Fay Vincent ’60 discusses failure and creativity in first Gaudino Dialogue

An array of students and community members gathered at the ’62 Center MainStage on Monday night to hear Fay Vincent ’60 deliver the first in the series of four Gaudino Dialogues featuring successful alumni discussing creativity and failure.

Settled comfortably in armchairs on stage, Vincent and interviewer, Edward Burger, Gaudino Scholar and professor of mathematics, chatted with President Schapiro as the crowd continued to gather.

Burger kept the informal interview light, beginning with an abbreviated biography of Vincent that drew both laughter and applause from the audience. Following his graduation from the College in 1960 and from Yale Law School in 1963, Vincent went on to compile an impressive resume that includes time as the chairman of Columbia Pictures, vice-chairman and then executive vice-president of Coca-Cola, and four years as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Continuing the lighthearted banter, Vincent contributed a quote from “prominent philosopher” Yogi Berra. According to Vincent, Berra once turned to an acquaintance at a funeral and said, “Ralphie, I go to your funeral so you go to mine.”

From that point, the discussion turned more serious, with stories and anecdotes spanning the past 50 interspersed with plenty of advice. The hour-long interview did indeed concern successes and failures, many of which had particular resonance for college students.

One of Vincent’s three most notable failures, according to him, took place on the Williams campus, when he, as a first-year, was locked in his room by a prankster suitemate. Vincent decided that he could climb out of his window on an upper floor of Williams Hall, and back into the building through another window. The resulting fall broke his back and changed the course of his life. “When you make a mistake, you pay,” Vincent said.

But Vincent teased out the silver lining in the tragedy, noting that even failures in judgment can have positive outcomes. Vincent’s life may have been changed, he said, but it gave him a new outlook. “You realize how important the life of the mind is,” he said.

Vincent recounted his second failure caused by the so-called “challenge to confidence” that came with stiff academic competition at Yale. Vincent told of his transition to Yale, after being “spoiled” by the attention of Williams faculty. “You realize there’s more to life than being first in the class,” he said. His class ranking may not have mattered very much in the end, as 15 years later the student who had been first in his Yale class called him at Columbia Pictures looking for a job.

Moving through the discussion of the rest of his career, Vincent continued to offer words of wisdom, from twists on old adages – “Punctuality is the courtesy of princes” – to words on the importance of maintaining personal moral positions. “There’s nothing more gratifying than being fired for something that you think is right,” he said. He spoke about what he considered his third major disappointment – a failure of communication during his time as Major League Baseball Commissioner, which he saw as proof “that you can’t come out on top every time.”

In the end, Vincent offered three important lessons to the audience. He spoke of an “obligation to be thankful to the places that have been good to me,” discussing the importance of giving back to the schools that changed his life. At that point, Burger revealed the $7 million gift that Vincent gave to Williams last year, earmarked for financial aid.

Vincent also offered what he believes to be one of the most important life lessons: to draw fine distinctions. “The lesson of life is to be skeptical about stereotypes. In our culture there are things ingrained into us,” he said. “The benefit of being reasonably intelligent is that we can realize that stereotypes are not often accurate.”

Vincent concluded the evening by relating a story in which he gave George W. Bush advice on the verge of his candidacy, advice that can apply to everyone, according to him. “Think of yourself at 85. If you turn down this opportunity, you might regret it for the rest of your life,” he told the president. “You have to take the chance, even if you might fail.”