Dr. Mike Davis: ‘What kind of person do you want to be?’

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mike Davis delivered this Commencement Address to the Colorado Academy Class of 2019 on June 6, 2019.

Today, we celebrate your hard work and commitment to a unique learning community. I also want to welcome our graduates, their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other family members, as well as our faculty and staff here today to celebrate a fantastic group of students—The Class of 2019.

For you students, Colorado Academy has been your home. Many of you have grown up on this campus. (Twenty-six of you have been here since Kindergarten or Pre-K. Others joined in Middle and Upper School). It has been a pure joy to watch and be part of your evolution as thinkers, artists, athletes, and innovators. So many of you have taken full advantage of all the opportunities that this school offers. Like David, I want to thank the families here for your support of Colorado Academy. By supporting your child at CA, you have made an important statement about the value of education and your belief in this school’s mission. CA is here to prepare students for life, and your graduates are ready for the next challenge.

You are ready to face the world because of the phenomenal work of our faculty and staff. The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said, “True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.” Graduations represent this “joyful collapse.” The faculty at Colorado Academy have challenged you, driven you, inspired you, supported you, and imparted their knowledge and wisdom. Their work is intentional and deliberate, and delivered with the right mix of love and challenge. I want to acknowledge the great work of our talented faculty and ask that we recognize them with a round of applause.

Ethics on the mountain

Several years ago, I heard a story of a British climber who was ascending Everest. The recent deaths on Mt. Everest during this harrowing climbing season reminded me of this exemplar of bad behavior. When asked about her journey, she noted, “There were quite a few bodies attached to the fixed lines and we had to walk around them. There were also a couple that were still alive.” This same climber described passing a dying person: “As we passed he raised his arm and looked at us….He didn’t know anyone was there. He was almost dead. He was dead when we came back down.” Climbers this season have described the same—eleven people died this season alone.

If we step back and think about it, this is a remarkable story and a shocking admission. In this interview, this climber essentially admits she refused to give aid and comfort to someone who was dying. Some people who attempt Everest are so fixated on getting to the top that they put aside a moral obligation as a human being to help others. In what other context would any of you walk by someone who was literally dying as you pursued your own goals?

One of our CA parents, the accomplished mountaineer Chris Warner, has written a book about ethics and the problems of having different ethical values on the mountain. He argues that our ethical code at 29,000 feet should be the same as it is at sea level. In this case, the climber in question and other climbers who have gone before have repeated the action of literally stepping over dying people. And they have justified their actions because stopping to help someone might undermine their own overarching goal of getting to the top.

If you read the news or are a student of history or literature, you know that this same dilemma has played out throughout human history. So, in my final moment in which I have the microphone to offer you some advice, I encourage you to think about this question: what kind of person do you want to be? I am not asking what job or career you want. I want you to think about your code for living. What will drive your decision-making as you leave Colorado Academy? There is no doubt in my mind that you have already started thinking about this. You have already faced ethical dilemmas in your life. My assumption is that you know right from wrong, but is your ethical “code” programmed into your being in such a way that you will act with right intent and action instinctively? Are you a person who steps over others on your way to the top, or a person who will do what is right even if that “right” action has negative consequences for your own immediate success, happiness, or, even, well-being?

The story of two airmen in Korea

This winter I read an amazing book about the Korean War by the author Hampton Sides. The Korean War is not well remembered, and given the current state of geo-politics, I recommend this read. There are all kinds of lessons of leadership from this conflict. I thought I would dive into a very specific story. Sometimes when people are part of a larger organization or team, inertia can drive poor decision-making. It takes a maverick—someone willing to buck the system—to do the right thing. Let’s think about our Everest climber who stepped over dying people for a moment….That person was presumably part of a larger team, and no one on that team questioned what they were doing as they walked by people who needed help. They had probably paid a lot of money in climbing fees and guides and didn’t want to squander their opportunity to get to the top.

Hampton Sides tells a story of two airmen who were part of the Chosin Reservoir fight in Korea. This was a terrible battle in which the 1st Marines—14,000 strong—were surrounded and viciously attacked by several hundred thousand Chinese soldiers. America had an advantage in air power, and the U.S. used planes to support troops on the ground. It was December 4, 1950. Two pilots—Jesse Brown and his wingman Thomas Hudner— took off from an aircraft carrier in Corsair 211s. The two men, Brown and Hudner, had flown and trained together. This day, their jobs were to stay in close radio contact and look out for each other.

Before every flight, Brown would pray. He was vice-free. Sides reports that when ordering a drink, he would say, “Make mine a gin and tonic, but hold the gin.” He had a baby girl with his wife Daisy. The night before this flight, he wrote a letter to his wife. “My own dear sweet Angel, I am so lonesome. But, I try to retrain myself and think of the fun we’re going to have when we do get together….The last few days we have been doing quite a bit of flying, trying to slow down the Chinese Communists and give support to some Marines who were surrounded. Helping those poor guys on the ground, I think every pilot here would fly until he dropped in his tracks.”

