JUNE 5TH 1999

Last Updated 11th December 1999

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Back in June 1999 Paul Williams was invited to give the 151st Commencement Address for the students graduating from the class of 1999 at Proctors, a secondary school for 325 students.

For Paul this was no ordinary 'speaking engagement' as his son Cole was to be one of the graduates. Although Paul endeavours to keep his 'public life' out of his childrens school life, out of respect for their privacy, he understook this task with there full support and encouragement.

The festivities included presentations of diplomas to 87 seniors as well as Honorary Trustee William Hays, fourth year Head of School Steve Wilkins, and Richard Bellefeuille, who retired this Spring after 32 years on the Proctor Faculty. In Proctor spirit there were also a number of musical performances from senior Maren Cameron, The Mountain Classroom Trio, The Steel Drum Band and a duet performance of "The Rainbow Connection" from Paul and Cole Williams. (Cole has ambissions to be an actor like his father)


"Paul Williams is an accomplished singer, actor and, more importantly, a humanitarian. His songs are known to generations of Americans and include "We've Only Just Begun" (Java 'PopUp Lyrics' here), Rainy Days And Mondays (Java 'PopUp Lyrics' here), "An Old Fashioned Love Song" (Java 'PopUp Lyrics' here), "You And Me Against The World" (Java 'PopUp Lyrics' here), and The Family Of Man (Java 'PopUp Lyrics' here). He's achieved the rare accomplishment of receiving an Academy Award, a Grammy and a Golden Globe Award. While best known as a songwriter, he started his career as an actor and has credits in Smoky the Bandit Part I, II and III, The Postalworker, and The Doors. In addition, he's the voice in the animated television show, Batman.

Incidentally, I talked to my daughter Rebecca this morning and told her I was going to be talking to the "Penguin", and she said, "Cool!" After about ten seconds of reflection, she then said, "That guys really weird." Paul, she was referring to the Penguin, not you.

Paul is also a board member of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. He is active with the Music Assistance Program and other not-for-profit rehabilitation organizations. As a tireless drug rehabilitation counselor, he speaks frequently to groups focusing on drug prevention and recovery. While these accomplishments I've mentioned are numerous, Paul Williams' greatest accomplishments are with us today. He is the father of senior Cole. Paul Williams:"


"You know, this is one of the most intimidating things I've ever been asked to do in my life. First of all, to follow the speakers today, so far, it's hard for me. It's an amazing thing to sit here when all I was doing while I was totally self-obsessed thinking about what I was going to say, and I heard things I needed to hear. Well, you're in luck, because I have here on this page everything you will need to know to live a successful life, you know, which I wrote down myself. What I wanted to do was to stand up here and very quietly talk to you and share my great wisdom about what I've learned about life since I graduated from high school forty years ago. Can you say geezer?

You know, and as I spoke here about all the wisdom that I've gathered, I wanted to quietly weave in all my great accomplishments, like the Penguin and Smoky and the Bandit. And as I began to try to write that I found that I was... basically, one phrase came to mind and that was "pompous ass." God, that's not what you're here for, to talk about what you've done. You're here to share in this great wisdom. Okay, I want to go and I want to sound like a really wise little guy so what do you do? You go, you get on the Internet and fire up a Yahoo search engine and you say "really wise little guy." And you type in what I really need are some wise sayings, God, I want some and I need them right away. So, I got some wise sayings for you, you know? And some of them are fabulous but how do you casually work into your conversation? My favorites, incidentally, were all anonymous, you know. I love one that says, "Trust everybody, but cut the cards." "When your dreams turn to dust, vacuum." Fabulous! I was headed down a different road but I was headed towards the same pompous ass

What you weren't going to get from me if I did this, if I turned to these quotes, is you're not going to get Paul Williams, you're not going to get authenticity. And what I've gotten from all of you is since I've been around you, what I've seen is authenticity: your own personal experiences and what you're going to carry into life, and it's going to be exactly what you need. What you need is not to go out there and make something of yourself in this world; what you need is already inside you. Yeah, it got sanded a little bit, and it got shaped wonderfully here at Proctor, but the jewel is already inside you and that's a gift from God. I've seen it in you sparkling already.

[Salutatorian] Tennessee Ben Williams (one of the other speakers). God, you moved me. I spent, incidentally, a lot of time in Nashville, Tennessee. I started writing again a couple of years ago and Nashville is the only city in the world where you can get escargots and gravy. I want to tell you that. . I want to see. . I could go back.

