Guest commencement speaker James Patterson’s speech for Saturday’s university wide ceremony

James Patterson is a literacy advocate and bestselling author who has sold more than 375 million books worldwide in his career. Patterson in 2013 established the James Patterson Teacher Education Scholarships to support 16 UF College of Education students pursuing careers as elementary or secondary school teachers. To date, these scholarships have supported 28 students. His speech is below:

Our Stories Push Us Forward

Hi, I’m Stephen King.

… That lady is so happy that Stephen King is speaking today instead of James Patterson …

Quick story … I was on the TV show “Castle” a couple of times … I was part of a poker game with other real-life writers – like Michael Connelly who went to school here.

I got stopped by a lady on a plane … “I know you! I know you!” … “You played Patterson on “Castle!”

I’m going to play Patterson here today.

Well it’s time for some very, very emotional good-byes for all of you graduates.

Get out the hankies …

Good-bye to the French Fries sculpture.

Good-bye to Pokey Stix at Gumby’s, slushies at Fat’s,

Rocky’s piano bar.

Good-bye to SAGA.

Good-bye to Swampy UF Memes for Top Ten Public Teens …

Good-bye to all that free parking everywhere around campus … and the spacious buses where students can always get a comfy seat.

I want to talk about the power of stories …

We all have a story.

Maybe a couple of stories that people use to describe us.

Our families have a story about who they think we are … That family story often involves a nickname we don’t like …

My father used to call me Zeke, Bud, and Skippy. I am not a Skippy.

Anyway, these stories about us can either push us forward — or hold us back.

Here’s a good story … Joyce Hall was the founder of Hallmark Greeting Cards. Much beloved in the Kansas City area, where Hallmark has its headquarters.

When Joyce Hall died there was a full mast headline across the front page of the Kansas City Star.

The headline read: “Dear God, We cared enough to send you our very best.”

Now there’s a powerful story — in an epitaph.

My father grew up in the Newburgh poor house … his mother - a char woman.

When my father was headed off to World War II he got a phone call from a man in a nearby town, who was also going off to war.

The man, George Hazelton, said that his parents told him the night before that they loved him very much – but they weren’t his birth parents.

Then George Hazelton revealed to my father that he was his brother … their mother had given up my uncle George for adoption …

And here I am … on the long and winding road that started in the Newburgh, New York poor house.

When I was 25, I wrote my first novel, a mystery called “The Thomas Berryman Number.”

It was turned down by 31 publishers.

It then won an Edgar as the “best first mystery novel of the year.

I keep a list of all the editors who turned down my first novel.

Sometimes they send me books and ask for blurbs – for their author’s books.

Lots of luck with that!

Sooner or later we all have to deal with rejection … just keep moving forward …

If I ever write a Hollywood novel, a Hollywood story, I have my first line … “Hello, I lied.”

Please, all of you graduates – stay away from Hollywood … mommas, don’t let your babies go to Hollywood …

They have press junkets for just about every Hollywood movie … the studio paramount invited me to the press junket for “Along Came a Spider …”

Paramount showed me the film because they knew the press would ask me about it … I watched the first scene … That wasn’t in the book … I watched the second scene … That wasn’t in the book either

… In the second scene, Alex Cross is building a ship in a bottle … It didn’t seem very cinematic to me … A woman came in ….told him to get out there and get shot at or something … I had no idea who the woman was and I wrote the book …

Later in the press junket, I ran into Morgan Freeman … I asked him who the woman was in the second scene in the movie … Morgan said the woman was Alex Cross’s sister … I said, “Oh … I didn’t know Alex had a sister!”

When we were shooting the movie “Along Came a Spider.” I got to go to dinner with Morgan Freeman …

We were in a little Italian restaurant in Washington … Got up from table and Fred Thompson and Clint Eastwood stepped up to say “hello” … Morgan, Thompson and Eastwood are all over 6-foot-3 … I need a hit movie bad.

You cannot give any kind of decent speech without quoting Winston Churchill at least once.

Churchill said that “success is going from failure to failure, without a loss of enthusiasm.”

Winston Churchill kept improving his story with each failure.

When I was in my early 30s, I was in love with a woman named Jane … One Saturday morning, Jane and I went to breakfast, then stopped at the post office on Broadway & 67th street.

