Art Kaufman at the spring 2015 commencementInitiated by English alumnus Art Kaufman ’76, this scholarship is established to benefit an undergraduate student who has overcome significant academic obstacles and shows talent as a writer. The award amount is $1,000 to be applied to student tuition.

About Art Kaufman

Art Kaufman ’76 is a long-time contributor and friend to the English Department. After 33 years working in the investment trenches, Art traded his career for retirement in pursuit of the lifestyle he treasured as a CU English major. To bring it all full circle, he and his wife of 30 years moved to Boulder to be closer to his alma mater. He is currently “living the dream,” reading the classics, writing for personal amusement and perhaps best of all, auditing English and art history classes at his favorite university. Off campus, he’s enjoying all the outdoor activities a life in Boulder affords. In the future he hopes to mentor late bloomers like himself, kids who hit the snooze button for a few years before waking up.

About the Scholarship

by fund initiator, Art Kaufman

Welcome fellow late-bloomers, slackers, snooze-alarm experts and those of you who took the long way to reach this webpage. Congratulations, you made it this far, and that’s saying something, am I right?

Yes, “I’m a lot like you,” as the saying goes. Took me longer to graduate high school than it took Noah to build the Ark, than the Chinese to build the Big Wall, than it took David Foster Wallace to write Infinite Jest. And college, I don’t wanna even think about it. But somewhere along the line I got an academic toehold, found a little something inside that bled out onto those yellow legal pads we wrote on, back in the day. And now I’m here, in give-back mode, because I can and because CU’s English Department rescued me from a life of indifference. I can think of no worse fate.

Some debts you can never repay in full. In this case I’m hoping to square it with you folks, in increments. We start at the low end with a $1,000 scholarship. The award may increase as time goes on, depending on the financial performance of the fund.

Do yourselves a favor: after you get up from your nap, walk the dog, and check the fridge, apply for this scholarship. Write something from the heart, something that will piss you off or make you laugh out loud. I’m here to tell you that you’ve got nothing to lose.

Art Kaufman

Spring 2015 Commencement Address by Art Kaufman

English alumni commencement addresses are a relatively new thing at CU. The department hopes, of course, that in telling our stories, in this case, my story, you will find some modicum of encouragement, if not inspiration. What the department didn’t consider is how much my address might discourage them from offering this honor in the future. You’ll let me know after, whether I succeeded, on either count.

I’m no corporate wig, no dot com coat-tailer, no patent holder and certainly no great American novelist (although I wrote restaurant reviews for the Denver Business Journal for a while). I flatter myself when I say I’m kind of like you, only older, balder, and maybe a little savvier. I’ve audited classes with you for the past three spring terms. I’ve got a sense of how nimble your minds are, how funny you can be. You guys are way, way ahead of where I was, when I was your age.

In 1969, late in my junior year in high school, I had that advisor meeting we’ve all had about our future, as it pertains to higher ed — what colleges might want us on their campuses, the programs, the majors in which we might thrive. Here’s how mine went: I sat down across from my advisor, a wheezy oldster with tobacco stained fingers, and watched him thumb through my x-ray thin resume. He pushed back in his chair, removed his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose and said “Mr. Kaufman, you’re the low man on the totem pole. Out of 593 students in your class, you’re the five-hundred-and-ninety-third.” Dude was enjoying himself. He made some other cracks about attending a different school next year, that I wasn’t wanted, blah blah blah, but I was out the door before he finished his obsequies. Maybe I didn’t know that I had broken all my past records for failure, but I knew I wasn’t doing so great in school. No need to throw dirt on me.

Art speaking at spring 2015 commencementHow did it come to this? I’ll tell you: Each day I rode the bus from West Philly to the El stop, juddered downtown on the train, transferred to the subway, and stared at my feet the entire way to North Philly to attend an all-boys school dedicated to math and science. I hated it. I had zero interest in the subjects, there were no girls, and it took all day to get back and forth. I stopped going, took the truant’s way out.