I will be brief, trust me kids. But I want to share a couple of things out of my own experience that I think could maybe be meaningful to you. One is about my own high school experience. My own high school experience was awful. Everybody says these are the best years of your life. Frankly, for me, they were terrifying. First of all, when I graduated from high school I could run under coffee tables. When I was thirteen years old, my father was killed in a car wreck. I was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Long Beach, California, where everybody hit puberty at seven. Everybody was six feet tall, and tanned; what color I have I got from the light in my refrigerator. So, everybody was tall and the guys were shaving at eleven; it was outrageous. And I had a really slow body clock; it's awful when you look like the Pillsbury doughboy made out of cantaloupe.

That's exactly what you thought you were going to hear, right? The kind of inspirational stories you expected at your graduation. The fact is, I learned to pray during those years. I said, "God, I don't care how big you make me, just cover me with fur." Be careful what you pray for. I will tell you that at age fifty-eight, I got hair in places I don't need hair! The tops of my ears don't get cold. But here I was running around feeling different and I wanted to change everything that was different about me and thank God it wasn't possible because the things that I couldn't change, the things that were hardest for me to live with, became the things that became kind of the signature of who Paul Williams was.

Now when I was in high school, I was given a couple of billboards. You may have been given billboards while you're here, and I'm going to tell you what one of my billboards was. One of my billboards was that I was uncomfortable with other people except when I shared that bonding experience of drinking with the other guys. I started out back in high school; you know, let's get drunk, throw up and be somebody. Let's feel centered, and it was part of that ritual, that rite of passage, that I began to experiment with alcohol and drugs back when I was a kid. I had something that was a real billboard.

Check this out. I lived in Long Beach, California. There was a public beach with a little marina about maybe a hundred yards away. One night, in the middle of the night, my buddies and I, probably sixteen years old, decided that we would swim across this marina to some private docks with boats. We knew there would be alcohol on these boats. We thought we'd go invite ourselves to a private party on the boats. So, in the middle of the night, my buddies and I jumped in the water, I don't remember if I had underwear or swimming trunks on, it's not a pretty thing to picture so don't try, but I swam across and I climbed up on one of these boats.

My intention was to steal alcohol. I'll tell you that I successfully did that. Incidentally, you don't just hop out of the water like you do in the movies where there's a stunt man helping you. What happens is you'd scrape your knuckles, it took me forever to get on this boat. God tried to keep me in the water but I got on the boat and I managed to find a fully stocked bar. I took two bottles, full bottles, stuck them in my swim trunks, we'll say. There's one in each hand, dove in the water and started to swim back. You can't do that. It was like a scene out of Jaws. All of a sudden I was under water and people were swimming above me, you know? Because I'm not a great scientist, I actually opened up the top and tried to pour some alcohol out, get some air in so the bottles would float. Not the brightest speaker you've ever had, this is the most honest one maybe, you know? But look what was happening, I was fifteen, sixteen years old and alcohol was drowning me. Alcohol was drowning me at age fifteen or sixteen. It's a huge billboard.

This is a great opportunity for you to look back on these last few years and see if there are any billboards in your life. I mean, and I would imagine that you guys are experimenting and I'm not going to preach about alcohol. I have very little to say about that today, but I will tell you that while you've been here, you've been given experiences that will be incredibly, incredibly wonderful beneficial lessons if you're willing to look at them so who knows what they're in. They may be as simple as an addiction to bubble blowing, I'm sorry, it just occurred to me. It may be procrastination. It may be not jumping ahead and doing the work and putting it off 'till the last minute like I do.

But there were billboards for me and then in later years I was able to use that information. Took me quite a while but I'll go a little fast forward with my life and tell you that I wasn't comfortable with people. And I didn't know what the hell to do or to talk about with people so I began to live in a fantasy world. And I began to fantasize about relationships. Well, what do you do if you don't know how to have a relationship with somebody? You become a writer of love songs, and I will tell you that in the 70's I wrote some absolute co-dependent anthems, you know. Not the healthiest material ever; they were basically, "ouch, mommy, I'm nothing without you" songs. The fact is that... words inside me, that little bit of hurting whatever... allowed me to go ahead and build a life and build a career. It gave me the gift.

