Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

English Convocation 2012 (in which it is revealed that English has the Batmobile, sort of)

On Saturday, May 12th, the English department held its annual convocation ceremony in the Foellinger Auditorium.  As always, this was a really lovely event--a chance to honor the achievements of our graduates and to celebrate with them. 

For now, though, I want to shine the spotlight, as it were, upon our convocation speaker this year, Leith Adams.  It is great perk of my job that I get to meet the distinguished alums who we invite back to campus as convocation speakers each year, and this year I really enjoyed having the chance to spend a bit of time with Mr. Adams and his wife Char.  Inspiring, charming, lovely people.  Also, as it happens, Leith is in charge of the batmobiles!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Mr. Adams, who grew up in Paris, Illinois, earned his B.A. in English from the University of Illinois in 1969.  From there, by way of one tour of duty in Vietnam and another at film school at the University of Southern California, he found himself in Los Angeles and working for Warner Bros.  He is now the Executive Director of the Warner Brothers Corporate Archive.  This is important work. Film is arguably the most recognizable narrative art form of the last century, and certainly films—from new blockbusters to classics in revival— lie at the core of our shared cultural experience.  Adams's work involves curating and preserving this important cultural legacy.  Adams is also the only speaker I have ever introduced who has a) written a book with an introduction by Dennis Hopper, and b) been featured in the newspaper with Voldemort's cloak.

I was also pleased to have Adams address the class of 2012 because his personal story exemplifies something that I know to be true and that I see instances of all the time: the fact that English alums succeed in a huge variety of different kinds of unexpected careers and that the English major--with its emphasis on analysis, creative critical thinking, cultural awareness, and writing skills--turns out to be great preparation for almost anything.

Adams may be a big shot Hollywood guy, but he's still one of ours! And—to quote from one of Warner Bros. best known and most beloved films—he'll also always have Paris, Illinois.

Here, very lightly edited, is the text of Adams's address to the class of 2012.


My name is Leith Adams and I work as Corporate Archivist at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.  I want to congratulate all of you members of the Class of 2012 and hope your careers will be as exciting and memorable as mine has been.

I come from a small town down the road: Paris, Illinois.  I graduated from the U of I--barely--by the skin of my teeth--in 1969 with a degree in English and a split minor in Speech…and something else.  I’ll be darned if I can remember what that something else was.  But Speech: that’s where all of the film courses were.

When Professor Perry asked me to speak here, I mentioned to him that I’m probably the ugliest stepchild of English Department graduates to ever come through the University of Illinois.  After flunking Analytical Geometry my first semester (side note: to prepare for the final which was held in Altgeld Hall, I went to the Student Union and watched BATMAN which was the new hit show January of 1966; my instructor always said to the class, “Don’t worry, it’ll come to you.” I’m still waiting for the lightning of Analytical Geometry to hit me…and I guess I always will).  Oh yeah--after flunking the course, I was on probation every semester until the day I graduated.  I told Professor Perry.

He said, “That’s okay, I was kicked out of woodshop class once.”* I replied, “But I flunked Typography.”  That was during the brief, but shining, moment when I imagined myself majoring in Journalism and becoming the next Mike Royko.

“Don’t care,” said Professor Perry.

“Look, I flunked Juvenile Delinquency…how could anybody flunk that?”

“So what?”

“All right, I didn’t want to say this, but…I even flunked Creative Writing taught by Professor John Scouffas.”

But I guess you all know the answer, because I’m here.

Oh yeah…and when I stepped onstage in 1969 at the Assembly Hall to receive my diploma, I smiled as I went back to my seat…opened it up and what I saw was: “Please report to Bldg. 'such and such'--Room 'so and so' for a matter of great importance.” There was no degree for me at graduation.

Telling you this reminds me of the time my wife and I were driving back to L.A. from Vegas and as we were leaving town, we stopped to get some gas. I put money in the Coke machine and waited. Nothing came out. I couldn’t even win at the Coke machine in Las Vegas.

I did go to Room “so and so.” I owed the University $15 for some unpaid fee. My degree came in the mail--along with my draft notice. This was 1969 after all.

But I finally realized why Professor Perry invited me. On Christmas Day of this year, Warner Bros. is releasing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT 3-D…with Leonardo Di Caprio as Gatsby.  That was the reason.  I’m sorry, Professor Perry, Leo couldn’t make it today.

