Small Crowd, Big Speech

Earlier this month New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, journalist Fareed Zakaria, and NFL quaterback Philip Rivers descended on the Research Triangle area and spoke to graduating seniors at three major universities — NC State, Duke and UNC.

NC Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway

Their words made headlines and reverberated among many thousands of people gathered in three stadiums in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Meanwhile, at a graduation outpost in the town of Cary, Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway gave a commencement speech to roughly 150 people gathered in a city council meeting room. Nearly two dozen of them had just completed NC State’s graduate program in public administration.

It was a small crowd. But it was a big speech.

Ridgeway, among other things, talked about a murder trial involving a drug deal gone bad in southeast Raleigh. Five young men, he said, arranged to meet their drug dealer behind an apartment complex. One of the five pulled a gun on the dealer and shot him twice.

On that day, Ridgeway said, “none of the five co-defendants was attending school, none was employed, none had any job skills to speak of. All were members of the Blood gang that has become active in Raleigh, and drugs and weapons were as casual a part of their daily routine as breakfast might be for you and me.”

The lives of these young men, he said, were thrown away. One, the victim, is dead; the convicted shooter is serving a life sentence; and the other four are in prison.

The trial, Ridgeway told the graduates, showcased a long list of public policy concerns related to education, job training, and gang violence that are “begging for smart, committed, well trained people like yourselves to think about.”

He stressed the need to do more for disadvantaged youth; he highlighted the role of public servants who can help them stay in school and avoid a of life crime; and, he acknowledged, it’s not an easy task.

But, he noted, neither was the one facing George Washington.

Invoking the first president’s famous Farewell Address, Ridgeway reminded the graduates of the “principles upon which our country was founded – freedom, a people’s constitution, morality, access to public education, domestic and foreign peace, and yes, even the notion that a vigorous government is not only essential, but the surest guardian of liberty.”