some wisdom from the Colby College commencement speech the great poet gave in 1956.

He described life after graduating as pieces of knitting to go on with. What he meant is that life is always unfinished business. Like the bits of knitting women used to carry around with them, to be picked up at different intervals.

My mother was a great knitter, and made some really magnificent things. But she also made a few itchy -- frankly hideous -- sweaters for me. She left some things unfinished. So today, you gorgeous brilliant people, get on with your knitting!

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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College Commencement Speech Gender Graduation Jill Abramson New York Times Wake Forest University

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