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A Grin at the End: Advice worth remembering

carl-sampsonBy Carl Sampson

I love this season. I don’t mean summer. I love graduation season. It’s when middle and high schools, colleges and universities unleash their work product on the world.

“Let’s see what this bunch can do,” every teacher is thinking as the diplomas are handed out and the tassels are turned.

While that’s exciting enough, what I like best are the commencement speeches. Most of them are horrible. They mainly consist of some old duffer telling a bunch of kids about how great he or she is. Or was.

Translation: “Blah, blah. Blah-blah-blah.”

I hunt for good commencement speeches. On You Tube and at graduations I happen to attend, I always look for that rare message that goes beyond “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

One of the best I’ve heard was Charlie Day’s speech last year at Merrimack College in Rhode Island. I can’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Day, the creator of the TV show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, had a lot say. And none of the graduates fell asleep.

But there was another speech that was better. It was so good it still haunts me. It wasn’t really a commencement speech, but it should be. I heard it a couple of months ago when my son and I were checking out a college.

Jeffrey Tambor is known for playing parts that range from transgender to transcendent. He’s the funny guy you’ve seen on TV shows such as Arrested Development. You’ve liked his character but never knew his name.

The student union at the college had invited Tambor to speak. We figured it would be worth a few laughs, if nothing else, so we went. The speech was astounding. I wish I was had heard it at my college commencement.

A word about Tambor. He’s not cool. Nor is he handsome. I don’t know for sure but I doubt he can sing or dance. But he is as right-on as anyone I’ve ever heard talk.

So what was it that a 70-year-old recovering alcoholic actor had to say that resonated not just with me but with the 1,000 or so college kids that night?

A lot.

He spoke about his parents, who were Eastern European immigrants living in San Francisco. He spoke about his alcoholism and how he overcame it. He spoke about his fear of success. He spoke about his family. He spoke about getting fired. “You all will be fired at some point,” he said.

And he spoke about life. He spoke about falling in love with his youngest child the minute the baby, who was only a few minutes old, reached up and grasped his finger.

It was the experience of a lifetime.

Toward the end of the talk, he made a list. I don’t remember all of the items, but here are a few things he told the students:

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Be true to yourself.

Have a childlike wonder.

Avoid humorless people.


Fear is overrated.

Ask for help.

Everybody needs an “attaboy.”

Be passionate.

Don’t calm down. Don’t calm down. Don’t calm down.

I don’t know about the wisdom of telling an auditorium full of 20-year-old students not to calm down, but I do know the entire audience jumped to its feet and applauded as he walked from the stage.

Walking through the lobby, I overheard one of the students tell a friend, “I’m never going to forget what he said tonight.”

Me either.

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