He’s driven the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. He’s spoken to Barbara Bush. He’s the namesake of a sewage-lifting station in North Dakota. He’s rocked out with Stephen King.
He’s also won a Pulitzer Prize.
Columnist Dave Barry described these accomplishments to students, faculty, staff and alumni at Elon University’s Fall Convocation and the 2011 Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Tuesday afternoon. Between anecdotes and observations about life as a father and journalist, Barry delivered encouraging advice for Elon University students. Although he didn’t elaborate on winning the Pulitzer for commentary in 1988, the laughter and cheers in Alumni Gym validated his storytelling abilities.
Despite success, his career didn’t start easily.
“I’ve gone from lurking comfortably, anonymously at the back of a bus,” Barry said, “to the middle of a group of people on stage in a room full of high-powered dignitary people and all these reporters around me.”
Although he is now regarded as a talented journalist, he began his career as a weak writer.
“I wanted to write, but I wasn’t any good at it,” Barry said. “I was terrible at the part when you had to ask people questions, and sometimes deal with people who don’t want to talk with you or people who are hostile, and you have to do a lot of that in journalism. I really wasn’t prepared for that.”
But Barry said he discovered how to find stories and people who were willing to share them, helping him find his way as a journalist.
In addition to reflecting on the beginning of his journalism career, he offered students advice as they prepare to leave Elon.
“It’s really bad out there, stay right here,” Barry said. “Keep changing majors and when they run out of majors, hide in the shrubbery. Don’t let them make you leave.”
Although the audience assumed he was joking, Barry provided sharp insight. The former Miami Herald columnist has experience using comedy to make a point. His syndicated humor column ran for 25 years.
When it came time to address the current “brutal job market,” Barry prepared students for what awaits after graduation.
“When you go to a job interview,” he said, “they’re going to ask you questions that are designed to sort of trap you to say something negative about yourselves.”
What are some of those tricky questions? According to Barry, employers want to know an applicant’s biggest weakness, reason for leaving a past job and response to criticism from superiors. He also urged students not to “confuse your career with your life.”
The other advice Barry offered was geared less toward professional plans, focusing more on what he has learned as a husband and father.
“I have some life advice for you young people,” he said. “I’ve gained some wisdom over the years because I’m old. I’m 64, which is fantastically old, and the one big problem with that is the wisdom you’ve gained over the years, you can’t remember any of it.”
What Barry could remember was a comedic spin on life’s problems. He encouraged students to examine their character and that of their peers.
“A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person,” Barry said. “When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who sees a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that individual is insane.”
In the end, Barry related his advice to university students trying to find their way.
“I was an English major, and look at me,” Barry said. “I’ve got a job I can do in my underwear, so things are pretty good.”