In a commencement address laced with his unique brand of humor, Peter Dexter delivered a somber message to graduates of the University of South Dakota May 8.
"Be careful of too much optimism," he said. Whatever you think life is going to be now – it isn't. It's going to surprise you, and from long experience, I can tell you that it's better to walk around a little grim and be happy and surprised once in a while, than it is to walk around with your acceptance speech in your pocket your whole life and never get to read it."
Dexter, a 1969 graduate of The University of South Dakota, received an honorary Doctor of Letters and Literature degree during the 123rd spring commencement. Dexter, a Hollywood screenwriter and National Book Award-winning novelist, was born in Pontiac, MI. He was a columnist for several high profile daily newspapers in the United States, including the Philadelphia Daily News, the Sacramento Bee and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
In 1981, he began writing fiction. His first novel, "God's Pocket," was published in 1983. His 1988 novel, "Paris Trout," received the National Book Award for Fiction. An accomplished screenwriter, Dexter's screenplays include "Rush," "Michael," "Mulholland Falls," and "The Devil and Daniel Webster." He was nominated for an Emmy in 1992 for Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or Special for the movie based on his award-winning novel, "Paris Trout." Dexter currently lives in Clinton, a community located on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.
"Somebody is going to come up to you soon, maybe today, and tell you that life is precious – maybe they will today," he said, "and that every minute from here on is beginning to count. This is where it starts.
"The truth is, life isn't precious every minute. It's precious once in a while," Dexter told the graduates.
He told the commencement audience that he was never a serious student while attending USD; that he had a tendency to quit school at the beginning of the second semester of each academic year, which explains why it took eight years for him to eventually receive his bachelor's degree.
"The things that you will look back on in 20 or 30 years are substantial," Dexter said. "The things that you will take from this institution are not mostly academic in nature. I think it's fine to learn to enjoy novels. The idea is to learn enough in college to entertain yourself later on.
"What you will take out of Vermillion that will last are the things you learn about people – who you can trust, who has your best interests at heart."
Dexter urged the graduates to make the best of what remains in their relatively young lives after Saturday's commencement.
"You've got a little time here," he said. "You can start to see what matters to you, what makes you happy, what you should do."
Dexter told the graduates they will spend at least one-fourth of lives working. "What you're looking for is not necessarily what you'd like to be, but something that you can do that makes you happy."
He noted that economic news for more than a year now has been grim.
"What I'm suggesting is the economy is offering you an opportunity to find out what makes you happy without jeopardizing your future," Dexter said. "You're going out in the world now to see how it treats you – that's the responsible thing to do, of course – but you also have a responsibility to yourself to have some fun."
The competition to find good jobs among today's university graduates is, he admits, challenging.
"But I don't look at that in itself as the end of the world," Dexter said. "As strange as it sounds, the present economy has given you a chance to look around without falling behind, maybe travel a little and see the country for yourself, and maybe decide where you want to live.
"You may see how things work politically in an office – to see who gets ahead and why," he said. "You may get to work with a shovel or a saw or a hammer. So the world has opened up in the last couple years.
"Ignore the economy. Find out what makes you happy," Dexter said. "There is plenty of time to find out what you want to do. You may find yourself working 12 hours a day at a business, but if the work itself is making you happy, then you are on your way."
He told the graduates that he has long admired people who try hard when it matters.
"When you latch onto something that you care about – a woman or a man, a job – if you've learned enough here to recognize it, the idea is to ring out every drop of fun and meaning those things have to offer.
"It's not always precious, it's not usually precious, but it's something to see. It's something that doesn't come around twice, and my advice is to not miss a thing."