Commencement Address, Fall 2013

Commencement Address

“Magna Cum Lucky”
December 14, 2013
Ernie Telford

Good morning everyone, President Haynes, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, parents and family members, and, especially, the graduates.

It’s a great day to be a Wildcat.

This morning I attended the honors breakfast and want to offer special congratulations to all the honor students graduating today.   I graduated from Northern in 1969, “Magna Cum Lucky.”  When President Haynes asked me to be your commencement speaker, I was shocked, honored and humbled and  wondered for a moment if he checked my GPA before he made that decision.  It was a close call for me.

My graduation ceremony was likely a very different experience than yours.  First, it was held in the Hedgcock Field House, as none of these facilities existed. Second, my family was not present, so I went through commencement by myself. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to come; I had actually asked them not to attend because I told them I wouldn’t be able to spend any time with them. I had to take some final exams immediately after commencement and my status as a graduate, even during the ceremony, was very much up in the air. I had a solid F in my statistics class and needed every moment to study for the final exam. A friend was an A student in the class and had tutored me for several weeks leading up to the final. I was confident that I knew the material and that I was going to do well, but I still had to take it, knowing that my degree rested on my success in this one last exam. So while that experience taught me about correlation analysis, and mean square weighted deviation, the real take away from that experience was learning about the power of networking.  

The 1960s were a turbulent time in this country. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.    I was at a hockey game here in Marquette on April 4th 1968 and they announced over the Public Address system that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed.

The Vietnam War was extremely unpopular and the resulting civil unrest was rampant all over this country, especially on college campuses. The federal government gave students four years to finish college and, having subscribed to the four-and-a-half-year plan, I was drafted in my senior year.   I completed my exams, left Marquette, and flew home to New York, where I nervously waited for my grades. Imagine if you can, a college experience without computers, beyond the conveniences of email, Google, ATMs and cell phones. You could wait for your grades to arrive in the snail mail or call   the university to see if they were posted.   I picked up the rotary dial phone, called campus and, when the woman read off my grades I realized I made it. I got off the phone and, at the top of my lungs, let the world know that “I graduated from college!

I know the pride each and every one of you must feel today. It’s an accomplishment that no one can ever take from you and serves as the successful foundation to a promising career, whatever that may be.

With my diploma firmly in my grasp, I was headed back to school – only this time it was the U.S. Army’s Officers Candidate School. But once again, I was Magna Cum Lucky, as the government cancelled my orders to report to Vietnam as an artillery forward observer. Magna cum lucky stayed with me. I asked my wife Patricia to marry me on our second date and 43 years later, she is here today, sitting out there with our daughter Jennifer.

 After the service, I got my first job, at Continental Insurance Company in New York.  My  second job was with  AIG, and they  sent our family out to California. After eight years of working for AIG in New York and Los Angeles, I started my own commercial insurance brokerage business that today has been parlayed into the largest wholesale commercial insurance distribution platform in the United States

American Wholesale Insurance Group, or AmWINS, distributes 8.7 billion dollars in commercial insurance premiums to the marketplace annually and has grown to include offices in 90 locations across 18 countries, including 60 here in the United States, while employing more than 2,800 people. Though I retired from AmWins in 2006 as its Chairman, I still have an ongoing consulting role with the company. I am very proud of the company and to have been of its founders.

I learned a great deal every day I was on the job, but it was Northern that gave me the basic skills I needed to do well in business. I didn’t go on to get an MBA; instead I had a MBF, which might not mean what you think it does when you first hear it, but it is something that was very tangible to me. An MBF, is Management by Fear – Fear of failure; fear of going bankrupt; fear of letting down people who put their faith and trust in me. Fear of giving the commencement address at my Alma Mater.  This MBF served me well for my entire working career. Every time I thought the company was doing well enough and was on solid ground, I relaxed a little bit and the business relaxed with me. That’s when my MBF kicked in:  l realized that complacency and settling for “just good enough” was a dangerous road to travel. I’m sure you all have felt it at some point, worrying about grades. Will I make it to graduation? Will my cell phone battery last through the end of this ceremony? This MBF is a good thing; it keeps you focused. Stay in touch with it    

The NMU foundation approached me about six years ago to gauge my interest in giving back to Northern. I suggested that the University had some seeds that, with some nurturing, could grow and expand to launch new academic programs in Risk Management and Actuarial Science.

We provided the capital to start the Risk management and Actuarial Science programs here at NMU.  Some of money we gave went to scholarships for students pursuing these disciplines. I am very proud of the two Telford scholars who are graduating today, Michael Reyer and Sean Coykendall.  Both of you can buy me a cold beer this afternoon as I am working up quite a thirst giving this speech.  

I’d like to encourage all of you, once you settle in to your jobs and life is going well, to give back.  I know you feel like you’ve already given the school quite a bit over these last four or five years, but pay it forward. It really does make a difference.

