Here’s what I said to graduates of my Montana high school … in 1984!


A postcard shows the “new” Powell County High School in Deer Lodge, Montana, which opened in 1903. An addition was added in the 1950s. The original building remains the heart of the school.

By Kevin S. Giles

(I was commencement speaker at Powell County High School in 1984, a special privilege because my sister Kerry graduated in that class. Here are selected comments from what I told those 100 or so graduates. You’ll see that the onset of the computer age played big. My initial comments referred to my own experiences in that high school in the 1960s.)

We always complained there was nothing to do in Deer Lodge, and then stayed out all night getting it done. And, of course, we were always ready to give adults the full benefit of our inexperience.

We expressed a burning desire to be different by dressing exactly alike.

Barbershops on Main Street got a lot of business. If you have a look at a school annual from 1970 you’ll see that the boys didn’t have a lot of wind resistance.

There were three kinds of miniskirts: mini, micro and “don’t bend over,” and they got maxi-attention.

Warden 2

A student supposedly designed the Wardens mascot in the 1950s. The gun-slinging warden remains the icon of high school activities in Deer Lodge. Why the Wardens? Named in reference to the top dog at Montana State Prison, of course.

I’ve learned that as soon as we think we know everything some situation comes along that teaches us how little we know. I am reminded of the painter who was visited in his studio by a high school class. He had just finished a painting, and it was drying on the wall. “How long,” asked one of the students, “did it take you to produce that painting?” Replied the old man: “Two hours to put on the paints, and 40 years to learn how.”

In 1984 we are living in an age when astronauts walk on the moon and politicians walk on eggshells, when thousands of babies die every day in impoverished countries while others are conceived in test tubes, when American women have gained more civil rights than ever before but citizens in Poland, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and many other countries are beaten, raped and killed by thugs who pass as government officials.

Thinking back to MY graduation, things got pretty serious the spring of my senior year. For one thing, we all had felt sheltered here in Deer Lodge, but becoming draft age brought home the hard reality of a place named Vietnam. We saw on television the first landing of a man on the moon. We also learned we were victims of the Generation Gap, which meant we never talked with our parents, and of the Credibility Gap, which meant the values we had grown up with didn’t hold a great deal of importance for us anymore.

With the computer revolution under way we have entered the Information Age, which means that in a very few short years most of the labor force will be committed to the storage and transfer of all types of information to every conceivable point on the globe and to outer space as well.

All this talk about bits and bytes and interfaces and floppy disks will become the bread that will feed you. Many of you graduates will be among the first workers to install computer terminals on a widespread basis in homes, from which residents will do their banking, shopping, word processing and generally any other task that involves words or numbers.

Could this be the type of rapidly developing technological world George Orwell predicted in his book “1984”? … People had no privacy and no longer could understand the difference between truth and fiction. The residents of this globe, in Orwell’s story, were human beings whose minds were overwhelmed by technology.

We don’t need a world governed by fear and threats, with our hope for the future and our children’s future blunted by the certainty of instant death if chiefs of state push red buttons. In the words of French author Victor Hugo, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

Exercise your democratic rights. Your free thinking will ensure that sophisticated computer technology will benefit people of the world, rather than destroy them.

Remember the words of Jeannette Rankin, a Montana native and the first woman to take a seat in the U.S. Congress, who wrote in her diary one day before she decided to hit the campaign trail: “Go! Go! Go! It makes no difference where, just so you go! go! go! Remember, at the first opportunity, go!”

Peace be with you.

(Kevin S. Giles is a native of western Montana. Two of his books are set in his hometown of Deer Lodge, Montana. The latest is Summer of the Black Chevy, a novel about a boy in his first teenage summer who encounters a rebellious older boy and a series of calamities. The other book set in Deer Lodge is Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance. Giles also wrote Flight of the Dove, a biography of the first woman in Congress, Jeannette Rankin.)