About 45 minutes into their mission, Brown and Hudner came across a village of Hagura on fire. They soon received orders to go north to attack Chinese troops descending on the village. As they dropped low, the enemy disappeared. As the pilots circled above, a lone Chinese soldier took a shot at Brown’s plane. He was hit. As oil leaked from his plane, he knew he had to get down before his engine seized. He was too low to parachute. In a calm manner, he jettisoned his fuel, his napalm bombs, and his rockets. With Hudner guiding him over the radio, Brown crash landed his plane. It was destroyed as it hit the snow covered, frozen ground. Brown was alive, but he was pinned under the aircraft.

Brown waved to his comrades flying above to signal that he was alive, but most thought he was dead, as they could not raise him on the radio. Soon after, his plane caught fire. His wingman Thomas Hudner made the decision to crash land his own aircraft to help save his comrade. He knew he could be court martialed for intentionally crashing his Corsair, but he told his squadron, “I am going in.” After surviving his landing, Hudner raced to Brown’s plane. He saw how injured Brown was and tried to free his friend. It was a desperate struggle…a race against time as the flames grew. He pulled and pulled, but could not free his friend. Hudner stayed with him as Brown died. His last words were, “Tell Daisy [his wife], I love her.”

A helicopter—a new type of vehicle in Korea—arrived and rescued Hudner. Hudner almost refused to leave the scene as they could not extricate Brown. Hudner pleaded with his superiors to let him return to retrieve Brown’s body, but he was refused. Eventually, the Navy bombarded the crash site with napalm to prevent Brown’s body and his plane from falling into enemy hands. The body was never recovered. At a memorial service on his aircraft carrier, Brown was remembered by his colleagues as “a Christian soldier, a gentleman, a shipmate, and friend….His courage and faith…shone like a beacon for all to see.”

Self-sacrifice and duty

Now, this is an amazing story of self-sacrifice. Imagine purposely crashing your own plane to save a friend. Hudner was not only entering a dangerous war zone surrounded by enemy soldiers, but also going into sub-freezing conditions with no guarantee of getting out. There is more to the story. Jesse Brown was African American. The armed forces had just desegregated, and there was still incredible resistance at the highest level of command for integrating white and black soldiers. I would imagine being a fighter pilot—a position that requires education, skill, and judgment—was probably perceived as threatening to whites of the era who harbored prejudicial worldviews. And…his wingman…Hudner…was white.

Brown was born in Mississippi. Brown had to fight for his advancement and his pilot’s wings every step of the way. One friend told him. “If Negroes can’t ride in aeroplanes, they sure ain’t gonna’ be flying one.” Let’s remember what a dangerous state Mississippi was for African Americans. From the end of the Civil War to the later part of Vietnam, there were more than 580 documented lynchings in Mississippi. He grew up in a house without power. His parents—devout Baptists—were sharecroppers and in constant debt to the landowner whose fields they worked. His parents pushed him to get a great education—understanding that to be the key to their son’s liberation. Eventually, Brown went to Ohio State—where Jesse Owens, another famous racial pioneer, attended university. Once Truman desegregated the military in 1947, Brown saw his chance and joined the Navy.

In the Navy, Brown was a minor celebrity. He had been featured in Life magazine, a popular periodical of the day. The other African Americans on his carrier, who were mostly stewards, petty officers, and mechanics, viewed him as a hero. They had all chipped into buy Brown a Rolex watch to honor him for breaking the color barrier. Brown, despite all the racism he had faced, wanted to serve his nation, as imperfect as it was.

Hudner, who tried to rescue his friend, was white. He was from Massachusetts. He was a graduate of Philips Academy. Hudner’s family was from a privileged background. His father and brothers all attended Ivy League schools. Hudner broke the mold by attending the Naval Academy. Despite his wealth, Sides writes that Hudner “had cultivated from his parents a commitment to duty and an unspoken sense of noblesse oblige.” Unlike Brown, who dreamed of flying nearly all of his life, Hudner didn’t feel that calling. In fact, he would get air sick in his early days as a pilot. He joined to meet girls. But, over time, he learned to love the experience.

When Hudner crash-landed to save Brown, he didn’t think about his own safety. He was criticized by his superior for being “reckless” in trying to save Brown’s life. But, ultimately, Hudner was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his selfless act. When I read this story, I found myself dumbstruck by the call to duty, these two soldiers’ commitment to each other, their courage, and Hudner’s loyalty to his friend. Hudner has been quoted that he never thought of himself as hero for his actions.

There are some takeaways. Both individuals had crafted a moral worldview that shaped their actions. For Brown, a sense of service to an imperfect nation. In Hudson’s case, he made a split-second decision to sacrifice himself for someone else. And, he made that decision on behalf of a person whose background was essentially the opposite of his own. Theirs was a mutual respect that comes about only when two people break through the societal barriers that isolate humans from one another—racism, prejudice, bigotry, class—and see the commonality of their human experience.

As parents and teachers, we pray that our children and students are never faced with these kinds of life-and-death choices. We want you all to live long lives, full of health, joy, peace, and happiness. But, there will be challenges—life is never simple and never easy. As you step forth from here, we are confident that no matter what you face, you are strong, smart, motivated people who have the ability, the experiences, and the moral compass to be the kind of people that make you and us proud, to make and leave this world better than you found it. Congratulations to the Class of 2019.