Spotlight On Chris Gardner


A promise made, a promise kept

Though without a home, fledgling businessman kept his son by his side

December 03, 2006|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Reporter

Chris Gardner recalls the words he heard most from the man living with his mother when he was growing up: "I ain't your daddy."

The man punctuated his declaration liberally with profanity.

Gardner, in fact, was almost 30 when he met his biological father.

He had already made a solemn promise to himself "that when I [grow] up and have a son of my own, he would always know who I was and I would never disappear from his life."

Gardner kept his promise, even through a year of homelessness, and wrote about his triumph over life on the street with his young son in The Pursuit of Happyness (Amistad, 2006).

His story of going from homelessness with his son in San Francisco to becoming a multimillionaire stockbroker is the subject of a movie to be released Dec. 15.

The Pursuit of Happyness stars Will Smith as Gardner and Smith's son, Jaden, as Gardner's son, Christopher.

In September, Gardner, 52, stopped by the Enoch Pratt Central Library as part of a book tour. About 300 people attended the event, many of whom had already read the book.

"I just felt like it hit home," said Vivian Lomas, a teacher at Diggs-Johnson Middle School in Baltimore. "It was important to know that a lot of his inspiration came from his mother. Quite a few of our kids are being raised by their moms. I'm going to take this book to read to my class."

Linda Davis, a capital accounts manager for the city's Department of Public Works, said, "I loved it! I loved it!"

"I think it's emotional," Davis said. "I think many African-Americans can relate to at least something in the book -- the relationship with his mom, or family issues. ..."

In the 1980s, Gardner became homeless when his son's mother deposited the 20-month-old boy with him.

Why did a stockbroker working for Dean Witter become instantly homeless? In his book, he answers the question: Children were not allowed at the rooming house where he lived. And he was new on the job and making just enough money to support himself.

"Can you imagine," he asks, "a point in time where maybe you or one of your children had no place else to go other than sleeping in a bathroom in a train station?"

Before shooting of the movie started in San Francisco, Gardner took Smith on a tour of the places he stayed with his son. The idea was that instead of telling Smith where he and his son stayed, Gardner would show him.

"We went over to this transit station in Oakland," Gardner said. He and his son slept in a bathroom there during hard times.

"We were together," he said. "That's what was important for me."

He took Smith into that bathroom before the movie was filmed.

"I can only stay a minute," Gardner told him. "A minute is too much."

Smith wanted to stay a little longer, Gardner recalled.

"The story he told me when he came out is that the ghosts in the wall jumped right into his body," Gardner said. "That's when he became Chris Gardner."

Gardner, now of Chicago, has already seen the movie. "I can't sit through the whole thing," he said. "It's still painful for me. It's still raw. Being homeless is scary enough. But with a baby?!"

His son, Gardner says, is now a man who "is pursuing his own dreams. He wants to be in the music business. God bless him. Go get it."

Gardner, 52 also has a daughter, Jacintha, who comes into his story only at the end of the book.

"That's my girl," he says. "She's a junior at Hampton University and doing her thing.

Today, Gardner is CEO of Gardner Rich and Co. He recently sold a minority stake in the company.

"I'm going to focus on my business in private equities," he says. "Sometimes the stars just line up."

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