Service in Gratitude

Author Eric Lax ’66, co-chair of the Classes of 1966 50th Reunion with Psychotherapist
Edith Sparago Irons ’66.

by Andrew Wickenden ’09

“A lot happens by accident,” says Eric Lax ’66, L.H.D. ’93. But the events of his life that have been most profound, he explains, “were enriching to others as well as to myself.”

A best-selling author, an advocate for writers and freedom of expression, and a dedicated supporter of his alma mater, Lax graduated from Hobart with a B.A. in English and joined the Peace Corps for a two-year placement in the Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific.

“I served on this tiny island of palm and breadfruit trees that had 185 residents and no roads—I could walk around it in half an hour. Friends would write to me, ‘It’s wonderful what you’re doing for those people,’ but I was the outsider; it was they who did much more for me. I was immersed in a culture I couldn’t imagine before then.”

“The experience,” Lax says, “taught me how to see the world with different eyes and gave me an understanding of how different yet in many ways how much the same people are.”

Upon his return to the U.S., he worked first as a Peace Corps Fellow in Washington, D.C., then as overseas director of the Peace Corps School Partnership Program, which allowed him to travel to more than 40 countries.

Since leaving the Peace Corps in 1970 to pursue writing full-time, Lax has published nine books, including bestselling biographies of Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart, as well as articles for The Atlantic, Life, The Washington Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and Esquire, where he was a contributing editor.

Three of his books developed out of friendships that began at HWS including The New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Life and Death on 10 West, about the bone marrow transplantation ward at the UCLA Medical Center, which was headed at the time by classmate Dr. Robert Peter Gale ’66. Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know (2013) was co—authored with Gale. Faith, Interrupted (2010) was inspired in part by Lax’s friendship with the Rt. Rev. George E. Packard '66, retired bishop for Armed Services, Healthcare and Prison Chaplaincy in the Episcopal Church.

“Without these friendships, those books wouldn’t be,” says Lax.

Today, as he writes his latest book— an in-depth look at Woody Allen’s craft and philosophy as a filmmaker through the lens of his 2015 Irrational Man—Lax reflects on his college years, which he recalls as “a tremendously meaningful and helpful time. The Colleges were a perfect place for me to go. I grew up in California, had come from a very small boys’ school— there were eight in my graduating class— and suddenly here I was in upstate New York. Hobart and William Smith were much bigger but weren’t daunting in their size. It was the perfect fit and a great environment for learning, despite my mediocre grades. I had easy relationships with several professors as well as Dean Atkinson and President Hirshson, and have deep friendships with other students that have lasted more than half a century.”

Lax and his wife Karen Sulzberger reciprocate that welcoming environment, regularly opening their home in Beverly Hills for admissions gatherings for accepted students and their families, and receptions for alumni, alumnae and parents in the region.

Lax is also co-chairing his 50th Reunion Committee with Edie Sparago Irons ’66, his friend since their first day on campus. (They also co-chaired their 40th Reunion). It is a volunteer position he has undertaken in appreciation for “the preparation for life and for the friendships that the Colleges gave me,” he says, adding, “I had a wonderful education at Hobart. I learned how to think and in some ways I’ve never left college. Being a writer of non-fiction is like being a perpetual graduate student. Between Western Civ and the variety of courses outside my major, I learned to take what I studied and make broader sense of it. It was the epitome of the liberal arts education. I’m very grateful for it, and glad I can give something back.”


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