Everton H. Henriques ’78 ’83g (Chemistry) gave the 2022 Commencement Address at SUNY New Paltz on Sunday, May 22. The full address is transcribed below.
Good morning everyone! This is quite an honor for me as we celebrate the accomplishments of today’s SUNY New Paltz graduates! Congratulations!
Thank you, President Christian, and SUNY New Paltz for this honorary degree, and thanks also to the SUNY Board of Trustees for their approval of this honor.
I would like to recognize and thank a few people here. My wife of 43 years, Jeannie Irvine, my children, Everton and Jeannie – two proud New Paltz alums; Everton’s wife, Crystal; my aunt Melody; my sister, Dr. Tamsin Wolf and her husband, Dr. Bob Wolf; and my good friends, Bud Walker and Carol Campion.
President Christian, as this is your last Commencement exercise as President of SUNY New Paltz, I want to publicly thank you for your 12 years of leadership and congratulate you on your accomplishments. You kept your steady hands at the helm and guided New Paltz on a grand trajectory. Thank you again and best wishes on your retirement.
And now to my formal remarks!
Congratulations again, graduates, on your accomplishments! You’ve worked hard and today is your day to celebrate and receive the recognition you so justly deserve. For some of you there are questions in the back of your minds like what will happen next, what will I do, what does this all mean and how will my future unfold? This is normal so do not panic! Some of you may be surer of yourselves and already have answers and some may even be bold enough to believe that you have your future under control. For you I say, be flexible because life is full of curve balls. Fortunately for all of you, you have an ace in the hole. You have a SUNY New Paltz education that has equipped you with good skills to navigate the curve balls and turn them into hits and in some cases home runs.
In 1978, I sat where you are with some of the same thoughts. I remember thinking how cool it was to be a Commencement speaker but never thought that one day I would be here. You see, being the first one in my maternal family to get a college degree was already the pinnacle of success.
I was born in Jamaica, W.I. My biological mother was a Black woman and a direct descendant of slaves. My mother died when I was five and my father disappeared from the picture. My maternal grandmother, Matilda Cox, raised me in her little two-room house. She was dirt poor and could barely read and write and was too old to work. We had no money, running water, electricity or shoes. We depended on the few crops we grew for food, and so we were hungry most of the time. Fortunately, her eldest son, my uncle George, although struggling in Chicago, somehow managed to send us $10 every month, which kept us afloat.
My grandmother believed in education and so I walked barefooted to primary school for miles under the tropical sun. I was bright enough and skipped a grade but, at age 10, I was sent to Dunce class (yes, back then we had two sections per class – bright class and dunce class). Fortunately for me, the dunce class teacher, Mrs. Spence, thought I belonged in bright class. This class is allowed to take the Common Entrance Exam. Passing it provided opportunity to attend the premier high schools on the island.
Mrs. Spence helped with my birth certificate and registered me for the exam. This could’ve been a problem, because shoes were required to enter the exam room and I had none. Luckily, my uncle Lawrence sent me a pair. I can still remember that wonderful smell of new leather and how good it felt to have shoes, even though they were two sizes too big. In later years, my uncle explained that he didn’t have the money to buy another pair later so he got me something I would grow into.
That selfless act by Mrs. Spence changed my life. I became the first person in my district to pass the Common Entrance Exam. I was admitted to Manning’s High School, the oldest continuously operating and one of the most prestigious high schools on the island. The scholarship came with a stipend of 20 Pounds, the most money my grandmother had ever seen at one time. High School changed my life! It opened my eyes to new possibilities unimagined before.
After high school, I got a 13-Pounds-per-week job that came with housing and a saddled mule. Later, another company offered me a 30 Pounds-per-week position, which I accepted. Two important life lessons came from that move:
1. Salary is not the end all, it is what you have after expenses that matter.
2. The new job had me train a new employee then made him my supervisor, because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.
The idea of going to college was now deeply rooted in my mind. My grandmother’s second son, Ronald Henriques, and his wife, Flona, adopted me so that I could attend college in NYC. I refused to leave my grandmother and only came to NY after she died.
I left NYC and lived with my aunt and uncle, Gloria and Carmel Forrester, on an apple farm in Milton, NY. I had no money and no transportation, but luckily, I got a minimum wage night job in Poughkeepsie, so I worked overnight for the overtime. A kind coworker, Ed Sutcliffe, transported me to and from Milton until I could move to Poughkeepsie, where the Stokes and Fitzgerald families provided friendship and shelter. I applied to Vassar College, Marist and SUNY New Paltz and was accepted at all three. New Paltz’s tuition cost made the decision for me – a decision that I now think was one of the best in my life.
