A proud alum of Fort Hamilton High School, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen returned to “The Fort” the other day to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2021.
Her remarks, like the best of its genre, dispensed a mix of advice, inspiration, and celebration. But because she was returning to her own alma mater, she served up another potent ingredient: nostalgia.
Yellen is a 1963 graduate of Fort Hamilton, where she was valedictorian of her class and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Pilot.
And so she shared a few memories of growing up in the wake of the Depression in Bay Ridge — a working-class area near the Brooklyn waterfront and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge populated by Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, and Jews.
Both her parents loved Bay Ridge and the tight familiar neighborhood.
Yellen’s father, Julius Yellen, was a family physician who saw patients in an office on the ground floor of their home. “Some of my earliest memories are of watching his patients walk up to our stoop,” she said. “They would stop and chat. Over the years, so many became our friends, our neighbors.”
Her mother Anna, an elementary school teacher, was a den mother to a Cub Scout troop.
Yellen noted that Bay Ridge instilled in her, and many of her classmates, an appreciation for community, interdependence, and a desire to go into public service.
“A community isn’t just something that happens,” she told the graduates. “It’s not just a group of people living in proximity to one another. A community — like a country — has to be made. And made by people. People who come here and pour their heart and their soul into building it.”
“A community isn’t just something that happens . . . it has to be made. And made by people. People who come here and pour their heart and their soul into building it.”
After graduation, Yellen went on to receive her undergraduate degree in economics from Brown and her MA and PhD from Yale, then had a distinguished career as an academic and a board member of the Federal Reserve. From 2014 to 2018 she served as Fed chair.
In that role and as Treasury Secretary, Yellen has used her public voice to speak about the economy, unemployment and labor markets, monetary and fiscal policy, international trade, and more. She’s testified many times before Congress.
Public speaking has also been lucrative for her — she’s earned millions in speaking fees from large corporations eager to hear her views on the economy.
On this occasion, she kept the focus local and personal. “I am so lucky to come from Bay Ridge and to be a graduate of Fort Hamilton High,” she told the students.
“My heart will always be here. Fifty years from now you will be saying the same thing. And, as you know, your heart will be here too.”
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