Walter E. Blessey ’62 Accepts the Martin de Tours Award

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Thank you for the honor of choosing me as the recipient of the 2012 Martin de Tours Award. St. Martin’s certainly has many distinguished graduates, and it is quite an achievement to be selected. When I saw the list of past recipients, I noticed the name of Bob Livingston. Our long-term Congressman was the initial honoree in 1990. I emailed Doc, as we call him, and said that I had finally made it 22 years later. He said, “Yes, but you made it.” Another thing that I observed reading the list of past nominees is that we all had one trait in common, and that is that you have to be old to receive this honor. I can’t help but wonder which one of you will be receiving this award 50 years or so from now.

Being on campus today brings back a flood of memories, all good ones. We were a good group of kids, and we had a great faculty. There was a real sense of belonging. I don’t remember acrimony of any sort whatsoever. I remember everyone trying to do the right thing.

While my parents initially gave me my foundation, principles, and ideals, St. Martin’s and Father John Jenkins fostered, developed and spiritually enhanced them. Having read several other award speeches, I confirmed what I thought – Father Jenkins made a lasting positive impact on all of us.

Then there was Tony Porter, whom we all called “Chief.” Similarly, all past honorees singled out the Chief as well. Everyone respected him. Although I never had him as a coach, I felt a special relationship with him. Believe it or not, his nickname for me was “Muscles.” I remember one day with both guys and girls in the gym; he told me to take off my shirt. I thought that maybe he was trying to get me a date or two. But it didn’t work. I remember him having enough faith in me to allow me at gym time to go and run on my own to get ready for the high school golf championship. I was happy to bring back the individual championship, and we won the team one as well.

And there was John Acker. What a character he was. He, above all of our teachers, got me to begin to think. At Tulane I breezed through my freshman English class with an A merely by reciting what I had learned from Mr. Acker. I remember so well most of the books that we studied: The Red Badge of Courage, The Bear, The Heart of Darkness, The 90-Yard Run, and Falling Through Space. I can still remember Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness saying, “The horror…the horror…” when he realized what he had become in his journey down the Congo River.

Two Acker stories that I want to share with you: One day in English class while he was talking, I made an innocent motion with my hand only to hear him say, “Blessey, I am not shoveling anything.” I had no idea what he meant. It was classmate and later to be famed St. Martin’s teacher Jimmy Marsalis who educated me. And naturally little plastic shovels started showing up in class. Another time we were in Mrs. Beasley’s class and she said, “Hold the floor. I will be right back.” Well, Ray Fontenot and I jumped and held the floor. A prolonged throat clearing from the back of the room revealed Mr. Acker.

And I learned a not-to-do from Mr. Acker. When we broke for the summer between our junior and senior years, Mr. Acker gave us a list of books and said that he would give us a point on our final grade for every book that we read and gave him a verbal report on. Well, I read and reported on 20-some books. When I got a C on my final report card and asked him about it, he just said that I didn’t deserve an A. Well I probably didn’t without the reports, but with them I certainly did and that was the deal. So the lesson is to do what you say you are going to do even if you don’t like the outcome. I could go on and on. But those were the three figures who stand out the most to, I believe, all in our class.

As we get older, I believe that it is natural for us to want to give advice. For if we have no advice to give, what was the journey all about? What was the meaning of it all? I try not to do such unless I am asked. I guess that at a function like this it is appropriate to give some pearls of wisdom.

One, with regard to your career, do something that you love. Don’t necessarily take the highest paying job. I took the lowest paying job at $12,000/year versus the highest one at $15,000. Take the one that is the most stimulating, the most challenging, the one that gives you the most opportunity, the one that you love. If you love what you do, you will never be at work. One thing that I noted among my peers is that you tend to become what you do. Over 20 years a dull boring job will have a negative effect on you, just as a challenging one will have a positive effect. We tend to become what we do. And when you are deciding on a job, look carefully at the culture of the company that is interviewing you.

Two, with regard to your dreams for the future, I give you this thought that I gave to my children. However you think that life is going to be, it is going to be different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. So you are going to have to be able to adapt. Such was so true for me. Marriage and family are and were the most important things in my life. My first marriage failed, I was a single parent, I unsuccessfully learned to cook, at one point my car business was down $12 million, I had a family member stealing from us, I had to deal with mental illness. All of these events tested my mettle and were not in my plans for my future when I was in school. On the other hand, I never dreamed that our company would grow to be one of the largest marine energy carriers in the United States, much less that I would own a marine company. Life is so easy now. I have been married to the love of my life for the last twelve years; I have two wonderful daughters, three wonderful step-daughters, three great sons-in-law, and seven grandkids. So my point is that life can be difficult and you may have to suck it up at times. There are going to be rocks on the road of life.

Three, with regard to your values, make them your priority. I consider the values that my parents instilled in me (and which were then reinforced by St. Martin’s) the key to whatever success I have achieved. Hold close the Christian values that you have learned. Embrace conduct that manifests honor, integrity, kindness, and most importantly love. Yes, fill your life with love. As a business owner, I consider the trust of the folks working with me my most important asset. How can you have a great corporate culture if the rank and file feel like the boss is a BS expert?

Four, with regard to guilt, avoid it at all cost. Never do something that you know in your heart of hearts is wrong. As Cal Thomas says, “Who you are in the dark is what you are in the light.” Always follow your moral compass. Guilt is what messes people up.

Five, with regard to happiness try to make each year the best year of your life. At a party I was asked if I could take one year of my life and live it for 30 years, which year would I take? Without much thought I said, “This year.” Another person said the year when he drank beer all day and was a surfer dude. I think that if you can keep the mindset that every year is your best one, you will be the happiest.

Six, seek out mentors. My father was my life mentor. I did not have a business mentor. If you can find someone that you respect, see if they will be your mentor. I try to mentor young folks who are desirous of advice and counsel.

And seven, don’t ever stop learning. At 68, I am still learning by reading, observing, and contemplating.

I acknowledge my wife and True North, Jane Ann. I acknowledge my two daughters, Lane Watkins and her husband Jason, and Laura Todd and her husband Clark. I also acknowledge my step-daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Wisner.

I acknowledge two great co-workers who are St. Martin’s graduates, our VP of Finance and Controller, David Fried from the class of 1980, and our VP of Corporate Affairs/ Human Resources and General Counsel, Beau Bethune, the class of 1992. Interestingly enough, I was recently involved with two lawyers handling a case for me at Baker Donelson, Steve Griffith and Ben Janke. Imagine my surprise when I learned that they were both St. Martin’s graduates.

I know that, armed with the great foundation that St. Martin’s has given you with both Christian values and an excellent education, you will be well equipped to succeed in life’s journey.

I leave you with a final thought. Way back in the summer of 1961, one of the books that I read, that I didn’t get a point for from Mr. Acker, was The Brothers Karamasov. As I remember the story, the main character led a pretty sordid life – a lot of bad and some good. As he reached the end of life’s journey, he looked back on his life and concluded that all that mattered was little acts of love and kindness between people. I submit to you that there is a great deal of truth to this.

Thank you for 2012 Martin de Tours Award. May God bless you and yours.

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