Convocation Keynote by John P. Booth Jr. ’83

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Headmaster Hill, parents, faculty, staff, students and friends of the Williston community, thank you for your warm welcome. It is an absolute pleasure to be back on campus to help kick off the start off the school year—Williston’s 175th.

Students of Williston, 33 years ago, I sat where you sit today as a new junior to the school, having no way of knowing I was going to be completely transformed by my two years at Williston. But before I tell you how Williston changed my life for the better, I’ve got to address the issue of my name. Think about it…a guy who has the same name as the man who assassinated one of our most revered Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, is speaking to you today. Imagine going through your life with the name John Booth.

“That’s not really your full name, is it?” “Did you shoot Lincoln?” “Is your middle name Wilkes?” And those are just the questions I get from the person I am ordering shirts from at Land’s End! As well, with a name like John Booth it is easy to acquire unsavory nicknames like: “Shooter,” “Assassin” or the ever popular “Wilkes.”

And yet, I am proud of my name…for it forced me to be resilient from a very young age.

Names are important. They often link us to our family’s past or tell something about our ethnic heritage. The surname Booth, as you might have guessed, is an English name and yet it reveals only part of my background. I am also one half Slovak—something my name does not reveal yet is so critical to who I am as a person.

On February 4, 1948, my mother, Julia Hlinka, came to the United States on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth. Being a primary source history guy, I know from the ship’s list of passengers that she arrived at age 11 from what was then known as Czechoslovakia. She entered the country with her mother and her two sisters; they spoke no English.

After having made it through World War II with Nazi officers living along side her family in my great grandfather’s log cabin, Post-War, the Russians made life even more difficult for those in Eastern Europe. As the Iron Curtain enveloped the region, my grandparents made the difficult and dangerous decision to get their girls out of the country—they escaped to England and then made it on to the United States. Settling in New York, my mother’s first apartment ironically, was on Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan. Ten years later, she had met my father, gotten married and started a family.

As many did in the Post-World War II era, my parents scraped enough money to move out of the city and settle into a small house on Long Island. There, my parents and their four children led the typical working-class suburban life of the era. My dad commuted on the train each day to New York while my mom tried her best to keep us from tearing up the house. There were 50 houses packed in on my street but tons of kids to play with outside every day. And play hard we did.

There were some tough times in the late 1970’s during the worst economic times in America since the Great Depression. Construction jobs in New York City dried up and my dad was unemployed for over a year and a half. For a time, we received food stamps and government-issued cheese, eggs & powered milk. In fact, the only job my father could eventually land was in Alaska working the oil pipeline. At age 15, I saw him only once every few months. In retrospect, those early high schools years were difficult ones for me. My hometown of Farmingdale, New York had one of the biggest high schools in the state. There were over 4,000 students and it was easy to get lost in the shuffle. But then I came to Williston…

It took a lot just to get here. Williston generously granted me significant financial aid but I still had to supplement that grant with money earned over multiple summers working as a plumber’s apprentice in New York City. To protect those who helped me at the time, I cannot fully divulge how I landed a union job at age 16 suffice it to say, I was told to tell everyone I was 18 and that I had to act 18. Those were interesting summers in the Big Apple to say the least…but that is a story for another day.

What a culture shock arriving on this beautiful campus. People said hello when you walked by them–even if they didn’t know you. I knew I was not in New York anymore. I eventually adjusted to the two-hour nightly study halls and the fact my teachers made me read 10 times the amount I’d read in public school. But oh, how I learned and I found out I liked and was not ashamed to be nerdy.

We were required to play three sports at Williston in those days and although I had planned on playing varsity ice hockey, I also ended up playing varsity soccer, lacrosse and golf over those two years. You can go into the athletic building in your own free time to laugh at the team photos from 1982 and 1983…lots of hair and short-shorts. But I also had the chance to do other extra-curriculars like represent the senior class on the discipline committee, build sets for the play and work lighting during the shows.

My work-study job was to walk the full campus every morning during first period, my only free, and pick up attendance slips from all the classrooms and bring them back to the schoolhouse. This was the pre e-mail era. I was given 45 minutes to complete the task–sun, rain or snow. I was paid the minimum wage at the time–$3.35 an hour. That totaled to a whopping $12.56 a week. And with that money, I did my laundry and hopefully, had a few bucks left over to go to the Seven-Eleven one night a week after study hall.

Still, over my two years at Williston, I both learned how to learn and learned how to love–to truly care for people, place and community and not to be shy about showing those feelings. I also learned how to be independent; something I truly believe can best be learned by a young teen in a boarding school culture. I grew by leaps and bounds…all because of Williston.

Much of that learning came from a faculty just like the one in front of you right now. Dedicated Williston legends like Jay Grant, Doc Gow, Ann Vandeburgh, Couchie, and Ray Brown…just to name a few. It was Brownie who subsequently gave me the nickname I still carry today—Boother. Without question it’s a heck of lot better than Wilkes…all because of Williston.

Williston spring boarded me to a great college in the most northwestern part of this state, where I played ice hockey for four years, met my wife, and began to learn the craft of the historian…all because of Williston.

After college, I left North America for the first time in my life and lived in Japan for two years. I became a fanatic of the country and its culture, especially the food, the language, the ancient city of Kyoto and contrastingly, the modern game of Japanese baseball…all because of Williston.

I returned to the states and pursued a full-time career in teaching. My roles models at Williston-those wonderful teachers-made me think I should get into the business. And now 27 years later, I have the best job in the world. I get to hang out with kids just like you and try to help them reach goals they never thought imaginable…all because of Williston.

But now it is your turn. I beg you to take advantage of all this school as to offer. Not just the academics, sports teams, theater or singing groups, although they will surely provide you with great experiences. I want you to tap into the soul of Williston. Reach out to the new students and invite them to sit at your lunch table; help them get to know your friends. Be kind to the kid across the hall who may be a touch homesick. Make sure day students are as much a part of the place as the boarders. Make all you meet feel as though this is one of the safest places in the world. A place where they can be themselves, take chances, and find happiness.

For Williston is as it was when I was a student here. It is filled with people who made the career choice to be here for you. All those evenings helping you in the dorm, all those days going the extra mile in the classroom to make sure you understand the material, all those late nights and weekends on the road driving vans to and fro. Sure, you will be prodded and pushed by your teachers when needed but ultimately, they are here because they want to be. They are here because of Williston.

I started off my speech tonight talking about names, and I will end in similar fashion. For years, the name Williston, in education circles, has been synonymous with the values of caring and authenticity. Williston is a place where the kids are genuine and empathetic. Be proud of that heritage. You will take the school’s name and its values with you wherever you go–to your hometown, to your college and beyond. Make all those who hear the name Williston, know it is a place that produces good people with good souls.

Thank you for allowing me to say show my gratitude publicly to Williston after all these years. This school means so much to me. And I hope for many years to come, it will mean so much to each and every one of you.

So on behalf of my fellow Williston alums and my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, I wish you the very best this school year!

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