August 17, 2007

Gardner to bring his inspirational story to SIUC

by Pete Rosenbery


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Christopher Gardner, often described as a "modern-day Horatio Alger," brings his life story of hard times and personal triumph to Southern Illinois University Carbondale next week.

Gardner is owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings. But, the 53-year-old philanthropist and motivational speaker is widely recognized for his amazing story of personal tenacity that became a No. 1 best-selling book and movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness," in 2006. He served as associate producer for the movie.

Gardner's lecture is at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 23, at Shryock Auditorium. The event is free.

Doors open at 6 p.m., and early arrival is encouraged. Seating is limited, so an overflow space near Shryock Auditorium will be available if needed.

"I always appreciate the opportunity to speak to students, whether they're in grade school, high school, college or graduate school," Gardner said. "These are kids and young adults who are actively engaged in the learning process and have the chance, immediately, to make their lives better.

"When they apply themselves, when they drive themselves to achieve, they make their futures brighter. That's a commitment I feel I need to support," he said. "Also, there are always teachers in the audience and I have a special place in my heart for teachers. They are the unsung heroes of our communities."

SIU's Office of the President, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, SIUC's Office of Associate Chancellor for Diversity, and The Southern Illinoisan are sponsoring Gardner's visit.

SIU President Glenn Poshard met Gardner when the two spoke at a conference at Lake of the Ozarks.

"Of course, we all have been inspired by the story of his life," Poshard said. "We also know that Chris has been very successful in his profession. Yet, despite his success and notoriety, he remains a very humble man who continues to reach out and help as many people as possible. We all stand to gain a great deal from his visit to our campus."

Institute Director Mike Lawrence said: "Chris Gardner has a riveting, inspirational story to tell. He also has keen, extraordinary insights into major challenges faced by fellow citizens who, unfortunately, are faceless to most Americans. I anticipate a large turnout for this outstanding speaker and encourage those who want to see and hear him to arrive early for the event."

Gardner exemplifies someone who overcame barriers in their life to succeed, said Seymour Bryson, SIUC's associate chancellor for diversity.

Gardner's visit "is a very positive opportunity, and is one that the entire area, and particularly students at SIUC can benefit from," Bryson said.

"It's particularly important that as we seek to enhance the achievements of African-American males that they are able to be exposed to someone who has demonstrated through hard work, persistence, dedication and by having a goal that there are opportunities to succeed," he said.

After high school, the Milwaukee native joined the U.S. Navy and received medical training in the U.S. Hospital Medical Corps. He worked as a research assistant at the University of California Medical Center and a Department of Veteran's Affairs hospital in San Francisco before becoming a medical supply sales representative.

But, determined to pursue his dreams, Gardner was accepted into a Dean Witter Reynolds training program in San Francisco. Left homeless, in spite of a small monthly stipend, and in sole custody of his 19-month-old toddler son, Chris, Jr., Gardner often spent nights sleeping in a church homeless shelter, in a locked bathroom of a Bay Area Rapid Transit subway station in Oakland, or underneath his desk at work.

Gardner's co-workers never knew he was homeless. Undeterred, Gardner and his son ultimately moved into an apartment. He left Dean Witter Reynolds in 1983 to join Bear, Stearns & Co., before establishing the brokerage firm Gardner Rich & Co., Inc., in 1987. The firm has since expanded into Christopher Gardner International Holdings.

Many people know a more complete story of Gardner's life through the book — not just the one year that the movie depicts, which was important to him.

"I wanted people to know how my son and I got to that place in 1981," he said. "And while there are important lessons in the movie, there are even more in the book — more situations people can relate to when they read about my mother, my childhood, my abusive stepfather, my decision to join the Navy, my decision to put it all on line in the quest to be world-class at something. The book tells people that whenever you started, and whatever has happened to you, you can go in another direction. That's a conscious choice."

One of the scenes in the movie was particularly important to Gardner. In that scene, Will Smith, as Gardner, and Jaden Smith, as Gardner's son, are playing basketball. Will Smith tells his son two important points — "Don't ever let someone tell you, you can't do something," and "You got a dream, you gotta protect it."

"Those are critical lessons for anyone trying to achieve their goals," he said.

Gardner, who has two grown children, said his mother, the late Bettye Jean Triplett, was, and remains to this day, his inspiration.

"Her courage gives me the will to survive and to achieve," he said.

Gardner, who lives in Chicago and New York, is driving from Chicago for the event. It gives him a chance to relax, time to himself, and time to clear his head, he said.

"I love driving and never get a chance to do much of it any more since I'm traveling so much and can be in five or six cities a week," he said.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Bryson's office, and the newspaper each contributed funds to buy 1,500 copies of Gardner's book — which will go to SIUC students — at Gardner's request, in lieu of a speaking fee.

Gardner is also participating in a Community Leaders' Breakfast sponsored by The Southern Illinoisan at 7 a.m., Thursday, Aug. 23, at John A. Logan College.