Alumna author returns to University

By Andy Kwalwaser

Former University professor Mark Costello remembers the last time Jacquelyn Mitchard knocked on his office door.

It was the spring of 1971. The quiet sophomore stood in the doorway and told him she would not enroll in his next creative writing class. She was leaving the University.

“You have talent that terrifies me,” Costello told her.

On Wednesday, the Alumni Association welcomed Mitchard back to campus as part of the “Writers Come Home” program. Mitchard, author of several novels including “The Deep End of the Ocean,” spoke to sold-out crowd about the path that took her away from the University and back again.

The first member of her family to graduate high school, Mitchard said she came to the University as a 16-year-old freshman but withdrew when her mother grew ill.

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Mitchard worked odd jobs, trying to save up for graduate school. After working as a waitress, blackjack dealer and factory worker, she took a job at a newspaper. Still, she felt very far away from her creative writing passion.

In 1993, Mitchard’s first husband died of cancer. With young children and no life insurance, Mitchard decided to support her family on her childhood dream: to write her first novel.

“It was a substantial emotional sacrifice for my kids,” Mitchard said. “The rewards were not only financial safety, but the message that they should try what they want to do in their lives and not play it safe.”

In 1996, Oprah Winfrey selected “The Deep End of the Ocean” as her book club’s inaugural novel. Suddenly, Mitchard was in demand.

“It made me nuts,” she said. “I set the bar pretty high for myself and as a result, my second novel was pretty shaky.”

In addition to its successful book sales, “The Deep End of the Ocean” was made into a major motion picture in 1999.

Professional writing made difficult demands on her and her family. Last year Mitchard found herself on the road when her son was named prom king at his Wisconsin high school.

“It broke my heart that I missed this big lyric passage, not just in his life, but in mine,” Mitchard said.

Still, Mitchard’s writing has reconnected her with people, including her University roommate, Kathleen Stevens Corley. Corley said she saw Mitchard’s writing in “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul” and got in touch with her after three decades apart.

“I got to the end of a wonderful story and saw it was signed ‘Jacquelyn Mitchard.’ I thought, ‘Jackie?'” Corley said.

Mitchard laughed with her friend as they reunited at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.

“I write the kinds of books I want to read,” Mitchard said. “But writing is a performing art.”