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Wisdom from President Barbara Lettiere: Pretty Good is Not Enough


Barbara LettiereAlthough the January snowstorm prevented Immaculata University President Barbara Lettiere from attending Trinity’s commencement in person, we conferred her honorary degree in absentia and she sent along her commencement remarks with warm wishes to all Trinity graduates.  Below is her speech (lightly edited for the circumstances) followed by the citation conferring her honorary degree:

President McGuire, Distinguished Faculty, Staff, Parents, Relatives, Friends and most importantly, the 2018 graduating class of Trinity Washington University.  I never expected an honor like this from Trinity and I am truly humbled.

I was asked to say a few words at this commencement ceremony and I promise to be brief.  This is not about me today, it is about you.   You are here to receive your diplomas and I don’t want to delay that exciting moment for any of you…I’ve attended enough of these ceremonies to know that commencement speakers are always scheduled relatively early in the line-up.   There is a reason for that.  It’s what Mark Twain called the “live frog” principle. Twain used to argue that one should swallow a live frog at the beginning of every day.   That way you would know the worst part of your day was behind you.    That said, I do have a mission here today and my hope is that I leave you with just a couple of thoughts which I hope you remember at least until tomorrow!

The first message is this.  Pretty good is not good enough.

Charles Osgood wrote a poem many years ago.   Mr. Osgood is a TV personality on Sunday mornings and he hosts the show The Osgood File.   Here are some excerpts from that poem:

There once was a pretty good student

Who sat in a pretty good class

And was taught by a pretty good teacher

Who always let pretty good pass

The pretty good class that he sat in

Was part of a pretty good school

And the student was not an exception

On the contrary, he was the rule

The pretty good student was in fact

Part of a pretty good mob

And the first time he knew what he lacked was

When he looked for a pretty good job.

It was then he discovered that life could be tough

And he soon had a sneaking suspicion

Pretty good might not be good enough

So this pretty good student while proud of what he had

Learned much to late

That if you want to be great

Pretty good is pretty bad.   

Today, pretty good is not good enough.  You did well by choosing to attend Trinity- not a pretty good but a very good school.   But the diploma is only the beginning. You will have to strive for excellence in everything you do.   I don’t care what you choose to do with your degree or your lives.    Whatever it is (as long as it is not illegal or immoral) do it well.   If you can’t be proud of your work, who will be?  Who should be?

My second thought to leave you with is this:    Never ever give up!

I learned this lesson very early in my life – actually when I was in 8th grade.   It was time for graduation and I learned that I had finished first in my class.  In those days, there was only one No.1 and the award went to one person not everybody just because they showed up.   I went to a Catholic grammar school and the 8th grade nun told my Mother right before the graduation that while I finished first in my class, she didn’t think I had what it took to be successful.  My Mother waited until after the graduation ceremony to tell me about her conversation with Sr. Elizabeth.   See, I still remember her name.   But it is what my Mother said to me that stuck.   She said Barbara, you will make a liar out of her.  Don’t ever give up. I believe in you and you need to believe in yourself.  So to Sr. Elizabeth I say:  I hope you are enjoying eating your words!

I spent a lot of time in non-traditional jobs during my career at Verizon.    It was easy to give up.   Can you imagine being the first female assigned to a garage in North Philadelphia back in the very early 70’s?   It would have been easy to give up.  Nobody talked about glass ceilings in those days.  Nobody talked about Affirmative Action in those days.   So if I wanted to succeed, I had to suck it up and be the best at what I was doing even if mostly men had those jobs.  For me, quitting was not an option.   There was no way I was going home and telling my Mother that I quit!

I knew I could do it.  I believed I could it and I did it.  I never gave up.

My final thought dates back to my retirements from Verizon and Trinity.  The irony is that I am still not retired!  Back in the days, when people retired from Verizon there was always some sort of party to wish the retiree good luck and to thank them for their years of service.  My farewell party was well attended but not by my fellow officers of the Company.  The party was very well attended, however, by people who worked in the many organizations I headed up during my 27 years of service.  They were payroll clerks, installers and repair technicians, secretaries.  What is the message here?

