Students studying outside the library

James Scott '97: Opening Convocation speech

Following his 'bliss' took him from Wofford to faraway places, award-winning career

James Scott 382x255
Author and former journalist James Scott '97 was the featured speaker at the 2015 Opening Convocation
2015-09-04

Good morning, everyone.

It’s an honor to be with you all for Wofford’s convocation. It doesn’t feel like that long ago when I sat on those woefully uncomfortable wooden benches as a freshman.

It’s great to see many professors who taught and mentored me two decades ago are here with us this morning as well.

There’s Dr. Ana María Wiseman, who taught me Spanish, and Dr. Deno Trakas with whom I had freshman humanities, among many other classes.

And, of course, it’s great to see Professor John Lane, who not only taught me poetry and creative writing, but was also a wonderful mentor and is today a dear friend.

Some of my old friends and fellow students are now Wofford faculty, including Mackay Salley, who has traveled a long road from Sigma Nu pledge marshal to physics professor.

And Mark Fergusson heads up the theatre department. When we were students, Mark was not the clean-cut doctor you see sitting here today in his dark robe. Rather, he had long hair and shuffled around campus in Birkenstocks. He seemed better suited for the Sea of Galilee than Spartanburg.

As a result, he earned the nickname Mark of Nazareth.

A lot has changed since my days as a student here in Old Main — for the better, of course. Not to date myself, but I was here when email first arrived at Wofford.

Dr. Wiseman was an early adopter of what skeptical students like myself believed was merely a passing fad, but she swore it was going to make our lives so much easier.

To prove to us how convenient it was, she often opted not to give us our homework in class, but would instead email us our assignments later.

In the absence of smart phones or even Internet access in the dorms, this required a trip over to the Olin Building, the only place on campus to check email at the time.

So, invariably each night I would have to hike — frequently through rain or an ice storm — from my warm dorm in DuPre back over to Olin just to learn that I needed to read Chapter 4.

Dr. Wiseman, if it’s any consolation, I thought Facebook would be a passing fad, too — right up until the day my editor made me join it.

I like to think that I have had a fun and fascinating career as a journalist and author, one that started right here at Wofford and has since taken me to the far corners of the globe.

As a newspaper reporter, I interviewed doctors saddled with stethoscopes and side arms, who struggled in a makeshift operating room outside Baghdad to piece together American soldiers devastated by roadside bombs.

In covering Indonesia, after it was hit by one of the worst tsunamis in modern history, I’ll never forget the dead bodies stacked curbside, like garbage, awaiting pick up for mass burials.

Closer to home, I watched a convicted murderer struggle against the straps that held him down in his final moments in the Broad River Correctional Institute’s death house as the state of South Carolina executed him on a muggy Friday night.

And just next week — as part of a new book I am writing — I’m headed to the Philippines, where I will interview survivors of one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century — the Japanese slaughter of tens of thousands of men, women and children during the 29-day Battle for Manila in February 1945.

My job is a lot like yours here at Wofford — it’s an education.

Each day I interview people, track down and read documents in archives, and I tell stories.

I look back and I can’t help but wonder how I got here. To be honest, I was a pretty mediocre student in high school.

I barely broke 1,000 on my SATs, and when I did that, my parents — who clearly never put a lot of faith in my academic prowess — treated me like I had won the Nobel Prize.

Needless to say, Wofford did not offer me any scholarships.

But the wonderful professors you see here saw a talent that I failed to recognize even in myself — a passion for history, language and storytelling that not only shaped my time at Wofford, but my life ever since.

Now, it has not been a straight or an easy path — like most things in life, you will learn — but it has been an adventure.

When I graduated from Wofford, I went on the Japan Exchange Teaching Program, more commonly known simply as JET.

JET’s a great program, which still exists today, in which the Japanese government hires recent American graduates to come teach in Japan’s public schools.

I had spent a year in Spain while at Wofford and loved it. So I looked at the JET Program like the chance to study abroad again and gain some worthwhile experiences I could hopefully write about.

I soon landed in the town of Hidaka, which is on the main island of Honshu. It was a tiny poor farming community of about 18,000 residents up in the mountains.

The town was so small and inconsequential that it no longer exists today. It was gobbled up by a larger nearby municipality.

I quickly realized that I was the probably the worst teacher the JET Program ever hired. That crystalized for me when Princess Diana died, which, of course, was a major worldwide story at the time given her fame and celebrity.

For folks who may not recall, the beloved princess was killed in a high-speed car wreck after being chased by a mob of reporters — the paparazzi.

