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Perspective | State Board of Community Colleges Vice Chair Bill McBrayer delivers commencement speech at Isothermal Community College

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Bill McBrayer’s remarks as written for delivery for the May 16, 2022 commencement at Isothermal Community College.

Good evening and congratulations to the graduating class of 2022. I realize that the only thing standing in the way of your celebration is me. I promise to make this short and sweet because 90% of you aren’t going to remember what I say and the other 10% won’t really care!

I’d like to thank President Annunziata for inviting me to speak here tonight. What an honor. As a sitting member on the State Board, it is truly a privilege to be here, not only to represent our Board but our entire community college system and its 58 colleges. Thank you so much.

Regardless of your setbacks in life, there is always hope!

I want to share with you my story in hopes that you may take away some “small nuggets” of wisdom that may give you hope for your future.

Let me first say, I was in no way an academic student. I grew up here in Forest City. I attended Rutherford County public schools and graduated from East Rutherford High School in 1976. I loved going to school because I’m a very social person and it allowed me to socialize with all my friends. I never really got into the  actual “schoolwork” part of school, and I still suffer from it to this very day. You know, a lot of the good students graduate cum-laude or sigma cum-laude. When I finally graduated it was “Thank the laude!”

I had two older sisters who graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne University, so now it was little brother’s time to go to college. After graduating from East Rutherford, I reluctantly enrolled right here, at Isothermal. I had grown up playing sports. Back then there were basically three: baseball, basketball, and football. I became fairly competitive at basketball so I decided to try out for Isothermal’s basketball team. Did you even know that you used to have a men’s basketball team? Indeed, you did. I always said, “I was number 40 in your program and number one in your heart!”

Bill McBrayer shows his jersey from Isothermal to the audience. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Playing basketball here was a bad mistake for me! I made the team and by doing so, it took me away from my studies and believe me, I needed to concentrate on my studies. Remember, I was not academically gifted. Not even close!

Nugget #1: “Life is full of choices; make sure you choose the right ones.” 

I ended up going to Isothermal for three years. I finally quit because my grades were so bad. It was not my best moment. Needless to say, my parents were very upset and disappointed with me.

I went to work for my neighbor’s LP Gas company, North State Gas. I refilled 20 pound cylinders on the loading dock; I painted gas tanks. I crawled under houses running copper gas line, and I even worked in chicken houses repairing chicken brooders. I lived at home with my parents. They made me pay them $150 a month rent which, at that time, was no small change. All along they were encouraging me to return to college. I was still thinking I didn’t need college.

I then got a job working for Northwestern Bank in Forest City. I think it’s now Wells Fargo. I was what was referred to as a “chaser” – a person who would call delinquent customers and find out when they planned on making a payment. I repossessed cars and started foreclosures on houses. It didn’t take me too long to realize that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was far too dangerous. All along my parents were encouraging me to return to college.

Nugget #2: “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”  

I still thought I could have the rainbow without returning to college. My dad ran the Western Auto in Forest City for 37 years. After high school, he enlisted in the Army and served in the South Pacific during World War II. He never attended college upon his return, something he regretted the rest of his life.

My mother worked as a librarian at RS Central. She had attended Peace College in Raleigh but never graduated. They were hell bent on their son getting a college education! My parents thought that the “male” was the main breadwinner in the family. One day they sat me down and said, “If you’re planning on going to college and if you want us to help you with it, then you need to make a decision soon.” At that moment a light went off in my head, and I knew I needed to return to school for a degree in something.  

President of Isothermal, Dr. Margaret Annunziata, had a special announcement for the vice chair of the State Board of Community Colleges. Bill McBrayer was awarded an Honorary Associate of Arts during ICC’s graduation. Courtesy of Isothermal Community College

Nugget #3: “There is never a right time to do the wrong thing and there is never a wrong time to do the right thing.” 

I thought since I had two sisters graduate from Lenoir-Rhyne that I might get in on their coat tails. So I applied. I remember sitting down with the dean of admissions, Dr. Dick Thompson.  I’ll never forget our conversation, nor did he. I had to write a paper on why I wanted to attend LR. I also had to have my transcripts sent from Isothermal to LR to help in their decision. 

Well, I hand delivered mine to Dr. Thompson. I remember him saying, “I can’t accept these because they have to be sent in by the school in which you had previously attended.” I said, “Sir, if you open the envelope, you will see that I did not alter the grades in any way or they would look much better than they do.” He laughed and agreed with me. I was later accepted, and we became good friends from then on.

Nugget # 4: The truth will set you free!”