So what does an archivist do?  We save history--and the fact that a kid from Paris, Illinois who while in high school learned to run 35mm projectors in the local movie theater--who wrote Warner Bros. back then asking for 8x10 black and white photos from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with James Dean and HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price to illustrate non-existent articles that he said he was going to write for the high school paper--and got those photos at 25 cents each because that’s what Warner Bros. did--sold photos to the fans for a quarter--the fact that I became the archivist for the movie studio that sold me stills from my favorite movies completely boggles my mind…even today.

Your English degree can get you anywhere you want to go.  You just have to know where that is.  In a world of tweets & texts, you can read and write and comprehend much more than the general population. What you have learned here will take you wherever you want.

So where is that?  You tell me.

I knew Sophomore year that if I made it through the draft alive…through Viet Nam alive (as much as I ran from it for the four years I was here, it was waiting for me when I got out…but I was lucky…I was a college graduate and the Air Force sent me to Saigon six months and a day after hitting Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio…and I was an English teacher in Saigon for a year…and then a motion picture cameraman for two and a half years in Dayton, Ohio…I was lucky.)… so Sophomore year I knew I was going to go where they made the movies, if I made it through the draft alive.

And when I was ready to go, I was armed with a couple of things I’d read in a book.  Peter Bogdanovich wrote a book called PIECES OF TIME.  In the early 70’s he had directed Larry McMurtry’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW--a novel that was a life-changer for me when I read it here in Champaign-Urbana. Bogdanovich had also directed WHAT’S UP, DOC? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal…still one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.  And he even directed a movie based on Henry James’ DAISY MILLER which I liked, and the world hated.  And when Bogdanovich wrote that you have to have a game plan when you pursue your life’s dream, I listened.  He said you have to set a time limit and it has to be long enough to get you going, yet short enough that you can cut your losses and continue on with Plan B if it is not working…five years was that time limit.

And you also have to set a goal to achieve in those five years, so you’ll know you are doing better at the end of the five years than you were doing at the beginning of the five years. The goal has to be something you don’t have now that you truly want…but it should not be something unrealistic.  For example, as a writer the goal you don’t want to set is…I’ll write a book that will make millions.  The goal you might want to set is: I’ll write a book that attracts a publisher…or that gets good attention.  If it is the internet or creating games that you love, it isn’t that you’ll create a million dollar website or game in five years, it will be that you have created something that gets good attention…or maybe brings in a little bit of profit.

For me--going to Hollywood cold, fresh out of the Air Force--I knew I didn’t want to be just another geek on the street looking for work.  So I applied for film school and amazingly enough, I was let in.  That way, I could look around, try to understand the town…and see where I wanted to go.

Early on, I realized Hollywood was just like Paris, Illinois…where if I threw a snowball at a car, by the time I’d walked through the snow to my father’s insurance office, the driver had seen my dad, yelled at him and cancelled his insurance. I realized that if I sneezed in West Los Angeles, someone across the Hollywood Hills in Burbank would say, “Gesundheit.”  It will be the same for you in Silicon Valley. It will be the same for you at Harvard.  It will be the same for you in New York City Publishing.

So the goal I set for myself wasn’t any of what I just mentioned to you--direct a feature, write a great script, get good attention.  When I contemplated my navel, the goal I desired was to be able to drive onto a studio lot any time I wanted…and at the end of those five years that was something I could do.

So I reevaluated.  Do I stick it out for another five years?  You’ll have to do the same, if you use Bogdanovich’s barometer.  Are you better off than you were five years ago?  Did you come close to your goal?  Only you can know if you should be staying that next five years.  My goal for the next five years was to sell a script.

Now another lesson I learned…and this was from a class on Studio Politics I took at USC Cinema…really, I took a class called Studio Politics.  Just think of all the time and money you’re saving by not having to take these classes or read these books.  But this lesson applies to anything you will be doing in any business anywhere, always.  It sounds simple, but: “You would be surprised,” as Ken Evans said, “how many careers never got off the ground because they never learned this lesson.”  Always treat the secretary in the office you’ve just entered with respect and dignity, because that secretary is going to get you in to see the boss…or not…or when you call later, he or she will put your call through…or not.  That secretary is the key to everything you want at that moment in your life…or not.

