University of Illinois Commencement Speech

University of Illinois – College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of Economics 2019 Graduation Commencement Speech 

Delivered by: Steve Thayer

Welcome everyone and thank you Marty for the opportunity to speak to your graduating class today. So, it turns out that if you want to give a graduation speech, you have to run it by Marty, and if Marty asks you to make a change, you have to say Yes Marty. As we were emailing back and forth, however, I kept calling him Perry and he kept calling himself Marty, it turns out he was right, his name is Marty. Now, in my defense, he is the only person I know with two first names, and two last names, Martin Perry, Perry Martin, could go either way. Even his email shows up as Perry, Martin.

Anyway, after reading my first speech, he said it was ok, but asked me to remove all of my jokes about Economists. For example, I had a joke about how Economists like to make predictions, but that they aren’t always right, and that if you are a really bad economists you should just be weatherman because they are hardly ever right. But Marty was worried that we might offend the weathermen in the audience. Seriously, if you are a weatherman and you can’t take a joke about the weather, you should be an economics professor.

I sort of felt like Alec Baldwin from Saturday night live all dressed up like President Trump, and then being told right before he goes on stage, whatever you do tonight, don’t make fun of the President.

After reading my second speech, Marty said it was much better, but that it wasn’t very funny. Seriously Marty, you took out all of my jokes. So, I decided I was just going to make fun of Perry today, I mean Marty.


In all seriousness, my first question to the undergraduate candidates today is why are you leaving college? This is one of the best times of your life. I want to go back to college. I have two sons at Illinois now, and I couldn’t be more jealous of them. It’s not too late to back out of the graduation ceremony today and stay in school. Marty asked me to tell you that it’s also not too late to sign up for a Master of Science in Policy Economics, one of the top 10 professional econ master’s degree programs in the United States.

I was going to recommend Billiards, Golf, and Swimming, but do whatever makes you happy. Just don’t be in a rush to leave school.

Graduate Students

For the graduate students who are getting Masters and PHD’s, you are amazing, you should be proud of your education. But seriously, it’s time to get a job.


Parents, you must be so proud of your graduates. As a parent, with a senior who is not graduating today, I can think of $30,000 reasons you should be excited to see your kids walk across this stage. But don’t get too excited, some of them are coming back home! You might need to stock the fridge with some frozen pizzas and get ready for some late nights.

Remember the We

Graduates, before you move on, I encourage you to look back and remember the people who helped you get here today. Your teachers, your coaches, your family, and your friends. Without those people, and $30,000 check from someone each year, you might not be here today. Without those people, there would be no one to celebrate this moment with. Remember that you are never alone, the people who made a difference in your life are with you today. They are part of who you are. Take a moment to remember them, and thank them, for helping you get here today. Give a special thanks to your mother, especially tomorrow on Mother’s Day.

The Challenge – Helping Others

As you leave here today, I challenge you to start thinking about all of the people that you are going to help. I challenge you to Think WE, Not Me. I remember when I was sitting in your shoes, I was focused on me and how I was going to get through life. I spent the next 30 years of my life realizing that it wasn’t all about me. I learned that true happiness in life is about WE, not Me. It’s about being a part of a family, a community, a team, and sharing life with others.

My Family

My first experience with We was getting married and starting a family. When I got married to my wife Barb, I learned that it was 70% about me, and 30% about Barb, I mean 50% me and 50% Barb, ok fine, it was 30% me and 70% Barb. After having kids, I realized it was actually all about them. The joke in our house is whose turn is it to play with daddy? I’m lucky to have 3% now. Speaking of family, my wife Barb and my three children, Ben, Ryan, and Sydney, are with us today to help celebrate this moment. I know they are also slightly petrified that I’m going to say something that will embarrass them. Barb is the executive director of the Robert Crown Center for Health Education that educates over 80,000 children every year on sex education, and drug and alcohol awareness. I’m sure some of you remember going to the Robert Crown Center – If anyone wants to rehash the conversation about puberty, Barb is right over there, I’m sure she would be happy to talk to you. In other words, avoid this section of the Gym. My son Ben is a senior in engineering physics at Illinois and has decided to stick around for another semester to get a degree in Entrepreneurship. When Ben was 10 he wanted to build the Human Duplicator. We thought that was funny until he started explaining how scientists had already duplicated goats and that he wanted to go to Home Depot to pick up some supplies to get started. Today he just wants to invent something that will allow everybody to have everything.

My son Ryan just finished his sophomore year in the Investment Banking Academy at Illinois and is headed to NY this summer for a private equity internship. Ryan’s plan is to make a lot of money investing in Ben’s ideas. My daughter Sydney will be a senior in high school, then on her way to Washington D.C. to pursue a political science degree at a school near DC. Sydney is going to make sure Ryan gives at least half of his money back to the government and the people. So, we have an Entrepreneur, an Investment Banker and Politician. That reminds me of a joke, a Socialist, a Republican, and a Democrat walk into a bar, and the bartenders says, look, it’s the Thayers! Put them in the back room and if they ever make it out alive, we will finally know what to do with our country.

