Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, April 6, 2012

Conforth urges audience to ‘heed the call’ in Golden Apple lecture

Entering to a standing ovation and Springsteen-like chants of “Bruce” from some of his students in the crowd at Rackham Auditorium, Bruce Conforth began his “last lecture” by humbly thanking everyone who helped get him there.

Bruce Conforth, a lecturer II in American studies, LSA, accepts the 22nd Annual Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Teaching. (Photo by Lon Horwedel, U-M Photo Services.)  

“To say I’m overwhelmed is a gross understatement,” he said during the April 4 talk. “This is truly the most amazing thing to ever happen to me in my career.”

Conforth, a lecturer II in American studies, LSA, was there to accept the 22nd Annual Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Teaching, the only student-selected teaching award on campus. The award was inspired by second century Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkanos, who said, “get your life in order one day before you die.”

With that sentiment in mind, Golden Apple winners are asked to do a “last lecture,” the lecture they would give if they had one more left to give. Conforth’s lecture was titled “Heeding the Call.”

Conforth was serious at times, saying that it was the 30th anniversary of his father’s passing. He recalled growing up in poverty in New York’s Greenwich Village, and how he was the first of his family to attend high school.

But he mixed in some humor, too. He compared living with his mother to being on “I Love Lucy” and drew several laughs when he quoted the rock band Nickelback.

“Don’t take the free ride in your own life,” he said, referencing the band’s song “If Today Was Your Last Day.”

After telling several stories of his own life, he spoke about storytelling, and how it is sets the human race apart from any other species.

“We tell stories to give this life — transient and uncertain as it is — meaning,” he said.

Then, he moved into a long, moving speech about his lecture’s title subject. “Heeding the call,” he said, means finding your passion and pursuing it.

“Settling for something that is less than your calling, less than your passion — just because it pays the bills — is taking the free ride,” he said, giving context to his earlier use of the Nickelback song.

Conforth said it took him decades to find his calling. He dropped out of college before going back and earning a doctorate. He traveled the world. He was the original curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. Then he had an epiphany.

“I’ve made large amounts of money and I’ve lived hand-to-mouth, until one day I realized that everything I have done has something in common,” he said. “They were all about teaching. Teaching was my calling. There is no better way to reach into the future than to teach. To instill the notion that one must not settle but always search for their passion.”

He said that we are defined by our passions, and that it is “possible to do what you need to do to pay the bills without giving up on your passion.”

“If you do heed your call in your life,” he concluded, “no matter how short it is, it will always be a good one.”