Photo of Tom Robbins by Dan Wallen. Used with permission of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections MPH1272
When I was the editor of the newspaper in Oak Harbor nearly 40 years ago, I was given a copy of a commencement address by author Tom Robbins that was delivered to a handful of graduates at the Off Campus School in Oak Harbor on June 7, 1974. The Off Campus School was an alternative for students who previously dropped out of regular high school. Press reports called the program “hotly controversial.”
I tucked the speech away back then and recently found it in my files. I wondered how Robbins came to be on Whidbey Island that night. The Off Campus School commencement was a very small event — graduates numbered just 20. And at the time, Robbins was already well-known. His 1971 book, Another Roadside Attraction, which described the discovery of the mummified body of Jesus Christ at a highway zoo and hot dog stand, was a best seller and his second, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, was in the works. And Oak Harbor was and still is a generally conservative community shaped by the naval air station on its doorstep and the Dutch Reformed Church to which many of its original settlers belonged.
So, Robbins was an unlikely person at an unlikely event, but nonetheless, there he was, in the flesh, talking to graduates who didn’t fit in at regular school. Robbins took to the podium at the Surf and Sands Country Club on that night in 1974 and began:
“I am often asked whether there is life after death. Certainly, there is. There is also death after life, and life before death, and death after life. It goes on forever. There’s no stopping it. You will live forever and die forever. In fact, you already have.”
“As for heaven and hell, they are right here on Earth, and it is up to each of you in which one you choose to reside. To put it simply, heaven is living in your hopes and hell is living in your fears.
“One problem with the notion of Heaven and Hell,” Robbins continued, “is that although they are exact opposites, an astonishing number of people seem to be confused about which is which. For example, all over the United States on this very evening, commencement speakers are standing before audiences not greatly unlike yourselves describing hell as if they were talking about heaven.
“Their speakers are saying things such as, ‘Graduating seniors, you have reached the golden age of maturity; it is time now to go out into the world and take up the challenge of life, time to face your hallowed responsibility.’
“And if that isn’t one hell of a note, it’s certainly one note of hell.
“When I hear the word maturity spoken with such solemn awe, I don’t know whether to laugh or get sick. There circulates a common myth that once one becomes an adult, one suddenly and magically gets it all together. And, if I may use the vernacular, discovers where it’s at. Ha ha. The sad funny truth is adults are nothing but tall children who have forgotten how to play.
“When people tell you to grow up, they mean approximately the same thing they mean when they tell you to shut up. By shut up they mean stop talking. By grow up, they mean stop growing.
“Because as long as you keep growing, you keep changing, and the person who is changing is unpredictable, impossible to pigeonhole and difficult to control. The growing person is not an easy target for those guys in slick suits who want you to turn over your soul to Christ, your heart to America, your butt to Seattle First National Bank and your armpits to the new extra crispy Right Guard.
“No, the growing person is not an ideal consumer, which means, in more realistic terms, he or she is not an easy slave. Worse yet, if he or she continues to grow, grows far enough and long enough, he or she may get too close to the universal mysteries, the nature of which the Navy and the Dutch Reformed Church do not encourage us to ponder. The growing person is an uncomfortable reminder of the greater human potential that each of us might realize if we had the guts.
“So, society wants you to grow up to reach a safe, predictable plateau and root there. To muzzle your throb. To lower the volume on the singing in your blood. Capers all cut, sky finally larked, surprises known: SETTLE DOWN — settle like the sand in the bottom of an hourglass, like a coffin six months in the ground. Act your age, which means act their age, and that has, from the moment they stopped growing, always been old.”
People who graduated from high school in the 1960s and early 1970s remember it as a time of great unrest. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gunned down. The disaster of the war in Vietnam rolled on and the casualties mounted. Universities exploded in protest. Soldiers opened fire and killed students at Kent State. Cambodia was bombed. Black civil rights marchers were hosed by police and beaten with batons. And as Robbins spoke, the walls were closing in on President Richard Nixon, the fall of Saigon was a year away, and everywhere people grappled with a loss of faith in government and social institutions. And Robbins lashed out.
“Growing up is a trap.
