And one fateful Spring day I won a Letterman Scholarship.
I was an aspiring scriptwriter who was a fan of the radio dramas NPR was running at the time: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. So I sat down and began writing West Coast Campus, a radio drama featuring a college newspaper reporter who was a smarter, funnier, and better-looking version of me. I wrote it in longhand, then rewrote it while typing it up. I wrote several episodes and ended up with about 100 pages. Then I wrote a detailed synopsis of several more.
Fast forward to the Scholarship announcement. Back then there were still faculty around who had known Letterman, like the formidable Dr. Darrell Wible. He was in charge of the scholarship and was hosting. All the entrants had clips from their projects shown. As I was the only script project, Dr. Wible lifted up my project in one hand and said "and here is a script project, West Coast Campus, by John Dalton," and dropped it on the podium with a flat, deflating slap. I felt myself shrinking. The common belief at the time was that video or film projects were going to win the scholarships. I was the first person to submit only a script.
Back then you actually got a check for the scholarship, distributed each quarter. Mine was $3,005. With the first $1,000 check I bought a 1980 Mercury Monarch. With the second I paid for my own wedding. With the third I actually paid for school. With the leftover $5 I bought a pizza.
I also got a nice letter from David Letterman, with a collapsible cup, a sponge, and a cap. I gave those things to my new brother-in-law, a big fan of the Letterman show. But I kept the letter and the offer for tickets to the show.
I was given the number to the show's office and just called ahead for tickets. I doubt they just give out that number today, but it was a different world then. My new wife and I drove to New York for the first time over Spring Break 1988, with my younger brother and his friend in tow to split expenses. We stayed in New Jersey and took the PATH train to Manhattan, getting off at the World Trade Center. We went to the Statue of Liberty, looked for Woody Allen at the Carnegie Deli, took a trip by carriage through Central Park. We were too afraid to hang around Times Square too long, a much different place then.
Late that afternoon we went to the show. There was a long line to get into the little studio. We strolled right to the front and told the guy we wanted the VIP line. In world-weary New York fashion, the guy said "That IS the VIP line."
We just scraped in. We saw Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. Terrence Trent D'Arby sang a song. Larry "Bud" Melman was there. Chris Elliot popped out of a hatch in the floor.
My time as a Letterman Scholar did not end there. As a conversation piece, I believe it gave me entry into my first job at WXOW in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Having later worked at Ball State for sixteen years, I got to know and befriend other Letterman Scholars, an elite group. I have always been proud of the fact that I was the first person to win with a writing project, opening the door for others to feel they could win on merely writing alone. I have gone into two colleagues' offices and seen similar letters from David Letterman hanging on their office walls. It is something I still talk about with people today, even though it happened over twenty years ago now.
I sold my first screenplay in 1999. Since then, I have been hired to write numerous Direct-to-DVD movies, available on Netflix, Amazon, video store shelves, film festival screens, and in dollar bins across America. But I always say that David Letterman gave me my first paycheck, and the confidence to continue to work on my creative writing.