The University of Virginia’s Class of 2007 received a picture-perfect send-off on Sunday, urged by acclaimed author John Grisham to “Savor the moment, savor the day, because it cannot be repeated.”
Vowing to keep his remarks short and to limit his advice — “It’s easy to give, easy to digest, but it’s rarely followed,” he said — Grisham, apparently speaking without notes but with frequent doses of humor, offered instead three lessons that he learned in the three decades since his own graduation from Mississippi State University in 1977.
Back then, he said, he had planned his whole career as a tax attorney. “The idea of writing a book had never crossed my mind,” he said. “I had never written anything that wasn’t required for school.”
Thus, his first lesson: “You cannot plan your life,” he declared. “Dreaming is a worthy pastime. Planning is a waste.”
His second lesson was based on his memories of the deadly toll that the Viet Nam War took on his generation. Noting that everyone in the Class of 1977 knew someone who had been killed in Vietnam, Grisham said, “We were told it was necessary to protect our interests….We were told we were winning and winning and winning and more troops were needed. As the war dragged on and grew worse, so did the lying.
“Lesson number two: When politicians get the itch to go to war, don’t believe what they say.”
Finally, he observed that much of the same rhetoric he heard during the energy crisis of the 1970s is still heard today, with the added looming threat of global warming. “Lesson number three: Your generation must have the courage to save the environment, because the previous generation did not.”
In preparation for his speech, Grisham said he found a study that predicted that a graduating class the size of U.Va.’s would, on average, produce 42 future commencement speakers. To help identify them, he reviewed a list of graduation speakers nationwide this year and offered three common elements he found in their backgrounds: talent, which he defined as “the ability to discover what you do well, and to do it every day”; the perseverance to overcome rejection and failure; and luck — “not necessarily blind luck, but more importantly the ability to spot an opportunity you weren’t looking for.”
Grisham, who lives in the Charlottesville area, concluded by noting how the arrival of the students each fall brings the town to life. “Now you guys have to leave,” he quipped. “You can’t stay here until you’re 30. Life doesn’t work that way. In about three months — August 25th, to be exact — the freshmen are coming to replace you.
“You have to leave now. You have been superbly educated. Go forth, and start working on your speeches.”