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Be the first

Contributor: The Nerd

A friend reminded me about this article we posted in May 2022, and it seems like a good message to share again with State next week and graduations happening every day.

Be the first

Nerd Junior graduated from UNL yesterday, and we joined about 20,000 others at Memorial Stadium to celebrate 3,000 newly-minted graduates. College degrees have been the norm in our family for three generations, but that's not the case in many families. I grew up with Andy, who was the 5th of 6th kids. No one worked harder or had better hearts than his parents, but his four older brothers were absolute hellions in high school. The brothers settled down later in life and are all great guys, but that wasn't necessarily the case back in 1981 when Andy entered high school. During his first day of classes, he told several teachers, "My name is Andy, I'm going to be different than my brothers, so please give me a chance to prove it."

He did prove it. Using teammates and coaches in football, basketball and track as his mentors, he walked the straight path and was the first in his family to earn a high school diploma. He parlayed his height and his basketball skills to earn a college scholarship, and he was the first in his family to graduate from college. Once he was married and settled into teaching, he became the first in his family to earn a masters degree. Once Andy did it, earning a college degree became the new family expectation. His little sister went into teaching, and 18 of his children, nieces and nephews have either graduated from college or are in college. Andy is nearing retirement but he's had the same teaching philosophy his entire career: "give every student a chance to succeed no matter their circumstances."

A related but different story that a co-worker told me 30 years ago and still sticks with me -- although I might be fuzzy on the details. His dad was in his mid-30s when he decided to return to night school for an MBA. One of the seminars he wanted to take was extremely popular, with demand many multiples of the 20 available spots. This was in the 1970's, before Internet and student-friendly policies, and the only directive was to show up for the first night of class and hope for the best.

By the time Jerry arrived 15 minutes before the class started, there were a few dozen students milling in the hallway. He entered the door at the back of the classroom and saw that every seat was filled and at least twenty more students were standing in the back. After pausing for a few moments, he strode confidently to the front of the classroom and picked up a piece of chalk. He reached for the top of the chalkboard and slowly wrote, "1. Jerry Hietpas." He put the chalk down and walked back to his spot in the back of the room. Once he walked away, the classroom erupted as the younger students queued up to add their name to the chalkboard. A few minutes later, the bearded professor walked into the room, scanned the crowd and the student list on the chalkboard, and quickly said, "Excellent. The first twenty students on the board can stay. The rest of you... please leave and try again next semester."

There are countless ways to be the first - the first in your family to graduate from college, the first at your school to medal at State, the first person to bring order to a chaotic situation, the first at work to establish a new standard of excellence. Being first takes confidence and commitment -- being the first to have success is never a sure thing -- but the rewards are immense.

And that concludes my commencement speech. Good day.


First published at on 5/15/23 by Jay Slagle.

Like this coverage of Nebraska high school distance running? There's more of this at Check out the Blog tab for our frequent stories, the Articles tab for long-form articles, the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we can find, and the Rankings tab for top-15 performances in each event. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter and Instagram @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at, if you think runners, jumpers and throwers are the best things on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple jumper who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.

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