There but for the Grace of God ... the Real Chris Gardner Holds a Packed House

By Cocheo, Steve | ABA Banking Journal, April 2007 | Go to article overview

There but for the Grace of God ... the Real Chris Gardner Holds a Packed House


Cocheo, Steve, ABA Banking Journal


Along trailer for Hollywood's The Pursuit of Happyness opened Christopher Gardner's conference-closing speech. Gardner watched with the audience as actor Will Smith portrayed scenes from Gardner's own rise from homelessness to a lucrative stock brokerage career.

Gardner, who hardly ever dropped the smile from his face through his speech of ordeal and triumph, laughed with his audience when he reflected on the movie. The film is based on his book of the same title.

"Those people spent $70 million to recreate what I did with nothing," Gardner said.

But Gardner drew an equally big laugh when he spoke of his initial concerns about the studio's choice of leading man. Gardner recalled telling his family that he wondered whether Will Smith, best known at the time of filming for his sci-fi roles in Independence Day and the Men In Black UFO films, could portray his story. Gardner said his story dealt with "inner space," rather than "outer space."

Gardner's daughter deflated Dad's ego as only a daughter can.

"Papa," she told him, "don't worry about it. If Will Smith can play Muhammad All, he can play you."

This wasn't the first time he'd had doubts about proposals involving his book. Earlier, Gardner received a call from a TV dealmaker who wanted to build a reality show around Gardner and his experiences on the street. The idea was that homeless people would compete at various games designed to prove their abilities. Gardner would be the judge.

"Homelessness is not a game," Gardner told the promoter. "And, if it is a game, I've already won, so send me the money." The huckster never called again.

Gardner admitted that he doesn't really "get" Los Angeles or Hollywood.

"What is this 'Let's take a meeting' stuff?" he asked. "I'm from Chicago. I take a train. I take a nap. But I don't 'take a meeting'."

Onto the streets with a youngster Gardner's story, told through anecdotes, touched many in the banker crowd, and he held them. Unlike most closing sessions of conferences, there were few early walkouts. And there were some moist eyes.

Gardner was a former Navy medic who worked for one of the doctors he had served under while enlisted. Much as he found his research work interesting, it wasn't supporting his small family, and he looked for better-paying jobs. Initially, he found some success in medical supplies. But an influential encounter with a star stock broker attracted Gardner to stock sales.

Gardner worked at finding a way into the business, but nearly every time he did, something went wrong. On one fateful occasion, he had quit his medical supplies sales job rather dramatically, only to discover that the man who'd hired him for a starter position at a brokerage had been fired just before Gardner showed up for the promised work. The job was no longer there.

In the course of seeking job interviews, Gardner piled up numerous parking tickets that he had little left to pay for while supporting his son and girlfriend.

"I could have paid the bills, or I could have paid the rent," but not both, said Gardner.

Money worries took a toll on the home front.

"Unemployment will not help your relationship," said Gardner. "Trust me on that."

When Gardner and the woman he only referred to in his speech as his "ex" had a long and heated fight, the neighbors called the police. The police arrived, and in a routine check, found out about Gardner's $1,200-plus in outstanding tickets. He was arrested and, because of the timing of the arrest, kept in a state prison for more than a week awaiting a court date.

Gardner told listeners that he found himself in a cell with a rapist, a murderer, and other rough customers. He wasn't about to admit--from sheer need to survive--that he was being held for parking tickets. So when he was asked why he was in the "pen," he answered, "Attempted murder!

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