Middletown High School graduate and internationally famous author J.D. Vance closed a highly personal circle in his life Tuesday when he delivered the commencement speech to graduates from his former school.
But before he took the stage in front of the overflowing audience at Princeton Pike Church, Vance talked exclusively with the Journal-News.
The best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” shared some details on the Hollywood movie of his life — directed and produced by Academy Award winner Ron Howard — and his hopes of bettering the white, working class Americans depicted so poignantly in his seminal book.
He also weighed in the recent controversy surrounding a dean from his graduate school — Yale University — who blasted “white trash” in a racist social media rant.
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And he revealed his optimism in bridging the chasm surrounding the often ignored but sizable portion of America’s demographics.
A college commencement speaker in much demand since his book rocketed him to stardom, Middletown was his first high school graduation speech and it got to him emotionally.
“It’s a pretty special thing to do. It’s sort of amazing to think that 14 years ago I was graduating from Middletown High School and obviously quite a bit has happened,” said the 32-year-old who now lives in Columbus. He has formed Our Ohio Renewal, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing high-quality employment and educational opportunities to Ohioans and addressing the state’s destructive opioid crisis.
“I couldn’t help but to look at the kids and think to myself what will they be thinking about in 14 years? What will they have done? What will they have accomplished? It’s a pretty exciting opportunity to close that circle for me,” said Vance.
Vance has said he was surprised when his best-selling book was embraced as a primer for national political pundits leading up to — and especially after — last year’s presidential election. It proved popular as sort of a Rosetta Stone for the country’s news media in deciphering President Donald Trump’s support among America’s poor working class.
Vance has since made the national TV media rounds, expanding on one of the book’s key themes: The controlling governmental, business, entertainment and academic elites of America have little if any understanding of the significant demographic composed of this often overlooked segment of our society.
Moreover, the divide continues.
Just last week at Vance’s former college — Yale University — Dean June Chu of the school’s Pierson College was placed on leave after posting Yelp reviews calling customers at local restaurants “white trash” and “low class folks,” according to media accounts.
Vance shook his head recalling the incident.
His years at Yale were marked by persistent reminders that his poor Appalachian roots made him an anomaly there.
“When I saw that story I just thought it is unfortunately an attitude that exists a little bit too much in elite institutions. This idea that people aren’t worthwhile (or) they are not good because of where they came from, or maybe because of their accent or their approach to thinking about the world,” he said.
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, because I think that attitude is very real. And it’s unfortunately something I really do think drives a divide between educational institutions’ so-called elites and a lot of folks who are just working and trying to get by. I was pretty disappointed when I heard those remarks,” said Vance.
Though he understands the media’s focus on the darker sides of his memoir — and has freely discussed his own and his family’s personal challenges — Vance said there are other, more positive pieces to the puzzle of his life he wishes would get more attention.
He was wary of running into similar prejudice among the well-documented elitist attitudes of some in Hollywood.
He turned down other movie producers for those reasons until meeting with Howard, a two-time Academy Award-winning director, whom he said understood the importance of portraying key figures in his life story beyond a two-dimensional scale.
“I was definitely worried about that. But what I really liked about Ron Howard is that he seemed to take a really compassionate and a really sympathetic eye to the problems I wrote about,” Vance said.
He hopes some of the movie will be shot in Middletown.
Which Hollywood star does he want to play him?
“Chris Pratt,” he said, laughing in reference to the popular star of the recently released “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” “So people will think I’m better looking than I actually am.”