Surgeon challenges grads, ask questions, find answers that influence

Graduates line up for photos after the Commencement Ceremony.
Graduates line up for photos after the Commencement Ceremony.

By Darla Martin Tucker
June 15, 2010

Dr. Leonard Bailey never imagined as a college graduate that he would become a world-traveled pediatric heart surgeon, he told La Sierra University’s graduates during his keynote commencement address. Use your education to ask new questions and search for answers that influence new ideas and result in greater service, he advised.

The graduates, 334 in all, set sail for new horizons following the June 13 commencement on Founders’ Green, buoyed by Bailey’s own story of tested faith, Providential leading and unimagined successes. His words of inspiration resonated with their own hopes and dreams.

Bailey, chief surgeon at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital and history-making infant heart transplant surgeon delivered a talk titled “You Never Know.” It served as the centerpiece of the university’s graduation ceremony that began at 8 a.m.

During the ceremony, La Sierra University President Randal Wisbey presented Bailey with the Presidential Medallion in recognition of his extraordinary service. During the event he also honored five individuals from the university for their academic achievements, service to others, their contributions to the school and to their respective fields of study.

Former mathematics professor Hilmer Besel, who will turn 95 on July 2, and who arrives for lunch each day in La Sierra’s cafeteria, was recognized with an honorary Doctor of Humanitarian Service. Besel’s decades-long, extraordinary support of the university includes starting the school’s mathematics major, founding its math department and establishing its computer science major. “Honorary doctoral degrees are the highest recognition a university can bestow,” Wisbey said. “This morning, La Sierra University has the honor to recognize an extraordinary individual who represents the deepest values of our university’s mission.”

Wisbey also recognized biophysics major Robert Walker with the President’s Award for Outstanding University Undergraduate Student and Master of Pastoral Studies graduate Jared Wright with the President’s Award for Outstanding University Graduate Student. School of Business Associate Dean Gary Chartier, associate professor of law and business ethics, received the Distinguished Faculty Scholarship Award. Chris Oberg, senior pastor of the La Sierra University Church received the J.J. Nethery Award.

“This morning, I challenge you to know God, deeply and hopefully,” Wisbey said to the graduates. “In a world that is often angry and divisive, bind yourself to the One who can heal the brokenhearted. When life is uncertain, as it is for some of you this very day, never forget that there is One who will never leave or forsake you,” Wisbey said.

“I ask that you never forget that in serving others you will have far greater opportunity to experience true joy, even as you provide a future to those who might otherwise never know love or hope,” he concluded.

Bailey, in his opening remarks, questioned the university’s wisdom in selecting a surgeon as a speaker. His speech may cause the audience to nod off, he quipped. “But it turns out I do my best work when you are sound asleep,” he said to laughter and scattered applause.

“How will your personal story play out? What is your destiny?” Bailey asked the graduates. He cited a comment by 20th Century American photographer Diane Arbus who described photographic composition with the observation, “‘The thing that is important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.’ …It’s not a bad metaphor for life beyond university,” said Bailey.

While Bailey had no idea how the following decades of his life would play out following his own graduation, “I felt the astonishing reassurance that my life was in God’s hands,” he said.

He didn’t know he and his wife, Nancy, would have two remarkable sons and travel the globe, that he would one day conduct surgeries on babies and children around the world. He didn’t know that transplanting the heart of a baboon into a baby named Fae would lead to human heart transplants in hundreds of tiny babies, some of who are young adults graduating from college this year. He didn’t know that he would face cancer at age 59 and have that cancer terminated with proton therapy, Bailey said.

“It all seemed so unlikely the day I graduated,” said Bailey. “I had lots of hopes and dreams and potential. Mainly I had lots of questions about life. But I had very few clear answers.

Looking back, it was the questioning that took place during college, “the need to know, the getting ready for what might be that defined me as a graduate of higher education,” Bailey said. “And with any luck, it will characterize your lives too, from this day forward.”

He admonished the graduates to use their education and ask new questions and search for new answers, “…a search that equips us to serve in greater capacity, to influence thoughts and ideas, to create new thoughts and new ideas.”