“As for responsibility, I am forced to ask, responsibility to what? To our fellow man? Two weeks ago, the newspapers reported that a federal court had ruled that when a person’s brain stops functioning, that person is legally dead, even though his or her heart may continue to beat. That means that 80% of the population of the Earth is legally dead. Must we be responsible to corpses?
“No, you have no responsibility except to be yourself to the fullest limit of yourself. And to find out who you are. Or perhaps I should say to remember who you are. Because deep down in the secret velvet of your heart, far beyond your name and address, each of you knows who you really are. And that being who is true cannot help but behave graciously to all other beings – because it is all other beings.
“Ah, but we must be responsible, and if we are, then we are rewarded with the white man’s legal equivalent of looting: a steady job, a secure income, easy credit, free access to all the local emporiums and a home of your own to pile the merchandise in. And so what if there is no magic in your life, no wonder, no amazement, no playfulness, no peace of mind, no sense of unity with the universe, no giggling joy, no burning passion, no deep understanding, no overwhelming love? At least your ego has the satisfaction of knowing you are a responsible citizen.
“The only advice I have for you tonight is not to actively resist or fight the system, because active protest and resistance merely entangles you in the system. Instead, ignore it, walk away from it. Turn your backs on it, laugh at it. Don’t be outraged, be outrageous! Never be stupid enough to respect authority unless that authority proves itself respectable.
“So be your own authority, lead yourselves. Learn the ways and means of the ancient yogi masters, pied pipers, cloud walkers and medicine men. Get in harmony with nature. Listen to the loony rhythms of your blood. Look for beauty and poetry in everything in life. Let there be no moon that does not know you, no spring that does not lick you with its tongues. Refuse to play it safe, for it is from the wavering edge of risk that the sweetest honey of freedom drips and drips. Live dangerously, live lovingly. Believe in magic. Nourish your imagination. Use your head, even if it means going out of your mind. Learn, like the lemon and the tomato learned, the laws of the sun. Become aware, like the jungle became aware, of your own perfume. Remember that life is much too serious to take seriously – so never forget how to play. Looking at you tonight, I know you are going to do just fine.”
Today, Robbins lives in La Conner and is nearing 90 years old. I heard he only responds to written letters, so I sent him a copy of the speech and asked him how he came to be in Oak Harbor that night and what he thinks about his speech now. He graciously responded:
“Your epistle has caught up with me (or me with it) in this little clam-cawed outpost where I continue to follow the Charmer’s pipes down oblique paths of … well, I’m unsure if there is a fitting name for it. In any case, I’m happy to be here (and Here) and both surprised and cheered to be reminded of the one and only high school commencement address I have ever delivered. I must confess that it pleases me to discover that the speech not only fails to redden my cheeks, but actually provokes a kind of prideful grin.”
Robbins said he was invited to speak at the event by a woman he was romantically involved with at the time who had friends in the graduating class. Robbins added:
“It produces a tiny tingle of pleasure to learn that there may be people who can still recall that event and my contribution to it. (The statute of limitations would protect me, I suppose, from any belated accusations of contribution to the delinquency of minors.)”
I checked Oak Harbor’s newspaper, the Whidbey News-Times, which is preserved on microfilm at the Washington State Library, to see if a reporter covered the commencement address. A very helpful librarian at the state library wheeled through the microfilmed newspaper pages for June 1974 and found a story and a blurry photo of students with Robbins. The story was long on explaining what the Off Campus School was and how its future was threatened, but it was short on the substance of Robbins’ address. Although the speech has surfaced here and there over the years, most of the words Tom Robbins spoke that night echoed only in the ears of those 20 graduates – until now.
“Let me wrap this up with a few short questions I am often asked.
1. Will we be eaten by bugs and worms? We ought to be. We have eaten and we ought to be eaten. This is Justice and there is no stopping it. If you have your body burned, starving the earth to glorify a memory, you are asking for trouble. I have no idea what form the trouble might take, but I do know that if you are too good to be eaten by bugs and worms, you are asking for trouble.
2. Does your soul fly out of your body at the moment you die? No. This is a foolish superstition. Your soul is constantly flying out of your body in just the same way that energy is constantly flying out of the sun. At the moment your body dies, the soul stops flying out.
