Jane (Breckenridge) Eisner '64

Remarks to Graduates, May 21, 2017

Thank you, President Fox.

Good morning to the faculty, fellow honorees, parents, family and friends of the graduates … but most of all, good morning to the class of 2017.

It is a real thrill to return to these hallowed halls where I graduated centuries ago and to share with you all the wisdom I’ve gained since then … in five minutes.

I asked my St. Lawrence roommate and still BFF, Judy Hart Angelo, for advice on how she dealt with this challenge when she was honored here three years ago. She sagely replied, "Just tell stories … stories connect people."

So, as usual, I will take Judy’s advice to heart… and will tell you four stories.

First, there's this one from a few weeks ago when I had a date with my six-year-old granddaughter, Scarlet.

We were working on one of those incredibly intricate “adult” coloring books when I got a little frustrated and whined about how difficult it was, Scarlet calmly turned to me and said, "Jana, all you need to do is believe in yourself and you can do it.”

It’s taken me some time to catch up with Scarlet’s philosophy. I have a tendency to be a very linear thinker. I want to understand how everything is going to work out before taking a first step. Sometimes, this means I take no step at all.

This not only gets in the way of progress, but it makes it tricky to experience and snatch the opportunity provided by one of life’s greatest and most mysterious gifts: Serendipity.

St. Lawrence diploma in hand, primed for the next chapter in my life, I was ready to step outside the line into a Serendipitous adventure and story number two.

It started the day after my graduation. I just got on a bus and headed to New York City with my two best college friends – Judy and Karen Urciuoli.

We had no plans but a suitcase full of audacity.

The three of us found a furnished one-bedroom apartment above a liquor store on Lexington Avenue. There, we scoured the New York Times classified section for any possible jobs.

Notice I said jobs, not careers.

I landed one at Met Life as something called a computer programmer. Just a few years earlier, this job category literally didn’t exist.

I worked with a bunch of fellow nerds developing a computer language for the insurance industry … working with a giant mainframe stretching from 23rd Street to 24th Street that I’m sure was less powerful than a Fitbit.

A few months later, I was at a party where I serendipitously met a young man named Michael Eisner. His job at NBC TV was logging every time a commercial appeared on the air and whether it was in black and white or in color.

We took a risk together, and have been married for 50 years.

There’s a good reason I was being more spontaneous. And this concerns my third story:

You see, my roommate Karen had Hodgkin’s Disease. But she didn’t let this get in her way. I figured, if Karen wasn’t going to be derailed by this giant boulder in her path, how could I let myself trip over life’s pebbles?

Karen was an incredible role model. She was able to be flexible, nimble, extremely clever and funny, and kept moving forward despite her challenging situation. She went on to graduate school, married, had a daughter and lived a very rich life, until finally she pushed that boulder as far as she could. But that didn’t end her story. There is a scholarship here in Karen’s name through which her impact lives on.

Karen never met my granddaughter Scarlet, but I am pretty sure they would be soul mates.

And this brings me to the fourth story: Yours.

Let’s be clear, I understand that, as you are about to leave this beautiful, stimulating and secure place, the world can look pretty scary. Just know that this is nothing new.

In 1964, there was a terrifying nuclear arms race, our president, John F. Kennedy, had just been assassinated and men were being drafted to fight in the divisive Vietnam war. On a more personal level, there were very few career opportunities for women. One classmate of mine aspiring to be a doctor had to earn money for med school working as a stripper!

So, if you’re nervous and unsure about what you’ll be doing after you wake up tomorrow morning, that’s really OK.

Just don’t be afraid to be unafraid, as you set out and take your next steps that will lead to your next next steps.

And, while you’re stepping out, always try to remember to be grateful. This will help make you happy, healthy and resilient.

I now want to express how appreciative I am to SLU for the opportunity given to me half a century ago and for this humbling honor today.

Like me, for the rest of your lives, you can be grateful for the time you spent at this extraordinary institution.

But most of all, as you leave this place, remember Story Number One and the wise words of a six-year-old: “Believe in yourself, and you can do it.”

Keep this in mind and I am confident that, starting tomorrow, your non-linear, serendipitous, grateful story will be a fantastic one!

Thank you very much.