It’s not every day that Dayton welcomes one of the most beloved Academy Award-winning actors of all time as well as a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. But Tuesday was no ordinary day.
Tom Hanks and David McCullough were on hand to celebrate Wright State University’s newly renovated Creative Arts Center, which includes the Tom Hanks Center of Motion Pictures.
“I hope this building spurs the students who come here,” Hanks said during the afternoon ribbon-cutting, which capped off a day that WSU’s students likely won’t forget.
The actor/producer and historian are collaborating on an HBO miniseries based on McCullough’s New York Times No. 1 bestselling book, “The Wright Brothers.” This project is bringing renewed attention to Dayton and its historical significance.
W. Stuart McDowell, chair and artistic director for the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures at WSU, recalled how he learned that Hanks — who has a film production company with film/television producer Gary Goetzman — were going to transform McCullough’s latest book into a miniseries. “(Hanks) wrote me this exactly one year ago when Playtone secured the rights to McCullough’s book and we were exploring trying to bring (Hanks) to Dayton: ‘We jump aboard the David McCullough book like happy fliers. Now, just a few years of work to get it all done!’ ” McDowell said.
“David and Tom, Wilbur and Orville, what an opportunity for our students to delve into what makes these (four) creators tick — what gets them up in the morning and drives them to do ever better work,” McDowell said. “Any of these gentlemen could have rested on their laurels, their initial successes, but they all kept at it. And that is a testament to the possibilities of life that I trust our students will glean from Tom’s and David’s brief sojourn on campus.”
Returning to Dayton in a supporting role
This week wasn’t the first time for Hanks to visit Dayton. Years before he was cast in the role of a lifetime as Forrest Gump, he starred as Proteus in Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at WSU in 1978. Back then, he played the part of a villain; this week, he returned to champion the arts in education.
Along with Amanda Wright Lane, the great-grandniece of aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, Hanks is chairing WSU’s national $150 million “Rise. Shine. The Campaign,” designed to provide state-of-the-art facilities, attract more top faculty and award scholarships.
Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in a tent outside the new Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures. Approximately 400 people — students, alumni, faculty, patrons and the media — were allowed in the tent, which was cordoned off. Hundreds of additional students stood behind the temporary gate, eager to listen to the actor.
Hanks called the college system in the United States “the greatest education system in the world.” Our system, he said, puts the onus on the students, unlike in countries where higher education is free and students don’t always put a lot of effort into their education.
Hanks said it doesn’t matter where a student goes to college, but “it matters how hard you work.”
He said he wouldn’t have been accepted into WSU’s program. The actor and producer told the audience they should have seen what he got on his SATs — spilled coca cola, he joked. “With a name on the outside of a building, I like to think I got in,” he quipped.
Hanks’ jokes were entertaining, but his underlying message was about hard work and persistence. He addressed the film students in particular, saying he hopes they all experience three things in their careers as filmmakers: 1. failure, 2. mediocrity and 3. brilliance. About mediocrity, he warned the students if they make a film and people call it “cute,” that means it’s mediocre. He said the preferred order of experiencing the three is The Failure, The Cute and then the Brilliant. He said that order is a lot better than The Brilliant, The Cute and then The Failure.
One of the students Hanks was directing his message to was Michaela Scholl, a graduating senior. Scholl also spoke at the ribbon cutting. “I knew that Wright State was the right place and the right program for me,” she said. “I know I will be leaving Wright State as a filmmaker.”
Earlier in the day, Hanks held a Q&A with the film students. “The students were electrified with energy,” said Nicole Richter, Ph.D., the area coordinator of the Motion Pictures Program and one of Scholl’s professors. “They really appreciated the insightful advice he gave on developing a successful career in the arts. But also his sense of humor. He was quite hilarious during the whole session.”
“It means the world to our students to be able to talk with Tom Hanks about his career,” McDowell said, “because Tom was once, like them, a fledgling young performer, honing his craft, knocking on doors to get that first job.”
Added McDowell: “Tom has parlayed his ever-inquisitiveness, his curiosity, and his unflagging passion into myriad fields in the arts. And he’s a master of many of these: as producer, director, writer, even composer. He continues to pursue his passion of acting, and his work in this field is as good as it gets. But his work through his company, Playtone, has crafted some of the most astonishingly brilliant series for television, from “From Earth to the Moon” and “Band of Brothers” to “John Adams” — his other main collaboration with John McCullough, which is one of my all-time favorites.”
Learning from a master historian
While Hanks spent time with film students in the morning, McCullough conducted a master class for WSU history students. McCullough has made a career of keeping American history alive through his many works, including “Truman,” “John Adams” and “1776.” In addition to writing books, McCullough is a documentary narrator, having worked with historian/filmmaker Ken Burns on projects including “The Civil War.”
“History isn’t just about politics and war. It also involves everything to do with human creativity,” McCullough said.
“I think that the Wright brothers are a lesson in history if ever there was,” said the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
“Every time they went up on a test flight, they knew they were risking their lives,” he said.
Like Hanks, McCullough also stressed hard work. He said the Wright brothers persisted through difficulty, and he shared insights from his research on not only the world’s first pilots, Wilbur and Orville Wright, but also their father, Milton, and sister, Katharine. He said if he could spend one hour talking to just one of those four members of the Wright family, he would select Milton Wright because he raised his children with a sense of purpose in life. “Nothing is quite like how you’re brought up at home,” McCullough said.
Growing up in southwest Ohio is also an important part of understanding the Wright brothers, McCullough said. He noted that the region, which is very Midwestern with a “nothing fancy” sensibility, is also the birthplace of Neil Armstrong (from Wapakoneta), who was the first man to set foot on the moon.
“This is thrilling historical ground,” McCullough said about Dayton and the area. “We’re all creatures of those who went before us.”
The lessons were rich for WSU history students. Some of their takeaways:
“He validates the importance of learning through archiving and museum studies. He’s basically validating our future.” — Victoria Chadbourne
“He values persistence and strength in the face of adversity.” — Justin Risner
Asked if he used and trusted newspapers as a reliable research tool, McCullough said by-and large, newspapers are “a superb source.”
“I relied heavily on newspapers for all of my books,” he said.
Exploring Dayton’s past
Earlier in the morning, McCullough, Hanks and members of the Wright family spent time where the Wilbur and Orville Wright worked to perfect flight. One of the people accompanying them was Dawn Dewey, who heads the Special Collections and Archives at WSU’s library.
“We were out at Huffman Prairie at 8 a.m.,” Dewey said. “It was really a unique opportunity to listen to these people who are so passionate about this history. Tom Hanks was truly excited and interested in hearing all the stories.”
On Monday, Hanks’ first stop when he got off the plane was Carillon Historical Park, according to Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History.
Hanks spent time looking at some of the artifacts, including the Wright Flyer III, which is the only plane that’s designated as a National Historical Landmark.
Kress said he took Hanks into the pit where the plane is on display. “It contains more fabric than any other Wright plane built,” Kress said. “It’s the world’s first practical plane.”
Kress said Hanks didn’t discuss the making of the HBO miniseries that he’s collaborating on with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough. “They’re putting the groundwork together to see what’s available,” Kress said.
“Nothing Tom Hanks touches is insignificant. Having him involved is a huge boost and one more thing to put Dayton on the map and reaffirm we’re the birthplace of aviation,” Kress said. “We hope we were a good part of his Dayton experience.”