Annie Pryor, staff writer emerita
Warren Wilson graduate Tony Earley, class of 1983, has been chosen by President Sandy Pfeiffer to be the commencement speaker for graduation this spring. Earley, who was granted the Distinguished Alumni Award at Homecoming in fall 2009, is a fiction writer, novelist and professor at Vanderbilt University.
According to an email announcement issued by Pfeiffer earlier this May, Earley has authored four books and many other works, including “Here We Are in Paradise” and “Somehow Form a Family.” Other Earley pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, The Oxford American, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and New Stories from the South. The New Yorker has named Earley one of the 20 best writers of his generation and, according to Pfieffer’s email he was also a “winner of a National Magazine Award for fiction.” But, all details and glory aside, Earley’s own Wilson experience may be of some interest to later generation Wilson students.
During his years at Warren Wilson, Earley worked on the Electric Crew under the supervision of John “Lightning” Griffith. Earley held Griffith in the highest esteem.
“I learned some good lessons from Lightning,” recalled Earley. “[While] working for him, I never wanted to let him down. He was really inspiring to work for. My crew and I, we were very proud to be on Electric. We were an esprit de corps.”
Earley’s experience taught him much about responsibility and accountability, but individuality and self-discovery as well. Earley, an English major, reflected on the days when he was a “tortured poet… the brooding, dark artist.” He said, “I look back on myself as a college student now and it was ridiculous. And Warren Wilson is a very safe place to be ridiculous.”
Earley compared Warren Wilson to Vanderbilt, noting that “at Vanderbilt there’s a certain pressure to conform, which there is at Wilson, too, I suppose.”
He expressed that Warren Wilson students tend to be attracted to a non-conformist lifestyle, which, he recognized, was conformist itself.
As Earley explained, “young people try on different personas. Wilson gives the opportunity to try stuff out.”
Earley said that he was not yet sure what his May speech would address, but noted his desire to speak to the importance of Wilson’s emphasis on individual work. Early finds this to be a particularly important value. “I think it’s the responsibility of the individual to make the world a better place in any way that he or she can,” Earley said. “[I am] touched and excited about how ideal[istic] Warren Wilson students are. Everyone there seems to want to graduate and go out and literally save the world.”