Commencement 2001: America's Bogeyman Sets a Shining Example

By Jessica Winum

Stephen King
Stephen King
The sun shone. The weather was balmy. Families, from newborns to grandparents, dressed nattily. Daisies were everywhere. Just the right number of geese — six — swam in Sunset Lake below the assembled cap-and-gown crowd. The setting, in short, was idyllic in the way everyone hopes for commencement. On such a happy stage, would the much anticipated speaker conjure up images to haunt his audience? Yes, actually, he would.

It may have been small surprise when author Stephen King, master of the macabre and Vassar parent of Joe ’95 and Owen ’99, began his remarks by asking the 600 graduating seniors to ponder not only their futures, but their mortality. Somber thoughts for such a happy day, King acknowledged, but then, he reminded his audience, "you invited America’s bogeyman." He played the role with gusto.

King asked scary questions. "What are you going to do Vassar ’01?" He gave scary answers. "I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you."

Stephen King
Stephen King
He told scary stories. "A couple of years ago I found out what ‘You can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard." He was recounting an incident in 1999 when he was struck by a car while walking a road near his home in Maine.

That day King was hit and nearly died, and the weeks and months of intense pain and healing that followed, gave him, he said, "a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke." Whatever money and power the graduating seniors accumulate in the course of their lives, he told them, "You’ll die broke." But King’s message was not one of despair. "Of all the power that will come into your hands…the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion…I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale…All that lasts is what you pass on."

Stephen King
Stephen King
Giving, King told the class, will transform them into better people. "I give," he said, "because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive and that I can earn my daily bread doing what I love…Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs — on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us."

As a rule, King admitted, he doesn’t discuss his charitable giving habits. But he made an exception that sunny Sunday morning and announced that he would be making a $20,000 gift, in honor of the Class of 2001 to Dutchess Outreach, a Poughkeepsie-based organization that works to help local people in need. He asked audience members to give according to their resources to match his gift.

"I ask you," he told ’01, "to begin the next great phase of your life by giving, and to continue as you begin. I think you’ll find in the
end that you got far more than you ever had and did more than you ever dreamed."

And give his listeners did. As of press time, members of the Vassar community had donated $15,847 to Dutchess Outreach to supplement King’s donation, with more checks arriving daily. The class of 2001 was already on record as the senior class with the highest level of participation in the senior class gift: 55 percent, giving a total of $5,996. The money will support creation of a laptop computer checkout station in the library.

You can read the text of Stephen King’s speech at: