Commencement speaker, Woo: Boilermakers are the backbone

Alumna Carolyn Woo, CEO of Catholic Relief Services, gave these remarks at Purdue’s winter commencement on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015 

President Daniels, thank you very much for this special recognition, which moves me deeply. As you can tell, I spent many years at Purdue University from the time I was 18, through my 20s, 30s and into my 40s. I last stood at this commencement exercise in May of 1997 when Dr. Beering, president then, bid me a special farewell. Purdue is home, where I came from and where I got my start. Now, to return and be welcomed in such fashion, touches me beyond words. 

Last week I found out that Fr. Phil Bowers would deliver the invocation. I could not be happier. You see, when I came from Hong Kong as an 18-year-old and knew not a soul, Fr. Phil was one of the first persons I met. It was on a distressing day when I ended up in the Bands Office trying to locate the place to register for classes. Feeling inept, alone and missing home, tears came on their own. The staff person was very kind and asked if I belong to any church. I said Catholic, and she immediately called St. Tom's and pointed out the way to what would be become my shelter and community that spawned life-long friends and a husband. I met Fr. Phil on that first day and now, 43 years later, he is still the inspiration for my husband and me as to how to live our faith.

Last but not least, my thanks to the graduates, your spouses, significant others, parents, relatives and friends who honor me with the privilege of being a part of this special occasion. This is a notable milestone for you and your families. Today is not a reflection of just the candidates' accomplishments, but a celebration of the collective hopes and aspirations, sacrifices, encouragement, challenges and love that compose each step of our graduates' journeys, from the first moments when your parents held you, looked at you and called you by name.

This commencement program that you are holding is a very special memento. I found that out when I discovered it in my father's treasure box when he passed away and again among my sister's memory chest when she succumbed to a stroke two years ago. This is a moment so filled with love that I hope you will make a special effort to lock this in your heart and know the real power that has brought you to this point and sends you forth into the next stage of your lives. 

As a Boilermaker, have you wondered what this term means? And more important what it calls you to be?

Where does the name "Boilermaker" come from? While there are scores of legends, my research suggests that the idea originated from a football game in Crawfordsville against Wabash in 1889. After a bruising loss to Purdue, Wabash students gave Purdue players names such as blacksmiths, farmers, hayseeds, cornfield sailors, pumpkin shuckers, railsplitters, foundry molds and boilermakers. Losses continued, and in 1891, after Purdue logged a 44-0 victory over Wabash, a local newspaper led with the headline, "Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue." The name stuck.

There were also rumors that Purdue hired railroad workers, real boilermakers, to play on its football team. This was not true as the Monon Railway Station was not built until four years later.  What could have caused the confusion was that from 1891 to 1897, Purdue kept a fully operational steam locomotive for hands-on education and research. This tells us that research has been a part of the Purdue tradition from its earliest days!  

What I recall most about the definition of a Boilermaker came from a marketing firm brought in to do a branding study for the Krannert School Master in Business programs when I was the director.  With much anticipation, we finally got the recommendation. With complete confidence, they unveiled the moniker, the Boilermakers are of course the “BACKBONE OF INDUSTRY.”  

Wow: what a powerful image! I loved it immediately: I could not think of something more descriptive and appropriate. Unfortunately, I took on a different job at the Provost’s Office before I could implement the marketing plan.

Think about what the backbone does.

* It enables movement and coordination

* supports the head and makes it possible for the neck to turn and pivot quickly

* it supports the central nervous system, which directs the functions of every cell, organ and tissue

* it provides for the attachment of the shoulder and pelvic girdles and many muscles

Now the marketing firm probably got the idea by looking at the university profile and history.  After all, Purdue is known as the "cradle of astronauts," having produced the most number except for the military academies and MIT. One of every 50 engineers graduated from Purdue University, and it also produced the largest number of women engineers in the country. 

A little scratch beneath the surface will show that Purdue was the first to create a computer science department and started WBAA, the longest operating radio station in Indiana, 18 months after radio broadcasting was launched in the US. For all of us who now take television for granted, research at Purdue led to the first transmission of a black and white TV picture. There are, of course, many more such accomplishments that compelled the descriptor, BACKBONE of INDUSTRY.

Wanting to test the audience reaction, I went around and probed my colleagues:  What is your experience of Purdue as the “BACKBONE of INDUSTRY?” 

One said: “We don’t say much but get the work done.”

Another: “We punch above our weight.”

“We make a dollar go a long way.”

“We don’t brag.”

“We are all substance: There is not much “fru-fru” about us.”

For me, BOILERMAKERS as the backbone of industry means three things.


1. Boilermakers are problem solvers

If there is a problem, we step up.  We bring our best thinking, honed through rigorous analytical training and grounded in the practical. You might find a Boilermaker mulling a problem but not wringing our hands. A Boilermaker reaches for the conceptual and physical tools of our profession, not pontificating to hear ourselves talk. 

