Harding Eisenhower

Robert Harding poses for a photo outside Eisenhower Hall on the SUNY Fredonia campus last year. 

Ten years ago this month, I finished my bachelor's degree at SUNY Fredonia. It was August 2009, a year and three months after I walked across the stage at the college's athletic facility. 

A lot changed in that 15-month period. When I was decked out in my cap and gown, my father was still alive. Sadly, he died less than six months after the graduation festivities. He had three heart attacks — the last of which required doctors to perform open-heart surgery. After the surgery in November 2008, my father contracted an infection and didn't recover. He was 68. 

What happened after his death was important for my future. As we began to make funeral arrangements, my mom turned to me and told me to deliver the eulogy. 

At the time, I wasn't a great public speaker. The truth: I wanted to avoid public speaking at all costs. I sweated and shook my way through my capstone project presentation at SUNY Fredonia. 

Public speaking was also the only hurdle remaining for me to earn my degree. When I walked across the stage in May 2008, I did so with the understanding that I would soon finish my degree. I needed one three-credit course to, officially, earn my bachelor's. The course I need to take? Public speaking. 

My plan was to, reluctantly, take the class over the summer after commencement. But when my father's health declined I delayed those plans. I missed enrollment for the fall semester at the local community college, so it would have to wait until 2009 — or longer. 

But back to my mom's directive. We were mourning the loss of my father. She was mourning the loss of her husband — the love of her life for 22 years. I have six sisters. My dad had a bunch of friends. She asked me to deliver the eulogy. 

As I prepared to write the speech, I cried. Eulogizing someone is a solemn duty. You write down memories, then cry at the thought of those memories. You make edits, and then cry about those memories some more. It's not an emotional roller coaster. It's emotional bungee jumping. 

I was nervous on the day of the funeral because I knew I would be speaking. But something strange happened when I approached the lectern to eulogize my father. Those nerves went away. I knew I was prepared. I knew I wrote a good speech to honor my father — and one that would make my mom proud. I delivered it and the 100 or so attendees at the funeral home applauded. I've been at enough funerals to know that wasn't normal. 

I didn't know I had that in me. My mom, of course, did. She gave me a job she knew I could handle and was proud with the result. 

After that experience, I had enough confidence to enroll in a public speaking class the following summer at Genesee Community College. I completed the course, transferred the credits and received my diploma from SUNY Fredonia — I earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the school. 

There have been other moments when I've needed to utilize those public speaking skills. I've made several appearances on television. I eulogized my father-in-law earlier this year. In April, I delivered a speech after receiving the Bill Carey Journalist of the Year Award. 

I couldn't have done those things without the support of my mom nearly 11 years ago to deliver a final tribute to my dad. When my mom tells you to do something, you do it. I didn't want to let her down in that moment. I fulfilled the task and, while I didn't realize this immediately, it helped me identify a skill that has proven to be useful over this last decade. 

Without that public speaking class, I don't have a degree. Without a degree, I don't get a job at The Citizen. Without the job at The Citizen, I don't have this successful journalism career. And without this successful journalism career, I don't know where I'd be at this stage of my life. 

My mom will probably say, "I just asked you to deliver the eulogy." But it meant so much more. It ensured I stayed on the right path. It allowed me to focus on what's important and to ensure that I live up to the phone call my dad made on the eve of my commencement. 

My dad said he was proud of me and loved me. If he was still around today, he could say the same thing. 

Thanks, mom, for everything. 

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