Commencement talk: common-sense excellence

Dr. Rick Rigsby, who gave the commencement address Friday, spoke about some of the greatest lessons he learned from a third-grade dropout -- his father.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Slaven Gujic

GCU News Bureau

Life’s nuggets of wisdom – you never know where you'll find them.

Dr. Rick Rigsby seemed to draw endless amounts of them out of his back pocket Friday during his keynote talks at Grand Canyon University commencement. He quoted from the biggies when it comes to wisdom conveyance: Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Swift, George Washington Carver and even baseball hero Ozzie Smith.

Rigsby told graduates to make an impact in this world and to glorify God, not yourself.

But Rigsby, motivational speaker, author and pastor, found the simplest, common-sense, yet most profound words of wisdom from a third-grade dropout: his father.

“My father was the wisest man I ever met in my life. He taught me that you can take academic knowledge, and you can combine that with a grandma – 'Big Mama,' 'Madea,' I don’t care what you call her. You combine that with the wisdom of a grandfather, the wisdom of a mom, the wisdom of a dad, and what that does is it puts you in a position to glorify the Lord while devoting your life to helping each other.”

Rigsby spoke highly of his father, who grew up in Texas “during a time when rural America was breathing the last gasp of the Civil War.” His dad decided “he was going to be a man,” and after serving in World War II moved to San Francisco, where he fell in love with a forklift driver: “My mother was a bad mamma jamma, let me tell you,” said Rigsby, who peppered his funny, engaging, spirit-filled and emotionally touching speech with not just wisdom but anecdotes about getting his son to clean the toilet and testing out this new thing called Cheese Whiz at the school dance.

His dad ended up getting a job as a cook at the California Maritime Academy, which trained merchant seamen. At the height of his career, he made $500 a month but “sailed the world 10 times over and learned five foreign languages.”

Listen to these lessons from a third-grade dropout, he told the bright-eyed December 2017 graduates:

  • His dad told Rigsby, “ 'Don’t judge. … Son, I’ve been all over the world and seen good and bad in every shade.' … By the way, young folks, if what you see is all you see, then you don’t see all there is to be seen. There’s a world out there that needs the salt of Jesus. There’s a world out there that needs the light of Jesus, and if we’re busy judging, all we’re doing is putting our earbuds in and our blinders on. … Then that third-grade dropout dropped Jonathan Swift on me. He said on one occasion, 'Vision is the ability to see the invisible. Don’t judge.'”
  • He also told him, “'Son, you’d rather be an hour early than a minute late.' Look at me, graduates. Don’t ever show up on time. That’s mediocre. That’s basic minimum required. Show up early. It communicates something about you to the people that you’re privileged to serve.”
  • Rigsby also said, “You’re being charged today to let your light shine in such a way that men will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (from Matthew 5:16). You can do that by not judging. You can do that by showing up early. … You can do that by being kind. Kind deeds are never lost. Just be kind to people.”

Beyond finding wisdom in unexpected places – Rigsby said, “Wisdom will wrap itself in the unlikeliest of gift wraps” – he wanted to emphasize living an excellent life. His father taught him that if you’re going to do something, do it right and that, “You are what you repeatedly do, therefore excellence ought to be a habit, not an act,” from American writer and historian Will Durant.

In living that excellent life and taking from the wisdom of academia and fathers, mothers and grandparents, he thought it important, too, to tell graduates to make an impact in the world, but all while glorifying God and not yourself.

Rigsby, who lives in Texas, said after Friday’s morning commencement that his parents made an immense impact on his life. When he was growing up, he just wanted to be in a band, but they had other plans for him.

“I wanted to party but my parents said, ‘No. You will go to college, and you will be great, and you will amount to something.’ They raised the expectations. There were 40 kids on my block. Only three kids went to college, and two of them were from our family.”

He remembers how his mom recognized he was a good speaker early on, though if you ask him about it, he said he doesn’t see himself as a gifted speaker.

“You talk about godly wisdom, and I hope this will bless parents. My mother realized I had a gift, because when I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, I talked very proper. People made fun of me, so my mother said, ‘Honey, two things – you make fun of yourself first and eventually you’ll have them laughing, and second, God gave you that gift, and one of these days, Ricky, you’re going to speak all over the world for his glory.”

Rigsby was a college professor for two decades, many of those years at Texas A&M University, where he also served as a character coach and chaplain for the Aggies football team.

His mom, Rigsby said, made it her mission to make sure he was in a position to speak in front of people as often as he could. He couldn’t just be on the football team, he had to be the captain of the team because he would have to speak in front of people. He couldn’t just be on the junior usher board, he had to be the president of the junior usher board because the president had to speak in front of the congregation.

“So every organization I was part of, my mother, an uneducated but godly woman, said you will be in leadership because leaders of organizations have to speak. She saw – and you really have to hear me – she saw God’s gift in me, and it was her appointed duty to prepare me as best she could.”

And Rigsby was prepared.

He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, focusing his studies on critical media protest movements of the 20th century. He also holds a seminary degree from Liberty University.

Rigsby spent seven years as a television news reporter. But after marrying and having children, his priorities changed.

“My children were small. I never saw them. Holidays meant work, so when you are in television or print (journalism), Mother’s Day was covering a ballgame or Christmas was just another day.”

So he became a college professor and worked in academia for two decades, most of those years at Texas A&M University, where he was character coach and chaplain for the Aggies football team.

He also wrote the book "Lessons From a Third-Grade Dropout," about his biggest hero, his dad.

Besides his father, Rigsby said the second greatest source of wisdom for him was his wife, Trina Williams, a nursing student. He said he knew he didn’t have a chance with her but, dressed in his purple leisure suit, approached her and asked if she wanted to dance. She said yes.

“Trina was the first woman in college that gave me her actual, real telephone number,” he said with a laugh.

After four years in college – when she was a senior and he was still a freshman (“I was working things out”), he joked – she said yes when he proposed.

They had a fairy-tale life, but then “in the midst of that fairy tale, Trina found a lump in her left breast.”

He remembers the words that have stuck with him: “Two days before Trina died, no hair because of chemo, her tummy pooched because of her liver not working … she looked at me and said these words: 'It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me is how I live.'”

At her funeral, Rigsby said his father told him, in the toughest days of his life: “Son, just stand.” And he might not have stood without his faith in God and his children.

“Listen to me, GCU, you can stand it. No matter what, you can stand it.”

And look what happened to Rigsby: He told the audience that shortly after Trina passed away, he met another amazing woman, Janet. She adopted his two sons, fulfilling Trina's dying wish to have a mother for her children, and she and Rick have had two more sons.

Rigsby said he wanted to shake everyone’s hand after commencement, and although he didn’t quite meet everyone, he greeted a lot of those in the audience. They, in turn, told him how his talk brought them to tears, how he moved them, how they laughed.

In closing his talk, Rigsby said, “Graduating class of Grand Canyon University, 2017, I want to ask you one question: How are you living? Here’s how I hope and pray you’re living. That you’re not judging folks, that you show up early, that you’re kind to people, that your servant’s towel is always on display, that whatever you do, you do to the very best of your ability, and friends, when you live like that … everyone that you encounter will say, 'Surely I am in the presence of almighty God.' Go for it with everything you’ve got.”

You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at (602) 639-7901 or at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.


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