Jane suddenly fell to the floor. We both thought that she was dying.

We discovered that Jane had a brain tumor. And about a year to live … Jane was 34 …

At that point, we told one another a story — and it is a powerful story for anyone facing the loss of a loved one.

The story, the point of view that Jane and I took, was this:

We said to ourselves — isn’t it lucky that you didn’t die that day in the post office, and we have today to take this walk/ or go and look at the river/ or go out with friends.

And that story made the next year incredibly precious for both of us.

All of us know that we’re dying -- but suddenly Jane and I really knew and understood it -- and we lived our lives accordingly.

Many of you will face the problem of balancing work with family. …here’s a story you should try to remember.

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air.

You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air.

Hopefully, you come to understand that work is a rubber ball. if you drop it, it will bounce  back.

But the other four balls – family, health, friends, and spirit – are made of glass.

If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.

Once we understand that, maybe, just maybe, we strive for more balance in our lives.

Some people wear their stories on their T-shirts, hats, license plates.

A popular bumper sticker in Florida goes like this: “Life begins when the children leave home and the dog dies.”

If you only take one thing away from today, please take this … Passion is the key reason for choosing a career.

(Making some money doesn’t hurt by the way.)

I’ve been poor, middle class, poor again, middle class again, and now I’m rich.

On balance, I prefer rich!

I came across something that the French author Flaubert said. It captured the way i feel when i sit down to write my stories every morning, 365 days a year.

Flaubert wrote …

“It is a delicious thing to write/to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe/of your own creating. /Today, for instance, / as man and woman, / both lover and mistress, / I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, / and I was also the horses, / the wind, / the words my people uttered/even the red sun that almost made them close their love-drowned eyes.”

That’s what it’s like to write. It’s a glorious way to make a living … It’s also my passion … I hope all of you find your passion in life!

Finally, I want to talk about trying to do the right thing … That’s what my wife Sue and I try to do …

And that’s the reason why I’m here today!

Sue and I have 450 teaching scholarships … including some here at the University of Florida …

We’ve given away over two million books for schools and the military.

Even more important is a program promoting literacy that we’re embarked on with UF.

Right now, only 43% of the kids in Florida read at grade level.

The best state in the country is Massachusetts … and only 62% of the kids in Massachusetts read at grade level.

The University of Florida has been testing a program for 5 years … they have the percentage of kids reading at grade level up to the mid-80s …

I’m involved with the university trying to take this program across all of Florida …

We’ve been to see the Senate in Tallahassee, and the House.

And recently, we talked to Governor Ron DeSantis.

We’re currently testing the program in several districts in Florida …

If we get good numbers --- and I think we will --- this literacy program will go across the State of Florida …

That will be a huge win for the children of Florida…

A  huge win for Florida’s teachers…

A huge win for the state government …

A huge win for the University of Florida …

Here’s one last story about doing the right thing…

This story was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A female humpback whale became entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. Hundreds of pounds of traps and ropes around her tail torso, through her mouth.

A rescue team arrived. It was decided the only way to save the whale was to dive in and untangle her.

The volunteers worked for half a day with curved knives. they eventually freed the whale.

When she was free she swam around her rescuers in joyous circles.

Then the whale came back to each and every diver – one at a time – nudged them, pushed them gently – as her way of thanking them.

The rescuers said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives.

Many of the rescuers say they will never be the same after the experience …

And that … that incomparable feeling … is what happens when you do the right thing.

I have to tell you … I love the spirit behind “Go Gators!”

 … Go Gators!

I watch gator football and basketball games…

Now think about this … This is exciting ...

Here are some other things you should be shouting ‘Go Gators!’ about …

  • If our literacy program works across the state … Go Gators!!! … Let me hear it!
  • The New York Times ranked the University of Florida 6th among universities in helping low income students … Go Gators! Let me hear  it…
  • A University of Florida history professor won the Pulitzer in 2018 – go Professor Jack Davis. Go Gators!
  • The U.S. News ranking … the University of Florida moved up to #8 among the top-ten best public universities in the nation. Go Gators!
  • Thank you so much … Thanks especially to President Fuchs. (If you didn’t like this speech, it’s his fault!)
  • I’m so proud to be here at your graduation … Go Gators!
UF News May 3, 2019