My song writing and my career in song writing came when I was denied what I really wanted. I thought I wanted to be a leading man. I thought, "you're so attractive, you're so handsome." I wanted to go to Hollywood and I wanted to be an actor and I barely made a living for years. I finally went to New York where they were auditioning for a play called "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown". Nobody looks more like Charlie Brown than me. I was as close to the line drawing as you were going to get. And I went to New York to try out for that play. And for a week I read with other actors and I knew I had the part and then I heard some devastating news. I heard that before I ever got to New York they had given the part to somebody else. That they were just using me to read with other actors because I seemed so enthusiastic. It broke my heart. And I went back to Los Angeles and I grieved and I didn't know what to. I had no money, I was an out-of-work actor, I was so depressed that I started writing songs.

So the door being slammed in my face was a great gift. It was an amazing gift. Again and again you will find that the thing you are absolutely convinced that you want, if you don't get it, you're liable to get something that you really need.

I encourage you to make mistakes. You know, get out there and make mistakes, please; you never cross a great chasm in two small steps. You've got to take a big leap. And don't worry about making mistakes.

Seventeen of the most powerful nations in the world gathered together, sharing their technology, speaking in little huddled circles privately behind closed doors for weeks and weeks, managed to go out and bomb the Chinese Embassy. Talk about making mistakes. The greatest mistakes in the world are being made out there. You can't make any that come close to that size of a mistake. Unless, of course, any of you are physicists and fooling around with thermonuclear devices. Please be careful if you are, you know?

Life is a gift. Life is an absolute gift and it requires some assembly. I would also suggest that you read the instructions. I never did that a lot. I was one of these guys that put it together and then I'd hide the spare parts that were left over and hope nobody'd notice. Which is not good when you're talking about something you're going to wheel your children around in. It's a wonder my kids are alive and safe, you know? But they are alive and safe, they are my greatest gift.

What could I say to you? I'll say one thing about drugs. If you want to learn, you want to study, don't use marijuana. Do not use marijuana. Avoid any drug that makes the ordinary fascinating. "Wow! Wow! I got cuticles! Wow!" My wind shield gets dirty from the inside. If I'm uncomfortable, the place where I can usually make a change, make things better, is inside me. My windshield gets dirty on the inside, think about it.

I look around this campus and it's so gorgeous. And I would be willing to bet that everybody sitting here is going "Wow, what an amazing thing to come to this place and how wonderful it must have been." And I'll bet you amongst all of you, you have some sad memories from here. I'll bet you've had some tough times here. I'll be there were Januarys that were gray and it was cold out and you didn't want to get out of that bed and the person you were screwing with was killing you! And when there was some teacher that was asking one more thing from you because that teacher just didn't understand.

You've had some tough times here. Although it's a gorgeous place, I know that you've had some stuff here, you know? Let yourself feel all that stuff. Give yourself permission to applaud yourself for having gone through it. Your first love affair, maybe. Maybe that happened here. Oh God, be still my heart! That person that you loved that looked at you and you were invisible. Ugh, as bad as it gets. You've had some tough times here but you know what, in spite of that, you showed up, you did the work, you graduated. You're pretty impressive.

I sat down today wanting desperately to make you really love me and be impressed with me. I wanted my family to be impressed .I mean, I'm speaking in front of ninety-three graduating eighteen-year-olds who know everything. Of course, I'm nervous. Not only that, we live in a world of expanded families so I sit here with my beautiful wife, but also with Cole's mother, my beautiful ex-wife, and all of her family so I've got all my ex-in-laws in the audience. You talk about terror. Whenever they see me. . when they see me and they haven't seen me in a long time they feel my head. I'm sure they're feeling around for horns.

You have done a magnificent job. You've spent three-fourths of your life in school. Some of you have been here for as much as a quarter of your life. You impress me so much. You are spectacular. You can do anything. We need you. There are parts of this world that are a mess and what I heard today before I ever got up here is that you have within you the capacity to go out and love each other. You'll never stand any taller than when you're doing that - being loving and giving. I saw a standing ovation for a student last night and I swear to God you could see angels in the room for the amount of love. Take that love, take those sweet memories of this school, carry them with you wherever you go. And I hope that the memories stay as sweet as Edna's cookies. God bless you. Congratulations!

Thanks to Paul Williams for giving me permission to reproduce his wonderful speach here

Thanks also to Claire Carpentier who found the Proctors web site. Claire has a web page dedicated to Paul Williams here

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