What was I doing in the spring of 1969? I wasn’t going to demonstrations, wasn’t trying to levitate the Pentagon or planning a Woodstock vacation on Trip Advisor. That came later. No, I had taken an interest in the horses. I developed a fondness for pari-mutuel wagering. To a city kid, the sights and smells of the stables, horses parading in the paddock, the tote-board cipher, sitting in the grandstands with the strangest menagerie of citizens, aliens lifted right out of a Zola novel or a Bob Dylan lyric, was intoxicating. Racetracks are fascinating places. The racing form became my Rosetta Stone. I decoded the charts, studied bloodlines, examined the risk vs. reward and davined over the details.

Yes, I switched schools, repeated eleventh grade, got a toe hold, graduated, found a college that would accept anyone, avoided the draft, took all the electives I could, elevated my GPA to a lofty 2.47 and, unbelievably, was admitted to CU on a work/study scholarship in the fall of 1973 as a second-semester sophomore.

I worked throughout my scholastic career. I drove a fork lift on the east campus and waited tables at the Red Lion. But mostly I punched the clock at Liquor Mart, schlepping pony kegs, stocking shelves, working the register. It was there that I met my future ex-wife.

Let me step back and say a few words about CU, about our English department. Never had I met so many brilliant professors or been so motivated by a teacher’s insights, humor or exactitude. I took the hardest classes, taught by the most notorious graders. My Semiotics class — off the charts hard. Murphy’s Theory of Literary Criticism — forget about it. Greek Classics with Kopf and my favorite, Russian Lit with Dale Plank. Oh, man. I would’ve walked across the steppes of Russia for that guy. I had some catching up to do. I’d spent a dissipated youth and now, once challenged, I determined to apply myself. I didn’t think about where this might take me, what type of career studying Dostoyevsky and Pope and Pynchon would afford me. I just needed to know what made these guys tick. I dug in, read and wrote, wrote and read.

And the Flatirons, everyday, the Flatirons….Whoa.

It’s a couple years later, I’m married, still busting rocks at Liquor Mart and volunteering at the September School. I am unfulfilled and semi-poor, and, I’ve got obligations. So one summer day I’m browsing the classifieds, and I see an ad for a coin and stamp store manager. I collected coins with my dad when I was little. What the heck, I’ll go down to Denver and interview. But first, I bought a Coin World Magazine and proceeded to memorize it. I got to the interview, spit out what I could remember, told a few childhood coin collecting tales, and voíla! — I’m the new manager. This was 1978.

Within six months, this hobby shop job turned into a numismatic investment business. Gold and silver prices were skyrocketing, and folks were in a speculative mood. Check this out — I was filling empty five gallon paint drums full of gold and silver, coins, scrap, bullion, whatever, and mailing them to the main office in Houston, three times a week. It was pretty wild. Six months before, I’m working at the Mart, right?

This went on for another year until one day I got the “brilliant” idea to take this bullion business to a stock brokerage firm. My bosses thought it was stellar, the idea that I would move massive amounts of rare coins and stuff to the clients of Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney. Of course, those folks laughed me right off the premises. But I kept going down the food chain until I found a brokerage firm that said fine, as long as I’m properly licensed. I got my licenses, sat down in a real office with a real desk for the first time in my life and then, poof. The zillionaire Hunt Brothers were led away in chains, accused of cornering the silver markets. The whole collectible market collapsed onto itself. Prices vaporized. And my wife filed for divorce. This is late ’81, early ’82.

Art Kaufman speaking in front of student sat spring 2015 commencementHaving stepped in it, yet again, left with a Sony TV and eleven-hundred bucks, I bought an open-return plane ticket and went island hopping through Greece, alone, to sort things out. I chose Greece because of those classics courses I took at CU. Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Homer — Professor Kopf animated them so incredibly well. I thought I could see Greece through their eyes. I tutored myself in Greek for a few weeks and left in the spring of ‘82.

Greece is a mystical place, I’ll leave it to you to discover it on your own. While I was in Crete, I met and traveled with a South African couple. One day we were talking about my supposed career, when John looked over at me and said, “You have a stockbroker’s license; you should use it.” And then he hit me with the best, maybe the only good advice I’d ever taken at this point in my life. He told me to, “Let my money do the hard work, the heavy lifting, not me.” Build that kind of business successfully, and you’ll be fine.