I will never forget the letter I received from Michael telling me that he was packing up and leaving NMU at the end of his semester because he didn’t have the money to come back.   He received a call from the university informing him that he received a scholarship from the funds that Pat and I gave to the school reversing the path he was about to take and today he is graduating with honors. I have been Sean’s mentor for the last two and a half years, have helped him find internships and, working  closely with him, there is no doubt in my mind that he will go far in life. A recent letter Sean wrote to us thanking us for the support included such heartfelt words and only deepened our understanding of why we give our time and treasure back to this university.  Today Sean also is graduating with honors.

Today  isn’t about me, or Michael or Sean. It’s about all of you, collectively, and the great things you have and will accomplish in your lives. Your education is as much about what you learn about yourself as those things you discover in the classroom. The time and toil you have spent preparing yourself for this day means just as much as those tools you have developed.  Your diligence and tenacity have made each of you a good, responsible and respected person.  This day is about you and the people sitting next to you in this sea of green and we are here to celebrate your accomplishment.

David Letterman is famous for his Top Ten lists on relevant topics of the day, and since today marks the culmination of your coursework,  I want to share with you ten lessons I Learned outside the Classroom, and I hope they resonate with you.

Number 10: You will actually miss this place more than you’ll realize. Sure, the winters are brutal and the summers are less than tropical. And the Wildcats will most likely never play in the Rose Bowl. But I can guarantee that some of the friends you have made here will last a lifetime. My college roommate, Bruce Jones, is a retired High School teacher and lives in New Jersey.  The bond that we established here remains as strong as ever, unbroken for almost 45 years. I have run into Alums proudly wearing NMU apparel in airports, on a bike trail in Ventura, California, and recently in my gym. The common bond and shared pride that is revealed through a quick conversation with a stranger creates an instant link and brings me back to my time here. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s because we have all know how cold the winters can be.  It’s like we went to school and a winter survival course all rolled into one.

Number 9: Find a Mentor. This should be someone you respect and trust, someone you can think out loud without fear of judgment, someone who will speak the truth into your life even when you may not want to hear it.   Your continued development as an adult is critical to whatever next step you take after you leave here today, and you’re going to need help along the way.  


Number 8: Continue to Learn. The most rewarding moment in life is when you learn something new and there will be new opportunities to do this every single day.

 Number 7: Work with people you like and respect. You will spend more time at work than you will at home with your family.  I’m sad to say there are a lot of arrogant jerks out there. Find the people who aren’t and make them your contemporaries.   

Number 6: Find work that helps develop the world rather than depleting it. The causes you choose to advance and the responsibilities you are willing to take on will have a great impact on the lives of others.   You get to determine if your place in the world will yield positive or negative results on the people and places that surround you.

Number 5: Be honorable and humble. Every second. Every minute. Every day. If you have honor and humility, you will live your life without question. When you do that, and that alone, no one can ever question you. Kindness, honor, and a little bit of modesty are a powerful combination and will serve as the most potent attributes you’ll ever find or need. 

Number 4: Put your conviction out there. Know what it’s like to say to a boss, client or co-worker: “Don’t worry, it’s taken care of.” And really know what that means. While these words are powerful, the confidence you gain in yourself and the reliability you earn from others is even greater and will take you farther than you can ever imagine.


Number 3: Don’t try to be great, just try to be solid. People who strive for greatness and perfection but are afraid to make a mistake will probably miss an opportunity to take a risk. We need risk-takers;  the risk I took with others to form AmWins   a little more than 10 years ago today employs 2,800 people in 18 countries. See for yourself what happens when you believe in an idea and give it your all.    

Number 2: Make some mistakes. I have made plenty of mistakes.  The only thing wrong with making a mistake is learning nothing from the experience. Mistakes are great learning opportunities, and there is nothing wrong with trying, failing, and trying again.  

Number 1: Live and Love Life.   Life goes go by very quickly and it accelerates the older you get. Find your passion, but realize that sometimes your passion just finds you.

In closing, I want you to know you have been given a tremendous gift, and that is the gift of promise and the unknown for what the future holds. If that sounds scary, I assure you it is not. And while luck, Magna Cum Luck has been part of my life and will be for you, you will go much farther in life by relying on hard work and your integrity. You all are smart, well-educated, and free to do whatever your heart desires. There is great power in that, and I hope you use it wisely.  

When this commencement is completed, your status will change. You no longer will be NMU students; you will be graduates of Northern Michigan University,   a university where students matter, where the faculty cares, where the harsh winters fostered warm friendships that will last a lifetime.   For many of you, this day marks the end of your formal studies. You arrived here equipped to deal with absolutely nothing.  The knowledge you discovered in the classroom and the wisdom you have found through your studies and time here have prepared all of you to deal with anything and everything.  

Well done wildcats. May God bless each and every one of you.