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Chris Gardner: A Determined Father

Chris Gardner is a father, an ambitious businessman, and a multi-millionaire, but his life wasn’t always a glowing portrait of stability.

In his late 20's, Gardner found himself homeless on the streets of San Francisco with his infant son. The father and son were forced to move from place to place seeking shelter wherever they could. They spent many nights in a church-operated homeless shelter, but on nights when the shelter was full, Gardner and his son found refuge elsewhere, including spending the night in a subway bathroom.

Through it all, Gardner said, his top priority was to be a good father to his son. Gardner never knew his real father, and his step-dad was unkind to him.

 “I made the decision at 5-years-old that when I had children, my children were going to know who their father was,” Gardner said. “And that no one would ever treat my child as I was being treated.”

Gardner’s luck changed when he applied for an internship with a stock brokerage firm. He secured a spot in the Dean Witter Reynolds training program. Gardner knew nothing about the business, but he was determined to do whatever it took to succeed and impress his employer.

This ambitious spirit was not a new mind-set for the young man. As a young child, his mother encouraged him that he could do anything he wanted to in life.

“I chose to embrace the spirit of my mother,” Gardner said, “who though she had too many of her own dreams denied, deferred, and destroyed, she still instilled in me her child, that I could have dreams, and that I did have a responsibility and the power.”

Once, as a young boy enthralled by professional ballplayers that made millions, Gardner was encouraged by his mom that he too could make that much money one day if he wanted to.

“I just had to find the right venue,” Gardner said. “It took me 15 years, but the day I walked into a Wall Street trading room, I knew, this was the place my mama was telling me about.”

His hard work at the brokerage firm paid off. He was the only trainee in the program to be offered a job with the company. He rose through the ranks there, eventually accepted a job at another firm, and later went on to start his own firm, Gardner Rich & Co., in Chicago.

Now a multi-millionaire, Gardner looks back on those days and remembers the pain he suffered. He is thankful that he now has the opportunity to reach out to others who are facing the same struggles. Speaking around the country, he meets single fathers who are struggling, but who desire to make a better life for their kids.

“I’m encouraged by what I see of men trying to be there for their children,” Gardner said. “So many men have holes in their souls the shape of their fathers. You can pass that on to your kid, or you can do something about it, and I’m seeing a lot of men doing something about it.”

From TV to the Big Screen

Gardner’s rags-to-riches story was the focus of ABC’s news program “20/20” in 2003. After the segment aired, his phone lit up with offers to make his story into a movie. When Gardner gave the green light to the project, producers sent a copy of the “20/20” segment to Will Smith. Within less than 24 hours the actor responded that he wanted to be cast as Gardner.

Ironically, Smith’s 8-year-old son Jaden showed an interest in playing the role of Gardner’s son when he heard his father reading over the script one night. To his parents’ surprise, the budding actor withstood numerous auditions and rounds of cuts to land the role.

Though Gardner was initially concerned about the dramatic license the filmmakers wanted to take with his story, he became more comfortable with the idea after several meetings with both Smith and screenwriter Steve Conrad (Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, The Weather Man).

Already a fan of Smith’s work, Gardner quickly grew to like the idea that Smith would portray him in the film, telling the actor, “I’m going to be as open as I can, and I’m going to trust you to cut and paste, and slice and dice, and do whatever artists do to tell stories,” Gardner said.

 “And that trust has not been betrayed,” he said. “I am so proud of the work that he’s done.”

The experience has also increased the amount of respect that Gardner has for Smith’s acting prowess.

He remembers the emotional day when he took Smith to the bathroom at the MacArthur Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, California, where he had spent the night with his son. Gardner said he wasn’t comfortable staying for very long, but Smith requested that they leave him there.

“We left him in there for a good five minutes,” Gardner said, “and when he came out he was not Will Smith, he was Chris Gardner.”

Smith said that pivotal bathroom scene in the film was what made him want to make the movie.

“To get to zero, absolutely nothing,” Smith said, “to have nothing, and the only thing you have left is an idea, and he woke up, washed his son in the sink, and went to work based on an idea. That is something that is hugely inspiring to me, and my hope artistically is that it could be inspiring to other people. But as I sit here I can’t imagine that I would have walked out of that bathroom the same person, or as Chris Gardner did, walked out a better person.”

The fact that he was shooting the scene with his own son only added to the emotional weight of the moment which Smith described as “no acting necessary”.

Putting a Face on Homelessness

While Chris’ story is one about seeking the American dream, and also going to any lengths necessary to protect his son, it is also a poignant commentary on the state of the homeless in America.

The problem of homelessness, he said, isn’t about race or laziness, as people often think.

“The biggest “ism” I’ve ever had to deal with in getting into this business was place-ism not racism,” Gardner said.

It’s something that can affect anyone in any city.

“I had never gone to college,” Gardner said. “I was not from a politically connected family. I had no money of my own. Who is going to do business with you?”

His story is one that is lived out on the streets of America every day. He quoted statistics that may surprise many, “12 percent of all the homeless people in this country have jobs and go to work everyday,” Gardner said. “In some communities, that number is as high as 30 percent.”

That is why it is so important that people support organizations that reach out to the homeless.

Gardner remembers the encouragement he received from Reverend Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, the church that operates the homeless shelter where Gardner and his son stayed whenever they could. When he and his son would attend the church’s Sunday services, often something Rev. Williams said would stick in his mind. One such phrase, Gardner said, was the idea that “baby steps count too.”

That simple word of encouragement helped Gardner press through the difficult days. 

“As long as you are going forward, baby steps count too,” Gardner said. “And rolling my child through the streets of San Francisco, and up the hills and down the hills, and through the rain, I just kept saying to myself, 'Baby steps count too.'”

Today, at age 25, his son doesn’t remember much about their days spent living on the streets, except that regardless of where they were, his dad was always there.

To Gardner, that means more than all the money in the world.

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