I won’t bore you with all the details but just know that thanks to a slight linguistic miscommunication on my part, students at my school learned she had been killed — not by the paparazzi — but by Pavarotti, the famous and rotund Italian opera singer.

Now, my year in Japan taught me a great many things beyond just the fact that I was a terrible educator and even worse Karaoke singer.

More than anything, it gave me an opportunity to reflect, to take what I had learned during my four years at Wofford and to figure out my path forward.

But it was not without its challenges.

We take for granted the multiculturalism of the United States. You can walk down the street in any American city and see folks of all ethnicities — we are a melting pot.

Japan was not that way at all when I stepped off the plane in 1997, particularly rural Japan where I lived in a two-room apartment overlooking a rice field.

I was one of two foreigners living in the entire town.

And unlike Spain, where I had earlier studied and which shares a lot of similarities with the United States, Japan was a completely new and at times culturally bizarre experience.

It was common for grown men to carry Hello Kitty lunch boxes and play Pokémon. Pornography was everywhere — even in vending machines.

Overall my experience living and traveling in Japan would prove fortuitous, since today I write almost exclusively about America’s war with Japan.

But in all honesty, as a young man in my early 20s, it was a tough time, an incredibly isolating and lonely experience.

In part because it came right after I had just finished Wofford, where I was used to living on a hallway in DuPre with my 20 best friends around me at all times.

After graduation, as you all will learn, you and your friends all scatter.

Many of my friends had enrolled in law school or graduate programs. Others had found jobs. I went to my first wedding of a close friend and classmate that summer.

It was for real; we were grownups.

Rather than go that route, I had instead chosen to move to Japan to teach English and try to become a writer.

At night in my apartment I furiously hammered out short stories and travel articles, sending them to various magazines and even my hometown paper, anyone and everyone.

If I was lucky, I got a rejection letter. More often than not, I heard nothing.

At the same time I was struggling to write, my parents were doing what parents do best — hounding me about what I was going to do with my life.

They didn’t understand my desire to be a writer, in part because no one in our family had ever done it nor had any of their friends. It wasn’t like being a banker, teacher or doctor. It was a career that was totally foreign to them.

I might as well have told them I wanted to be an astronaut.

Now, my dad was a builder in Charlotte, and he was successful — he had to be to cover my full tuition here at Wofford.

And Dad wanted me to come home, go work with him in his business and eventually take over his company. He offered me a princely salary — bribe money.

It was a great offer, the kind so many students coming out of college would have jumped on. And logically, I knew it was the safer thing for me to do.

But for me it would have meant trading in my dream of being a writer in order to build houses and office buildings in Charlotte.

I didn’t know what to do. Day after day, as I checked my empty mailbox with the hopes that one of my stories had been accepted for publication somewhere, I grew depressed.

In a particularly down moment, I reached out for help and advice, not from my parents or my brother. Nor did I turn to any of my friends.

Instead, I emailed professor John Lane right here at Wofford.

John had been my adviser. I had also taken most of his classes, and read all books he wrote and developed a real friendship with him. I knew if I could trust anyone, it was John.

So I wrote to John, asking what I should do. He wrote me back a lengthy message at 9:37 p.m. on Nov. 13, 1997. John told me to follow my “bliss.”

“Bliss is whatever your heart is telling you is the path,” he wrote that day 18 years ago. “Your path is the path of a writer and it leads through a hell of a briar patch sometimes.”

Now, I never sold a story or travel article the entire year I lived in Japan. But thanks to John’s encouragement, I stuck with it. And I wake up every day grateful I did.

I came home from Japan, and I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to do it every day. Journalism was about the only option out there for a want-to-be-writer.

Now I didn’t start off at The New York Times or The Washington Post — but right down the road from here at Creative Loafing, a now defunct alternative weekly newspaper that paid me poverty wages.

But it was a start — and that's what I needed.

I joined Creative Loafing soon after a recreational skydiver had been killed in a mishap. One of my first stories was to go jump out of a plane and see if it was safe.

Fortunately, it was. But I’ll never forget the realization I had that day when my feet hit the ground — that I could go jump out of a plane and write a story about it and someone would actually pay me to do it.

What kind of amazing job was that? I fell in love with it. Journalism, I soon came to realize, was a lot like my time at Wofford — it was an education.

From Creative Loading, I took a job with The Herald in Rock Hill and then later The Post and Courier down in Charleston.

Don’t get me wrong. I covered a lot of boring stories — city council and school board meetings — but I also slept outside with the homeless for a series of articles on what it was like for a struggling and forgotten community.

