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Bill Bryson lifts spirits by sharing his wit and wisdom in the Bucksbaum Lecture

April 3, 2009
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Bill Bryson addresses 4,800 in the Drake Knapp Center.

By Rebecca Lee, AS'10

Best-selling author and Drake graduate Bill Bryson brought laughter and spirit back home to the Des Moines community in his lecture "You Can Go Home Again: An Evening with Bill Bryson," on April 2, as part of the annual Martin Bucksbaum Distinguished Lecture series.

Bryson, who has lived in England for the past 35 years, began his talk with a humorous and convincing list of remembrances to assure the audience -- including his mother, he said -- that he is from Des Moines. Presented as "You Know You're From Iowa If…" Bryson's qualifications included indifference to tornadoes, a love of corn and "finding nothing funny about Des Moines International Airport."

Bryson proceeded in the wry, witty style readers have come to know from his writing, making observations on laughter and humors in various parts of the world.

"The British can be very, very funny," Bryson said, "but they're even funnier when they don't intend to be. They have this wonderful knack for being totally eccentric in unexpected ways -- like complaining.

"For instance, a hotel had a small fire in the kitchen of the hotel during the daytime, which set off the fire alarms. One of the guests wrote a letter of complaint, which said in part, "A loud alarm bell rang, which we found quite disturbing. The noise was so awful we had to leave the building."

Other highlights included a personal anecdote of the 2003 World Series, which Bryson was given the opportunity to cover for a British newspaper. Bryson explained to the editor that he could not attend because his daughter was getting married that week.

The editor's reply was, "Look, Bill, your daughter might get married again."

While Bryson's talk was overall steeped in humor, the author also read an excerpt from the bestseller "Bill Bryson's African Diary," which details his experiences in Kenya. Sharing his words and images from his time in Africa, Bryson brought both laughter and sentiment to the crowd, while illuminating CARE International, which receives all royalties and profits from the book.

In wrapping up the evening, Bryson left with audience with a bit of inspiration in his Ten Tips for Having a Successful Life, which he presents in his annual commencement address at the University of Durham, where he serves as chancellor.

The tips begin, "Number One: Take time to remember that you are alive and special," and continue with, "Number Two: But not that special."


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Bill Bryson receives his hood from Drake Provost Ron Troyer, left, and President David Maxwell.

 At the start of the Bucksbaum event, Drake President David Maxwell and Provost Ron Troyer presented Bryson with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the behest of the Drake Board of Trustees. They gave him with a certificate and draped a hood over his shoulders to complete his academic regalia. 

The ceremony took place before a crowd of 4,800 -- the largest audience ever for the Bucksbaum Lecture Series, which has featured many notable speakers, such as Jane Goodall, Bill Moyers and Magic Johnson.

Bryson's books include "Walk in the Woods," "A Short History of Nearly Everything," and "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," which describes his adventures growing up in Des Moines during the 1950s. His books have won numerous awards, sold some 10 million copies and have been translated into more than 20 languages.

During his visit to Drake Thursday, Bryson met with students, had lunch with alumni and friends and held an informal question-and-answer session at Cowles Library. He also received the Alumni Achievement Award -- the highest honor bestowed by the Drake National Alumni Association.

Bryson, who received his bachelor's degree from Drake in 1977, told the crowd Thursday night that he greatly appreciated the many honors, adding that, "It only took me seven years to get through Drake," he said. "If I'd have known they were just going to give me a degree. . . "

Bryson said he was most grateful, though, for what Drake did for his mother, Mary McGuire Bryson, 96, who lives in Des Moines and attended the lecture.


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Bill Bryson enjoys a hug from his 96-year-old mother, Mary McGuire Bryson, at the Bucksbaum Lecture.

He noted that she was 10 years old when her mother died and that her
father struggled to raise her and her three siblings while working as a
janitor at the stockyards in Omaha during the Great Depression.

Drake offered her a full scholarship and she became the first
female editor of the Times-Delphic, Drake's student newspaper.
Following her graduation in 1936, she enjoyed a long and distinguished
career as a journalist for a local newspaper, where Bryson's father was
a nationally respected sports writer.

Shortly after Bryson accepted the Alumni Achievement Award Thursday
afternoon, Drake junior Mallory George, editor in chief of the
Times-Delphic, gave Bryson a framed photo of his mother taken when
she was a student at Drake. Accompanying the photo was the following
inscription:

"Drake University is proud to recognize the pioneer spirit of Mary
McGuire Bryson (LA'36), the first female editor of the Times-Delphic
and an example of true leadership for all campus women."

Bryson brought the framed photo with him to the Bucksbaum Lecture
and showed it to the crowd before giving it to Drake President David
Maxwell, who presented it to Mary McGuire Bryson.

Read more about Bryson's lecture in today's Des Moines Register and view on online gallery of photos from Bryson's visit to campus.

The Martin Bucksbaum Distinguished Lecture Series is made possible by a gift from Melva and the late Martin Bucksbaum, longtime member of Drake's governing board. The series will continue next fall when poet Maya Angelou delivers the 24th Bucksbaum Lecture at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 in the Drake Knapp Center.