Students listen to Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist, as he speaks at Austin Peay State University Thursday night. Lopez wrote a book called The Soloist that was required reading for APSU's The Peay Read program / THE LEAF-CHRONICLE/ROBERT SMITH
Author Steve Lopez tells APSU, 'one person can make a difference'
By Karen Parr-Moody
The Dunn Center at Austin Peay State University was filled to the rafters with a crowd that included students wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the words "The Soloist."
This sea of red was the class of 2015, which gathered Wednesday evening to hear Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez speak about his book, The Soloist. In it he chronicles his relationship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a formerly homeless, Juilliard-trained musician who has schizophrenia.
The speaking engagement was the culmination of The Peay Read, a program in which students of the introductory "First-Year Experience" class read a common book.
Prior to Lopez's keynote address, a group of 11 students joined him for a special dinner. Each had won a spot in an essay competition that included 1,200 entries. One winner, Nathan Borrero, said he was impressed that Lopez developed a friendship with a homeless man he met at random.
"That's not something you see every day," Borrero said. "Most people who pass a homeless person wouldn't give them a second thought."
In a variation on the theme, winner Destynee Horner said, "I was blown away by how he wasn't trying to gain anything for himself. He was truly concerned about Nathaniel's well-being."
Winner Lindsey Gudal focused on the transformative power of music in her essay.
"Music is the universal language, as corny as that sounds," she said. "I just think that's beautiful."
Samuel Cupp also wrote about music's healing.
"Music is ... the foundation of his soul," Cupp said of Ayers. "When (Ayers) loses everything else ... music keeps him sane."
When 7 p.m. arrived, Dixie Dennis introduced the award-winning students. Then university president Tim Hall took the stage, quoting Socrates from Plato's Apology: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Hall then said, "I'm here to warn you that the examined life is a dangerous life ... dangerous, at least, if what you want to do is stay uncommitted and uninvolved and unattached."
The examined life is what pulls a person in to help another person, Hall explained, calling Lopez "an example of the perils and rewards of the examined life."
Lopez then took the stage.
"What a great T-shirt that is," he said of the red "The Soloist" shirts. "I got one actually a little earlier tonight and I'm gonna take that to a good friend of mine."
He was referencing "Mr. Ayers," which is how he went on to refer to the gifted musician throughout his speech.
"He loves wearing 'Soloist' T-shirts and hats," Lopez said.
Lopez also thanked the students who "made a commitment to this book" and complimented the winners of the essay contest, saying "I'm so flattered and honored and impressed by the work they did."
He then relayed his astonishment that it has now been seven years since he first met Ayers on a Los Angeles street, noting with incredulity the various places it has taken him, both literally and figuratively.
Early on in the hour-plus speech Lopez confessed: "I would love to be able to tell you that I did something out of the goodness of my heart, but I didn't."
He said that writing a newspaper column, which he has done for 35 years, "means you live in desperation," comparing the deadline pressure to that of owing a teacher an assignment. When Lopez first heard Ayers playing a 2-string violin, he thought it might make for a good column. He couldn't get the "compelling image of a guy playing his heart out on a violin" out of his head.
What followed was a one-man investigation into the squalid streets of Los Angeles' Skid Row, which at that time were "home" to thousands of homeless people, many mentally ill.
After Lopez published his first column about Ayers, sympathetic readers sent in six violins and two cellos for the former Juilliard prodigy. As he wrote more columns, his personal life became more intertwined with that of Ayers. Throughout his narration of the key events, Lopez sprinkled in inspirational invocations to the mostly student audience. He urged students to open their eyes to the many opportunities to be had.
"You don't know who might change your life forever," he said.
The speech led into a question and answer session, during which Lopez informed the audience that Ayers continues to live in a Los Angeles apartment, surrounded by musical instruments, rather than on the street.
One of the last things Lopez told the audience was "I get very tired of people congratulating me, because I have to remind them that this gentleman has done as much for me — more for me — than I have done for him. And I tell them that what this story tells us — and I'd like for you to keep this in minds, students — is that one person can make a difference ... there's grace in giving. It's a great privilege to (attend) a school like this. Think of giving something back. Each one of us has the power to make a difference in someone's life. Mr. Ayers has made a difference in mine."
Karen Parr-Moody, 245-0203
REVIEW: Wellspring of human beauty sprung in 'The Soloist'
11 APSU first-year students, middle college student named essay winners
Nathaniel Ayers plays the Foshay Learning Center
Steve Lopez on Nathaniel Anthony Ayers
Mr. Lopez Meets Mr. Ayers (60 Minutes Video, 2009)