In all honesty, I couldn’t be more proud of my family and the things they are doing with their lives. My family has taught me that WE is more fun than Me.

Our Family Financial Crisis

When I was sitting in your shoes, I was happy just to get a college degree. During my senior year of high school my dad was defrauded in a business venture and lost everything. Our house was being foreclosed upon and we had no money to pay for college.

I had an older sister, Sue, who was at Illinois studying accounting, until she got financially expelled because she couldn’t pay for school. I was just about to start college and quickly realized that if I wanted to go to college, I had to get a job.


My sister and I were both fortunate to find a job at a company called Attorneys Title Guaranty Fund, ATG, a local title insurance company. One of my high school teachers knew that we needed help and recommended us for the job. I started making copies and mowing their lawn, then managed their warehouse, helped out with shareholder meetings, worked on mailings, and ended up helping them recruit lawyers throughout the state to be title insurance agents. I worked every summer break, winter break, and most spring breaks to make sure I had enough money to pay for school.

If it wasn’t for ATG and the people there who believed in me and took care of me, I wouldn’t have made it through college. My sister was able to finish school in accounting and went on to be an SEC auditor for KPMG, where she still works today. ATG ended up hiring a bunch of my friends who needed jobs and helped them get through school as well.

I learned that being a part of a company that cared about their people and their success meant everything. A place where We mattered. Thank you ATG.

Graduating From College

I finally graduated with a degree in Economics, but wasn’t able to find a job, in part, because I wasn’t the best student. Working my way through school had taken a toll on my grades, especially my freshman year when I got a bunch of Cs.

I turned to ATG and asked them if I could keep my job, and move to their Chicago office, so that I could go to law school at DePaul University. They agreed, so I went to law school in the morning, worked at ATG in the afternoon, and then decided to go to business school to get an MBA at night. In my last year of graduate school I decided to finally leave ATG and take an internship with The Quaker Oats Company in their legal department. That ended up being a great internship but unfortunately the legal department didn’t offer permanent positions to 1st year lawyers. They had free Oatmeal and Gatorade, but no permanent jobs in the legal department.

The general counsel was nice enough to recommend me for a job in Quaker’s mergers and acquisitions department. But when I met with the head of that department, he started the interview by saying Steve, sorry for the mix up, I know the legal department really likes you, but we only hire A student’s from the top 5 business schools in the country, and DePaul isn’t one of those schools. I was devastated to realize that an MBA/JD degree from DePaul meant nothing to Quaker Oats.

I then loaded up on free Oatmeal and Gatorade and sent out over 500 resumes to different companies and law firms. I even snuck into Northwestern’s placement office to get their job postings. I finally, got a job offer from a small law firm in Chicago. Unfortunately, the day I started everyone was leaving and the firm was falling apart.

I decided to stick around and start my own law firm which later grew into the firm where I practice law today. Starting my own law firm wasn’t a dream of mine, it was just the best opportunity available to me at that time.

The next 25 years of my life was a roller coaster ride, filled with unexpected events, some good, some bad. No matter what happened, there was always another opportunity around the corner.

Lessons Learned

What I learned is that life is a lot like Economics, your predictions and forecasts don’t always come out the way you planned. You sometimes find yourself in an unexpected situation filled with new issues, new problems, and new opportunities.

I learned that there are two ways to respond to everything that happens in life, you can respond with fear which causes you to panic, or you can respond with faith which leads to opportunity. I learned to believe that life will always work out, just not always the way you planned it. I learned to always be on the lookout for new opportunities, especially when things are not going according to plan.

My high school football coach, Tommy Stuart, who is also a UI Graduate and who played in the 1947 Rose Bowl, told me that when an opportunity presents itself, you have to take advantage of it. On the football field, it’s that moment when you are losing the game, but then suddenly recover a fumble, or intercept a pass, then march the ball into the endzone to get back into the game. In life, it’s that moment when you feel doomed and overwhelmed, but then suddenly you see a new opportunity that allows you get back on track and find a new path.

Today, you begin a new journey with new challenges, and new opportunities. My only advice is that you seize the moment and take advantage of the best opportunities that are available to you today, and if those don’t work out find another one, and if those don’t work out, find another one. Expect the unexpected and always make the best of your situation.

And remember that you are not alone. Life is a team sport. Ask for help when you need it, and help others when they need help. Think We, Not Me.

Speaking of We, the University of Illinois has one of the largest alumni organizations in the country with alumni clubs all over the world. I joined the Chicago Illini Club and it changed my life forever. Your relationship with Illinois has only just begun. Take advantage of the Illini network and use it to help bring the world down to size.

Let me be the first to welcome you to the University of Illinois as an Alumni. Congratulations to the graduates, the parents, the teachers, the coaches, and all of the people that made this possible today. Together, We did it. Together, We celebrate. Thank you for letting me be a part of your celebration.