Gillian Zucker’s Commencement Address
Class of 2022, I stand before you in appreciation and awe.
When I was a sophomore at Hamilton, the greatest threat I faced from the outside world was a pigeon that flew down my chimney at Carnegie and out the dorm room fireplace, scattering soot all over my Goodwill furniture. When you were sophomores at Hamilton, you faced a global pandemic, which would color and strain so much of your college careers.
I’ve tried to imagine how you did it. Masks with roommates? Outdoor mixers in freezing temperatures? Intramural sports played six feet apart? When I was here, I fell in love with a class on Eastern Asian theology. I don’t know how that material would have resonated if I was sitting in my parent’s basement, listening to the lectures on Zoom. Your resilience, the way you refused to be denied your Hamilton experience, is an inspiration.
When my class received our diplomas 32 years ago, they came with a typo, so we were supposed to send them back. I kept mine. I framed it. I thought the typo was funny, and more than a little symbolic. Hamilton, after all, teaches us to embrace imperfections. No class has overcome as many of them as yours.
Scrolling through twitter, you see rising inflation, rising temperatures associated with climate change, gun violence, hate crime, war in Ukraine. The good news is that you are uniquely wired to navigate whatever the world throws your way. The past three years are the ultimate proof.
On this day in 1990, when I was sitting where you are, I had no job. My father granted me 90 rent-free days back home in Englewood, N.J., and not an hour more. And my closest friend, Suzanne Smore, also jobless, periodically burst into tears when reminded of the Coach briefcase her parents gave her for graduation.
We didn’t realize, in the moment, how prepared we really were. The power of a liberal arts education is sometimes hard to see. What in God’s name can you do with that degree in sociology, literature, anthropology? Over time, as a double major in creative writing and religion, I’ve flipped the question: What can’t you do with it? On the one hand, we are a society of specialists, cautioned to stay in our chosen lane, where we’ve been educated and trained. Yet we also change jobs more than ever, careening from one lane to the next, forced to adapt and excel, no matter the major we chose at 19.
Hamilton teaches us to “Know Thyself,” a subject more useful than any single vocation, because we are meant to transcend vocation. I’m not comfortable talking this much without a basketball metaphor, so I’ll use one here: When you watch an NBA team, you’ll see the small guards who bring the ball up the court and pass; you’ll see the great shooters who stand in the corner until it’s their turn to put up a 3; you’ll see the big guys who camp out in the low post and grab rebounds. They’re all important. They all play a role. But they’re not the reason you buy a ticket. You buy a ticket for the players who can do everything. The superstars. Kawhi. PG. LeBron. KD. The ones who don’t even need a full name. They’re not necessarily the best at any one skill. They’re the best at the most.
When I left Hamilton, I didn’t know much, but I did know thyself. My father, Preston Zucker, raised me to watch the New York Giants every Sunday. He graduated from here in 1960, a different time, when he could turn ethyl alcohol from the biology lab into 100-proof vodka and pass it off as independent study. For that and other reasons, my father adored Hamilton, so when I started looking at colleges, it was of course my very last choice. But I agreed to visit, for his sake, and could not deny the genetic pull.
I lived in Minor as a freshman, on the same hall as a hockey player, a soccer player and a squash player. My roommate played field hockey. The guys next door played football. I attended every home basketball game in my time on College Hill and most hockey games, filling my sweatshirt pockets with oranges to hurl at the opposing goalies. Among my friends were children of diplomats, who traveled to Hong Kong for spring break, and children of working-class New Yorkers, who had never left their borough. After games, we’d order pizza from a deliveryman we called Rocket Rod the Pizza God.
I played broomball — running, well, mostly sliding, across Sage Rink in my sneakers after an inflatable kickball. It didn’t exactly count as a varsity sport. Desperate to fit in with my athletically inclined classmates, I went out for the swim team. I was not much of a swimmer, but my parents had a pool back home, which I decided was qualification enough. On the first day of tryouts, I freestyled two lengths in the old Alumni pool and then grabbed the wall, panting. “Keep going!” Coach Thompson said. I thought I was done. “A practice is sixty lengths!” he howled. “Not two!” Somehow, I made the team, as the slowest swimmer in the slowest lane. Most mornings, my arms were so tired I could barely raise my hands above my head to brush my frozen hair.
Eventually, I moved all the way up to the second-slowest lane, the peak of my college career. I didn’t leave the Hamilton Swimming & Diving program with any records or banners. I did, however, leave with an increased understanding of myself. I loved the commitment and determination sports demanded and I craved the camaraderie of a team. The realization led me to an unpaid internship just off campus with the Utica Devils of the American Hockey League, who “hired” me to sell group tickets, handle game notes and promotions, and paint the logos on the ice when the circus left town.
For me, there is a thread connecting Utica and Los Angeles, intern with the Devils. President of the Clippers. My classmates followed different threads, all starting right here. There’s Phil Sanderson, who didn’t like the offerings at the bookstore, so he designed his own apparel, temporarily sidestepping NCAA copyright rules and selling it dorm to dorm out of a duffle bag. He now supports other’s entrepreneurial spirits, founding Griffin Gaming Partners, the largest gaming venture fund in the world. And there’s Maryline Damour, who put her literature major to work as a marketing and communications executive at Accenture, only to pivot careers entirely and start her own highly successful interior design firm, Damour Drake. Back then, I had no idea what they’d do with their lives, and neither did they. But they were confident enough, versatile enough, resourceful enough to figure it out. Back then, we also did not realize that Hamilton was going with us, to Boston and Silicon Valley, in Suzanne’s briefcase and Phil’s overflowing duffle bag.
There are hundreds of stories like the one about I’m about to tell, which is precisely why I’m going to tell it. After graduation I moved home and pounded the pavement for two-and-a-half fruitless months of job seeking. I was discouraged. I was scared. Thumbing through the Hamilton registry for the 20th time, I found a sliver of salvation. The president of CBS Sports was Neal Pilson, an alum. I wrote a letter asking to pick his brain. My timing was terrible; Neal was in the middle of negotiating NFL broadcast rights but his assistant responded and asked for my fax number. I gave her the line at my dad’s office. Neal sent a list of five sports PR agencies. “Use my name,” was scrawled across the top of the fax. There were no sweeter words for a 21-year-old to hear. Use my name. The second agency on the list hired me, just as my father’s oh-so-generous rental agreement ran out.
I enjoyed PR but I missed Utica. Well… I missed the kinship of minor league sports. In 1990, Barry Bonds was named Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player, and a woman named Leanne Pagliai was named MLB’s female executive of the year. A maverick in her own right, and the general manager of the Class-A High Desert Mavericks of the California League, Leanne hired me to run the team’s concessions.
The Mavericks played in the tumbleweeds of the Mojave Desert, and when I first pulled up to the cinderblock ballpark on Highway 395 after our cross-county drive, my stepmother said: “I hope you didn’t just ruin your life.”
For a harrowing 24 hours, I wrestled with the thought. Then I got to work. As we prepared for opening day, the Pepsi truck showed up to drop off “bags in the box.” For those of you who don’t brew copious amounts of soda in your spare time, you take a bag of syrup, attach it to a water source and a carbon dioxide source, and watch the magic get made. The bags weighed 40 pounds apiece. The temperature in Adelanto, Calif., was 118 degrees. The driver asked, “Where’s the guy who unloads the truck?” I looked around. “I’m the guy who unloads the truck.” Turns out there’s not a lot you can’t accomplish with sheer determination .. and in this case, a hand cart.
High Desert was my first stop in minor league baseball, Durham my last. Peter Anlyan, general manager of the iconic Durham Bulls, was an innovator whose spontaneous, profound leadership advice is now legendary to anyone who visits my office. He prepared me for a future far beyond the bush leagues. I moved from baseball to NASCAR, where I spent the next 15 years under the tutelage of yet another unselfish life guide, Lesa Kennedy. In 2005, I became the first female president of a major motorsports venue, a role that set me up for the one I enjoy now and an accomplishment I share with all these mentors stretching from Hamilton to High Desert. Durham to Daytona.
The people who surround you matter. Today, as president of the Clippers, I work for Steve Ballmer, who’s earned the moniker, “best owner in professional sports”. He’s also one of the best minds in modern business and philanthropy. He challenges. He questions. He cajoles. But mostly, he cares deeply. He compels us to think critically, imagine boldly, and to remember that when we think we’ve arrived, we are actually just getting started on the next destination. Currently, that place is Intuit Dome, the new home of the Clippers rising from the ground in the flight path of LAX. The building will assuredly change the skyline of the city, but if we get the vision right, it will also forever change the expectations of sports fans and music lovers. In the moments, when the task is so daunting that doubt creeps in, I think of this place, how it prepared me, how it prepares all of us, to handle the bizarre, bold and unpredictable bounces life takes.
I have fond memories of all my teams, but none stays with you like the Hamilton Continentals. When we graduate from Hamilton, we are given a cane, which I always thought an appropriate emblem. Hamilton is there when you need something to lean on, and more accurately, someone. For me, it was Neal Pilson. For my father, it was Walter Hess.
Dr. Hess was my dad’s biology professor and medical school advisor, renowned for his powers of persuasion, if not his oversight of the lab’s ethyl alcohol supply. Whenever his students were denied entry to the medical school of their choice, Dr. Hess would personally call that school’s lead admissions officer, lodge his protest, and make his case. He vouched for his students. He fought for his students. In 32 years, the legend went, he never failed to place a Hamilton pre-med in medical school. I don’t know if Dr. Hess is the reason my dad was admitted to Columbia, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his independent study that did the trick.
My father became a pediatric gastroenterologist, helping develop medical protocols for the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders. He led in his field and he led in our home. My sisters followed him to careers in medicine. My stepbrother, Morgan Lee, followed him to Hamilton. Morgan graduated from here in 1992 before becoming a journalist.
Being here with them, and you, is a tremendous privilege. Thank you, President Wippman, Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, for this opportunity; and congratulations, Class of ’22, on this milestone, hard earned and richly deserved.
I will leave you with a quick story about snipe. One evening, over dinner at Commons, some Hamilton boys approached me and my three girlfriends. It was the first day of snipe season, they announced, and they wanted to know if we’d go hunting with them. It was pre-Google so they explained that we’d need to wait until dark before heading out to Root Glen. Armed with hockey sticks and baseball bats, we’d bang on tree trunks, then watch the creatures tumble from the branches. I helped my friends get dressed, supplying them with helmets in case the snipe fell on their heads, and pillowcases to scoop up the critters if they scurried away.
Unfortunately, we didn’t snag any snipe that night – because, of course, there is no such thing as snipe. The boys were playing an elaborate prank, inspired by an episode of “Cheers,” a popular TV show at the time. Since I’d seen the show, I went along with it. My girlfriends, imagining loveable little Ewoks landing in their arms, were devastated and mortified. They thought I embarrassed them. In fact, I admired them, the excitement and optimism in their eyes as they boldly charged into the Glen and assailed those trees.
I hope our class would have attacked the last three years as you did, undaunted and undeterred, laughing and learning in the face of harsh reality. Take that sniping spirit with you as you step beyond Harding Road, confronted by new and different challenges. Take Hamilton with you, the whole roster: Suzanne Smore and Phil Sanderson, Maryline Damour and Morgan Lee, Preston and Gillian Zucker. And when you need it – because at some point we all need it – use your cane. Use our name.