Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

Weihenmayer to Class of ’07: “Climb high”

Erik Weihenmayer speaks to the Class of 2007.

Erik Weihenmayer was 13 years old when he went blind.

“I remember being led into school for the first time, being led to the bathroom,” Weihenmayer told the Class of 2007 Monday morning during Lehigh’s 139th commencement ceremony at Goodman Stadium. “I hated blindness. It was like a storm that was descending upon me with such force and such viciousness that I thought I’d be crushed by it.

“Sitting in the cafeteria, listening to all the food fights, all the adventures passing me by that I wanted to be a part of—I wasn’t afraid to go blind. What I was afraid of was being swept to the sidelines and forgotten.”

Weihenmayer not only wasn’t forgotten, his place in history is assured. Instead of allowing himself to be swept to the sidelines, he took up rock climbing, then mountain climbing, and rose to previously unimaginable heights. By age 33, he had climbed to the summit of the highest peaks on all seven continents. Along the way, he became the first blind person to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, on May 25, 2001.

In an inspiring commencement address that was punctuated by humor and tales of courage and perseverance, Weihenmayer exhorted the 1,735 members of the Class of 2007 to “climb high.”

And the co-author of The Adversity Advantage called on them to be “pioneers” who embrace adversity as “a pathway to greatness.

“As graduates, you will be entering a world of tremendous uncertainty and tremendous adversity, with wars, with overpopulation, with climate change, with disease, with hunger, with a clash of cultures and ideas,” Weihenmayer said. “It’s a chaotic world and it’s harder and harder to predict the future. Quite often, I think you’ll feel like you’re climbing blind.

“I think this is the best time in history, the most precious time in history to be a pioneer, to reach out, to seize hold of adversity and the challenges we face, to harness the energy not only to transform our own lives, but to elevate the world around us.”

“Leadership is contagious”

The Class of 2007 processes into Goodman Stadium.

While setting goals in life is important, Weihenmayer told the graduates that “in my life and I hope in yours, too, there has been something that’s been more important than any one goal. And that is what I would call a vision. I see a vision as being deeper than a goal. It’s where all our goals spring from, it’s how we see ourselves living our lives and serving other people and impacting the world. What kind of legacy we want to leave behind us.”

Referring to an earlier speech by Senior Class President Nickita M. Nickitas, who talked about the importance of failure to achieving success, Weihenmayer added: “I think our vision is that internal compass that guides us through good weather and, most importantly as Nick said, through bad weather. It tells us where we’re going and why it’s so important that we get there.”

The crowd that packed Goodman Stadium was rapt, as Weihenmayer described how he took a group of six blind Tibetan teenagers and trained them to climb a mountain. In Tibet, he said, superstitions still abound that blindness is a sign that evil spirits are present.

“We took them on a month-long climbing expedition,” Weihenmayer said. “We pushed through cold weather, rocky trails, across crevasse fields.”

And in the end, all six of the blind Tibertan teenagers, along with the rest of Weihenmayer’s team, stood on the north face of Mount Everest, more than 21,000 feet in the air.

“These were blind kids who were told they had evil spirits inside them, kids who were tied to beds in dark rooms, kids who were sold in and out of slavery. And they stood higher than any other team of blind people in history,” Weihenmayer recounted to enthusiastic applause.

The lesson, he said, is that “leadership is contagious. We pass it from body to body and from life to life and we give all the people around us the courage to do great things.”

A former fifth grade English and math teacher and wrestling coach, Weihenmayer today is admired worldwide for his incredible athletic accomplishments. His achievements have earned him the Helen Keller Lifetime Achievement Award, the Freedom Foundation’s Free Spirit Award, an ESPY Award, recognition by Time magazine for one of the greatest sporting achievements of 2001, induction in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Nike’s Casey Martin Award. He has also carried the Olympic torch for both the Summer and Winter Games.

An author and educator, his exploits have been the subject of two highly acclaimed documentary films.

Gast: “Make a difference in the world”

Lehigh President Alice P. Gast addresses the graduates.

In her remarks to the graduating class, Lehigh President Alice P. Gast thanked Weihenmayer, “whose eloquent words are every bit as inspiring as his adventurous and exemplary life.”

And she challenged the Class of 2007 to pledge some portion of their time and talents to improving the human condition.

“As you set out from Old South Mountain, I want you to take a moment to think about the life lessons you learned here,” she said. “And, take a moment to ponder how you will make a difference in the world. Not only in your career but with perhaps your most precious resource: your free time.”

Gast mentioned several alumni and students who have been making a difference around the world—from Cambodia to Africa, and from South Bethlehem to South Dakota.

“When you view your diploma,” Gast said, “you will see the seal of the university which carries the university motto, taken from Francis Bacon: ‘Homo minister et interpres naturae.’ Loosely translated, the motto means, ‘Man, the servant and interpreter of nature.’

“Serving one another and improving the human condition has been part of Lehigh’s legacy since its founding. Today, that legacy, handed down from generation to generation, is entrusted to you, the Class of 2007. I know that wherever you go from here, you will make a difference in the world.”

That theme carried the day, as Patrick Belmont, who received his Ph.D. in earth and environmental science, implored his classmates to, “Go do great things and do them with passion.”

Belmont, who was treasurer of the Graduate Student Senate, also called on his fellow graduates to “undo” those things that are wrong in the world. Above all, he said: “Act. Indifference is our biggest obstacle to progress.”

Fast Facts

The weather for Lehigh's 139th commencement ceremony was picture perfect.

The three-hour ceremony was held under brilliant blue skies, with a cooling breeze ... 1,170 bachelor’s degrees were conferred, along with 520 master’s degrees and 84 doctoral degrees … the Class of 2007 included students from 38 countries plus the United States … this marked the first year that the annual alumni reunion was held the weekend of commencement, and members of the Class of 1957 turned out to welcome Lehigh's newest alumni ... Thomas J. Healy Jr. '85, senior vice president of the Lehigh University Alumni Association, told the graduates: "Your Lehigh experience is not over today. It is a lifelong association." ... Michael P. Meyer, who received a bachelor's degree in French, led the attendees in singing the national anthem, the university hymn, and the alma mater during the ceremony ... Weihenmayer received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Gast … also receiving Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degrees were Harvey G. Cox Jr., who holds the oldest professorship in America in the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard, and Greg Funfgeld, artistic director and conductor of The Bach Choir of Bethlehem and The Bach Festival Orchestra since 1983 ... the Rev. Lloyd H. Steffen, university chaplain, gave the invocation and Father Wayne Killian, the university's Catholic chaplain, delivered the benediction ... James Tanenbaum, chairman of the board of trustees, officially opened the commencement ceremony ... The Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, performed for the 26th consecutive spring commencement. They are America's oldest civilian concert band, with their first documented performance on July 4, 1828.

For an interview with Erik Weihenmayer, read Climbing mountains and opening doors.

Photographs by Douglas Benedict

--Jack Croft

Posted on Monday, May 21, 2007

share this story: