John Thornton’s commencement address to the Class of 2013

John C. Thornton delivered the commencement address to the Maryville College Class of 2013. Here is the full text of his address, titled "Lloyd’s Lessons & Pat’s Principles.”

Congratulations, Class of 2013! I am honored to share this memorable occasion with such an outstanding group of graduates.

IN Conclusion … You know, those were my two favorite words I remember hearing from my own commencement address 38 years ago at Tennessee Wesleyan College. Don’t know who said them or what he said in front of those two great words, only remember it was the best part of his speech. I’ll try to do a better job for you. Seemed like most of the church sermons I listened to as a kid when the preacher said “In conclusion,” you knew you had another 20 minutes until the benediction. I won’t do that to you, either.

If you were to take a snapshot of the 218 young men and women sitting before me, at a glance you would see some All-American athletes, some biochemistry majors working with renowned medical leaders, you’d see psychology students teaching cancer survivors how to cope through religion, child development majors that are helping children with autism to communicate with the aid of an iPad, and a Football team led by 18 seniors, co-champs of the USA South Football Conference. Lloyd Thornton, my father, would have been so very proud…

You have come together from as far away as Costa Rica, Republic of China, United Kingdom and Vietnam and as close as my childhood home – 110 Hudson Street, a 9-iron shot from the old Kay’s Ice Cream. Unique though you are, all of you now have one thing in common: You have successfully fulfilled all of the requirements necessary to graduate from this esteemed institution of higher learning, Maryville College.

Graduation is a time when you feel confident, optimistic and full of good cheer, but underneath these mortarboards, there is also some sense of fear and uncertainty.

That is understandable because life does not come with a syllabus attached or a textbook where you can read ahead to see what the next chapter may bring. And that, by the way, is a good thing, because if life followed a textbook, it would either be terribly boring or so terrifying you would be afraid to turn the next page.

There is a winner in each and every one of you, recognize it and believe it! Maryville College attracts winners, they do, I know that. I hired many graduates who were winners from this very campus while I was growing my first company, American Rug Craftsmen. Some of the alumni are here today. I was touched and honored that Pat Moyer, Alec Blaine, John McLeod and Rocky Casteel would take the time to come and listen today.

Not only did each and every young graduate that I hired from Maryville College exceed expectations, many went on to build successful businesses of their own. Our success at American Rug Craftsmen could not have been achieved without the energy, intensity and spirit of the graduates hired from this campus. You are from the same educational culture, many of you living in the same dorms and taught by the same great caring professors.

Coach Randy Lambert recommended each one of the young, sharp, energetic grads that we hired. Most are millionaires now and had a blast making that money. Randy and I were great friends growing up, just as we are today. I respected his judgment and opinion. Randy had as big of a hand in building our company as anyone.

These are special memories for me, but today is not about my story … it is about one far more exciting that has yet to be written: The story of you. And to help you begin the first chapter, I thought I would share some advice, fatherly advice much like I would give to my own children, lessons that my father Lloyd Thornton taught me, rules from my dear friend and successful businessman Shelby Peeples, and from one of the most outstanding leaders of my generation, Pat Summitt.

There were a few things, looking back, I suppose I did know, but then there was the greatest advice I received that I completely failed to follow.

All of it I hope will help prepare you for what you might expect out of life.

My Dad was a perfect Southern Gentlemen, and he never missed the opportunity to say ‘Thank you.’ Those two very simple words are two of the most powerful in the English language – no one ever tires of hearing them.

Might I suggest that you take time to first thank your parents, if you are lucky enough to have them here today. Thank all of the faculty, administrators and coaches that cared enough to teach you and challenge you and may have seen more in you than you saw in yourself.

Keep in touch with your professors and continue to develop friendships you have forged during the past four years. They will play an important role in your success and strong support for any failure. Most importantly, their friendship will make life’s journey so much more fun.

SET HIGH GOALS and work with passion to reach them. As Lamar Alexander would say, 'Aim for the top, there's more room up there.'

My father was a great athlete – captain of both football and basketball teams at East Tennessee University. He ran the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds. That was 80 years ago, long before the advent of the Nike Air Shoe, UnderArmour or any of that other stuff. He refereed many of the football games here on this campus. Unfortunately for me, these athletic genes skipped right over my body but did seem to land in some of my kids.

I did, however, inherit daddy’s drive to compete – that competitive spirit drove much of our success in business.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads:

‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

The table is set. You have worked and achieved a great education, and the Lord has a plan for you, but that is not enough.

