Craig Hockenberry’s speech at the Mount’s baccalaureate commencement

Academics, Alumni & Giving, Education

By: Jill Eichhorn

File Under: alumni, commencement, education, football, outcomes

Image: Professor standing at podium during commencement

Mount alumnus Craig Hockenberry '95 was the Commencement speaker for the address to traditional undergraduates in the afternoon ceremony. He received a Doctor of Humane Letters for his dedication to the community and the students of Oyler School, where he is the Principal.  

Thank you President Aretz, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow alumni, faculty, parents, and graduates. Thank you. I am incredibly honored to be with you today at your commencement ceremony. 

I am a proud graduate of the College of Mount St.  Joseph. The truth be told, I barely made it to the Mount.

Growing up in a small, rural town in northeastern, Ohio, I had no clue what the requirements were to get into college and by the time I had looked into it, it was too late. In my immaturity, I’d wasted so many of the academic opportunities. I was 46th out of 52 in my class ranking.  I finished with a 1.9 GPA. I scored a 9 on my ACT and I didn’t even show up for my scheduled SAT. I applied to six colleges in Ohio. I was rejected by all of them. My friends were getting letters of acceptance to colleges, but for me it was time to start facing the brutal facts. My transcript and academic portfolio were dismal, to say the least. Colfor Manufacturing waited. The factory in my hometown which makes bicycle shafts and ball hitches. It’s a tough, gritty, exhausting job and regretfully—because of how I’d performed in school—I knew the Colfor was my destiny.

As the final days of school came to an end I was called to the office. When I arrived, I was greeted by a man dressed in a suit, wearing the largest ring I had ever seen. The man turned out to be a coach. The ring turned out to be a Rose Bowl ring. He introduced himself as Coach Pont.  He’d just been hired by the Mount to coach the first football team.

Coach (John) Pont grew up in Canton, 15 minutes from where I lived. He came from a humble background, without a whole lot of worldly privilege. I related to every word that came out of his mouth. I trusted him. I was humbled that a man who had coached at Miami in Oxford, Ohio—an esteemed member of the “cradle of coaches”—had come to talk with me about playing for him. Coach Pont’s resume included coaching stints at Yale, Northwestern and Indiana. It was at Indiana that he took the Hoosiers to their only Rose Bowl. Hence, the big ring. 

He told me the following four things would happen if I came to the Mount.

(1) I would get a great education.
(2) I would get a chance to play four years of College football.
(3) I would get good job doing what I loved.
(4) I would find the woman of my dreams. 

We spent an hour together where he invited me to a Get Acquainted Day; I accepted. Since Coach Pont didn’t ask, I decided not to volunteer my GPA. After all, I wasn’t a complete idiot.

I borrowed a friend’s car the following weekend and drove the 246 miles to Cincinnati. Funny--in high school I couldn’t remember what year the War of 1812 was fought, but I can remember how many miles it was from Malvern to Cincinnati. It wasn’t luxury, the car that I used. Cardboard covered the driver’s side broken window. The car had no muffler and the floor boards were gone on the passenger side. It shouldn’t take much imagination to figure out what happened each time I went over a puddle of water. 

It rained the entire way down. 

I arrived at the Mount on a Thursday night. I parked in the front spot and slept in my car. I was wet and cold. I was awakened in the morning by a security guard. He asked me if I was okay. I explained I was there for a meeting with the football coach. He then said something I still remember: “I’m glad you’re alright, but I do have to ask you to move the car out of the president’s parking spot.”  I did. 

Then what had been a minor toothache, morphed into agony. The right side of my face was swelling. I was nervous. I was in pain, I looked a mess and I was about to talk Coach Pont. When I got to his office I did my best to hide the fact that my tooth was killing me.  I remember Coach asking me if I was okay. And in that moment, the 240lb lineman that he was recruiting was clearly struggling to hold tears of pain. Coach Pont made a phone call, brought me to his car and drove me to a dentist. In an hour, I was recovering from an emergency tooth extraction. Coach saw a kid in pain, a kid in need, and he took care of that kid. I was to learn over the next four years that it was characteristic of the Mount; one-to-one, person-to-person approach. 

When I got back to the college, I met a lot of people just like myself. I felt comfortable. I felt like I fit. Because of how I was treated, my destiny might be something other than a factory job. A day that began with a wake up call in the president’s parking spot and included an emergency dental procedure, ended with hope. It appeared this college was going to take a chance on me, which was all I wanted. I drove all the way home with my thoughts.

I arrived back in Malvern to finish the last weeks of school. Coming home from school one day there was a letter from the Mount informing me that I had not met the admission requirements. Number seven. One would think that after all the girls I had asked out in high school, I would have become used to rejection. This, however, was crushing. And then I saw a note from Coach Pont asking that I call him. I called and he informed me that I had not been accepted; however, he was able to work out a conditional admission. 