He talked about his initial dispassionate academic attitude early in college, the briefly worded, but hard-hitting inspiration of medical school Dean of Admissions Walter B. Clark from Loma Linda University that influenced him to strive harder as a pre-medical student. He talked about his eventual acceptance to Loma Linda University School of Medicine following the heartbreak of a first failed attempt.

However it was during that extra year, when he had hoped to enter medical school, that he and Nancy fell in love. “…she later agreed to spend her life with me, a powerful and priceless decision,” Bailey said.

“You are a work in progress,” Bailey said, and your strength is your individuality, a gift from a loving Creator.

Citing a Native American proverb he concluded, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

“I can imagine limitless possibilities for each one of you,” Bailey said. “You just never know.”

Walker, who received the president’s undergraduate award, was moved by Bailey’s high accomplishments in spite of setbacks. Walker, who earned high grades and research awards, was not initially accepted to the schools to which he applied. However he will begin research this month with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., as part of the Intramural Research Training Award program. At NIH he has the choice of working in one of two molecular biophysics laboratories.

Walker’s goal is to become a neurosurgeon. He plans to earn medical and doctoral degrees. “I was able to relate to [Bailey’s story] and several friends related to that. It really encouraged us,” Walker said.

“Since the speech was so motivating, I feel like I can go out there and change the world,” Bachelor of Arts recipient Alicia August said after posing with friends for a photo following commencement.

“It’s amazing. I’m pretty much overwhelmed. I can’t believe I made it,” she said with a smile. August studied world languages and cultures in La Sierra’s College of Arts and Sciences. Family members and “a lot of friends” arrived to cheer her on, the graduate said.

While a student, August appreciated La Sierra’s small class sizes and the involvement of caring teachers who meet individually with students and spur them toward success. “It’s a great school. I love the diversity and I love hearing different languages every day,” she said.

 “I pretty much feel like I’m on top of the world,” said Ty Robinson, who earned a Bachelor of Science in marketing. Fifteen family members and friends arrived to congratulate him, including his four-month-old daughter, Ariana and mom Katrina Garcia. “I’m very excited. I’m proud of him. It’s been a long journey,” Garcia said.

To celebrate the day in style, Robinson sported a golden, heavyweight championship belt over his graduation gown, a gift a couple years ago from friends. His La Sierra experience had its “ups and downs,” Robinson said,  “but I would do it all over again, mainly because of my professors and the welcoming environment.”

“I like La Sierra. I like the dorm life,” said biochemistry graduate Steve Medina. “I like all the chemistry department teachers. [Associate Professor Nate] Brandstater helped me plan my entire future.” That future includes either a master’s degree in teaching or a master’s in analytical chemistry, he said.

“I’m very proud of him and very appreciative of La Sierra,” said Nabil Razzouk, Medina’s uncle. “I had one son go here and I’m sending another next year.” His son Jay Razzouk graduated from LSU in 2005 with the president’s undergraduate award and son, Daniel, will enroll in the coming year.

The elder Razzouk taught marketing at La Sierra between 1982 and 2001. “The Christian atmosphere, the caring,” he responded when asked what he likes about the school. “It’s a beautiful environment. A lot of dedicated folks are involved in the lives of the students,” he said.

The La Sierra University senior class presented the university with a gift of new bleachers for the athletics fields. La Sierra University’s 2010 Senior Class President Zablon Okari added his words of support for his alma mater during his commencement talk. He is from Kenya where he played with goats as a child, never guessing he would one day attend La Sierra, he said.

“No matter what people say, positive transformations happen here. I never dreamed I would develop a passion for service. This place opened its door,” and he developed a passion for life, Okari said. However his story is common at La Sierra, Okari continued. “I’ve seen what God can do in all our lives.”

Click below to see photos from graduation weekend.

La Sierra University Consecration Service, Friday, June 11, 2010

La Sierra University Commencement, Sunday, June 13, 2010

Click here to find out more about the graduates and the graduation weekend events.


PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University
Riverside, California
951.785.2460 (voice)


  • Last update on  June 17, 2010