Wally Lamb to address Norwich Free Academy grads as 50th reunion speaker

Wally Lamb addresses the audience moments prior to the Wishin' and Hopin' the world theatrical premiere of the film version of his best-selling novel Wishin´ and Hopin´ at the Garde Arts Center in New London on Nov. 23, 2014. Norwich Free Academy doesn’t bring in celebrity speakers for its graduation ceremonies but, when the 50th reunion Class of 1968 chose a speaker for the longstanding tradition of offering words of reflection and advice to this year’s graduates, they turned to Lamb. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Wally Lamb addresses the audience moments prior to the Wishin' and Hopin' the world theatrical premiere of the film version of his best-selling novel Wishin´ and Hopin´ at the Garde Arts Center in New London on Nov. 23, 2014. Norwich Free Academy doesn’t bring in celebrity speakers for its graduation ceremonies but, when the 50th reunion Class of 1968 chose a speaker for the longstanding tradition of offering words of reflection and advice to this year’s graduates, they turned to Lamb. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Norwich — Norwich Free Academy doesn’t bring in celebrity speakers for its graduation ceremonies but, when the 50th reunion Class of 1968 chose a speaker for the longstanding tradition of offering words of reflection and advice to this year’s graduates, they turned to the homegrown accomplished man of words, Wally Lamb.

Lamb, 67-year-old author of six New York Times best-selling novels, one of which already has been turned into a movie and a second that is to become an HBO miniseries, will get the chance on June 21 to give words of wisdom to about 500 graduates adorned in NFA’s bright red gowns on the athletic field.

“I said to my wife (Christine Grabarek Lamb), who was in the same graduating class, ‘Aren’t we too young and cool to be having a 50th reunion?’” Lamb said in a telephone interview from his Storrs home. “She said, ‘No.’ It does seem like it’s whizzed by in some ways, and in some ways not.”

If he wants to refresh his memory of his high school years, Lamb can turn to his 1968 yearbook, when Walter Lamb and classmate Lucy Palmer co-wrote the 1968 Class History for “The Mirror.” In that two-page narrative, they described the opening of “the new building” to be named for Principal George Shattuck, the football rivalry with New London, an 11th grade boycott of the cafeteria in protest of the food quality and the opening of the first “unsupervised senior lounge.”

The two writers also made an unspecified reference to their 11th grade class “having the rather dubious distinction of presenting the first class talent show to be censored.”

Lamb never lost touch with his Norwich and eastern Connecticut roots. Many of his novels have local settings and themes, including his latest book, “I’ll Take You There,” inspired in part by stories of ghosts at the Garde Arts Center in New London. He remains an NFA corporator.

After he graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1972, Lamb returned to NFA to teach English and writing and remained for 25 years. He made the difficult decision in 1996 to leave the academy and focus full time on his writing. That was after he became a sudden national celebrity when, he recalled, “unexpectedly, I got a call from Oprah” — Winfrey that is, who placed his first and then his second novel in her Oprah’s Book Club.

He continued to teach at UConn for two years. Then in 1999, he got another surprise call, this one from York Correctional Institution in Niantic with an exciting new proposed project to lead a writing course for inmates at the state’s only maximum security prison for women. Lamb teaches every other Thursday at the prison as a volunteer, and students have written two volumes of essays, edited by Lamb, that have been published.

“I have three wonderful teachers and 15 wonderful students,” he said of the York program.

Lamb said he realizes his graduation day audience will have other things on their minds than listening to “the old geezer from the Class of 1968,” and he will try to keep his comments light for the occasion.

But he can’t overlook the tumultuous year that was 1968, with assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, civil unrest and “crazy politics.” And while he and his classmates were practicing duck-and-cover nuclear attack drills, today’s students have drills on how to respond to a potential campus shooter.

“It seems to me it’s even more harrowing, because they have to worry about one of their own coming in,” Lamb said of active shooter drills. “But I’m going to try not to be too much of a bummer.”

Lamb also is looking forward to his Class of 1968 50th reunion on campus on graduation day. With social media in recent years, it’s been easier to keep in touch or reconnect with past classmates but “there’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting.”

In that yearbook essay written 50 years ago, Lamb and Palmer actually foresaw what their future reunion could be like:

“It is this history that we recall when, at our twenty-fifth reunion, we turn to the person next to us who has become fat and bald and say ‘Do you remember when ...?’”

c.bessette@theday.com

Wally Lamb's high school portrait. He was a member of Norwich Free Academy's Class of 1968. (Courtesy of Norwich Free Academy)
Wally Lamb's high school portrait. He was a member of Norwich Free Academy's Class of 1968. (Courtesy of Norwich Free Academy)

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