After leading them in a primal scream to settle nerves and release anxiety, Knoxville-born actress Dale Dickey on Friday urged UT’s newest graduates to “go out and make your story.”
Dickey, who attended UT as a theatre major from 1979 to 1984, received an honorary Master of Fine Arts, the highest degree awarded in that discipline, during undergraduate commencement ceremonies held this morning. It is the tenth honorary degree that UT has awarded.
“We are fortunate to have been a part of Ms. Dickey’s formative years and that our faculty helped to nurture such a unique and natural talent,” Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said in presenting her with the honorary degree.
More than 2,300 students are graduating this fall—1,795 undergraduates, 559 graduate students, and seven law students.
“I am so honored and I’m so proud and very humbled,” Dickey told the crowd. “Thank you for allowing me to share this day and experience the wonderful joy of it with you.”
Dickey’s commencement talk was preceded by a montage of clips from her film and TV appearances.
“I do want to let you know that I’m not carrying a chainsaw or anything underneath my garment. Some of the clips they showed, some of the work that some people know me for, is a bit unsavory,” joked Dickey, who has found her niche in playing downtrodden other-side-of-the-law types, including the homeless, addicts, and prisoners.
She’s had recurring TV roles on long-running series including Christy, My Name is Earl, and True Blood.
She received the Film Independent Spirit Award for her performance in the Oscar-nominated movie Winter’s Bone. Her other film credits include Domino, Changeling, The Guilt Trip, Being Flynn, Super 8, and Iron Man 3.
Building a career in show business has been a long road, Dickey said, and along the way she had to take a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. She worked as waitress and law office receptionist, drove a tofu sandwich truck, delivered balloons, valet parked cars, hawked products in grocery stores, and “cleaned a lot of bathrooms.”
“I wanted nothing more than to pursue my dream of acting which I learned here at the University of Tennessee. I often think of UT as standing for Utter Tenacity.
“Tenacity is a big thing you’ve got to have out there, no matter what it is you are going after.”
Dickey urged graduates to be true to themselves and find their niche in life.
“There are no small roles or walk-ons in this life,” she said. “No matter where you end up, a big city or a small town, your story is unique and important.”
She also told them to be curious, look for joy, and be willing to change when needed.
“There is so much room for improvisation,” she said.
Dickey also has appeared in many stage performances, on and off Broadway, and she’s performed at the Clarence Brown Theatre many times. She first graced that stage as a child and appeared in twenty productions before enrolling as a student at UT.
Even after finding success in Hollywood, Dickey has made time to return to Clarence Brown Theatre to star in productions and mentor students. She’s been in Steel Magnolias (1990), Our Country’s Good (1994), The Rainmaker (2001), A Streetcar Named Desire (2009), and Sweeney Todd (as a student in 1983, and again in 2012).
Cheek commended Dickey for staying involved with UT while making a name for herself in Hollywood.
“We are grateful for her Volunteer roots and the care she has shown in working with our students.
“Department head Cal MacLean calls her ‘a remarkable asset,’ having seen her work with our students on several shows.”
Cheek said Dickey’s work “has raised the profile of the cultural assets of the university and our state. And her commitment has increased the value and the stature of her alma mater.”
UT’s other honorary degree recipients include Senator Howard H. Baker, entertainer Dolly Parton, former vice president Al Gore, journalist John Seigenthaler, and human rights activist Marion Wright Edelman.
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)