You have to commence and work to make it happen. ‘Start your own engine,’ as Pat Summitt would say. Don’t let people tell you that your dreams are impossible … Because remember, the rules of possible and impossible were made by people that had not yet tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them … and if you do not know something is impossible, it is much easier to accomplish.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; you may make many mistakes as you work toward your goals. Learn from them. Some of these may prove to be interesting and useful mistakes. Success is often found when you stumble from one mistake to another, but the key is not to lose your enthusiasm.

There will be times when adversity steps in your path – because life can be hard. Things can go wrong in life and in love, in business and in friendship and in every other way that life can go wrong. But how you handle adversity is what separates the exceptional from mediocre. And the one thing you can never do is give up. In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.’

In business and in life, if you’re really lucky, you meet a handful of people that change your life in a positive way forever. For me, Shelby Peeples of Dalton, Georgia, is one of those. Shelby has a rule he lives by in business and in life. Now if Shelby Peeples tells you he is going to do something, there is a hundred-percent chance that he is going to do just that. No margin for error; no deviation from the mean. Many times when I am making a difficult decision, I can hear Shelby’s voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Son, do the right thing, and do what you say you will do.’

While hunting in Demopolis, Alabama, this past winter with my friends Phillip Fulmer, Bill Battle, Alex Jones and Alex’s world-champion squirrel dog, Porter Wagner, we treed 152 squirrels that day. Now Alex explained, and I witnessed firsthand, ‘If P.W. runs up to a tree, puts his front paws on the trunk, lifts his head up and starts to howl, there is a 100-percent chance a squirrel is in that tree.’ Shelby and that Feist dog, Porter Wagner, had something in common: When they said something was going to happen, it happened.

You cannot control all the forces of the universe but you must ‘Control what you can control.’ You are in the driver’s seat. My great friend, Pat Summitt, has shared with me the top 4 things you should control every day of your life:

  1. Attitude – A positive attitude may very well be the most important ingredient to a long and successful life. People will enjoy being around you if you are upbeat and positive, if you smile and have a sense of humor. If it is always a pleasure to hear from you, people are more likely to take your calls.
  2. Work Ethic – Don’t ever let anyone outwork you. In the recipe for success, by any and every standard, there is no substitute for hard work. Be persistent. In the words of Calvin Coolidge, ‘Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful.’
  3. How you treat others – Remember when you were in kindergarten and the teacher would remind you about the Golden Rule? She didn’t mean, by the way, ‘He who has the most gold rules.’ I went to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s home on Ruth Street – his mother ran a kindergarten there.

I could be a really mean kid. Mrs. Alexander would have to pull me aside and remind me, ‘Now, Johnny let’s treat others the way you would like to be treated.’ That rule applies to adulthood just as much as kindergarten. If all of us lived by that one simple rule, the world would be a better place.

Speaking of treating others as you would like to be treated – I remember a story from Mrs. Alexander’s kindergarten class. I took Carolyn Lindsay, the prettiest girl in Maryville at the time, into the back hedges of the kindergarten lawn, holding hands. I had had my eye on Carolyn for a long time – since I was 3 – and I was 4 1/2 at the time. I asked her to close her eyes and then open them after my head moved forward and lips all puckered up, ready to sneak a kiss on Carolyn. Carolyn screamed, ran out of the bushes, and there was no reciprocating smooching. Sometimes people just don’t treat you the way you would want to be treated.

Pat’s last rule:

4. God only gave you one body, take care of it.

You may be wondering about now, what was the best advice I was given that I completely failed to follow …

Several years after we started American Rug Craftsmen, I received a note from Joe Decosimo. Joe is one of the most respected business leaders in Chattanooga. He is an Italian immigrant who moved here from Pennsylvania and founded Decosimo & Co. – now a nationally acclaimed accounting firm.

The note read ‘John, I am so proud of everything you’ve created…I look forward to following your success. Make sure to stop and enjoy these moments because life goes by quickly.

I saved Joe’s note, but I really did not fully appreciate at the time what he meant. It was not until I was much older and had time to reflect – to look back on my own journey – that I understood his message.

I was so focused on getting to the top of the mountain that I didn’t stop to savor some of the most incredible views of my life during the journey. You see, the journey takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.

So much of your happiness and growth and so many of the very best memories occur while you are climbing the mountain. When you are climbing your mountain to success – and I wish all of you much success – stop long enough to enjoy the views.

In conclusion … and I really mean it this time …

Graduating class of 2013: I wish you good luck. The older you get, you will find that the harder you work, the wiser you are and the luckier you become … but, there is luck, and it helps.

There are givers and takers in the world. Some people focus on taking the best life has to give. Today I challenge you to give life your best … and leave the world a more interesting place for your being here. But most of all, ENJOY THE JOURNEY and all the truly remarkable places life takes you.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester is 1,213.