Meeting Tom Hanks

31 January 2024

It was a cold February evening at the President’s House at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Steve, our son Ryan, and I were hosting a small dinner with a Lafayette professor, his wife, and a special guest. The doorbell rang, and when I opened it a man with a warm, very familiar smile stretched out his hand. “Hi! Tom Hanks!” 

Watching the new miniseries Masters of the Air, produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, on TV this weekend brought back memories of Tom Hanks’ 2016 visit to Lafayette, where he came at the invitation of history professor Donald Miller, author of the book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, while the miniseries was under development.

At a big campus wide presentation, held in the gym, Miller and I interviewed Hanks about his life, experiences, and career. He was extraordinarily generous with his time, staying through the next day to visit a class and have lunch with students before departing. 

I can confirm that media reports on Tom Hanks are in fact accurate: he was a darn nice guy, interesting, funny, and genuine. Though he charged no fee to the college, he was as engaged and focused as if this visit were an important job in his career. His interest in history is strong, informing many of his film choices, and his research for films such as Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Masters of the Air made him quite knowledgeable on a wide range of topics. He was notably gracious and friendly towards every person he encountered, whatever their role. After dinner, he said, “Great meal! I’d love a photo with the kitchen staff.” His pictures with the college van driver and campus security officers were circulated and cherished for years. 

It was of course a highlight event not only for the college, but also for my family. My son’s selfie with Hanks held a prominent place on his social media accounts, and my daughter (Carleton ’15), then a grad student in oceanography, was disappointed to learn while away on a research cruise in Antarctica that she was missing a chance to meet Tom Hanks. Even her advisor recognized it was bad timing. “Jess and I devastated by Hanks situation,” my daughter texted. Tom Hanks kindly made it up to her with a picture we took of him holding a sign reading, “Laramie and Jess, good luck in Antarctica!” which was a big hit on board ship.

The huge success this year of Oppenheimer, based on the book by Carleton alum Kai Bird ’73, is another example of the surprising ways in which well crafted history can find a larger audience through film. By bringing together history, narrative, and art, such projects demonstrate the lasting power of the liberal arts to extend education far beyond the walls of our college campuses.

Hanks on stage
Hanks at Home

Featured in Carleton Today, February 1, 2024