I exposed a fraudulent preacher, who bilked his charity out of tens of thousands of dollars and later went to prison. I covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and I even lived in Buenos Aires where I worked as a foreign correspondent.

I lucked up a few years later and was awarded a Nieman Fellowship. Much to the shock of my parents, I had gone from barely breaking 1,000 on my SATs to Harvard.

It was while I was at Harvard that I began working on what I believe to be my most important and personal projects — one that circled back around to my father.

Before he was a homebuilder, my dad was an officer in the United States Navy, assigned to the U.S.S. Liberty.

The Liberty wasn’t just any ship — but a spy ship, part of a top-secret program operated by the NSA. It was designed to be dispatched anywhere in the world to eavesdrop on other nations.

In the summer of 1967, the NSA ordered the Liberty to the Middle East to spy on what today we now know as the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of June 8, Israeli fighter pilots suddenly dropped out of the sky and pounded the Liberty with rockets, cannons and napalm. The Israeli Navy soon joined the fight, torpedoing the ship.

When it was over, 34 Americans were dead and another 171 wounded — two out of every three men on board were either killed our injured that day, which incidentally was my dad’s 24th birthday.

My dad’s experience, as well as that of his shipmates, was hellish. One of his best friends was killed. He had to hold down another sailor during a surgery done on top of the same table where only hours earlier dad had eaten his lunch.

This was a time before PTSD was diagnosable and treated. Our combat troops just came home and had to live with it.

To Dad’s credit, he packed the horror away in his memory and moved on with his life, got a job, got married, had kids. He went to tee-ball games and swim meets.

When I was covering the military for The Post and Courier, I began to interview my dad about his experiences; those oral histories ultimately were the genesis of my first book, The Attack on the Liberty.

As part of my research, I traveled to Israel, and to my surprise, my dad volunteered to go with me — to confront head-on his own painful past.

Most days Dad sat on the beach in Tel Aviv or explored the Old City of Jerusalem while I conducted interviews and did research.

Yiftah Spector was the Israeli pilot who led the attack the Liberty. He was a legendary fighter pilot, who helped take out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.

Spector declined my repeated requests for an interview, but he finally relented and invited me to his home in the suburbs of Tel Aviv for coffee.

I left my father behind and hopped a cab to Spector’s home that afternoon. I arrived to find the 66-year-old former pilot covered in sweat from building a playground in his backyard for his grandchildren.

Over coffee in his kitchen he asked why I was interested in the Liberty. Four decades had passed, he said; it was an old story. I told him my father was one of the officers.

He recalled that my father was with me in Israel. Why had I not brought him along for coffee, Spector asked.

“I thought that might be awkward,” I replied.

“Nonsense,” he said. “I must meet your father. Call him.”

I phoned my father back at the hotel and relayed Spector’s request to see him. Within half an hour a taxi pulled alongside the curb in front of Spector’s home.

My father crawled out of the cab and on a dusty street corner in the Israeli countryside and came face-to-face with the pilot who had led the attack on his ship — the man who had nearly killed him.

The two men, both young and confident so many years earlier, were now gray and wrinkled and focused on grandchildren, not careers and war.

Spector stuck out his hand for my father to shake. “We came within 300 meters of one another,” he told my dad. “I’m sorry.”

Those were the words my father had wanted to hear for decades, the words no one in the United States Navy or the American government had ever said.

That apology meant to so much to my dad. Though the horror and painful memories would last, in some small way a burden had been lifted. My father reached out and took Spector’s hand: “Thank you.”

I like to think that that moment of closure for my dad never would have happened had I not followed Professor John Lane’s advice all those years earlier.

And understood that at times, following your dreams leads you through a hell of a briar patch. But in the end you come out of it, better off than before.

But only if you stick with it.

You all are so fortunate to be here today, starting your four-year careers at one of the best schools in the country. Wofford is so much more than a college. It is a family.

As Rev. Talmage Skinner, who was the chaplain here back when I was a student, always used to say: “You don’t go to Wofford, you join it.”

He was so right.

And what makes this school great are the men and women you see here, sitting on this stage. They are the heart and soul of Wofford — not the technology, the great buildings and coffee shops — but the faculty.

They are the ones who will teach you, guide you, and encourage you.

Not only during your four years here in Spartanburg, but far beyond, even when you find yourself in doubt on a cold and lonely day half a world away.

That’s what families do for one another. That’s what makes Wofford the best.

In closing, I wish you all a wonderful first year and many, many great successes in the future.

Thank you.