3. Is Jesus coming back? Yes, all the time. And so are you. All souls echo forever throughout the universe.
I hope you have a wonderful trip.”
Pretty sure the “fake” commencement address floating around the internet these past several years is the one purported (but not really from) Kurt Vonnegut? Robbin’s comparing shutting up with growing up is also in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, seems pretty authentic to me.
I enjoyed reading this, not surprisingly since I have read most of the author’s other epistles. I finished my college degree in Recreation. A very good choice I thought and still think. I ran a program for amazing elderly people, mostly women (who live longer). I learned so much from them that I wondered why I was the one being paid. They taught me courage, responsibility, love for others, and to tell the truth of pretty much every false thing they were told regularly. My Master’s degree was in an administrative program. Soon after, I decided to follow the training I received from my beautiful elderly ladies. I’ve never looked back and in my heart thank them every day. Thanks for your thoughts on living. I pass thru La Conner a few times every year stopping to tie-up our boat to wander the village and realized how beautiful life is.
I had a bit of a difficult time yesterday; my soul was feeling a bit beat up this morning. A friend posted a link to this article. Thank you, thank you so much for sharing this and going to the bother of finding Tom to verify.
It just makes this all the sweeter, though I would have loved it anyway, because my soul drank this up, like we just came out of the Sahara. I have always been a different sort, and it can feel like twisting in the wind while people are using blow torches, all I have is my cotton ball exterior. I’ve tried and tried to harden my skin, but I ‘feel’ it all, and when I have to be in a ‘group’, it can be difficult to say the least. I was with people that have conformed, live nicely in society, and I guess since my choices keep me afloat in life without economic help, but not ‘a suburban example of success’, it seems so wrong to others, that they need to hate that difference. So painful.
I needed this so much today, in fact, I am saving this to reread in times of distress.
In deep gratitude, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Does anyone know the best mailing address to send a letter?
To Tom? No. If it were me, I’d send a letter to Fred Obee, care of Rainshadow. DM me off line for Fred’s address. He would pass it along. That’s the best we can do here.
“As for heaven and hell, they are right here on Earth, and it is up to each of you in which one you choose to reside. To put it simply, heaven is living in your hopes and hell is living in your fears”. Thank you so much for sharing this; Robbins is one of the true sages of this area and our era, and his words ring as true now as they did when this address was first delivered.
So many beautiful lines that make up an even more beautiful totality. But this one leapt out: “Never be stupid enough to respect authority unless that authority proves itself respectable.” This is something that I believed since my youth, and which makes incredible sense. I can only imagine the power of hearing this great speech as a young person at one’s high school graduation! How wonderful to encounter it now, though. And even in my “middle age,” it has plenty to inspire and live by.
Thats a great article. I wish we could have more TR wisdom.. Could you consider a longer interview with him?
Thank you anyway 💗
I am so delighted to read this. Thank you so much for the reminder of what this life is really for.
Hi Fred, thanks for posting, so good. Speaking of change, I miss bumping into you at the Coop. The pandemic has radically changed our world.
Delighted to read this . Envious of the fortunate few who heard it from Tom himself.
Robbins addressed our small (25?) class at the Burnley School of Professional Art in c 1968. He was invited by our teacher, his friend William Cumming.
Is he still writing? I check Amazon periodically.
Is there any great social commentary these days (like Robbins, Capote, Gore Vidal). They keep us sane.
Way cool Ron. I don’t know that Robbins has done anything lately. His last book was in 2004 and 2009 for a collection. I don’t know of anyone in Robbins league for modern social commentary. Charles Blow comes to mind… but he is a serious sort, doesn’t indulge in humor much, if at all.
Thanks, Al for the update. A lot of his talk that day turned up in his first novel. I’ve always assumed he spoke without notes or plan.
His 2014 autobiography, Tibetan Peach Pie, is a worthwhile read. I just discovered your Rainshadow Journal and look forward to more posts.
A few years ago Tom sang one of his songs and we made him into a puppet: https://youtu.be/E_X-l567DGw
Spectacular! I wonder how many of those 20 grads went on to attend TESC?
