After the Pomp and Circumstance: There is so much MORE to learn

A random encounter with a Latvian prompted my commitment to learn something new every day


Gordon Graham here, and to all of you graduates – congratulations! I was asked to give you my thoughts on the occasion of graduation.

I know a very mixed group of graduates may be reading this. Some of you have just completed Academy training and are commencing a career in a public safety agency. Perhaps some of you are completing a college or university program. And my hope is that some of you are graduating from high school. Regardless of who you are and what stage of life you are in, again, congratulations.

Over the years, I have learned that people who talk about their degrees are generally disagreeable. But for purposes of this writing, I must do so in order to convey a story of great significance in my life.

My dream was fulfilled. I was a California Highway Patrol motorcop. (Photo/Gordon Graham)
My dream was fulfilled. I was a California Highway Patrol motorcop. (Photo/Gordon Graham)

CHP Academy graduation: “It was a big day for me”

I have “been graduated” several times – grade school, high school, college, grad school and law school – but the program that I am most proud of was my graduation from the California Highway Patrol Academy 47 years ago.

The Vietnam War was wrapping up. There were thousands of veterans looking for civilian employment, and the path to become an officer with the CHP was very difficult. I was not a veteran and only 22 years old – I knew it was going be a tough road to become part of that great organization.

Navigating the written test, the physical test and the oral interview was difficult, but I did so successfully.

On day one of the 16-week Academy, men (it was all men back then) started getting dismissed from the initial training program, a pattern that continued until the end. There were huge physical, academic, driving, shooting and other challenges, but somehow, I made it through the four months. I fondly recall the ceremony in the gym of the old CHP Academy on Meadowview Road in Sacramento. My mom and dad were both there and it was a big day for me.

Next steps: “Graduation was just the start”

Like most of the new officers, I was sent to the greater Los Angeles area, where I quickly learned graduation was just the start.

There was a difficult break-in program (now called the Field Training Officer program), followed by a probationary period.

When I got off probation, I knew I wanted to be a CHP motorcycle cop – even though I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life. Motor School had a huge drop-out rate for first-time attendees, sometimes as high as 70%. But somehow, I got through that program, too.

Immersed in the field: “I learned how little I really knew”

My dream was fulfilled. I was a CHP motorcop – probably the coolest job in the whole world! I thought my life was complete: I had a college degree and I had enrolled in school at Cal State Long Beach to earn my teaching credential. Yep, I was just about the smartest and coolest guy in the world. Frankly, at that idiot stage in my life, I really thought I knew everything!

As a member of the CHP, I quickly learned how little I knew about law enforcement. I got exposed early on to some veteran cops who “adopted” me, and I learned how little I knew about “cop” work. (Photo/Gordon Graham)
As a member of the CHP, I quickly learned how little I knew about law enforcement. I got exposed early on to some veteran cops who “adopted” me, and I learned how little I knew about “cop” work. (Photo/Gordon Graham)

Very quickly I learned how little I knew about law enforcement. I got exposed early on to some Los Angeles Police Department veteran cops who “adopted” me (another long story for another time, but thanks Dick and Jimmy), and I learned how little I knew about “cop” work and how my lack of knowledge could end up with me being very dead very quickly.

So I immersed myself on duty and off duty to learn as much as I could about being in law enforcement. I read all the books I could, went to all the classes I could get into and talked to as many veteran cops as I could. Instead of sitting in the officer waiting room in the courthouse, I wandered the courthouse and looked for trials where I could sit in and listen to veteran LAPD, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office and CHP cops testifying. I learned how little I really knew and how much knowledge was out there!

Great minds: “I was so fortunate to have brilliant professors”

A few years went by and I was in grad school at the University of Southern California Institute of Safety and Systems Management (ISSM), a program designed to improve safety in military operations. The students were mostly military and aerospace executives, and once again I quickly recognized how little I knew about life.

One of my classmates was a decorated USAF pilot out of Vietnam and he “adopted” me and taught me things about history and aviation and politics and, more importantly, life that I had never even thought about.

I was so fortunate to have brilliant professors like Harry Hurt, author of The Hurt Report, the single most respected document ever written about motorcycle safety. When he learned I was a motorcop for the CHP, he took me under his wing. The more I learned, the more I learned what I did not know.

Chaytor Mason was one of my professors. He was the human factors expert at the ISSM, and for some reason, he took an interest in me, serving as my academic advisor for my thesis and even inviting me to his home to visit. Can you imagine that – one of the most respected minds in the world of human factors, and I was invited to his home for one-on-one chats about school and life!

If you’re getting bored about now, trust me, there is a method to my madness.

Although these professors and fellow students taught me so much, my big wakeup call came on the beat one day. I may not remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember this contact with striking accuracy.

A life-changing moment: “Where is Latvia?”