In Fall 1974, on the first day of Calculus I, in Old Main, I met this skinny little girl with big glasses. Yes, you guessed it, that was Jeannie, and she’s still here with me. We hung out together. She was a Math major with textbooks so I took the same courses as her and shared her books. I quit the Poughkeepsie job and became a full-time student. Things were financially difficult, so I worked a few odd jobs locally.
Two chemistry professors, Dr. Angelos Patsis, the chair of the Chemistry department, and Dr. Jim Campion took an interest in me. Dr. Patsis became my mentor and supervised both my undergraduate and graduate research. Dr. Campion was my advisor and cheerleader who continuously encouraged me to start my own company. Both remained good friends and advisors until their premature deaths.
In 1978, I walked across this very stage, married Jeannie and settled in the region. I worked for Texaco and later IBM, where I discovered that SUNY New Paltz prepared me well for industry. In my six years at IBM I received the IBM Inventors of the Year Award three times. I co-founded my first company with my boss and former SUNY New Paltz Foundation Board member, the late Jim Kehoe. Later Jim and I together with two other partners co-founded our second venture, Plasmaco, Inc. With the help of venture capital investments, we did a leverage buyout of IBM Kingston’s plasma display manufacturing line and relocated it to Highland.
At Plasmaco, we demonstrated color technology and Panasonic bought the company. With Panasonic’s funding, we developed and made the first full color, high definition 60” plasma TV in the world in 1999. Our technology helped to launch Panasonic’s large format plasma TV program. Five years after the Panasonic purchase, I was the only co-founder retained. I remained a Panasonic vice president for 13 years until they closed the doors, at which time I retired.
In my story I deliberately called out names. Why? I believe the names of good people should be spoken aloud and recognized from dinner tables to podiums! Although I am grateful and humbled by today’s honor, I accept it, not only for me, but also for the names I mentioned.
I want to highlight for you some of the takeaways that I hope my story attempted to convey.
First, do not be afraid of adversity because its bitterness helps to sweeten the taste of success. Most people who only had success in life are incapable of truly appreciating the sweetness and the joy of it to the fullest! Use adversity for what it is, a tool that provides valuable experience and knowledge to navigate the next pitfall in life. My life experiences certainly taught me that.
Second, be thoughtful, considerate and kind because you never know the positive impact a simple act of kindness may have. Mrs. Spence and my uncle Lawrence did something that could be considered small, but it made a huge difference for me. Without their kindness, I would not have gotten the scholarship to Manning’s, and would not have gone to college and developed the invention that helped facilitate Plasmaco’s contribution to Panasonic’s plasma program.
Third, do not chase after the first shiny object you see but instead use your great SUNY New Paltz education to help you do your due diligence. Simply put, what appears to be great on the surface could result in misfortune. For me that was very real when I changed jobs from 13 Pounds to 30 Pounds-per-week, without considering all associated expenses.
Fourth, be prepared to take advantage of opportunities. Here at New Paltz you were well trained in how to learn. Use it to continue learning so that you are not caught unprepared for a new opportunity as I was when I did not have a bachelor’s degree. And if my story doesn’t drive that home, then ask yourself what happened to the company, Blockbuster, when streaming took wings.
Fifth, you do not have to do it alone! Find yourself a mentor and while at it become a mentor as well. Yes, it is commendable to do great things by yourself; however, not everyone can or should. Remember, there is no shame in seeking good guidance. I was fortunate to have good mentors here at New Paltz.
Sixth, be grateful! Don’t hesitate to thank your parents, loved ones, and others who touched your lives. Showing gratitude encourages the giver. As a matter of fact, I invite you to join me now in a round of applause in gratitude to your supporters here today.
Finally, do not forget where you came from! Remember SUNY New Paltz and remember to give back so others may benefit and carry on your legacy of giving.
Graduates, I know you will succeed because your years at New Paltz are unique. Not only did you work hard, but you also had the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, despite this you’ve developed resilience, flexibility and adaptability. You met the academic challenge and excelled such that today you’ll receive full recognition as graduates.
To you, today’s graduates of SUNY New Paltz, I congratulate you again and I wish you great success. Go forth and proudly wear your Orange and Blue and let the world know that you have arrived prepared, and not with just any old education, but with a SUNY New Paltz education. Thank you and may God bless you.