I came to Athens for the first time in January 27, 1967, to take part in a one-act play competition held in this very room. I remember the date because it was the day three Apollo astronauts were killed in a fire during a test at Cape Canaveral. I don’t remember anything about the competition, except that our play was called A Game of Chess, I played the butler, and we lost.
I was an undergraduate here, an English major, from 1968 to 1972. These were the formative years of my education. UGA was a smaller school then, more provincial, less diverse. I lived first in Russell Hall for two years, a wild zoo of chaos and anarchy, then for two years in a hovel of a house on the edge of town. We had a tree stump for a table and lawn chairs for furniture. In those years on the weekends there was a rich social and cultural life on campus. Students stayed on campus for the weekend. Downtown was fairly dead. There was officially no alcohol on campus and unofficially a lot of it. I had wonderful friends during those years. Some are dead now, others have drifted away. I keep in touch with a few of them.
The great gifts UGA gave me were inspiring teachers and exciting classroom experiences. I never took the opportunity to thank the English professor, George B. Martin, who was my advisor and mentor during those years. He gave me personal guidance and advice, much of which I ignored, all of which in retrospect I appreciate. I wish I had, at some point, thanked him. It means a lot to professors to be thanked, let me tell you.
If I had to pick out a single life-changing moment in my education at UGA, it would have been in an Honors religion class taught in 1969 by a professor named Will Power. He is still alive and well today. I don’t remember the exact subject under discussion that day--it had vaguely to do with the existence of God and an afterlife, not surprising because this was a religion class. What I found so empowering in the give-and-take of that classroom moment--it was like a lightning strike--was the force of logic, of intellect, of discovery that helped me define my relation to the world, my awareness of who I am as an independent thinker. Another great experience was my course in historical geology, taught by J. Hatten Howard. And Dr. Martin’s seminar in Shakespearean tragedy gave me a world view. I know you don’t recognize these names. They are semi-mythic figures in my memory.
The truly most life-changing moment in my education, however, did not take place at UGA. It happened when I was four years old, in 1954. My family lived in College Park, GA, in a duplex shared with my father’s parents. My grandfather, an old grizzled man who never shaved and rarely talked, kept a chicken coop in the backyard. One day he brought home for me and my sister two white chickens, a large rooster and hen. That afternoon my sister and I got up from our naps and went out alone into the backyard to visit with our chickens. They immediately attacked us, flying, swooping, squawking, coming right at us. We were rescued by my mother. Put yourself in the position of a four-year old looking eye to eye with an angry rooster. Life has never seemed secure to me since then. Especially since my grandmother made my grandfather slaughter those chickens. I stood and watched him do it. We had those chickens for dinner that evening. This was a grim lesson.
I suppose, looking back over my years here, that the big changes I have seen are in diversity. In four years as a student here I had one woman for a teacher. I never had an African American or any other person of color in a class with me. Most students were from Georgia. It was a monochromatic place. Today 35% of UGA faculty are women. The student body is far more diverse, not only in color but also in international background. The campus is a more exciting place to be now.
It’s been gratifying to have been a part of this University’s growth towards becoming a great institution for higher learning.
But the major change I have seen over my nearly fifty years at UGA is that the students are younger. They’ve grown younger every year. The students I taught this year were 49 years younger than the ones with whom I took my first freshman English class. Why this is, I don’t know. I can’t get used to it. The Admissions Office is up to something.
What wise thoughts can I offer you from my life and career? Not many that any other person my age couldn’t offer. But I have to tell you something, so here are a few bits of advice:
Friends. They are important. Don’t lose touch with the friends you’ve made here. They’re a part of you. When you lose them, you lose some of yourself. Stay connected. One of my oldest friends at UGA is in this room. We’ve been friends since we both joined the faculty in 1977—Fran Teague, I know you are here. Another close friend in this room is Richard Neupert. We both like movies. We’re going to discuss them this evening.
Family: My wife and my three sons mean everything to me. They’ve been the motivation for my career. Nothing in my career has been as important to me as they have been. If you marry or have a partner or long lasting relationship, if you have children, and certainly if you have friends, keep them at the center of your life.
Learning. Keep learning—never stop learning. Keep reading. Watch plays and films, make plays and films, go to concerts and lectures, write and create. Engage with the world. Keep doing this—actively, aggressively—until the moment you die.
Integrity. Don’t compromise. Whatever job you take, in the arts or business or education or at home, don’t become a clone, a mindless autocrat, a corporate stooge, a cog in some meaningless wheel. Don’t forfeit the self you’ve become. Don’t let yourself grow old.
The Arts. Take the opportunity, at any place and time, to tell your family and friends and co-workers and strangers you meet on the street, especially the politicians who govern this state and nation, and the administrators who run this university, about the importance of the arts and of your degree in Theatre and Film. Don’t let anyone tell you that your degree didn’t teach you work skills. You’ve got work skills. You’ve also got an education. Campaign for support for the arts in this state and on this campus.
I have two parting wishes for you. One is that, once you graduate, that you do something wild and crazy that you can remember for the rest of your life. The second wish is that, whatever you do in your life, you’ll do it well, that you’ll do it because it has meaning for you, but also because it will help others, whether you’re entertaining them or teaching them or encouraging them or just helping them figure out how to tie their shoes.
Congratulations to you all.