Another way of looking at this is what I was told when I reported to a new boss at Warner Bros.  He said to me: “I only demand three things from the people who report to me: 1) you work hard and do your job, 2) always treat everyone here the same, whether it is the greens person tending the lawn or the producer of the new series we’re making or the security guard that asks to see your ID at the gate…treat them with the respect they deserve because if you take one of those people away, the studio falls apart…and 3) never, ever lie to me.  One of the best bosses I ever had.  I hope you run into someone like him at one of your jobs.

We have a museum at Warner Bros.  I was hired twenty years ago with the idea I’d help start an archive and maybe help them open a museum.  So the museum opened and a couple of years in, the studio sent a new custodian and he was a kid from Boston.  Maybe twenty years old.  Every once in a while, someone would say: “Have you talked to Tommy? He really likes movies.”  And I’m thinking: “Everyone likes movies. Why should I talk to Tommy?” But I noticed his work.  The kid was good.  “Have you talked to Tommy?” “No, I haven’t talked to Tommy.”  But eventually I did--and I continued to watch him work.

And an opening came up in the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive--and we hired Tommy. He hadn’t wanted to go to college.  He wanted to make movies.  So he came to Los Angeles and he took the only job available at Warner Bros.: custodian.

At the archive, you’re assigned films and tv shows.  You read the scripts. You focus on what to save, and work with the productions to make sure we get the costumes and the props and the art department drawings and on and on, so we can represent that film now and twenty years from now and much, much longer.

Tommy was good--and just like I noticed his work, the productions began to notice him.  And before we knew it he was hired to work on a Ridley Scott movie--Scott directed ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER and now Tommy was going to watch a legend up close while working as a production assistant on MATCHSTICK MEN.  And before he knew it, he was working for his hero Steven Spielberg on THE TERMINAL with Tom Hanks and later on INDIANA JONES AND THE CRYSTAL SKULL.  Someday Tommy Bernard will be producing a movie we’ll all be standing in line to see. And he was a custodian at Warner Bros. (Oh yeah, he has won an award or two at Slamdance and other festivals for a couple of short horror films he’s made.)

Me?  I worked for the USC Bookstore, so I could pay for my tuition at the Cinema School.  Ended up off campus on the top floor of an 8 story warehouse shipping books to External Programs classes when the sum and total paper history of Warner Bros. Studios showed up on the 6th floor of that building--donated to the University--1915 to 1967: CASABLANCA, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, THE SEARCHERS, BONNIE AND CLYDE--legal files for Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan--it was all there. They hired forty people to inventory the collection, and I was one of them…from bookstore to backstage at the best studio in the history of the movies.

But I was also writing scripts--going to sell that million dollar screenplay--but writing at night and on the weekends because I knew you should never give up the day job (whether it was working at the bookstore, teaching English as an Air Force airman in Saigon, running projectors at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, working at the soda fountain at Dorris Pharmacy in Paris, Illinois).  Never give up the day job until you get that next, better, day job.  And today--2012--where is that job for each one of you?

Don’t be surprised if is a temp job in a profession or a company or university where you want to work.  Take whatever job it is that gets you in that door--and then keep working. I worked at the Bookstore during the day and I wrote at night.  I worked at the archive during the day, and I wrote scripts for tv documentaries at night and on the weekends.  When you latch onto that dream, take it where it leads you.

So it’s time to take a break--show you an archive--here are some of the artifacts we take care of at Warner Bros.

[At this point, Adams treated us to a brief set images of iconic items held in the Warner Bros. archive, ranging from items from Casablanca to the Batmobiles from the current, Christopher Nolan directed  Batman trilogy.**]

So someday all this will be yours.  The world is open to you as English graduates…but the world is open to everyone. What you can do better than them is put sentences together.  Spell without spell check.  You know that you have to write and rewrite and rewrite to make something flow.  We live in a world of typos--grammatical mistakes in books and magazines and newspapers (while they last) and the internet--so if you can step up and stand taller than the mediocrity around you, you will find your place, wherever it is you want to be.

So a couple of things: go after your passion.  Think of Tommy.  He jumped from Boston to Los Angeles armed only with the knowledge that he wanted to work in the movies and took the only job open to him at the time--custodian--to archival representative--to production assistant--to assistant to the producer of big time, big budget films.  The choices you make are the choices you live with.

I am the happiest guy in the world that I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in English.  I hope you will be able to say the same when you look back.

Thank you for your time--and go get 'em.


* Sad but true.  Now I can never make a crude wooden birdfeeder for my backyard. 

** Batmobiles!  See! 

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