CORLISS SMITHEN |
THOMAS, V.I. – A hush fell over the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center when Chris Gardner’s deep, baritone voice resonated across the room.
Gardner, a noted author and philanthropist, was the featured guest speaker on Tuesday at this year’s 5th annual Man-Up Conference held under the theme, “Awakening the Leader Within.” The Chris Gardner at Tuesday’s event was a far cry from his former self 20 years ago.
Dressed in a champagne-colored jacket, light blue shirt and black pants, Gardner stood tall and statuesque at the podium ready to address the scores of schoolboys gathered inside the auditorium.
Gardner, 61, rose to prominence in 2006 after the publication of his Book, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” in May of that year. The autobiography became a New York Times and Washington Post #1 bestseller. It has since been translated into more than 40 languages.
“When I wrote The Pursuit of Happyness, it was not my idea because I had to relive a whole lot of stuff I didn’t want to think about,” Gardner said.
He said that as a result of the book, he has been frequently asked if he could do it again and if he would change anything from the past; His answer to each question is ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ respectively.
Seven months after his book was published, Columbia Pictures released a film with the same name with Will Smith starring as Gardner.
“The film is often referred to as a ‘Rags-to-Riches’ story. For me, it was not about money; it was about a man giving his son something he never had: a father,” Gardner said.
Addressing the group of middle and high school boys from across St. Thomas, Gardner began his presentation recounting experiences from his childhood, which was marked by poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse and family illiteracy, and telling how he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Gardner never knew his father and he made the decision not to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Every day my stepfather would remind me that he isn’t my stepfather and he would put a shotgun to my chest to remind me,” Gardner said. “I could have become my stepfather – an alcoholic, wife-beating, child-abusing, illiterate loser – but I chose to go the other way.”
In the brief account of his life, Gardner recalled that he was penniless and homeless, and had to raise his son on his own. He said it was during the early ‘80s when the U.S. was going through a recession and unemployment was at 29 percent, and that homelessness was becoming a major issue in America.
“I made the decision that if I had to sleep in a public washroom with my child tied to my back at 28 years, I would because I made that decision as a five-year-old boy,” Gardner said.
Gardner’s luck began to turn around in 1982 after he earned a spot in the Dean Witter Reynolds training program, an American Stock Brokerage and Securities firm. The program offered no salary and he remained homeless but with determination and perseverance, Gardner eventually became a fulltime employee of the firm. Five years later, he moved on establish his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co., in Chicago, Illinois.
Gardner credited his willpower and determination to his mother, Betty Jean Triplett and his “spiritual genetics,” a term which he coined.
“My mother said, ‘Son, you can do or be anything you want to be.’ That’s the transferal of the American Dream,” he said, as a picture of his mother flashed on two large projector screens erected at the front. As for the term “spiritual genetics,” Gardner explained that the concept simply means “that which makes you, you.”
Punctuating his speech with two scenes from the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, Gardner sought to explain how those scenes accurately depicted his life.
Gardner ended his 30-minute presentation by urging his audience to develop a plan and stick to it. “Our plan has to have five C’s: it must be clear, concise, compelling, consistent and committed,” he said.
With the use of visual aid, Gardner presented pictures of Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, U.S. President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
“They all had a Plan A and stuck to it. They had no Plan B. Plan B sucks; give Plan B to someone you don’t like for Christmas,” Gardner said, leading the boys to chant, “Plan B sucks, Plan B sucks.”
Among the other speakers for the day were UVI’s President Dr. David Hall and Gerlinder Cheri-Difo. “The message we’re sending to you today is that each one of you is destined to be a leader,” Hall said. “We want to remind you of that and not lose sight of that. You determine what happens to your life and not the person next to you.”
Gerlinder Cheri-Difo, a senior at the Charlotte Amalie High School, told his peers “Reach deep down and pull yourself up. Join me in the pursuit of happiness. It’s not elusive anymore.”
Musical entertainment was provided by the group, Rock City. The musical duo, Timothy and Theron Thomas, are St. Thomas natives who now live in Atlanta. They told the schoolboys about their lives growing up in the projects and how their family managed to eke out a living, and about their struggles in Atlanta to get to where they are today. The two have written hit singles for several recording artistes, including Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Hudson and Chris Brown. This year, they received two Grammy nominations for “Best Pop Vocal Albums.”
The Man-Up conference was sponsored by UVI, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Education and UVI Brothers With a Cause. The program was presented Wednesday on St. Croix.