Hank Aaron gives commencement speech at Young Harris

Sporting a black graduation gown and sneakers, 82-year-old Hank Aaron had a hall-of-fame smile at times during graduation ceremonies Saturday at Young Harris College.

He was there to deliver the commencement speech. Per usual, Hammering Hank nailed it.

Speaking to the largest graduating class Young Harris has produced and a full house inside the Mountain Lions’ gym auditorium, Aaron mixed in tales of his past with advice for the future. He had the audience laughing, thinking and then standing in applause.

There was self-deprecating humor about his pace up to the podium and a funny anecdote about a letter a teacher once sent to all her students’ parents.

“Dear parents: If you promise not to believe everything your child says about what happened at school, I’ll promise not to believe everything they say happened at home,” Aaron said to a chuckling audience.

He also recalled a reality check he received in 1957, the day after hitting a winning home run in the bottom of the 13th against the St. Louis Cardinals that sent the Milwaukee Braves to the World Series.

“For pure joy, that was one of the best moments I have experienced as a player,” Aaron told the audience. “The whole city was celebrating. We had set the baseball world on its ears. The next morning I couldn’t wait to see the Milwaukee Journal. I knew the story would be all over the front page, and there it was, a big picture of my teammates carrying me off the field.

“But something else was on the front page, too,” Aaron continued. “Down in Little Rock, Arkansas, the community was in an uproar of the desegregation of a public school. The other big picture on the headline was one of the ugliest scenes you can imagine. Two pictures, two stories, one big reality.”

Aaron’s connection to Young Harris stems from his longtime friendship with former Gov. Zell Miller, a Young Harris alumnus. Aaron helped the college build the baseball stadium, named after Miller, and has served on the school’s board. He loves the community and the scenic campus, alongside the mountains with a running brook, located just outside of Blairsville.

“It’s like a second heaven,” Aaron said after the ceremony.

Not all of the graduates knew the full details behind the legend delivering their commencement speech, but plenty were well aware of who was standing before them. One student even swapped his square graduate hat for a Braves baseball cap and walked straight over to shake Aaron’s hand, before accepting his degree.

Aaron urged the approximately 187 graduates to reach out and thank everyone who had helped them get to this point. He told them how preparation and dedication were key cogs to success in life and to expect to face adversity.

“Graduates of Young Harris College, this is your day,” Aaron said. “Each of you can take the field knowing in life, like in baseball, there will be some runs, some hits and also errors. And, at the end of the day, the one thing that you control is your own best effort.”