In what he reckoned was his first commencement address since 1995, Folsom — a 63-year-old fellow Gamecock — urged members of the Class of 2012 to seek balance in their lives as they begin careers and post-collegiate lives.
He told the graduates of the last days of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, as Johnson biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin described it, had been sapped of his vitality once out of office because he had put so much of himself into politics and died a sad man.
“Nothing, when it really gets down to it, no amount of power, no amount of success or money is worth that,” he told the Class of 2012. “I really hope that ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep’ as the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, that you can say your goal in life was not the perfection of work alone, but the perfection of life.”
Folsom himself is a new JSU degree recipient, having been awarded an honorary doctorate of letters Thursday in honor of his years of service to the state of Alabama and to the university.
The university’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution last month awarding Folsom the honorary degree after he rotated off the board following more than two decades of service. Folsom’s term expired last fall, and though Gov. Robert Bentley recommended him for reappointment, it was denied by the state Senate’s Confirmation Committee.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who heads the committee, said he would like to see more diversity and a shift in focus from athletics to academics on the board.
Board President Jim Bennett, referring to the newly-minted “Doctor Governor,” said Folsom chaired the board’s athletic committee with great distinction. Appointed Secretary of State by Folsom when he became governor in 1993, Bennett said that Folsom had a great capacity for vision for the university.
“Governor Folsom was a man who didn’t view the world in snapshots,” he said, “but looked across a much broader field at what actually could be.”
Bennett noted Folsom’s leadership in renovating the university’s stadium, and JSU President Bill Meehan said Folsom was key in helping move the university from Division II to Division I and ultimately into the Ohio Valley Conference.
“The school is improving; we’re moving along,” Folsom said, noting such growth as increased average ACT scores and growth of the honors program.
Thursday’s graduates also recognized recent transitions at the university.
“I feel like I was here at JSU during a big part of their growth,” said Emily Glaser, a summa cum laude graduate, who pointed to moves like requiring freshmen to live on campus, creation of a doctoral program and the stadium expansion.
“I feel like there’s been so many changes since I was a freshman — good changes, steps in the right direction.”
Lori Owens, an associate professor and head of the political science department at JSU, said Folsom has seen a lot of changes in Alabama during his tenure as an elected official in such areas as economic development and race relations.
“He stepped in as governor during a difficult time for the state,” she said. Gov. Guy Hunt had just been convicted of ethics violations and removed from office. Folsom had begun to push for incentives to woo Mercedes into Alabama at a time, she said, when there was a lot of criticism for such incentives. Instead, say Alabama historians, it became his legacy, opening the door to other automobile manufacturers.
“He’s always had that progressive vein in terms of his politics like his father had,” she said, pointing out that Big Jim Folsom was seen as softer on the issue of race during segregation. And it was Little Jim who made the decision that the Confederate flag would not return to fly over the Capitol after renovations to the building were completed.
Glen Browder taught Folsom when he was a student at JSU in the 1970s and claims Folsom as a colleague and friend.
“Stepping back, I think his place is Alabama history will be as a popular, successful public official whose personality overshadowed any political ambitions he may have had,” he said of his former Southern Politics student.
Folsom’s message to grads has been evident in his own life, according to Browder. “I don’t think he was ever a highly partisan or ambitious politician,” he said. “He would have been just as happy living the life with his family and friends as serving in a high political office.”
“I would hope that as each of you make your own choices over time,” Folsom said Thursday, “you would choose in such a way that allows your drive for achievement to be balanced with an equal commitment to love and to play and to your family and to your friends, and to your community.”