Ridgefield Public School Alumni Spotlight: Speechwriter and Author Cody Keenan

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When Books on the Common and the Ridgefield Library discussed a book event with RHS alum Cody Keenan, the publisher wanted to find a famous person to moderate. "We weren't going to do that," Keenan says. "It was a no-brainer to ask my RHS English teachers because they are the people who made me who I am."

Keenan was President Obama's chief speechwriter and author of the New York Times bestseller Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America. Last fall, RHS English teacher Kathleen Wassall and retired English teacher Robert Cox joined Keenan on stage for a lively discussion about Grace and a celebration of inspiring teachers.

Wassall, who still teaches at RHS, was Keenan's junior-year English teacher and the first person who ever gave him a "C" on a paper. "I went up to her after class," Keenan reports," "and said something like, 'What is the meaning of this?' She walked me through each edit and that entire year she worked me and made me a better writer. The first paper actually looked a lot like the comments President Obama would make on our speeches."

Keenan continues, "My senior year, Bob Cox taught me to be a critical and thoughtful reader. This is very important to being a great writer. I think of both [Wassall and Cox] even more now that I'm a teacher [Keenan teaches speech writing at Northwestern University] and have to grade papers. It's the worst part of my job." Mr. Cox had a tradition of giving each student a book from his personal collection. At the event, Keenan surprised Cox by reading from the book he received, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Keenan still had the note from Cox, which concluded with the wish, “Hope life brings you only rewarding challenges. Love, Bob.”

Keenan says that the most important part of a great speech is to "talk like a human being. To tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end." He thinks each president needs to have a colloquial style that works for them. He hasn't spent much of his career studying great speeches of the past but his favorite speech is the one John F. Kennedy delivered at Rice University in 1962, which promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. "It's funny and inspirational," Keenan says. "And if anyone gave a speech like that today, everyone would think they were crazy."


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