Commencement Address to the Graduating Class of 2007

West Potomac High School
Cleve Francis, M.D.

June 14th, 2007
The Patriot Center
George Mason University

Fairfax, Virginia



It is a great honor to address the 2007 Graduating class of the West Potomac High School.


Since graduations are the results of many years of hard work and sacrifice, let me also thank not only you, the students, but the parents, families, relatives, teachers, coaches, principals, cafeteria workers, security guards, bus drivers, the entire community and public school officials. All had a hand in your arrival to this point in time.


This day represents a great moment in your lives but it is merely a stepping stone to bigger and better things to come. I would like to say a few words about the Future. Most often this term is used as a noun and describes something that happens in a time that is distant from now. I am asking you today to use the term Future also as a verb for it has a lot to do with the actions that you take today. Having a vision of the future will give you direction and purpose. Without such a general view of where you are headed; a lot of precious time will be wasted in your quest to find a path to somewhere. According to an old Chinese proverb often quoted by the late American President, John F. Kennedy, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


I liken this vision of the Future as being like the GPS system. Once you dial in the destination, a course is plotted. Regardless of the direction in which you travel, the GPS will always attempt to get you to that destination. Planning your lives is not that much different.


I will use my own life as a good illustration of this. My parents were good and decent people who were not formally educated. It was part of their vision that my five sisters and I would get an education and opportunities that they never had. I grew up in the State of Louisiana in the 60’s in the very heart of extreme racial discrimination. I attended an all black high school. It was against the law to use the public library or enter a physician’s office from the front door. The movie theaters were also segregated. Even though I was the salutatorian in my class of 45 students, had I not seen a future for myself, I would have been lost.


Fortunately for me I developed a vision of my future at the age of 14. I decided that I would become three things; a scientist, a musician and as I had promised my mother, I would try my best to be a good person.


This vision that I saw for myself has brought me to this place and time. It was not easy and all the roads were not easily marked.  I had many detours, pain and disappointments along the way but I was always fixed to that vision of my future. Whenever there was a question of what to do next and which friends to follow, the answer was always there for me. When confronted with a choice, I used to ask myself, “How will this get me to my goal?”  I always managed to position myself so that I could take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves.


The day after graduation I set out on my mission. I began cutting lawns, cleaning attics and pruning trees to raise enough money to buy clothes and a small suitcase that I would need. I did my own homework and found out about a federal loan that I could get. I applied and was accepted to attend Southern University in Baton Rouge, La and enrolled there in the fall of 1963 to major in Biology.


I left my hometown with a science book, a guitar and a bible on a long journey into the future.


It was a trip to the campus infirmary that would give me a more specific direction about becoming a physician. I was treated by an elderly black physician. I was so fascinated at seeing an African American physician for the first time in my life that I decided at that moment that I would become a physician. I changed my major to Premedical Biology and in four years graduated and was all ready to attend medical school but there would be a major bump in the road for me. I applied to 12 medical schools and was turned down by all of them. I was disappointed but this did not stop me for a moment. This was simply a detour for me.  I began by applying to graduate schools and was accepted to enter a Master of Arts program at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg Virginia. I spent two years working in basic science research. My work included working with reptiles. This was not a comfortable thing for someone from Louisiana who was afraid of reptiles. My research involved studying the function of the third eye of a lizard that inhabited the southwestern United States. After receiving my Master of Arts Degree in Biology, I began making plans to work on obtaining a PhD in Biology but decided to take another chance to get back to my original destination by again applying to medical school. This time I was successful and was accepted to by the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.  I was one of two African-Americans in my class. After four years of hard work, I received my doctorate of medicine degree. I then attended the George Washington University Hospital for training in internal medicine and cardiology. After five long years, I established a practice of cardiology, Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates. At this point, I had come a long way from when I had to go to the back door of a doctor’s office to now being the doctor in the office.  This practice has grown to eleven multicultural physicians who work at Inova Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Fairfax and Potomac Hospitals.


My guitar and my music were not far behind. At Southern University, I played for my humanities professor who became so impressed with my musical talent that he bought me a new guitar and arranged for me to do a concert before university music majors. When I attended the College of William and Mary, I became involved in performances in the local community and on the campus. I made my first recording while at William I and Mary. During the summers of medical school, instead of taking a summer job in the hospital, I would travel over the summer with local bands and would return in the fall to medical school. While training at the George Washington University Hospital, I performed on a regular basis in Georgetown.


It was well into my cardiology practice (10 years) that I got the chance to become a professional musician. I treated a patient with an acute heart attack. While treating this patient, I got to know his brother who happened to be a professional musician.  He asked me to let him hear samples of my music. When his brother got better, he took a copy of my recordings back to Miami and played it for the president of a small independent record company. This led to my first professional recording. It was a song called “Love light” and its video would put me in the national spotlight on Country Music Television and would prompt a call from the president of Capitol Nashville Records who signed me to his company’s label. With permission from my partners and my patients, I took a sabbatical and moved to Nashville and traveled around the United States. Canada, England, Scotland and the Virgin Islands. I recorded three CD’s and starred in five music videos. Performed at the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville’s Fan Fair before thousands.


After extensive touring I was able to return to my medical practice in 1994. I formed a group known as “Friends” and we do four performances a year, including our annual show at the Birchmere. Last year we released a live CD of one of our shows at the Birchmere call “Story time, live at the Birchmere”.


The verdict is still out on the “good person” promise. You’ll have to ask my mother and my friends.


Most, if not all of my plans have come true. They started out vague but in time, my life became more defined. I doubt that I could have accomplished this if I didn’t have some kind of vision of how I wanted my life to be. My future is now and yours awaits you.


This vision had nothing to do with money because that will come. It has nothing to do with being alone because people will reach out to assist you when they see that you are determined. It has less to do with race, color or creed but more to do with our ability to see beyond where we are and to have the courage to pay the price that it takes to get where we want to go.

I must also tell you that my five sisters are all professionals and followed their own dreams and aspirations.


There a lot of “Futures” that one can envision, a professional future, an ethical future, a family future and a health future are but a few. It is never too early to think of these very important ingredients of your life. Each of you should be able to use the education that you have been given thus far to plan for your own future.   


In closing, may you all have good, decent and long lives. It is my hope that each of you will in some way, make this place called the earth, a better and a more peaceful place in which to live.  


Thank you!


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