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Art of reinvention

Sat., May 10, 2014

Gardner leaves homelessness to write his own success story

Chris Gardner, whose best-selling autobiography was the basis of the 2006 movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” will speak Monday in Spokane at a luncheon to benefit the Women Helping Women Fund.

Born in 1954 in Milwaukee, Gardner lived with his mother, Bettye Jean Triplett, and in foster homes. He never knew his father.

When he became a single father in the early 1980s in San Francisco, he was determined to keep his young son with him. Drawn to finance, Gardner’s salary as a trainee at a brokerage and securities firm couldn’t cover the bills. He and his son spent about a year homeless, bouncing among shelters and sometimes sleeping in a subway restroom.

Ultimately, Gardner learned the business and launched his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich, in Chicago. 

Now 60, the multimillionaire is pursuing other interests, particularly delivering inspirational talks to audiences throughout the U.S. and overseas. He answered questions about his own inspirations before catching a flight to Spokane.

Q. You’ve credited your mother, Bettye Jean Triplett, with your success. Why?

A. Anything that I’ve ever done in my life that’s been positive and good, I’ve done because I had a mother who told me from the very beginning of my life that I could do or be anything, and I believed it. She gave me permission to dream, but she always emphasized that you have a power and the responsibility to create the life that you want to have. And I’ve often wondered: How did she know to say those words to me? I mean, we’re talking about the daughter of a sharecropper raised deep in the heart of Louisiana. There was nothing in her past to indicate that she should tell those things to her child.

Q. What about finance appealed to you as a career? 

A. I wanted to do something that just absolutely turned me on. I didn’t want a job. I never wanted a job. My first ambition in life – I made up my mind I was going to become Miles Davis. I studied music and music theory. I played trumpet for nine years. I was serious about it. But one day my mom pointed out to me, she said, “Son, you can’t be Miles Davis. He’s already got that job. You gotta be you.” … The very first time that I walked into a Wall Street trading room, I knew this is it. I mean, I could feel it. What looked like chaos to anybody else to me looked like I was reading a sheet of music.

Q. Has that feeling lasted for you?

A. It worked for 30 years. Last year I got out of the business. The truth of the matter is my world changed last year when I lost the love of my life to brain cancer. I can’t talk too much about it, but some of the last questions, last conversations she and I were having, were her asking me, “Now that we see how truly short life can be, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” Wow. If someone you love is asking you that question on their death bed, that’s not a rhetorical question. … Holly (Norwick) passed on July 1. July 2 I walked away from Wall Street. That was the beginning of my life changing forever.

Q. In which direction did you turn?

A. I am focused now on my writing. I am focused on speaking engagements that I know for a fact have changed people’s lives. I am focused on doing something that will create a bigger platform, (such as a TV show, in discussions with network representatives).

Q. What are the challenges facing homeless families?

A. We have to accept that there has been a whole new class of homeless people created in America, something that I call “white-collar homeless” – went to school, worked hard, played by the rules, then the world changed. There was nothing in their past to prepare them for this. … This can happen to anyone and everyone. Too many of us are still in a place where we’re one or two paychecks away, one illness away, one issue away from being quite possibly homeless, with a family.

Q. Do you get tired of telling your story?

A. No, because it’s different every time. When you stand on that stage and you can look in people’s eyes and you know you’ve touched them or they’re relating, it triggers something different in me, and it impacts your presentation. Yul Brynner was once asked that question. He did, what, 5,000, 7,000 performances of “The King and I.” He gave pretty much the same answer. Something could have happened that day – something you read, a conversation that you had – that goes and touches a different part of you, and the presentation is different. No, you don’t get tired.

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