Justice Clarence Thomas, right, praises Nebraska's 95 percent student-athlete graduation rate.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Commencement Speaker Thomas: It's All About the Will to Prepare

By NU Athletic Communications
 Randy York's N-Sider 

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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas won't broach the subject in Saturday's commencement address to graduates of the University of Nebraska Law School, but he's so enamored with everything Nebraska represents, he can envision retiring someday and living the good life in his wife's home state.

Saturday, Thomas will be the first sitting Supreme Court justice to participate in a Nebraska law school commencement exercise. He was appointed to the nation's highest court in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, four years after he married Virginia Lamp, a Nebraska native whose father lives in Lincoln.

Friday, we sat down with Justice Thomas and his wife for a chat not only about his commencement address, but also the importance of preparation, the state of the nation, his world-view, Nebraska transitioning to the Big Ten Conference on July 1 and why the Huskers are his favorite team, Tom Osborne is his favorite athletic director and Bo Pelini is his favorite football coach.

Essence of Speech: Discharge the Basic Obligations

Question: Can you give us the essence of your commencement address and elaborate on what will be your core message?

Answer: It's basically the same message that Dr.Tom would give. We talk a lot about the issues. We talk about law. We talk about careers, but there are some very basic things that are very important, and a perfect example is Bo (Pelini) and the way he talks to these kids about things that matter in life. Once you can begin to see what really matters, it translates on the field. Take a look at what Ndamukong Suh is doing. Whether it's off the field, on the field, the work habits, the discipline to try and live up to certain standards, etcetera. To encourage kids, no matter what they're doing, is to understand the daily obligations right in front of them now.

You and I, in our lives, know and understand that the people that survive are the people who discharge those obligations. They're the people who live up to their responsibilities as a father, a parent, a friend, a coach, a professional, an employee. Whoever you are and whatever you do, you must discharge the responsibilities that are before you first and then we can talk about all the other things. The idea is to get people to think about the things that are right in front of them and not to be so focused on these broad, ephemeral ideas that they overlook their daily responsibilities.

Question: Can you give us a specific example that Nebraska fans can relate to?

Answer: Look at Prince Amukamara. I met him when he came here. Prince is a prince of a guy. I love it when they introduce his family: Prince, Princess, Precious, Promise, Peace and Passionate. They all come from royal bloodlines in Nigeria, and Prince chose to come to Nebraska from Arizona. I met Prince some time ago. He was really funny because he would come up to me and say: 'Everybody's got a picture with you but me.' So in the tunnel before he was working out before the game at Virginia Tech, we got our picture taken together. I cherish that picture, and I have talked to Prince a number of times. It's really been fun to watch Prince and Roy Helu (Jr.) grow up at Nebraska. To see Prince go from offense in high school to defense and a first-team All-American under Bo says it all.

Dennard's Hard Work Delivers Phenomenal Results

To see a kid like Alfonzo Dennard come from South Georgia is amazing, especially when he'd never even seen the school before committing here. People thought he might be questionable academically. But he got here, worked hard and has been nothing but phenomenal. Nebraska is a place that supports and inspires greatness. I remember Suh when he was injured. I saw him in the indoor practice facility, and he was down, almost despondent, so we were encouraging him. Now look at him! He bought into the same message. His coach told him if you want to be great, here is what is going to be required of you, and here's the place where you can become great. That's why I'm here. Whenever I set foot on this campus and in this facility with Dr. Tom overseeing this program, I see why it's so great and why everyone feels like they belong.

Question: You're not a recruiter, but if Bo put you on his staff, what would be your No. 1 message to prospective student-athletes?

Answer: You know what I look at more than anything else? That 95-percent graduation rate and why that is so important to everyone who works in the athletic department of this great university. Getting a degree is the most important part of how these kids use this opportunity to develop into men. Is there any better example than Suh? The first thing he did and the first commitment he made was for what? For the University of Nebraska! He gave $2.6 million to the athletic department and the College of Engineering. Paying it back or paying it forward, however you want to look at it, he made sure that he was going to take care of the most fundamental obligation that had taken care of him. He knows who he is and what he became at Nebraska.

That's part of what I will tell those graduating from the College of Law: When you take care of business, your business will take care of you. Just like Suh's business is taking care of him, the same thing will happen with Prince. He is also one heck of a man and one heck of an athlete, and you're going to see others come through here who grow just like they have, athletically and academically. There's no doubt in my mind where the best place is to make that kind of growth. That's why I'm a diehard Husker. Ask anybody. You can go to the Big House. You can go here, and you can go there. But there is no place like Nebraska.

If He Lived in Lincoln, He'd Need a Restraining Order

Question: What is the source of that deep and abiding love for the state that you've adopted?

Answer: I'm not going to mention this in my commencement address, but this place is so special, it's one of two places I would love to retire to. If I ever had the opportunity, I would come right here to Lincoln - maybe Waverly so I'm not right in the city - but I'd be right here so I could come to all the games. The only other place I would consider is where I'm from - Southern Georgia. The only problem if I retired here is I would be over here at the Athletic Department every day, and I'm sure someone would want to get a restraining order against me.

You can't hear raucous laughter in this column, but trust me, it's coming from so deep in Justice Thomas that his interviewer and wife can't help but laugh right along with him.

Question: Countdown to kickoff is an annual ritual in this state, but what about the countdown to Nebraska joining the Big Ten Conference on July 1? Is that a big deal to you?

Answer: I believe anything that Dr. Tom tells me. Obviously, things weren't what we wish they'd been in the Big 12 towards the end. I think we're a good fit in the Big Ten. I'm looking forward to it for a lot of reasons - some of self-interest. Of course, the games are closer to me. I can't make the Penn State game this year because that's the same weekend as my 20th reunion of being on the (Supreme) Court. I have to go to that. I'd rather tape the reunion and go the game, but I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to be there.

(We interrupt this punch line to let readers know that Thomas' laughter has gone up another octave from the previous one).

Seriously, I want so badly to go to the Penn State game, but I have no choice but to go to the reunion.

Ohio State in Lincoln in 2011, Motor Home Trip in 2012

Question: What games are circled on your calendar?

Answer: I don't know which games I'll attend, but like everyone else, that Ohio State game looms large. I'm just glad that so many Big Ten games will be within a day's drive in my (40-foot) motor home ... not only Penn State, but Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State ... we're so excited to drive that motor home into all of these great Big Ten venues in the next few years. Our motor home is easy to identify. It has a great big red "N" on the back. We're all Husker all the time.

Question: What else do you do to get away from it all?

Answer: We don't get away that much. Virginia works 18-hour days.

What do you do, Virginia?

"I'm trying to save the country," she says.

"She's been doing that as long as I've known her," Judge Thomas adds.

"I'm a political activist. I'm a troublemaker," she says.

"She's not a troublemaker," her husband corrects. "Her view is we're losing our liberties."

"I work with the Tea Party movement," she explains. "I just try to help and be an encouraging force whenever and wherever I can."

"As a consultant, she's very busy, just like I am, so we don't take huge blocks of time to get away," Justice Thomas says. "Whenever we do get time, we like to come back to Nebraska, where her family lives."

Seriousness of World Situation Begs for Preparation

Question: We'd be almost remiss if we didn't stop to reflect on the world's No. 1 terrorist getting assassinated on the same weekend as a much publicized royal wedding. Strange world, isn't it?

Answer: "You know the day I was born - June 23rd, 1948 - all the talk was about the problems and the bombings in Palestine," Justice Thomas said. "I'm sure we're all concerned about the world we live in, but I think what's more important, is whether we're preparing ourselves to respond to the world we live in - to deal with it, live through it and preserve our way of life. If we're not preparing to do that, we ...

Instead of finishing the sentence, Justice Thomas segues into another football analogy. "Bo does not like to talk about the other team," he said. "He's only concerned about what he has control over. He's only concerned about his team's preparation, his team's attitude and his team's work, and his point is if we do what we're supposed to do, we will be the best we can be, and everything should be okay.

"What concerns me is somehow, we have become lax about our own preparation," Justice Thomas says, "We have the will to do well, but do we have the will to prepare? Another dear friend of mine, Bobby Knight, used to get asked if his team had the will to win, and you know gruff he is. 'Everybody has the will to win,' he'd say, knowing that wasn't the important question.

"Looking in the face of what's happening in the world, I think the question is 'Do we have the will to prepare? Do we have the will to deal with the way the world is today in all its complexities and the geo-political state that it's in? Can we deal with the divisions and the problems? Can we deal with the energy issues? Every one of those questions depends on the answer to the biggest question: Do we have the will to prepare?'

"Our forbearers had the will to come to this country, and they had the will to prepare," he said. "They had the will to travel here, to farm and to make a new start. They had the will to prepare and go off to war and fight those wars. Do we have the will to prepare? Only history will answer that.

Obligations Are the Ones Right before Us Right Now

"I'm more concerned about what we can do, and that takes me back to the message I want to leave to the Law School grads," Justice Thomas said. "Our obligations are the things that are right before us now."

He believes the success of athletic programs, businesses, even countries come down to the same fundamental principle - preparation. He is convinced that if any entity fails to prepare, it is preparing to fail.

Fortunately, Justice Thomas believes Nebraska has an ideal role model in the art and science of preparation. He says "Dr. Tom" is not only a Hall-of-Fame coach, a two-term Congressman and college professor, but also someone who has a doctorate degree in educational psychology and an honorary doctorate in humility.

"If you want to talk about preparation, look at the Big Ten transition," Justice Thomas says. "If Dr. Tom says that it's right, why is it right? Why do I have so much confidence in him? Why do I believe in him? Does he show off? Does he horde credit? Is he flamboyant? Is he loud? Is he self-serving? Is he a marketer? No. He's a man who discharges his responsibility in a humble, decent, respectful, principled way every single day. 

"That's why I have confidence in this man," Justice Thomas said. "I don't understand the complexities of going to the Big Ten. I don't understand the politics of it. But I do know that I respect, admire and will follow Dr. Tom's advice because he is a master of preparation, analysis and instinct."

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Voices from Husker Nation

Thank you for the fantastic interview of Justice Clarence Thomas. I had no idea that he was such a big Husker supporter. It's great to hear him speak so highly of the players, coaches and administration at Nebraska, and it makes me proud to be a Nebraskan. Living over in Buckeye country now, I'm hoping to get the chance to meet Justice Thomas when Big Red rolls into town next season. I'll be looking for the motor home with the Big Red N on the back! Thanks again and keep up the great work. Paul Hrnicek, Westerville, Ohio

I watched Justice Thomas' commencement speech on television, and I must say, it was the most inspiring commencement speech I've ever heard. He talked about how difficult and challenging life was after graduation and urged the graduates to honor their families, their faith and their friends every bit as much as they embraced the law. He also praised the courage of those who risked their lives to preserve our freedom, and he could not have done that more eloquently than he did. Steve Wilson, Omaha, Nebraska

I just loved the interview with Justice Thomas. Thank you. It makes me proud to be a Nebraskan and a Husker. My family and I moved to California in 1971 but once a Nebraskan (Husker), always a Nebraskan. Karen Pace, Pleasanton, California


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