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Gonzaga University News Feature
By Kelly Birch
|Sherman Alexie Jokes, Shares Truths with GU|
Sherman Alexie raised a few eyebrows and got many laughs with his recent visit to Gonzaga University. The award-winning author, poet and screenwriter was a student at Gonzaga for two years before transferring to Washington State University, and he elicited cat-calls from the crowd by recalling some of his early memories as a Zag living in St. Catherine/St. Monica Residence Hall and DeSmet Hall, where he spent his sophomore year.
“I was terrified when I came here,” admitted Alexie, describing his first few days as a freshman moving from the Spokane Indian Reservation to the GU campus.
He was blatantly honest even as an 18-year-old, the audience discovered, as he explained meeting one of his first friends at Gonzaga: “He was standing in front of the cafeteria, and I walked up to him and said, ‘I’m scared.’ He said, ‘So am I.’ ”
Alexie continued a playful banter throughout the Jan. 31 discussion, dipping lightheartedly into issues from war and peace to vegetarianism and even Jesuits, whom he referred to as, “The rock stars of the Catholic Church.”
Throughout the kidding, however, Alexie told the story of discovering that his grandfather had won 12 medals during World War II.
As a participant in the “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” exhibit of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Alexie was asked to be one of several well-known American literary and sports figures whose history and genealogy were explored. Growing up, Alexie said he knew that his grandfather died when his father was very young, but it was not until the research was done for the exhibit that he realized the depth of his grandfather’s heroics.
Once he found out that the medals existed, Alexie said he wanted to know why the medals had been won and where they had ended up. It was clear to him that his family should have them back.
Meanwhile, the “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” exhibit had attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who invited all the participants to come onto her show. She hosted an episode entitled “Our Big American Family,” in which Alexie, along with Maya Angelou and Billy Crystal discussed their histories. The event was monumental for Alexie, who joked that he was so nervous he blacked out for the entire interview.
Winfrey had a surprise for Alexie after the interview. Brig. Gen. Leslie Fuller, flagged by soldiers, presented him with the medals for which he had been searching.
“ Sherman, on behalf of a grateful nation, please accept these as a token of your grandfather's sacrifice and his dedicated love for America. These may only appear to be metal and ribbon, but they reflect your grandfather’s history, his duty, his honor and personal sacrifice,” Fuller said.
“I was bawling like a baby,” Alexie said at his Jan. 31 talk.
He proudly presented the medals to his family the next day. His father had lost his dad when he was only 6, and, Alexie explained, it had overshadowed his entire life, including his relationship with his own children.
“I wanted the medals to be about forgiveness,” he told the audience. He wanted the medals to heal his father, and they did. They allowed him to be at peace with his father’s death and subsequently his own life, and they gave him the strength, soon afterward, to slip peacefully into the good night.
Concluding his discussion, Alexie once again talked about war, but this time without laughing: “The reason I don’t believe in war is because of the war my father had to fight [over losing his father].”
Alexie did not play it safe with his lecture. Instead, he did what every good storyteller does: He left the Gonzaga community with several questions to think through and topics to discuss. Did he cross the line?
“That’s the danger of being an artist — honestly,” he shrugged. “I’ve said things I shouldn’t say. I’m not going to stop.”
Then, as quickly as he had arrived, Alexie slipped gently away into that good night.