It was late May 1982 when I walked across the risers at Melrose-Mindoro High School.
Earlier that day I competed in the sectional track tournament, where I failed to advance to the state tournament in the discus. I had to drive back in haste just to make the ceremony.
In the days before cell phones, my parents didn’t know how I had done at the track meet. They had to rush to finish chores in order to make it to the ceremony. My father was on the school board and handed out diplomas.
As the class of 52 students came into the gym, Dad caught my eye from his seat on the stage. He lifted his eyebrows in an inquisitive fashion, his way of asking if I advanced to state. I wrapped my hands around my throat in the universal sign of choking.
While I was disappointed in my performance on the field that day, the promise of life was ahead. I was young, strong and optimistic.
One of our class theme songs playing during a slide show of our class journey was “Time” by the Alan Parsons Project. Indeed time does keep flowing like a river.
Since then I’ve watched my two children cross the high school and college graduation stages and if the good Lord is willing, my grandchildren will join them in a few years.
One of my favorite artists is Bob Seger, whose album “Against the Wind” hit No. 1 in 1980. The title track has great lyrics, speaking about the battle of life and what I believe is one of the best phrases ever written: “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
Recently I spoke about careers to a group of high school students. As I was doing some research on the job market, I did some economic comparisons to the days of malaise when I was in high school.
In June 1982, the national unemployment rate was 9.5%; the teenage unemployment rate was 23%. The nation was in the midst of a recession and the peak was in November and December 1982, when the nationwide unemployment rate was 10.8%. That’s the highest since the Great Depression and even higher that the peak of the Great Recession, which was 10% in October 2009.
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The economic term stagflation became all too familiar as our country grappled with high inflation, high unemployment and slow economic growth. Across rural America the farm crisis of falling land prices, dropping commodity prices and debt led to many foreclosures. Energy prices soared.
In July 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered these words as part of what is known as his “Malaise Speech.”
“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
I’m glad that I didn’t know it then. Sherry and I married in September 1982. Yes, times were tough but I pulled some strings to get a part-time job while enrolled in college. Within a year I started working for the La Crosse Tribune and got to learn first-hand about deadlines and commitments, what to leave in and what to leave out.
Some will argue that we still have a crisis of confidence in our country and we are less unified than ever. It sure seems that way at times.
But I have faith in your young people, just as my parents did 37 years ago. This year’s high school graduates didn’t experience 9/11. They were in first or second grade during the Great Recession. They are entering a job market with 3.6% unemployment — 13% teenage unemployment, prime interest at 2.5% and 2.2% inflation.
Today’s graduates will be welcome in nearly any job field they select. Across the board — from laborers to carpenters, truck drivers to teachers — the opportunities abound for an excellent job.
But the message I shared with today’s students is the same that 2019 me who knows now would have told my 1982 self that didn’t know then.
Find your purpose and pursue it with passion. You can drift through life or set your own course. It’s OK to not know now what you’ll know later. There’s always room in life for excellence and for people who make a difference.
Bob Seger was wrong about one thing.The years rolled quickly by.
But I am older.
And still running against the wind.