June 6, 2023
In support of young scholars, author David Baldacci connects VCU, libraries, Richmond and how communities can change
Renowned novelist and VCU alum returns to campus for 10th anniversary fundraiser at Cabell Library.
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For best-selling author David Baldacci, his recent visit to Virginia Commonwealth University was three homecomings in one – to the city of his youth, to the college he attended and, notably, to a building that represents an anchor of his entire life. The evolution of all three isn’t lost on him today.
“I grew up as a library rat,” he said. “I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a very different place than it is today. It was a heavily segregated society, and I could have grown up with a certain perspective on it. … One thing saved me, and that one thing was books.”
Baldacci spoke June 1 at VCU’s 10th anniversary Friends of VCU Libraries Rising Scholars Program book and author luncheon, held in the James Branch Cabell Library. The event was a fundraiser for the program (previously known as Monroe Scholars), which supports high school juniors and encourages them to consider VCU for college.
Baldacci earned his undergraduate degree in political science from VCU in 1983, followed by a law degree from the University of Virginia. He practiced law for a decade in Northern Virginia and published his first novel, “Absolute Power,” in 1996. Since then, he has published more than 50 books, with more than 150 million copies in print. This month’s luncheon event was the last stop on his tour for his latest book, “Simply Lies.”
Baldacci said he did not travel much as a child, so books were a way to experience other places. He was a voracious reader: Librarians in Richmond often let him check out more books than allowed under library policy, as they knew he would return them.
“With the books on the shelf here, you can travel the world, anyplace you want to go to or anybody you want to be with,” he said. “Anything you want to find out. Anything you need to understand.”
Baldacci lamented the current political environment and the push to ban books and only teach a certain version of history. He said books are a way to bring people together and teach tolerance and understanding, and he hopes the current period, like others before, will subside.
“It’s like every 30 years this crops up where it is us versus them,” he said, “where we shouldn’t be learning about people who are different than you.”
Baldacci said he often walked past the statues on Monument Avenue and wondered about them. He was not taught a complete Civil War history in school, but books helped him learn and become more tolerant. He learned to see the world from different perspectives.
Baldacci connected his journey to the transformation of Richmond and VCU over the past 50 years. He said VCU’s expansion has dramatically changed the city, not just through new physical spaces but by bringing people from around the world to his hometown.
“When I return to Richmond, I see a very different city from the one of my birth,” Baldacci said. “Being away gives me a different perspective than people who are perhaps here. Those who live here may not see the changes that time and space have allowed me to observe.”
Rao extols the modern library
In opening remarks at the luncheon, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., affirmed Baldacci’s assessment. Rao said James Branch Cabell Library is a major resource for VCU and the larger community.
“This building is a home for our students, and that’s exactly what it should be,” Rao said. “That is exactly what we wanted. We wanted this to be their home. We know that students do far better when they spend more time in the library.”
He noted that the library has become a hub of experiential learning, which increasingly is at the heart of the student experience.
“Libraries play a vital role,” Rao said. “You see that every day. You see multiple, different kinds of uses of the library. Libraries embrace innovation. Libraries embrace and support student success. All the evidence shows that. So, any university must have a great set of libraries.”
Baldacci shares some smiles
During his presentation, Baldacci offered humorous stories about his life as a famous writer. He noted that he had to change his last name when his first book was translated into Italian because Italian American writers did not sell well in Italy. He also talked about an airplane pilot pitching him a terrible idea for a book.
His most notable tale was about returning to the Italian city from which his family emigrated. Baldacci, who thought he would be attending a small luncheon with the mayor, got lost on the way to town and was not sure if he had found the place.
“I stopped the car and there were some buildings around,” Baldacci said. “I said, ‘Do you think this is it? Do you think we are here?’ And my wife looked out the window and said, ‘Considering there is a 14-foot poster of you on the wall over there, it’s a pretty good idea we [are here].’”
The city was having David Baldacci Day, and the entire town had turned out. The city presented him with a family lineage chart that traced his descendants back to the Middle Ages.
Baldacci was the original keynote speaker for the first Rising Scholars fundraiser, and at the time, he promised to return for the 10th anniversary event. That ended up being 13 years later because of the pandemic, but he said time won’t diminish his support for VCU and libraries.
“I spent many long hours in this building, well the old building,” Baldacci said. “I had a little nook on the second floor where there were all these stacks of books and a little table. I would do my reading and do my writing. … This place changed my life.”
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