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Wally Lamb to Conn College graduates: "Roll up sleeves"

May 18, 2003
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For immediate release - May 18, 2003
Contact: Nina Lentini (860) 439-2505;

Wally Lamb exhorts Connecticut College graduates to "roll up sleeves and fix things"

NEW LONDON, Conn. - What do fiction writers know? They know enough to ask, "Why?," best-selling novelist Wally Lamb told the graduating Class of 2003 at Connecticut College. "Fiction writers have no answers, only questions, the most succinct and significant of which is: WHY? Why, God, if You exist and are merciful, must our loved ones be claimed by cancer, addition, AIDS, mental illness, muscular dystrophy, murder? … Why, America, if justice is blind, do we imprison the descendants of slaves in such disproportionate numbers? … Why must our poorest children get the poorest education and our hungriest be denied a place at the banquet table? … Why, suicide bomber? Why?"

Weaving together a reflection on his development as a fiction writer, commentary on the politically charged atmosphere in America and a personal salute to his graduating son Jared, Lamb talked about his own dilemma when, in the days leading up to the war in Iraq, he was asked to sign a petition urging President Bush to exhaust all diplomatic measures before risking the lives of innocent Iraqis and American military. He admitted that he worried about a possible negative effect on book sales but signed the petition because "my kids are watching me, listening to me, studying my responses to the world, and I do not want to send them the message that they can speak their minds at the dinner table but they had better shut up once they get into the school cafeteria."

The author of a best-selling, Oprah Book Club-chosen novel, She´s Come Undone, about a wounded survivor of rape, Lamb told the audience about the college admission essay written by his son, Jared. He said he was moved to discover his son´s focus on what he called "the other," in this case a girl in their hometown who had been raped and murdered. Jared Lamb wrote about a trip to a makeshift memorial for the girl and a sheet of paper he saw there: "In bold red letters its one word sums up all my feelings: WHY?" The struggle to understand why, Jared´s father told the graduates, "makes us not just human but humane."

Lamb exhorted the 475 graduates of Connecticut College to "find work that adds to the world instead of depleting it. And it can be a noble struggle when accompanied by a rejection of the unacceptable, unimaginative status quo and an honest effort to change things for the better. But how to improve an imperfect world, an imperfect nation, our imperfect selves?" That question, he said, sometimes becomes "the unbearable pain that motivates good minds and generous hearts to bring their gifts to the table, roll up their sleeves, and fix things. Graduates, be a part of that. Find work that adds to the world instead of depleting it. "

Furthermore, he advised: "Imitate no one."

Lamb is also the author of a second best-selling novel, I Know This Much Is True, which examined schizophrenia and the forces of family and forgiveness, and he is the editor of Couldn´t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters, a collection of stories by women prison inmates.

Just before delivering his keynote address, Lamb was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Also receiving an honorary degree, that of bachelor of arts, was trustee Diane Buchanan Wilsey. Wilsey, who attended the college, is the daughter and mother of Connecticut College graduates.

The college also awarded the Connecticut College Medal to Duncan Dayton, a 1981 graduate and trustee, who will complete a five-year term as chair of the Board of Trustees on June 30. Dayton helped establish the Dayton Professorship in the Arts at the college and was instrumental in the funding of the Charles B. Luce Field House and the Dayton Arena. In 1992, he earned the Connecticut College President´s Award of Merit. The Connecticut College Medal was created in 1969 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class. It is the highest honor the College can confer on those whose accomplishments and service have enhanced its reputation and nourished its growth.

Poetry was in the air on this sunny Sunday afternoon. The prestigious Oakes and Louise Ames Prize was awarded to Geoffrey Babbitt. In 2002, Babbitt was named one of five student poets in the state of Connecticut. The prize, named for an emeritus president of the college and his wife, is given to a graduating senior who has completed this year´s most outstanding honors study.

Senior class speaker Eben Spencer Cross of Orange, Mass., who was selected by his peers, spoke of gratitude, quoting the poet William Wordsworth: "The gratitude of men has oftner left me mourning." He told about his walks through the college´s arboretum with a fistful of small rocks, tossing them while counting his blessings. "How do we make time in our busy routines to stop and think about what it is in life that truly makes us happy?" he asked." I think it´s as simple as a handful of rocks. Every rock is a different piece of gratitude, and today my gratitude is extended to CC."

Senior class president Harold William Higgins II of Dunedin, Fla., focused on the sundial in the Ad Astra garden at the top of the College Green: "There it stands, the stalwart stone-faced timekeeper, whose shadow divides the future from the past."

Connecticut College President Norman Fainstein said, "The longing for community is a core desire of us moderns who have replaced an impoverished but organic society with material wealth and individual realization. For us, choice has trumped obligation." He asked the graduates, rhetorically, "How can each of you construct a world where obligation and choice live proportionally with one another, where communities provide meaning rather than just conformity?" Speaking warmly of the students in the advanced seminar on social theory and the city, Fainstein said the class "was the community I wanted for decades, the community of my dreams."

Ranked among the most selective private liberal arts colleges in the nation, Connecticut College has an enrollment of 1,850 men and women from 44 states, the District of Columbia, and 55 countries. The college is particularly known for interdisciplinary studies, innovative international programs, paid internships, and a wide range of student-faculty research opportunities. Founded in 1911, the college operates under an 80-year-old honor code and has no Greek system. The scenic 750-acre campus is managed as an arboretum and overlooks Long Island Sound. For more information, see Connecticut College is located at 270 Mohegan Ave., New London.