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U of U Commencement Remarks Delivered by the Honorable Michael O. Leavitt Secretary of Health and Human Services

May 5, 2006 — First, an expression of heartfelt appreciation to President Young, the Board of Regents, University faculty, and the student body for the profound honor you have afforded me today by presenting me with an honorary degree. I am also privileged to speak today.

I will begin today by resolving a question on the minds of many who are here today. How long will this guy talk?

The answer is 12 minutes: a minute of thanks; two minutes of humor; five on a subject I think you will find interesting; a three-minute piece of advice; and finally, an experience in the Oval Office that was meaningful to me.

First, my minute of appreciation… Utah is my home and this great University is a pillar of its greatness. Being associated with the University of Utah in this unique and personal way will connect us forever. Thank you.

I also feel a need to express gratitude to the people of Utah. There was not a single day I did not find pleasure and satisfaction in my service as Governor. I serve in a different place right now, but Utah is our home, and Utah is where our family’s heart remains.

When I get to my three minutes of advice, I am hopeful what I say will be as memorable as a nugget of wisdom I offered in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

I was there giving a speech on pandemic preparedness. A reporter asked my advice on how people should go about developing emergency food storage. Rather than just suggest she should begin to buy a little extra non-perishable food, I told her when she bought tuna fish, to buy an extra can. To illustrate the need to set it aside, I suggest she put it under her bed. I made a similar suggestion for powdered milk.

I don”t know how the reporter in Cheyenne felt about my suggestions, but it was just the kind of advice Jay Leno was looking for.

“Secretary of Health Mike Leavitt says we should prepare for a pandemic by putting ‘Tuna fish and powdered milk, under our beds,’ he said. ‘Tuna fish and powdered milk? I’d rather have the flu.'”

The next night: “Leavitt says we should have tuna and powdered milk under the bed. If that’s his idea of a pandemic plan, you can just starkiss your butt goodbye.”

Two nights later: “I made a big mistake last night. I got hungry in the middle of the night and ate the tuna and powdered milk under my bed. Tuna and powdered milk…isn’t that what Red Lobster calls clam chowder?”

I had spoken many times on the importance of personal preparedness but Jay Leno got the job done.

For the next five minutes I want to talk about the importance of making personal preparedness an American ethic.

Until recently, I suspect most Americans had never used the word “pandemic.” It refers to an epidemic disease that spreads worldwide.

Pandemics are a fact of life. They have occurred periodically throughout human history. Pandemics are not so much the history of public health, as they are the history of mankind. They not only affect the health of millions, they also change the culture, politics, and prosperity of civilizations. Evidence of their effect can be seen throughout human history.

Your study of ancient civilizations will have acquainted you with the Black Death, a pandemic of the 14th century, when 25 million people died in Europe. More recently, 10 pandemics have occurred in the last 300 years, three in the last century.

In 1957 and 1968, influenza pandemics swept the world. Both were minor incidents by pandemic standards, at least in the United States. In both cases, nearly 30% of the population became ill. The viruses were highly efficient. They were not virulent, and only a small percentage of people died.

In 1918, however, the Spanish flu pandemic was both efficient and virulent, and it produced a world-changing event when more than 40 million people died. A pandemic of equal proportion would affect millions within the United States.

There is no reason to believe that the 21st century will be different than centuries past. Nature is overdue. That is among the reasons that governments are watching closely as a virus known as H5N1 or avian flu spreads around the world.

I spent much of last fall in the Gulf Coast region in shelters set up for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. There are important lessons to be learned from that experience. One lesson is that we have to think about the unthinkable, because sometimes it happens. Another lesson is that preparation before an emergency is more important than what we do after the emergency.

I also learned the differences between a pandemic and any other disaster. Katrina was a devastating storm affecting Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama. I saw people from all over America who rushed to the Gulf Coast region to help. That could not happen in a pandemic, because the same thing would be happening in their hometown.

Our nation is mobilizing to prepare, but the foundation of national preparedness is individual readiness.

It’s a good idea to have some non-perishable food. (It doesn’t need to be tuna fish, and it probably will work better if it’s not under you bed.)

It’s a good idea to have a first aid kit with extra supplies of the prescription drugs you use.

It’s a good idea to have thought through how you would work things out if your children could not attend school for several weeks.

I think we’re all asking ourselves the question, “Is this Y2K all over again? Are we getting ourselves worked up and nothing will happen?” Let’s hope so.

But these are the same preparations we would take for any emergency, a bio-terrorism or nuclear event. Making preparedness a personal ethic not a one-time event will make you and America safer and healthier.

Now I have that off my chest, let’s turn to my three minutes of advice.

Woody Allen’s right, 80% of life is showing up. But, I would add, 80% of life’s best opportunities come from showing up when other people won’t.

Opportunity follows the willing.

Many of the most important turning points in my life came when I volunteered for duties that were worthwhile, but required extraordinary effort to get them done. This has happened over and over in my life, but I have time only for one example.

I was 28 years old and busy building a business. I was invited to a meeting with a group of prominent business people far older than I and substantially better respected. The purpose was to plan a fundraising event for then-Senator Jake Garn who was running for re-election. I was flattered to have been invited.

Six members of the United States Senate had committed to attend an event in Utah to help Senator Garn, but the only date possible was just six weeks away. Everyone in the meeting was busy, including me, and we were on the verge of a conclusion to cancel the event.

I had been thinking about an unusual way to organize the event, but as the youngest and least experienced person in the room, I felt out of place proposing it. When no other ideas were advanced, I expressed the idea and suggested we at least explore it before canceling the event. Not surprisingly, I left the meeting in charge.

Six weeks later, we held a successful event. My life had been disrupted in the short run, and forever changed in the long run. Not because of that event, but because it gave me a chance to earn the confidence of others. A few months later, Senator Garn asked that I manage his campaign. That experience set off a succession of events over 12 years that lead to my service as Governor.

Why does taking a job others aren’t interested in often pay off? I offer three thoughts:

First, when you’re the only one available, you are by definition the leader, and you will gain experience that might otherwise take more time to earn.

Second, experiences of that type often expose you to people in unexpected ways. They become valuable mentors who unlock other unforeseen opportunities.

Third, you nearly always start out in a situation with low expectations, and nothing is better for a reputation than solving hard problems and exceeding expectations.

In short, opportunities follow the willing-step forward, and volunteer when others do not.

We live in a great country. Let us be prepared and continue to lead.