On that day I was assigned to Beat 52, the north end of the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. I preferred Beat 50, the south end of the Harbor Freeway, where all the action was back then, but I was 15-52M that day and I was responsible for State Route 11 (long before it became part of the Interstate Highway System and was designated I-110). For those of you familiar with LA geography, my beat was from I-10 to the Four Level Interchange.

I had just cleared “The Four Level” and was turning around to head southbound when I noted and old Mercedes-Benz on the right shoulder and an even older man in the process of opening the trunk. I pulled in behind him (yeah, I looked pretty good back then – Ray-Ban sunglasses, Magna-ported and magnafluxed Colt Python in a long shank holster with combat hammer and gold-plated trigger, fully shined motor boots, half-shell Bell Helmet, second gun tucked away behind my speedloaders, combat knife tucked into my boot, two double handcuff cases and a .25 caliber auto in my left rear pocket – you get the picture) and discovered an 80+ year-old guy who had a flat tire on his old Mercedes diesel.

Let’s be clear, I do not change tires for people; that is not my job. But I will help you change your tire, and I might do 99% of the work changing it so long as you are trying to get it done. And he was trying – but not doing that well at it – so I got the car jacked up (amazing how the Germans thought that through – no bumper jack but a screw jack that lifted the frame of the car), and I showed him how to loosen the bolts prior to lifting the vehicle so the tire/wheel would not spin when you tried to remove the lug nuts. I got his spare out of the trunk and got the job done. I must say he was trying to be helpful, but I did all the work.

Both our hands were dirty now, but being a fully equipped motorcop, I had a tube of hand cleaner and a rag in my motor box. As we cleaned our hands and he thanked me, I noted he had a European accent, so I asked him, “So where are you from?” His response was, “I am from Latvia.”

This is the moment that changed my life – seriously! Here I am, a highly educated and highly trained CHP motorcop with enough weapons and ammo to take on a small army and looking pretty cool, and yet, I was confused. In my head, I wondered, “Where is Latvia? Is that someplace in Northern California, or is it some neighborhood in Los Angeles I’m not familiar with?” I had no clue, so I asked him “Where is Latvia?”

His response changed my life. “Have you not heard of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia?” Now I am getting really confused – I have not heard of any of these towns! So I told him “No, where are they?” He responded with a polite smile on his face: “You Americans, it is all about you, isn’t it?”

I did not take offense to his comment, but I repeated myself, saying I had no clue about the places he was talking about. He spent the next hour (if Sergeant Becker knew that I spent an hour on the road talking to an elderly Latvian with a dubious view of young American motorcops, he would have killed me) talking about the history of those countries, the (then) Soviet Union and what the Russians did to those nations. I was getting a world history lesson, and it was at that moment I recognized, “I am a stone-cold idiot. I think I am really smart, but I am really stupid, and there is so much to learn.”

I made the decision then to learn something new every day. To talk to people I did not know. To listen – really listen – to what they are telling me. To read and read and read. And here I am 45 years later with the same mindset.

Again, not to bore you, but just recently I was honored to do a webinar featuring Dr. Tony Kern, which is available for on-demand viewing from Lexipol. Dr. Kern is a retired USAF B-1-B command pilot who later earned his doctorate degree and is the smartest person I have ever met – seriously. In our one-hour chat for this webinar, I again learned how little I know about very important stuff – and again vowed to continue my quest to learn (and then share) as much as I can.

Understanding commencement: “Starting your life in public safety”

So what is the purpose of this long rambling story? Another word for graduation is “commencement.” Many of you are now starting your life in public safety. Here is a shortlist of advice I’d like you to consider as you begin your career:

  • Recognize how important your job is in society.
  • Recognize that your primary mission in public safety is the preservation of life.
  • Read the news (local, state, national, international) every day.
  • Talk to everyone you can and listen to what they have to say.
  • Continually improve your knowledge about your profession.
  • Make excellence the norm in your life, not the deviation.
  • Always be reading at least one book.
  • Be grateful you live in America and that you enjoy freedom.
  • As you mature, “adopt” some newer members and show them the way.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity you are offered.
  • Never be satisfied with the status quo – always search for a better way to do things.
  • Be very careful who you choose as friends or partners. There are some very, very dishonest people out there who will betray you and steal everything you own if they can.
  • Be a good person all the time.

Earlier in this piece, I recommended you read and try to learn as much as you can. With this in mind, let me help you get started. On my recommended reading list is Dr. Tony Kern’s great work “Going Pro: The Deliberate Practice of Professionalism.” I want you to read this book. Regardless of your age, job, rank or experience level, this book will be of great benefit to you.

Congratulations! “My hat is off to you”

So there you have it. My hat is off to you for your recent achievement in graduation! If you ever attend one of my live programs, please come on up and say hi. I will be honored to meet you and hear how you are doing. 

Take care and work safely.

Editor's Note: Recent graduates, thank you for sharing your photos with us to help celebrate your achievement. Watch the video below to see some of your fellow graduates. Congratulations!  

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