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A Lifetime of Achievement

My wife and I had the opportunity to attend a black-tie dinner this weekend in honor of four graduates of Auburn University that received the Lifetime Achievement Award.  It was an inspirational evening as we listened to these men talk about the role that education played in their success.  
This seems a fitting topic as our area high schools prepare to graduate yet another class before sending them out into the world.  Many have jobs already and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Others have plans to attend college or technical schools to better prepare themselves for this increasingly competitive world   
There are a few that are still finding their way and aren’t sure what their next step will be.  That is more common than we would like to admit but we know they still have dreams and aspirations for their own lives.
Every university and college has produced graduates that excelled in their chosen field.  This isn’t an article about Auburn.  It is an article about the common thread of extraordinary men and women and how we can all learn from them.
The first honoree was Larry Benefield, who came from modest beginnings.  His father only finished the third grade and his mother finished high school.  Their dream for the oldest of their five children was to get an engineering degree.   He didn’t just fulfill their wish, he also got a Master’s Degree and then a PhD.  
After a distinguished career, he came back to Auburn and rose to the position of Dean of the School of Engineering.  He is widely credited with helping Auburn’s Engineering School become ranked as one of the top 20 schools in the country.
Next was John Brown, also of modest beginnings, who rose to become Chairman of Stryker Corporation.  You may not have heard of this company, but he took it from sales of $17 million to becoming a world leader in biomedical engineering with sales of almost $10 billion and over 16 thousand employees.
Tim Cook may not be a name you are familiar with, but the company that he leads is certainly known around the world.  He is the CEO of Apple, the most valuable company on earth and one that has changed the way we talk, learn and play.  
Finally, an athlete whose name is forever linked with Auburn was honored: Pat Sullivan.  Sullivan was Auburn’s first Heisman Trophy winner, but has also led a life full of purpose and meaning.  While he is the head coach of Samford University, he has remained closely linked with his alma mater.
I took notes during their incredible speeches, wondering if they shared anything in common.  What was the secret of their great success?   Was there any lesson for those following in their footsteps?  The answer was yes; in more ways than one.
All of them talked about ethics and values.   They were all passionate about their chosen careers.  They had high expectations of those they led and more importantly, of themselves.   Without exception, they gave credit to their parents, their spouses, and their children.  
They gave credit to their teachers, their mentors, and their friends.   They all acknowledged that they stood on the shoulders of those who had influenced their lives.  
Most importantly, without exception they credited their education for giving them a chance to compete and succeed.  Not just their time at Auburn, but their passion for continued learning no matter where they went.
My favorite line of the night came from one of my heroes, Tim Cook of Apple.   He said that Auburn was not a place; it was a spirit.
My hope for all the young people about to graduate from high school is that they can capture that spirit of learning and be inspired to be more than they could have ever imagined.   Perhaps, one day, we will watch with pride as they accept an award for their own lifetime of achievement.  
    Dan Ponder can be reached at

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