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"You are not alone": Excerpts from Tom Junod's commencement speech at UAlbany

The award-winning writer shared stories of his life, the power of listening and the gift of gaining another's trust

Tom Junod speaking at the University at Albany commencement on Saturday, May, 14. (Photo credit: Patrick Dodson / UAlbany)

Some commencement speakers get the gig because of their fame -- Taylor Swift at NYU, 2022. Others because of their checkbook -- billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert Smith at Morehouse College, 2019.

Last Saturday, University at Albany graduates, their families and friends were fortunate to listen to award-winning writer Tom Junod deliver a reflective commencement address about the power of stories and storytelling.

Tom is a writer. He's made a living telling stories. A UAlbany alumnus, Class of 1980, he's won two National Magazine Awards and holds the record for nominations for that award (11 times).

He also received the James Beard Award for food writing for his essay, "My Mom Couldn’t Cook," published in Esquire in 2010.

More than 4,200 undergraduates received their degrees at UAlbany on Saturday, May 14, 2022. (Photo credit: Patrick Dodson / UAlbany)

On September 11 of each year, when Esquire reposts his 2003 story The Falling Man" online, his meditation on AP photographer Richard Drew’s iconic image of a 9/11 victim plunging to his death, the story gets hundreds of thousands of readers.

His most recent story, "Untold," co-written by Paula Lavigne, details the sexual abuse crimes and murders of a former Penn State football player and the effects they had the people in his sphere of influence.

NYS Writers Institute fans know Tom from his previous appearances, in 2015 when he presented a seminar on magazine writing and more recently in 2019 for a screening and discussion of the award-winning 2018 documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor" about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, the creator and beloved star of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Junod wrote the widely-circulated 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, "Can You Say Hero," which provided the basis of a 2019 feature film about Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, and his friendship with Tom titled "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

In his commencement speech, delivered at the university under a blazing hot sun, Tom shared stories of his life...

I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years… And in that time I’ve been fortunate enough to have written some stories that people keep reading and I’ve also spent quality time with a lot of famous people. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Mike Tyson, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks. I’ve even had a movie loosely based on my life.

But that’s not how I got started.

Back when I attended the U, I dreamed of being a writer. But since I was an English major, I got started as a handbag salesman...

He shared a harrowing tale of being robbed at gunpoint by a junkie in a Los Angeles hotel. Tom's life story could have ended that night with a single gunshot. By an inexplicable stroke of luck, he survived that encounter and eventually established a successful career as a writer.

He confided with the students that he'd acquired a reputation as "a controversial journalist, even a notorious one." And then, at a critical moment in his life, he met Mister Rogers.

I took pride in pushing stories too far, in saying things I wasn’t supposed to say, giving myself permission to say the things the people I was writing about didn’t want me to say. I was edgy, you see. And although I never ran out of things to write about, I did begin to run out people who trusted me.

And then something happened to me again, when I was turning 40.

I was working for Esquire magazine at the time and for a special issue about American heroes I was assigned to write about Fred Rogers or Mister Rogers, as he was known to millions of pre-school viewers.

Did I think Mister Rogers was an American hero? I did not. I thought he was a little weird, to tell you the truth. he spent his whole life zipping up his cardigan sweater and talking to little kids. People made fun of him. I made fun of him.

But Fred Rogers had superpowers. He had the power to talk to adults like children and talk to children like adults. And as soon as he met people he not only knew what they needed; he went about the task of giving it to them.

He knew, right away, that I had stopped trusting myself. He knew that I needed to be trusted.

And so, against the advice of his advisors, he trusted me.

A lot of people you talk to will try to show the good in themselves.

Fred Rogers tried to show me the good in myself.

And he became my friend. And he changed my life.

That unlikely friendship led Tom to discover the power of listening and the gift of gaining another's trust. He shared a story related to his most recent ESPN article.

I recently wrote an article for ESPN about something that took place four decades ago.

There was a sexual predator who played for a very big college football program and because he played for a very big college football program the story of his crimes had gone untold. He attacked women who were mostly around your age — in their early twenties. They were in their sixties now, and had lived with the memory of the attacks their whole lives.

But when my colleague, the great investigative reporter Paula Lavigne, called the woman who first brought charges against this player, she was able to tell what had happened to her as precisely as she did when she took the stand and gave her testimony so long ago. Her name was Betsy Sailor, and in addition to telling Paula the details of the attack she was able to tell Paula a story.

She lived in isolation after testifying. Football players catcalled her as she walked across campus. One night, there was a knock on the door of her dorm room. She opened it, and the biggest man she had ever seen — another football player, one who would wind up playing 13 years in the NFL — extended his hand to her.

He said, “My name is Irv Pankey. I saw you in court the other day and I want to tell you I believe every word you said. You will never have to be alone on this campus again. Everywhere you go, I will go with you, and I will protect you.”

He continued.

Stories are important because they make the same elemental promise that Irv Pankey did to Betsy Sailor.

He heard her tell her story in court and he said, I believe you.

He knocked on her door and said, "You are not alone. I believe you."

You are not alone.

There are no more powerful words in our language, either to speak or to hear, than those.

And they are the words that make stories so important.

Stories are what let us know that our lives can change.

And they are what let us know that we can change lives, in turn.

He returned to his lessons learned from Fred Rogers.

It was Fred Rogers who taught me about the unimpeachable honesty of goosebumps. It was Fred Rogers who said, of the strange turns that life takes, “You just never know.” And it was Fred Rogers who helped me learn how to listen for what’s important.

Tom's advice for the graduates:

I’ve asked you this morning to listen to the universe, to listen to dreams and accidents and random events, to listen to the stories entrusted to you, to listen to the knock on the door or the door that wouldn’t open. But Fred asked for something else. He asked us to listen to ourselves — to listen to the best of ourselves. He even did it on stage, in commencement speeches.

Graduates, parents, professors, administrators, alumni and assorted Great Danes:

Each of you has a story, and the story is this:

You are all here because somebody loved you.

You are all here because somebody cared enough about you to bring you to this moment in your life.

And his happy ending:

This year, Betsy Sailor and Irv Pankey, in their mid-60s, were reunited. They met each other for the first time in 43 years and fell in love.

You just never know.

You never know who you are reaching out to, when you tell your story. You never know who is reaching out to you, when they tell theirs.

The students celebrated with an equal measure of relief and joy on Saturday. Purple and gold confetti wafted over them and their families. It's time they start writing their own stories.

We're on summer break. Our guest writers, poets, and newsmakers will return with more stories in the fall. We hope you join us for more and more evenings of shared storytelling.


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