Richard Reeves

What Makes America Great?

PATCHOGUE, N.Y. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American life. The man must have been a fool.

I am sitting at the post-graduation lunch at St. Joseph's College here, and I ask the man next to me, a member of the college's board of trustees, what he does. "I'm an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County."

"How old are you?" I ask.

"I'm 61."

Something is wrong here. There are 140 assistant DAs in Suffolk County, the eastern end of Long Island. They are paid $39,700 a year, and most of them spend their days prosecuting drunk drivers. They are not on boards of trustees. They are usually just out of law school.

So is Daniel J. Keane, the guy I was talking to. He graduated from Hofstra Law School last June. Before that he was president of a bank out here.

"Why would they hire someone like you?"

"Because I can look at a page of numbers and know whether we're talking about fraud."

"You're '60 Minutes' material," I said.

But then so were most of the 305 people I just saw receive St. Joseph's diplomas. I was going to say "young people," but many were not young at all. The reason the college has two graduations each year -- winter and summer -- is that students with full-time jobs finish their course work on irregular schedules and don't want to wait six months for the precious paper. One of the valedictory addresses was given by a 29-year-old wife and mother named Felicia Collins. She has to get back on the road. She's a highway patrol officer.

Second acts are what make America great. There was enough happiness, pride and energy in the Danzi Athletic Center to power the state of California on its worst day. You got the sense that most of the graduates, no matter what their ages, were the first in their familes to earn a degree. With each name a dozen or so people in the crowd rose to cheer the winner of their own superbowl.

Americans are the only people in the world who believe in and practice continuing education. Self-improvement is apple pie. In most societies, going back to school at age 25, much less 57, as Daniel Keane did, would be considered insane. One of his classmates at law school, he told me, was a surgeon in his 50s who wanted to, and now does, represent hospitals in disputes with health maintenance organizations.

I was at St. Joseph's, which has 4,000 students here and at its 85-year-old campus in Brooklyn, because my wife, Catherine O'Neill, class of 1964, was receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for her work with refugees around the world. Shortly after I met her in the late 1970s, she quit her job as public affairs director of RCA to go back to school, Columbia, for degrees in international affairs.

In her address, this daughter of immigrants, like many of the graduates, said something that moved me: "When I walked onto the campus in Brooklyn, it was the first time I had ever seen a college."

Keane and I talked about that, reminding ourselves that one thing that was better in the old days was that you could work your way through college. Tuition was usually less than $1,000 a year, and you could make that working summers and part time. Our kids can't earn the $25,000 a year it takes at many schools now. Obviously many of the graduates I cheered had to work full-time to pay St. Joseph's relatively low tuition of $9,290 a year.

Somehow they did it. They wanted to change their lives. I hope they do. Sister Elizabeth Hill, a classmate of my wife's and now the president of the school, said: "We strive to inspire. The real task of a college or university is to transform our students, to fire their imaginations and energies to inspire them to change."

Well, they inspired me.

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