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Nancy Gunn's Opening Convocation remarks

The following are the prepared remarks of Nancy Gunn '88 for William & Mary's 2013 Opening Convocation ceremony - Ed.

Thank you, President Reveley.  I’m so very honored that you invited me to speak on this great occasion.  And, I’m not gonna lie to you, a little bit intimidated.
Welcome, Class of 2017!!!  And – congratulations!  You have achieved great things to arrive at this moment.

But before you walk through the doors of the Wren building, officially join the W&M family, and start your adventure here … I want to jump forward just a moment, to 2017.  It’s a freaky number, isn’t it?  It was for me, looking forward to the impossibly far-away date … of 1988.

I knew when I walked on campus, that I was a member of the W&M family.  But it wasn’t till 1988 rolled around that I realized what that meant.  When it was time to leave these beloved walks, DOG Street, Phi Beta Kappa Hall … when it was time to say goodbye to professors and mentors and my dearest friends … when it was time to walk back out through these doors, and into the world …. I was flipping out.

Living in my parent’s basement wasn’t an option.  My parents didn’t have a basement.

The one thing I knew I wanted was Adventure.  After 4 years here at W&M, soaking up history, learning, culture – I wanted to take on life, I wanted to travel the world!  But first I had to make some money.

So I signed on with a temp agency.  When they asked where I would most like to work, I said someplace interesting!  I figured, maybe an ad agency or something.  They placed me at the Richmond City Morgue.  It was interesting!  

My morgue cash in hand I moved to New York City, and landed work at the United Nations.  For a small town girl from Virginia, it was intoxicating.  My new colleagues ate exotic things like mangos, and told me harrowing stories about surviving civil war in Zimbabwe.  I loved it.  I loved the people I met.  But … after being educated to within an inch of my life, my job was more about typing and making coffee than using my fancy education.

So of course – I went back to school.  I entered graduate school at Tulane University.  I fell in love with New Orleans.  I fell in love with a man.  We got married.

We moved back to New York and I got a job as assistant to the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.  By now I was pretty damn good at typing and I made really great coffee.  Part of my job involved chatting up visiting artists and conductors on opening night parties.  I met President and Mrs. Clinton, fetched scotch for Franco Zefferelli, and flirted with Placido Domingo.

Then my husband and I moved to Los Angeles for his career.  I answered an ad looking for a researcher for TV documentaries.  The person interviewing me said “W&M, wow!”  I had no relevant work experience.  But I did have an amazing tool kit, my education here.  I got the job.

Without knowing it, TV production was what I had been preparing to do since I first walked onto campus here.  I loved it.  And, it loved me back.  I got a gig producing shows for the Travel Channel, and finally got to visit some of those places that I had heard about, from my desk at the United Nations.  I would fly back to Los Angeles and type up outlines for my shows – 5 acts – the same structure I had learned over at Phi Beta Kappa Hall all those years ago.

That took me to the Amazing Race.  I got paid to travel around the world.  I watched the sun rise, sitting alone between the paws of the Sphynx.  I stood by as our show’s security officer delivered a baby on an airplane, high above the Indian Ocean.  I swam at midnight in a volcanic lagoon in Iceland.  Naked.  Sorry mom!  My mom - Margaret Gunn - class of 19-cough.  19-cough.  Sorry!

And in 2005, I was honored to receive an Emmy for my work on The Amazing Race.

A few years later, I was promoted to the position of Executive Producer on the NBC show I was working on, the Celebrity Apprentice.  I worked hand in hand with lighting designers, scenic artists, actors, costumers, composers – the same colleagues I had had in the theatre department here at W&M.  We just had a bigger budget.  I was in my element.  And now, people were bringing ME coffee!

And, after almost 14 years of marriage, my husband and I were blessed with the birth of our amazing daughter.

It would be great to end the story here, wouldn’t it?  W&M gave me the tools to make my way in life, to find the adventure I hungered for.  I could give you some good advice about wearing sunscreen, and we’d all be off to the Sunken Gardens.  But life doesn’t always work that way.

Back when I was making TV biographies, we were sometimes stymied when one of the people we were profiling didn’t have a “fourth act.”  There was no drama, no conflict in their lives.  I was about to have my fourth act.

A year after my daughter’s birth, my marriage fell apart. I made it through one last, grueling season of my show, and then I left it.  The work I loved – and the hours involved – were simply not compatible with being a single mom.  And that was my new adventure.

Life with my daughter was joyful, but at the same time, I felt very sorry for myself.  I had lost my dream job.  I had lost my marriage.  That summer, even my poor old dog died.  My life was a country song.  And not a good country song.  It was a poorly-written, self-indulgent, bad country song, without a truck or a single rhyming couplet.

Through it all, many people sustained me but there were two in particular – my daughter’s godparents.  David Johnston and Kacey Camp, both W&M class of 1987.  One was in New York, one was in Los Angeles.  They would come over, have dinner, help me get my daughter to bed, and then drink wine with me while I cried on their shoulders.

Funny how W&M keeps coming up, isn’t it?  That’s the thing.  It’s not just about the education.  It’s about the amazing people you are being educated with, some of whom will become your lifelong friends.

Someone you meet here will change your life.  Someone you meet here will make you laugh when you need it most.  Someone you meet here, may even save your life.

One of the things I learned here was this – it’s not about how you get knocked down.  Or even how many times you get knocked down.  It’s about how you get back up again.

I got back up again in New Orleans. I bought the Auld Sweet Olive Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful and historic old Creole mansion.  The sum of my life’s experience, and the box of tools I acquired here at W&M, allowed me to re-invent myself.  

I love owning my own small business.  I love running Sweet Olive.  Looking back on my travels, at the end of the day it was the people I met that fascinated me most, even more than the places I went.  And so now … the people come to me.  I meet fascinating people from all around the world, without ever leaving home.  The adventure continues.

I’m back to making coffee.  And I’m very happy.  And for me, that is success.

OK, as with every convocation and commencement speech, it’s time for advice. I know you have had your fill of it, so I will keep this part short.
  • Pull yourself out of your computer, your iPad, your cell phone.  Yeah – I’m talking to you.
  • Do not base your decisions on fear.  Fear makes for boring decisions.
  • Take a business class.  I wish I had.
  • And take a class just for fun.  I’m so glad I did.
Within the hour, you will walk through these doors, the bells will ring, and become official members of the William and Mary family.  Walk through these doors to your college life.  Walk through these doors to your future.

The class of 2017 will always be very close to my heart, I cannot wait to see what you will do.

Walk through these doors to your own, amazing adventures.

Thank you.