So this is real? This same speech appeared on the net back in 2006 http://fitekker.blogspot.com/2006/12/this-may-have-been-commencement-speech.html
Just making sure this is real and not a fraud.
Jason, thanks very much for the catch. Yes, we are certain it is real. We did run it by Tom himself and we spent a number of weeks making sure it was. I’m wondering, since it is similar, whether or not the person who posted this may have had another copy of the speech, or may have been at the commencement. There were many people there, and we don’t claim to have the only copy of his talk. But we will continue to look into this and contact the blogger who posted it. As you can tell from the old post, someone claimed it may have been from a graduation address by Tom, but did not do the work to find whether it was. We are publishing it as a definitive high school address by Tom. Did he use this more than once? Maybe. The story you are reading, regardless of whether it is the absolute first time it’s been on the web, is the backstory to the story as Fred states. Not sure if you actually took the time to read our article, as it is very clear that Fred, who was an editor of the Whidbey Island newspaper at the time, got his copy around the time of the speech. He did the work to contact Tom and clarify that it was his talk. I think that it is the most clear attribution to the piece, and would not be surprised if it has been on the web somewhere in the past. But it is real.
Post a digital scan of the paper copy of the commencement speech. Otherwise it just seems fishy as to the source since this has circulated on the internet for some time. The author states he found a copy, so post it!
It’s fine James. If you don’t wish to believe the story, then don’t. It’s not like we are making any money on this story. It’s yours to believe or not. Not sure that even if we posted a copy of some typewritten page from the 1970s that you would likely feel satisfied. Those can be faked too. I withheld this story for a month so that Fred could contact Tom and verify he wrote it and was ok with us using it. Fred Obee was the editor of the Whidbey paper. The article in the Whidbey Press that Fred discusses clearly shows that Robbins spoke to this high school crowd. He contacted Tom and got a reply. I’m confident of its’ veracity or I would not have printed it. There has been rumors of this speech for years. There were at least 20 other people at the commencement. I’m sure that one of them would have come forward to challenge this if it wasn’t real. Likely we’ll see other articles about this at some point as members of that class come forward in their old age. If Tom himself wants to refute the story, I’ll be glad to publish here. Thanks for reading Rainshadow Journal.
Thanks Al for responding. I’m not saying I don’t believe the story. More playing devil’s advocate. Title says “lost”—it’s easily found with internet search so not really lost—I saw it previously which piqued my interest in the current story. Of course a typewritten document could be faked but that would be a whole different level and doubtful that happened hence my point about posting a digital scan. A naysayer would then have to refute the authenticity of the document rather than just the story itself. I’ll assume that you saw a copy of the original document before publishing.
Loved this re-awakening of an alternative take on life’s journey, but there is an error in this version of his speech. It’s in the first paragraph, where the logic of life before/after death goes awry. The final permutation should read ‘death before life’ (not repeat “death after life”). Ironically, this probaby helps validate that separate sources were used!
Thanks for sharing your wonderful find and the follow up with Tom. Important, irreverent, so Tom wisdom.
Sure enjoyed this from one of my old time favorite authors.
Thanks for sharing it
An eloquent and timely find, thank you, Fred Obee, for bringing it once again to light. I can only echo the comments of the previous folks. I would also like to add a big thank you to Tom Robbins.
Perhaps some of that 1974 graduating class can be found and interviewed for a follow up article?
That would be a great idea Leif!
I used to party with Tom and friends in the Skagit Valley a long time ago. We were Bad!!
Hopefully all living in Cape George are here because they have never stopped playing, whatever that looks like in their lives. So enjoyed this.
I wish Tom Robbins had delivered the commencement address at my graduation instead of the responsible, obligatory, sober-mature dreck we got. Hallowed became something to be measured against, and thus to fear. Well done, Fred, for keeping that speech all these years. And thanks, Tom. It rings even truer now.
My hope is that commencement speakers this spring will adapt Robbins’ sage and funky speech for their own use. They won’t have to change a word.
What a fabulous find. Thanks for publishing. I particularly loved this: The sad funny truth is adults are nothing but tall children who have forgotten how to play.