WATERVILLE — Acclaimed writer-producer David E. Kelley urged the Colby College class of 2019 Sunday to pursue what makes them happy, and not to merely settle for a job that they “kind of like.”
“Listen to that scream in your belly,” he said. “Do what makes you happy. Most don’t.”
A Waterville native, commencement speaker Kelley, 63, received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree Sunday, but not before he shared with seniors the story of his own life and the trajectory it took him after graduating from Princeton University and Boston University Law School.
He practiced law for three years in Boston and the job wasn’t so bad. But he advised caution:
“If there’s anything worse than a career you loathe, it could be one you kind of like.”
Law is a noble profession, Kelley conceded, but the practice wasn’t for him.
“It just didn’t feel like ‘it.’”
He worked late at night, walking home at 8:30 or 9 p.m., through the theater district in Boston. Often, he’d enter one and watch the second act of a show. He’d then go home and feel more energized and more alive that if he had just gone straight home.
One day when he was feeling particularly oppressed by the mundane, he decided to get out of the office and flee. He headed for the Colonial Theater and decided to let the building ‘speak’ to him, he said. He sat in an empty seat and a little older woman in a floral print dress who “oozed this wisdom and this kindness” appeared, and he figured it was his guardian angel. She asked if she could help him; he told her his tale of woe, of being in a job that was just OK.
“She looked down at me and she smiled, and she said, ‘Get the f— out of here, you shitty little minor,’” he recalled, to laughter from Sunday’s crowd.
The woman, he said, ordered him out of the theater, but the experience taught him that people will not always be supportive.
“The worst I think I ever heard was ‘Get real,’” he said.
He also decided he would “show that vicious little guardian angel” what he could do. He said he asked himself a question: “What brings me joy?”
For Kelley, it was writing, he said. He had done some writing in college and had an idea for a screenplay.
His father, Jack Kelley, who had been a Colby hockey coach and then went on to Boston University and the New England Whalers, had a friend, Howard Baldwin, who was getting into the moviemaking business. Baldwin read the screenplay and optioned it, and it was sold to a “hockey guy.”
That led to David E. Kelley’s landing an agent and getting a first job on a show called, ‘L.A. Law.’”
The rest is history. Kelley, who is married to actress Michelle Pfeiffer and whose two brothers graduated from Colby, created and wrote television shows including “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Chicago Hope.” He recently adapted the novel “Big Little Lies” as a hit HBO series. He has won 11 Emmy Awards.
Kelley received a standing ovation Sunday from more than 3,500 seniors, faculty, staff, family members and friends who turned out for the 10 a.m, commencement and sat or stood under what was first an overcast sky but that turned bright and sunny by 11 a.m., during Kelley’s speech.
Colby President David A. Greene welcomed the crowd, told a bit of Colby’s history, which started with its founding in 1813, and said the college was first located on the banks of the Kennebec River downtown before moving to Mayflower Hill many years later. This year, Colby returned to downtown with a new Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, which houses more than 200 students and faculty and staff members.
Greene conferred honorary Doctor of Laws degrees Sunday on the Alfonds, as well as on Mary Bonauto, a nationally renowned civil rights attorney; and John W. Rogers Jr., chairman, chief executive officer and chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based firm.
Moeketsi Justice Mokobocho, who lives in the Colby dormitory downtown and majored in biology with a concentration is neurobiology, was chosen by fellow students to be class speaker.
Mokobocho, of Lesotho, in southern Africa, thanked all those at Colby who had helped him and other students throughout their four years there. He said he came to Waterville with nothing more than a suitcase and leaves with all the “wonderful relationships that have sustained” him and will continue to do so. While other students were able to go home for holidays and on weekends, his home was 17 hours away by plane and he was not able to see and hold his family members as much as he wanted to; but people at Colby were there for him, he said.
Mokobocho, 23, urged fellow classmates to fight racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and classism, and to embrace diversity. Diversity without inclusion, he said, is just a statistical quota with no constructive effect.
“Note the diversity around you. Interact with it. Attach a face and personality to it,” he said.
Senior class co-presidents Matthew Mitchell and Merrill Read introduced Mokobocho, who tutored and volunteered at Mount Merici Academy and was a member of several organizations at Colby, including the a cappella group “The Colby Eight”; and the dance group Vuvusela, which focuses on dances from various African regions.
Senior Lillian Herrmann, of Schenectady, New York, received the Randall J. Condon Medal, given to a senior who displays the finest qualities of constructive citizenship. The class and the faculty voted for Herrmann to receive the award. Class marshals were Kayla Louise Freeman, of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts; and Nguyen Nhat Thu Le, of Nha Trang, Vietnam. They tied for the highest class rank.
Senior Emily H. Goulette, of Oakland, got a surprise after walking up to the stage. Her grandfather, Earl H. Smith, author, historian and former dean of the college, handed her her degree and gave her a kiss.
Four hundred sixty men and women from 38 states and 32 other countries graduated Sunday from Colby.