Essentially, I was given a chance, one that would be taken away if my grades didn’t align with the standards the Mount requires. Everything was up to me. So I’d been accepted into college, I’m going to be playing football, life is good. I decide to make the most rational decision one could expect: I got a tattoo of the College mascot on my calf. My “tat” became a conversation piece. They were not popular back then, but oddly enough it became a motivating factor. Now I had to do well in school. 

Twenty-five years later the tattoo is faded, but it serves as a reminder to never quit.

I suppose that one of the duties, one of the expectations, of a commencement speaker is to give one’s own advice to the graduating class. I still seek and need advice myself from many people. I have to. I need to. If anything at all that I say today helps you, motivates you, enlightens you—keep it. Anything I say today that doesn’t do any of those things, toss it. 

As generic and as safe as it may sound, be good to people. Absorb that sentence: Be good to people. Help others. The happiest people I know put themselves last, in how they think and in all that they do. Give of yourselves to those less fortunate, without entering into the argument of why they are less fortunate. It’s easy to say, “I’ve made good choices, they haven’t. I went to college; they dropped out of high school. They’ve chosen this life; I, on the other hand, was responsible and smart." It’s easy to say those things, but it’s not right, it's not Christian, and it’s certainly not the Mount. It is not accidental that the harshest words uttered by Jesus in the Bible are for those who ignore the plight of the poor and suffering. He forgave and instructed the prostitute. He forgave and ate with the thief tax collector. But for those who ignored those in pain, those suffering, those who were without the basic necessities of life, he proclaimed “out of my sight.”

Take chances; give someone else a chance, and then commit. I see so many young folks entering the workforce smart, but not committed. It's very difficult for people to have an impact when they are not committed. 

My years at the Mount were great. I got all the attention I needed.  My grades were good. I got all the structure I needed with football. Coach checked on me all the time. Teammates looked after each other. I kept so busy that failure seemed impossible. We won our first game against Rose Hulman only to get destroyed by Georgetown the next week 77-0. The beatings were brutal. I played all four years. I never played on a winning season, but never felt more like a winner in my life. I started all four years. I met great friends. I was living off campus with five other teammates.  Every day was a good day. 

Then I got a phone call at 2:13 a.m. on Saturday, November 5, 1993. It was my father who told me that I need to get home, that my mother had suffered a brain aneurysm. It was my senior year and we were to play Thomas More. I drove home faster than I ever drove a car in my life. There were no cell phones and no way to communicate so it was a miserable drive. When I got there my mother was attached to tubes and a breathing machine. Brain dead. She was 40 years old. It was my 21st birthday. When we took her off the machine and she stopped breathing, I had said to myself that I was never going back to Cincinnati.

A few days later I buried my mother in a small cemetery in Malvern. The church was packed. Every seat was filled. There was standing room only. When I looked around, I saw every person I ever knew from my childhood. 

And then during the funeral something amazing happened that changed me forever. In walked rows and rows of folks from the Mount--coaches, players, friends, and Sister Elizabeth Cashman, the Dean of Students. She had flown into Malvern with Coach Huber on a tiny airplane. They landed in a cornfield near the church and arrived moments before the funeral.

She asked our priest if she could speak at the funeral. When she spoke, I hung onto every word she said. I remember her giving such classy remarks on behalf of the College. She thanked the people of the town, gave condolences on behalf of the College to my family and thanked all my hometown friends for looking out after me during these terrible times. And then she looked me straight in my eyes in front of my entire town and told everyone that it was her expectations that I would return to the College and become my mother’s legacy to the world. 

During every low point in my life, I still hear those words. She was very deliberate in her message. She knew the entire town was there and that they would hold me accountable. She was right. There was not a safe place in the entire town that I could escape her speech about me returning to college. Sister proved to be another example of the Mount’s dedication to students.

I did return. I earned my degree. I got my first job in education as a teacher. Later, I would be promoted to assistant principal and then to principal.

As you leave here today, know that you will face obstacles. Find it inside yourself to overcome. I read a quote once from William Ward: "Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records."

My friends--break records. The Mount and all of our alumni are counting on you. The competition will be tough as thousands of graduates will be competing. Outwork them, outwork them, outwork them! Stay committed. Do others good. Celebrate. Give back.  

So circling back, Coach said four things would happen.

I would get a good education CHECK √

I would get to play four years of football CHECK √

I would get a good job CHECK √

But, what about meeting the woman of my dreams? Thank God the art department took classes near the education department. There she was all along just steps away.  We passed each other in the hallway. I stopped and turned around and caught her checking out my tattoo.  

The woman of my dreams CHECK √ We married and have three children.

I have traveled all over the world and I’m enjoying a lot of success in a very difficult and challenging career as an inner city principal. I have done things I never imagined I could do.

And so will you.

May God bless each and every one of you today, tomorrow and every day. To be here with you today has been such an honor.