I attended LR for four years. Few of my community college grades transferred because of how bad they were. When I finally graduated in 1985, I was 25 years old!  All my friends were already out into the “real world” working, making money and starting families. 

Nugget #5:  “It’s never too late to begin and age is just a number.”

After college, I was offered a job in Shelby running a sporting goods store.  I had worked at one in Hickory while attending LR. So, I moved to Shelby and worked there for the next two years. (I also met my wife.)

Then, one day, the president of Classic Leather Furniture called me out of the blue. He said they were looking for a young energetic person to go into their management training program.  He said his wife had mentioned my name because I was always so nice and helpful to them when she would bring their young children into the store to shop.  I mention this to you because…..

Nugget #6: “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,”always put your best foot forward,” and “always treat others as you would want to be treated.” 

Going the extra mile led me to a better job. I started work at Classic Leather in 1987. I worked in the purchasing of leather hides. I later worked in the sales aid department and traveled the country with the sales force helping with catalogs and swatches. I ended my career there in human resources. One day the same president who hired me called me in his office to tell me he was laying me off. I was a victim of company downsizing.  

Nugget #7: One of the deepest drives in human nature is the desire to be appreciated.”

Wow! Devastation, panic set into motion. I felt I was no longer appreciated. I was a newlywed with a house payment, and now I had no job. How was I going to tell my wife? What was I going to do? I began to feel sorry for myself and thought I was unworthy of “the good life.” I remember praying about what God had in store for me next. Not too long after my termination, I woke up one morning and told myself,

Nugget #8: “You can be bitter, or you can be better.”   

I chose the latter. I would get up at my normal time and make a list of people I knew. I would call them and tell them I was out of work. I went on numerous interviews always continuing to reach out to folks in my community. I wanted everybody to know I was looking for work.

During my fourth week out of work, I got a call from a guy in my Sunday school class telling me about this job at Lexington Home Brands. I sent in a resume and later received a call for an interview. Now, is this a small world or what? The vice president of human resources was a Lenoir-Rhyne graduate! We hit it off great, and I ended up as the “chosen one.” I have been at Lexington ever since. That vice president of human resources is no longer with the company, but we have remained friends to this day. In this world of ours, it’s very important to network.  I’m always telling our two sons, 

Nugget #9:  “It’s not always what you know, but who you know.” 

This still rings so true in my life today. Today, I am the human resource, safety, health, and environmental manager. I love what I do as well as well as who I do it for. I’ve been with the company for 27 and a half years. I encourage each of you to try and procure a job that gives you meaning and purpose in life.

Nugget #10: Life is too short to be miserable.”

I was reminded of this when I attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event a few years ago in Hickory. The guest speaker was Clemson’s head football coach, Dabo Sweeny. He gave us many nuggets that evening, but I remember one in particular. He said he loved to eat those sour gummy bears. He spoke of how he would pucker when he first put them in his mouth but later the sourness went away and they tasted sweet. Then he said, 

Nugget #11: “Life is like a sour gummy bear, you have to suck through the sour to get to the sweet.”

In closing, if you’ve heard nothing I’ve said to this point, please grasp the following because the following will sustain you throughout your life. Whatever you do with your life, do it with gusto. Famous motivational speaker, Dale Carnegie said, “If you act enthusiastic, then you’ll be enthusiastic.” 

Nugget #12: “It’s your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude in life.”  

If you choose a job or a career and it’s not what you thought it would be, choose something else. Try to enjoy what you do. Work is only work when you’d rather be doing something else.  Again, life is too short to be miserable. Don’t get into a rut. National radio host and best-selling author, Dave Ramsey, says “A rut is an open-ended grave!”

I try to live by the Boy Scout Law, and I challenge each of you to do the same. Always be: “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” How can you fail if you possess all these qualities?

I have five more nuggets to take with you before you make your walk. When you’re out there in the world going to your next college or your next job…..

  1. “Remember that a person’s name is to them the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
  2. Don’t be shy: “A question not asked is information not learned.”
  3. “Possess a firm handshake and look people in the eye.”
  4. “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
  5. “One is rich, not through one’s possessions, but through that of which one can with dignity do without.”

And for good measure, last but not least,

“Service to humanity is the best work of life!”

So as you leave here this evening, please continue to learn something each and every day.  Your college’s motto is similar to one of mine. It reads, “Improve Life through Learning.”  One of mine is, “Education is the Pathway to a Better Future.” You can’t go wrong with either!

Thank you again, good luck, and go Patriots!

The video below includes McBrayer’s commencement address to Isothermal Community College graduates. His remarks begin at the 44:50 mark.

Bill McBrayer

Bill McBrayer is vice chair of the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges.