CLAS Commencement

2007 Commencement

Keynote Address

Kate DiCamillo, Keynote Speaker
May 6, 2007

Thank you for allowing me to be here today.

I am honored and deeply grateful.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section there was a small column about someone named Barbara Hillary. 

My guess is that you, like me, have never heard of Barbara Hillary. 
But let me tell you:  Barbara Hillary is a woman who lives in Queens and has worked for fifty-five years as a nurse; and who has now decided, at the age of seventy-five, that she wants to become “the first African-American woman on record to set foot on the top of the world.”

Hillary’s rules for living are simple “one, Mind your own business; two, Maintain a sense of humor; and three, ‘Tell an individual to go to hell when it’s needed.’”

She has trained physically and mentally for the journey ahead of her; and when Barbara Hillary finally gets to the top of the world, she wants to give all the people who didn’t believe in her the “one-two punch.” 

Her story is taped above my desk. 

Taped right next to it to it is a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Summer Day.” (Poem cannot be posted online due to copyright laws. It was printed in Oliver’s book, “House of Light,” which is available on

It’s traditional at these gatherings to dispense advice about how to be successful and so a poem about hanging around in the grass, staring at a bug moving its jaws back and forth might not seem to be very helpful to you in that regard.

In the same way, talking about a woman who is seventy-five years old and has what seems to be an impossible dream might not offer many clues about how to be successful.

But here’s the thing:

I don’t care if you are successful.

What I wish for you today is something different than that, something more complex, more subtle, more wonderful.

I make my living as a writer. I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a writer; but I didn’t start doing the work until I was almost thirty years old.  And when I did start, I started in the smallest way possible.  I set a modest goal for myself: two pages a day.

At the time, I had a job at a book warehouse and I was lucky enough to work with somebody else who wanted to be a writer.

His name was Gary.

Every morning at the time clock, Gary and I had an exchange that went like this:

Gary: how did the writing go?

Me: fine, thank you.

Gary: you wrote two pages?

Me: yes, I wrote two pages.

Gary: you’re never going to get anywhere writing two pages a day.  Do you think Dickens wrote two pages a day?

Me: I’m not sure how Dickens worked.

Gary: do you know how many people in this world want to be writers?

Me: I don’t have the exact numbers, no.

Gary: let me tell you something.  Instead of writing two pages a day, you should be working on Plan B because Plan B is what you’re going to need when the writing doesn’t pan out.

Me: uh huh.  Thanks, Gary.

Gary: what’s Plan B, babe?  That’s the big question.  That’s the question you need to ask yourself.

Throughout the day, whenever I saw Gary in the warehouse, he would shout out: what’s Plan B, babe?

Those words were burned on my heart.  They were tattooed on my guts.  They snaked their way through my dreams.

What’s Plan B?

I am, I will forever be, eternally grateful to Gary.

Because of him, I asked myself these questions:

Is this what you really want? 

Is this what really matters to you? 

Are you willing to give up everything else for this? 

Are you willing to look ridiculous doing it?

The answer was: yes.

I guess you could say that I am standing in front of you today because I didn’t have a Plan B.

Which brings me back to Barbara Hillary.

Who has no Plan B.

What she has, instead, is passion.

And that is my wish for you today.  That is what I hope you find in this world. 


The kind of passion that allows you spend a lifetime pursuing a dream that other people would think is laughable or impossible or just plain ludicrous.

And further, I hope that as you pursue that passion you can find what is in Mary Oliver’s poem: a sense of wonder, the knowledge that your time on this earth, your life, is a strange and wondrous gift, that it is precious beyond all reckoning.

If all went according to her plans, Barbara Hillary left for the North Pole on April 16 of this year.

What will you do with your one “wild and precious life?”


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