The Krannert School, for example, made its reputation by pioneering the application of quantitative research to make sense of data when the field was steeped in anecdotes and personal observations.  

My mentor, Dr. Robert Ringel, executive vice president for academic affairs, maintained his research interest as an audiologist until the end of his life. At that time, he sought to calibrate the morbidity and progression of throat cancer by tracking the voice quality and changes of his patients. The findings would enable a much cheaper and earlier diagnosis of cancer. 

I bet for many in the audience, as it is for me, writing is not easy.  Do you know that Purdue University started the first Online Writing Lab (OWL) to provide resources on grammar, composition, style guides, English as a second language, job search and professional writing. Today, OWL draws people from 125 countries and receives about 250 million hits a year. 

Noting a particular need, three Purdue students - Arthur Bond, Edward Barnette and Fred Cooper - took it upon themselves to found the National Society for Black Engineers, which today has grown to over 10,000 members in over 250 chapters. 

It is this quality of practical and rigorous problem-solving that renders Purdue University one of CRS's most active partners as we jointly tackle the challenges of eliminating extreme poverty around the world. 

So it should not be surprising that, with its spirit of problem-solving and broad research tradition, the Purdue University system secured 93 patents in 2014, placing it 16th in the world and ahead of Carnegie-Mellon, New York University, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, or powerhouses in the research triangle including the University of North Carolina and Duke; as well as Ivies such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Cornell. Over 240 innovations by faculty and staff members are expected to be licensed to businesses and 40 start-ups were launched.  This is problem-solving at the frontier! 

2. Boilermakers take on the tough challenges 

The Boilermakers can also be counted on to go the extra mile beyond what a job would require. It is that “stick to it-ness” that sees a problem to its full resolution, that elicits courage to face unknown challenges, and that which breeds trust by others. 

It is this “right stuff” that led Purdue alumnus, Chesley “Sulley” Sullenberger III to set the plane down safely on the Hudson River after geese took out both engines of the plane. 

It is for the same qualities that Purdue alum Elwood Mead was put in charge of the construction of the Hoover Dam and Purdue faculty Charles Ellis drew up specifications for the Golden Gate Bridge. Both were counted at one time among the SEVEN WONDERS of the MODERN WORLD. 

It is no coincidence that Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the moon, as well as Jerry Ross, who had the most number of space walks, are Boilermakers. 

The courage needed was long evident in Purdue alumnus Cliff Turpin, who helped the Wright Brothers build and test their flying machine in 1903 and set the world record for an altitude of 9,400 feet in 1911 in an airplane made of wood and canvas. 

Such qualities are recognized and tapped in corporate America with many Forbes 800 corporate chief executives holding Purdue undergraduate degrees. 

Today, the tradition of courage and commitment to country and society continues. While many bemoan the out-of-control costs of university tuition and accept this as inevitable, Purdue President Mitch Daniels shows them the better way, actually the more responsible way, by holding tuition flat while growing the reputation and accomplishments of a top rate university.

3. Boilermakers care deeply. 

The first words that come to my mind whenever I think of Purdue University are THANK YOU. You see, I came here with only one year of tuition. Purdue gave me the scholarships that enabled the completion of not only one, but three degrees. As a foreign student lost in the American campus culture, I needed guidance and hospitality. 

I received both in full measures, starting with the very first academic counselor I met, kind professor Glenn Griffin in the School of Humanities and Social Science. He and his wife, Florence, took me to the Horticulture Park that evening, helped me see beauty rather than panic; introduced a place of respite for me, and took me home for tea and cookies. From then on, they invited my friends every year on my birthday. 

My counselor and friends at the residence hall checked on me until I got my footing. More as affirmation rather than recognition, they voted me “resident of the year” and placed my name on a plaque in Meredith Hall. Through that gesture, I felt that I was claimed, that I belonged, that Purdue had become home. 

I encountered the generosity and commitment of the Purdue community EVERY DAY in my tenure here. My professors mentored me, gave me excellent guidance; literally walked me into the highly competitive world of research.  The central administration created opportunities for me to grow into the roles and responsibilities of academic administration.  President Beering, Dr. Ringel and Dr. Ford were themselves the examples of doing the right thing for the right reasons. After I left Purdue, President Beering nominated me for the corporate board he was on, and Dr. Ringel came to visit me at Notre Dame, making clear that he and the Purdue leadership were with me on this journey.


Now, to our graduates:  

* Know where you come from

* know the commitments, hard work and dreams that form you

* know the legacy that is now yours as Purdue graduates

* know the many who come before you to define what it means to be a Boilermaker.


Now it is your turn:

* to add new chapters,

* to give fresh illustrations,

* to not only fulfill but raise the expectations that come with this special label: Boilermakers, a special and privileged community that can be counted on to serve as Backbone of industry, Backbone of Society.


Do not be indifferent, step up to the problems.

Go beyond the tried and true. You were educated to push the frontier,

Do not be afraid. Stay the course and stand for what is right because you care enough.

Pay forward, be generous, and lead from a heart of blessings.