No matter how far up the ladder you go, never ever forget the people who do the real work.   Treat your subordinates and peers with respect and you will get the respect and loyalty that is so necessary to be successful. The folks that came to my retirement came to not only say good-bye, but they also wanted to say thank you.   I may not have remembered some of the simple things I did that meant so much to them.  They, however, did not forget.  Some of my best friends here at Trinity were the folks who mopped the floors, cleaned the toilets, and shoveled the snow.  I so appreciated what they did because honestly, those were the kind of jobs my parents had.   I have never forgotten my roots.   It is only because I had three very strong, relatively uneducated role models in my life — my two grandmothers and my Mother.  English was a second language in my home growing up.   They understood the value of education because they themselves did not have good ones and they constantly encouraged my brother and me to excel in school.  One of my grandmothers used to always say “Don’t be like me.  Don’t work in a cigar factory like me,  BE SOMEBODY!”

Congratulations on your achievement.   You made the decision and the commitment to further your education.   You should be proud of what you have achieved and I am sure your families and friends are proud of you too.   You have taken the opportunity to improve your lives and to do good things.  My messages are not about the book learning that you got while attending your many courses at Trinity.  My messages are about some things you may want to consider in making the most of your education.

So in keeping with my promise to be brief, I will close with your very last test at Trinity.   (and you thought you had taken your final exams!)  My test has only a couple of questions and they are multiple choice.  Ready?

Question 1: Pretty good is…

  1. Good enough
  2. Not good enough
  3. A cop out

And the answer is?

Question 2: Do your best…

  1. When you feel like it
  2. When you have to
  3. Every day and in everything you to

And the answer is?

Question 3: It’s time to give up when…

  1. The going gets tough
  2. You’re tired
  3. There is never a good excuse to give up.

I wish the graduates all the best — success, happiness and the good health to enjoy both.

Citation for the Honorary Degree Presentation to President Barbara Lettiere

Vibrant institutions are the cornerstones of healthy societies, but institutions require large investments of talent and money to sustain them.  During her remarkable career, Barbara Lettiere’s talent has ensured the vitality of three great institutions — the Bell Atlantic Corporation, Trinity Washington University, and her alma mater Immaculata University where she now serves as president.

Graduating in 1972 as a Math major at Immaculata, one of the nation’s historic Catholic women’s colleges now coeducational, Barbara earned her master’s degree in Economics and Statistics at the University of Notre Dame, and then an M.B.A. at Rider University.

Barbara began her corporate career at the telephone company, Bell of Pennsylvania, eventually rising to become vice president and chief financial officer of Bell Atlantic, and then president of Bell Atlantic Federal Systems.  When Bell Atlantic became Verizon, Barbara retired from the company to search for a new adventure.  Fortuitously, Trinity was looking for a new chief financial officer, and Barbara wanted a big challenge.

During the 15 years that she served as Trinity’s CFO, from 2002 to 2017, Barbara revolutionized Trinity’s finances including the systems and personnel needed to manage them well.  Her legend as the tough “Dr. No” on spending was only surpassed by her reputation as a compelling and caring coach for her colleagues.  By making sure that Trinity operated in the black, she was able to build the reserves necessary for financing capital projects.  In working closely with President McGuire, they set a path to sustainability for Trinity.  She oversaw the completion of the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports and tackled major renovations in Main Hall and Trinity’s other historic buildings.  As her last great Trinity project, she negotiated the financing and oversaw construction management of the Payden Academic Center.

Eschewing a well-deserved retirement, Barbara responded enthusiastically to the call to accept one more great institutional challenge at her beloved Immaculata where she was a generous benefactor, member of the board of trustees and board chair.  On October 27, 2017, Barbara was inaugurated as the tenth president of Immaculata, the first lay president.  With her deep financial knowledge, commitment to mission and insistence that students are the center of all university endeavors, President Lettiere will lead Immaculata to great success.

With gratitude for her contributions to Trinity’s success, and in recognition of her leadership for Immaculata and her outstanding example of leadership in corporate life, Trinity is pleased to bestow on Barbara Lettiere the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: