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Commencement speaker reminds students they don't have to be 'A-listers' to find success

RELEASED: Dec. 18, 2010

Patrick O'Brien
Patrick O'Brien

EAU CLAIRE — Patrick O'Brien, a 1975 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, received the Alumni Association's Lifetime Excellence Award and delivered the commencement address during the morning and afternoon ceremonies Dec. 18 in Zorn Arena.

O'Brien is an actor and theater producer who has appeared regularly on stage, television and film for more than three decades, alongside such notable "A-list" performers as Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen, Catherine Zeta Jones and Sally Field.

Despite his extensive professional experiences across the nation, O'Brien admitted he was apprehensive about returning to speak in his hometown and at his alma mater.

"This is a lot different than performing a play," O'Brien said. "There you have other actors onstage with you. And you've rehearsed for weeks to get it right. With a director. And most importantly, it was written by someone like, oh say, Shakespeare."

O'Brien then engaged the help of what he called a "Hollywood Helper," the applause sign. After practicing with the audience he soberly announced, "Don't make me use this."

On the advice of his longtime friend Dr. Wil Denson, professor emeritus of theatre and a former teacher and adviser to O'Brien at UW-Eau Claire, O'Brien said he decided to just be himself. Denson nominated his former student for the alumni award, stating, "Pat is proof that hard work plus talent plus dedication equals success."

The accomplished actor acknowledged that his career has been a succession of small parts, with bigger roles from time to time, all helping him perfect his craft and achieve more success and personal satisfaction.

Then the actor did what he does best: to show, not tell. O'Brien launched into a high-energy, one-man comedy routine on the Zorn Arena stage, starting with the awe of two people sighting Tom Hanks at an airport. He proceeded to act the parts of both observers.

"Hey, look! That's ... that's Tom Hanks!"


"Right there!" That's Tom Hanks!"


"What's Tom Hanks doing in an airport?"

"Don't be stupid. Airports is where you see famous people."

"Wow, that is Tom Hanks."

Known for his comedic roles on stage, his farcical turns in Shakespearean plays in Los Angeles and New York City, and perhaps most for playing Mr. Dewey on the sitcom "Saved by the Bell," the former UW-Eau Claire theatre major said he still finds himself recognized as "that guy." He then demonstrated a typical Patrick O'Brien sighting in exaggerated fashion, citing a popular Eau Claire gathering spot as the setting.

"With me, it's more like, at the Joynt, and, 'Yer not gonna believe this! You're're that guy!'"

O'Brien told the 839 graduates to try to be as good as they can at whatever they do. Drawing a parallel to his successful career in a field where the A-list is at the top of the scale, O'Brien reminded students that they don't have to be "No. 1" to make important contributions in their chosen fields, noting that the majority of UW-Eau Claire graduates pursue careers that benefit society without the rewards of great fame or fortune.

"We're not connected like Harvard, MIT or The Wharton School of Business," O'Brien said. "So I'm proud, as you should be, to be a product of an institution that produces so many unsung supporting players ... who work the unheralded but indispensible jobs that provide the foundation upon which this nation and the world are built."

O'Brien told the class that he feels fortunate to be able to make a living and support his family doing something he loves.

"We're a species of storytellers and listeners. Every time you watch TV, go to a movie, the theater, go online or walk into a classroom with your lesson plan in hand, you're participating in storytelling."

In conclusion, O'Brien charged the class "to start performing" their individual stories.

"It's time for your close-up," he said. O'Brien concluded with the applause sign, but the graduates didn't require the visual cue.



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