Noblesse Oblige: A talk about Service
By: Archie Wortham, PhD

Noblesse oblige…close your eyes for a moment. Go ahead…but don’t go to sleep. I want you to imagine that you are a person in need.

Maybe you are a student in college and there is a question you can’t answer because you didn’t understand service. Maybe you are stranded in the rain…no one will stop to pick you up…give you a ride…you’re drenched. Or imagine you don’t understand how adversity builds character when there are obstacles in front of you…or imagine yourself a young boy using your hard-earned allowance being waited on by someone at a local restaurant. You can open your eyes now!

Noblesse oblige! Good afternoon. Before we begin I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I’m sure most of you know noblesse oblige means, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” You might recall peter parker’s uncle from Spiderman telling him “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Remember that! …all of you. You have been acknowledged as being among the crème de le crème. I love saying that…but basically it means you are the best because you have chosen to be, and others have chosen to invite you to this great group—the cream of the crop. You didn’t get here by accident. Your achievements in school have yielded you one of the many trophies you will earn throughout your life. You’ve earned it. Be proud of it.

Now I’m here to talk about service. I’m honored to do that today. I want to thank Sarah Van Sciver for asking me…pestering me to come and say a few words about service. I’m humbled to be in her presence, and the presence of all you here. That includes your faculty mentors and advisors. Give them a hand. Trust me; you will be amazed at how much they know years from now; like Priscilla Brown Cochran, my high school English teacher who died last night. You never forget them. They never forget you. Would you take a moment for Mrs. Cochran, for me, right now? Thank you. I appreciate that. But for right now, let your advisors feel the love you have for them, like I had for Mrs. Cochran. Believe me; the love you will feel for them later will grow as you enter a world that is your oyster. Remember that. And never forget you are one of its pearls. Eleanor Roosevelt tells us, ‘no one can make you feel inferior, except yourself.”

Now for the next 6 – 7 minutes I’ll do three things. First, I’ll tell you what I know about the National Honor Society, share four stories that i think, typify service, and then give you a challenge. All NHS chapters undertake an annual service project. Yours as I understand has been working with animal shelters, Elf Louise and the food bank. With the growth of a new volunteer service ‘mentality’ among students and educators in America during the 1990s, people like you have been leading contributors to the improvement of schools and communities. According to NHS's annual reports for 1999 - 2000, the average chapter committed more than twenty-five hours per member of service to the school and community through projects per year. NHS and NJHS members provided more than 500,000 hours per year. Wow! Can you feel that? You are part of a greater whole that is making America greater as you live up to the society's motto, ‘noblesse oblige.’ that’s sweet! Some of my students who had been NHS members said NHS provided them some of the proudest moments they had in high school. That’s marvelous!!

The National Honor Society was established in 1921 with four purposes: "to create enthusiasm for scholarship, to stimulate a desire to render service, to promote leadership, and to develop character in the students of secondary schools." That’s great!!

Okay, I’ve told you something about NHS…now the stories, four of them.

Earlier I asked you to close your eyes; this time I want you to keep them open. I want you to see yourself as the person of service in each story, also pay attention to the challenges at the end of each story.

The first story involves a student: “During my second month of college, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and had breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: "what is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?" surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade. "Absolutely," said the professor. "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say "hello." I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy. Do you know the name of anyone on the cleaning crew here at Judson? Learn at least one and greet them every day, by name.

Now the second story: “one night, at 11.30 p.m., an older African American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway trying to endure a lashing rainstorm. Her car had broken down and she desperately needed a ride. Soaking wet, she decided to flag down the next car. A young white man stopped to help her, generally unheard of in those conflict-filled 1960s. The man took her to safety, helped her get assistance, and put her into a taxicab. She seemed to be in a big hurry, but wrote down his address and thanked him. Seven days went by and a knock came on the man's door. To his surprise, a giant console color TV was delivered to his home. A special note was attached. It read: "thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes, but also my spirits. Then you came along. Because of you, i was able to make it to my dying husband's bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others, sincerely, Mrs. Nat king Cole.” If I see any of you later, be prepared to answer the question, who was Nat King Cole? And don’t tell me Mrs. Cole’s husband.

For the next story I want you to remember that, adversity builds character: “In ancient times, a king had a boulder placed on a roadway. Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king's wealthiest merchants and subjects came by and simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the stone out of the way. Then a peasant came along, carrying a load of vegetables. Upon approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. After the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many of us never understand! Every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve our condition.” Think what you could do…what boulder could you remove…? You could smile at your teachers, even if they are having a bad day…it might not make you feel better, but it could make them. I’m not too old for this either. And one day…one of my students told me… after I was sharing my ‘bad’ day “you need a hug.” And you know what? I let him hug me. That might be TMI, or the PDA might be frowned upon here, but I felt better. Remember we’re talking about service…

Now the last story about service: “In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. "How much is an ice cream sundae?" he asked. "Fifty cents," replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied the coins in it. "Well, how much is a plain dish of ice cream?" he inquired. By now more people were waiting for a table and the waitress was growing impatient. "Thirty-five cents," she brusquely replied. The little boy again counted his coins. "I’ll have the plain ice cream," he said. The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and left. When the waitress came back, [pause] she began to cry as she wiped down the table, there, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies. You see, he couldn't have the sundae, because he had to have enough left to leave her a tip. Always remember those who serve!

Well I did what I came to do. I hope I haven’t’ bored you. If I did, blame Sarah. Raise your hand Sarah, I want to be sure you get the credit. But I also want each of you to remember, as Richard Bach, author of ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ once stated. “Here’s a test, to see if your mission in life is complete. If you’re alive, then it isn’t.”

Okay…I told you what I know about the National Honor Society, shared my stories with small challenges, and now here’s my challenge to you. Before you graduate, read the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and find out what a seagull can teach you. Thank you and congratulations, it’s been a privilege.