An Inside Look at the Watkins Lecture with Bill Bryson
Jordan Chappell '20
On Wednesday, Feb. 26, R-MC hosted its annual Watkins Lecture, inviting bestselling author Bill Bryson to speak at Blackwell Auditorium for a mix of listeners from the college and the town of Ashland. As the student chosen to introduce Mr. Bryson, I was granted a combination of front row seats and a backstage pass to the night’s events, which included a student Q & A session with Mr. Bryson, dinner with the Watkins family, a reception, and finally, the lecture itself.
The Watkins Lecture was established in 1999, and according to the R-MC website, has hosted an array of remarkable speakers like Soledad O'Brien, Garrison Keillor, Ari Shapiro, Nina Totenberg, James Carville, Julian Bond, Bob Woodward, David Gergen, and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. As the most recent addition to this list, Mr. Bryson has not only written over twenty books, but is also the recipient of numerous awards, honorary degrees, and even the key to the city of Des Moines, Iowa.
Despite his international fame, Mr. Bryson was incredibly approachable, and I learned very soon after meeting him that he was just as funny in person as he was on the page. During the first event of the night, he answered questions from students in Professor Cadwallader’s Gothic Tradition Capstone, offering advice on everything from research to writing tips. As the Q & A session drew to a close, Robert Patterson, Professor Amy Goodwin, and I escorted Mr. Bryson to dinner.
We ate in the Hughes Room in Estes, where we were joined by President Lindgren and various members of the Watkins family. It was an amazing experience to be surrounded by so many incredible people. Between the delicious food and great conversation, it was certainly one of the most memorable events of the evening.
After dinner, we moved briefly to the reception in Birdsong, where Mr. Bryson participated in plenty of handshakes and photographs before continuing on to Blackwell Auditorium. There, I took my seat alongside Professor Goodwin, President Lindgren, Mr. Bryson, and Mr. Patterson.
First, President Lindgren took the stage to thank everyone who made the lecture possible, introduce me, briefly reference the upcoming construction on Blackwell Auditorium, and also to introduce Professor Goodwin as the moderator for the night’s Q & A session. He finished by inviting me onstage to officially introduce Mr. Bryson.
It was at this point that I started to get nervous. The event was sold out, the auditorium was full, my family, professors, and peers were watching, and I had to walk across the stage in heels. Fortunately, I made it to the podium without falling, but standing there, it felt like my legs were trying to run away, right out from underneath me. If I managed to look at all composed from the waist up, just know that my legs were jelly behind that podium.
In my speech, I discussed Mr. Bryson’s achievements and my own personal experience reading his work, which resulted in a few laughs, both because of Mr. Bryson’s humorous writing style and because of my apprehension in tackling his most recent book, which was almost four-hundred pages on one of my weakest subjects: science.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants, ended up being an enjoyable and instructive read. To reference my speech, “I have never laughed so hard while reading a science book, or even a non-fiction book for that matter.” The Body perfectly captured the essence of a quote I came across from the Chicago Sun-Times, which said “Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint and still make us laugh out loud.”
When I returned to my seat, Mr. Bryson spoke on a few of his works, including The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and A Short History of Nearly Everything. His lecture covered a variety of topics from avoiding bear attacks to the dangers of high diving boards—needless to say, the audience loved every minute of it. It was wonderful to see how his humor appealed to so many, supporting every critical review of his writing as both accessible and appealing.
Drawing our attention to his most recent book, Mr. Bryson also spent a significant amount of time discussing the remarkable creation that is the human body. He discussed the power and efficiency of the human heart, the random collection of unthinking atoms that come together to make us, and the medical leaps we have taken over the past few decades to help better care for our amazing bodies.
At the conclusion of his lecture, Professor Goodwin took the stage to moderate the Q & A session, gathering questions from the crowd to pose to Mr. Bryson. These questions mostly focused on Mr. Bryson’s dual British/American citizenship and addressed everything from the Royal Family and Brexit to Mr. Bryson’s culinary preferences, in answer to which he chose southern barbecue over fish and chips with no hesitation. To conclude the night, he finished with a book signing at the front of the auditorium.
Mr. Bryson’s lecture and the night overall managed to capture so perfectly the original purpose of the Watkins Lecture, to bring together the Ashland and R-MC communities for a time of shared joy and learning. If you were unable to attend this year, I would certainly recommend snagging your tickets early for the next lecture, since it is sure to be another amazing night.