Turns out he was right. When my dough ran out, I came back to that office and started calling people. I called a lot of my ex-father-in-law’s friends. They liked me. I showed up, good markets or bad (there were lots of bad), and started handicapping equites like they were thoroughbreds. That these “professions” can be thought of as analogous isn’t news. I began to get a sense about things — a sense honed by this education — and as I did, I began to see the advantages. If I could figure this out, I’d have time and money. Which I did. I also met the love of my life, got remarried and raised two fine daughters. You might say I’ve lived a nags to riches kind of life. (By “nags” I mean horses, not wives and daughters!)

Twenty-five years later I sold my business to a guy not too much different than you. Young guy, CU grad, early thirties, someone I’d known for a while. I saw myself in him, and so I mentored him for a few years until I thought he was ready to take over. We agreed on a price and shook hands. No contracts, no lawyers, no accountants. Just a handshake.

In that first interview, I asked him what was on his nightstand, what was on his e-reader. A Peter Matthiessen novel and some short stories he was trying to read in Spanish, owing to some time spent in Ecuador, traveling. I didn’t care about his business background. I wanted to know whether or not a handshake would be good enough someday to seal the deal. Had he told me that he was too busy to read, or that there was no time in his life for books, he wouldn’t be running the show. Had I majored in accounting or business, I would have asked the wrong questions. 

Look. A time will come when you’ll be asking the questions, not sweating the answers. When my biz matured, I found myself asking the managements of companies in whose shares I might one day recommend what they were all about, what was on their nightstand. I made more decisions that way than I’d care to count.

So when you’re in an interview, — and take as many as you can; it’s all about the interview for us — especially for that job to which you really aspire, don’t be surprised when the interviewer asks you a similar question. And when they do, stick the landing. Do not say you’re too busy to read.

A couple more things: I chafe at the question we’ve all gotten about the value of our liberal arts degree, but more specifically, our degree in English. Instead of defending yourself to folks who don’t know Dickens from Dickinson, reverse the question: What can’t I do with an English degree? Ceremonies like these are taking place all over campus. Graduates are restless in the audience wondering what’s next, just like you. Sure there are those who know, students who’ve been doing laps around the same academic track the past four years. But mostly they’re like you, except they were reading textbooks, PDFs and online excursus while you were reading those books that are the freaking foundation of our civilization. The Greeks, the Brits, the Poets, the Americans. You’ve been disinterring those tomes which hold humankind’s mysteries, under the klieg lights of professors who held you to a higher standard. That’s some tough stuff.

You want symbolism? Ask yourself as a community, right here, in the most soulful, intimate spot on campus, where Shakespeare and Chekov and Ionesco come alive, where your comrades are. In windowless Math 100, decrepit Chem 245, in a rented tent. Seriously….

Auditing classes these last few years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about “sustainability.” It’s definitely trending. Sustainable resource development, sustainable management, sustainable psychology. Hey great, I applaud those students for working towards a better future, no doubt. But hello, you want sustainable? How about Sophocles, Mary Shelley, Marquez and Bellow? This sounds outlandish I know, but we invented sustainability as a major.

Art being applauded after his speechI can’t leave this stage without sharing an idea and a quote with you. Ralph Ellison said that we share our personal stories with each other to better understand the collective self. “What’s past is prologue” a wise playwright once wrote. It certainly was for me.

Somni-451, the proto-deity in David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” speaks these words as the world crumbles around her: “Our lives are bound together, past and present. With every crime, every kindness, we give birth to our future.”

We, CU English alumni, we are bound together. I need you, just like you will need the English majors of the future. This is what sustains us, this sense of continuum. Shoulder to shoulder, right?

Our careers will never define us. We are much more than our net worth. Infinitely so. Keep a journal and a book nearby to remind yourself when you need to.

A couple of years ago I was asked to sit in on a career-development roundtable and talk to English majors like you about my life in sales as a stockbroker. Gag. When I was through, the only question I fielded was from a student who asked if I was sorry I hadn’t written the Great American Novel. I don’t remember my answer. I’m sure it was BS. Now I want a do-over. Hell yes, I am sorry. But hey, like you, I’m young. I got a little time, so…who knows?

Congratulations, graduates! This was awesome. Go Buffs!

Audience during commencement speech