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During the Dec. 15 ceremonies in Minges Coliseum, former Greenville mayor and ECU alumnus Don Parrott impressed upon ECU’s Fall 2007 graduates the importance of public service as an essential component of a successful life. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)

Parrott Encourages Grads to Consider Public Service

Following are excerpts from the remarks given by former Greenville mayor Don Parrott at East Carolina University’s 2007 fall commencement held in Minges Coliseum, Dec. 15, 2007.

I would like to talk to you for a few minutes...on the “Importance of Public Service” and the development of leadership skills. As a young man I remember being encouraged to set goals for myself. I imagine all of you have heard the same speech from parents and teachers. But, truthfully, developing leadership skills that could be applied in public service was not on my early goal setting list.

As a young boy, my #1 goal was to play shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. My heroes tended to be athletes. My newest hero is Chancellor Ballard – not only did he play baseball in college and go to the College World Series, but he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. While he was living my dream, I was playing shortstop for my church softball team. Yet, in spite of my envy of Chancellor Ballard, that softball team may have been one of my first opportunities to begin developing the leadership skills that pointed me toward public service.

Some people make the decision to devote their lives entirely to public service. The careers they choose will be ones that will focus on serving others. Some go into politics, some will go into the ministry, others will elect to pursue a life in which helping others will be their primary goal.

I can’t say that public service was ever anything I thought much about when I was your age. Finishing college, getting a good job, and having a family were more or less the extent of my youthful ambitions once I gave up the dream of being the Tigers’ shortstop. I don’t imagine that many of you have given much thought to public service. However, I am sure that sitting in front of me today are a few of you who already have your life mapped out. You know the career you want, maybe even the partner you would like, and have even managed to check off a few of your goals on the list that you have already made....

But I’ll bet that the majority of you are still a little undecided about what’s going to happen next. You now have your college degree, but you aren’t quite sure what you are going to do with it. All you know for sure is that you had better land a job pretty quick if you don’t already have one. And I imagine that is a direct quote from Mom and Dad. I speak from personal experience. After putting four daughters through college, one of the happiest days of my life was when the last one graduated from ECU in 2000 and got a job. Now if I can just convince my wife that the girls don’t need our checkbook any more.

After graduating from ECU in l965 with an accounting degree, I took a job with a local accounting firm here in Greenville. And with the exception of one year that I spent in Raleigh working for a national firm, I have spent my entire career here in Greenville....

The fall after I graduated, I joined the Greenville Jaycees. It was suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession, then I needed to get involved in the community. The Jaycees provided a great way to meet other young business people and to increase my client base. The idea of public service wasn’t on my agenda at the time. I was 21 years old. What did I know! But one day you find yourself helping a child at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club or taking food to a needy family or helping the community celebrate July 4th or working on the annual Christmas parade, and you begin to realize that just maybe you have made a difference in some lives. After I aged out of the Jaycees, I joined the Kiwanis Club. I served on the Board of the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, I coached a Little League team for 15 years, I chaired the Pitt County United Way Fund drive and I was always active in my church. I never thought of any of those things as being involved in public service. I had just found that doing all of those things complemented my life – that being involved made me a happier person – and kept me very busy – especially during tax season.

But I said a few minutes ago that I considered it a privilege to have been asked to speak to you this morning. Twenty years ago I would not have been able to do this nor would I have been asked to do it. Developing the leadership qualities that carry over into public service is something that happens over a period of time and is a result of life experiences and maturity.

In my case, those skills were the ones that I acquired when I joined civic organizations and became a part of their leadership teams serving in officer positions and on local boards. These were skills that I was able to carry over into my professional life and vice versa. My accounting skills were always welcomed in every organization in which I participated. And after a life time of listening and learning and hard work in my profession and community, I have earned the small degree of influence that allows me to speak to you from a leadership position.

The East Carolina University Strategic Plan has a Vision Statement that says: “ECU opens doors and transforms lives. We make a difference in our communities, our state, and our world. Tomorrow starts here.” ECU has given you a foundation and I would like to add to that by sharing with you a few of the things that I have learned about leadership by becoming involved in this community.

1. A good leader will always be willing to give credit to others. Mark Twain once remarked that great things can happen when you don’t care who gets the credit. I have found this to be true both in my professional career and in my role as mayor. Whether it is working with a new client or trying to get funding for a city project, I have always felt that letting others take credit or share credit will get more done and get it done faster. A good leader is too busy to worry about who takes credit for something.

2. Good leaders are good listeners. We all learn a lot more about people and situations by listening rather than talking. Listening can convey interest and understanding without necessarily implying agreement. But it shows an open mindedness that is necessary in a good leader.

3. Good leaders need to be sensitive to people. A good leader is someone who will take the time to be aware of the people around him or her, and not in a superficial way. Effective leaders must try to discern what those around them are thinking and feeling, and try to respond to those needs.

4. Leaders need to be grounded and to be goal oriented. Leaders need to be “big-hearted” – not “big shots.” They need to see beyond the four walls of their own little worlds. They need to allow their minds to stretch and to be willing to rearrange their personal agendas and toss away their prejudices. If you can’t be bothered by the concerns and problems of those around you, you do not have true leadership qualities.

5. Good leaders should be trustworthy. Everyone likes people that they can trust. It is at the top of the list of qualities that are required of any leader. People who tell the truth will never have to remember what they said, and they will be recognized for their integrity. This means being truthful about the small insignificant things as well as the big, important things. In my professional life, trustworthiness is worth its weight in gold. Your reputation and the respect of others is the key to whatever you do with your life. It can hinder you or it can carry you forward to new levels. Once lost, it will be hard to get back, so guard it well.

6. Leaders need to have a vision and be able to dream. I read a book by John Maxwell on leadership in which he said that “leaders find the dream and then the people. The people will find the leader and then the dream.” People don’t at first follow worthy causes. They follow worthy leaders who promote worthwhile causes. When followers like the leader and the vision, they will get behind both.

7. And lastly, good leaders must be fair and just. The worst thing that can happen to a leader is to be perceived as unfair. Leaders can be seen to be tough, as long as they are seen as fair. According to Maxwell, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. To lead yourself – use your head. To lead others – use your heart.”

...So, Graduates, remember that “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Next week – next month – or next year – a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker may invite you to join a civic organization, help coach a youth softball or baseball team, volunteer at a community shelter or soup kitchen, or run for local office. The decision you make then, may be the beginning of your journey to a successful life.

A lot of you may have come from a home with a parent who has already set an example for you by being involved in the lives of their communities. You have grown up watching those around you live lives of service. And you will honor your parents by continuing what they have started.

In closing, I would like to quote the first President George Bush. He gave an interview that I happen to catch on television. He was talking about his life of public service and he said that Public Service was a “noble calling” and that “There can be no definition of a successful life that does not include public service to others.”

This page originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at