Honored at this year’s Oscar nomination for his life story, Navy Vet and former San Francisco Veterans hospital employee Chris Gardner inspires America with his epic journey from rags to riches. But, it’s his continued support of charitable institutions of faith, his tireless efforts to improve the plight of the homeless and protect the rights of women, which transcend his financial accomplishments.
In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Gardner loses both his money and his wife through a disastrous investment. While he struggles to care for his young son while attempting to get back on his feet without a home or income, he pursues a dream to make it big as a stockbroker through extraordinary perseverance and hard work.
"You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry ain't coming," Gardner recalls the influential words of his mother, who grew up in the rural South during the Great Depression.
It’s a story that became the subject of this feature film and netted lead actor Will Smith his second Academy Award Nomination. With national attention, Gardner has met with and been praised by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, and Oprah.
"I didn’t grow up in a household where dinner conversation was ‘How did the market do today?’" he says.
Gardner was born in Louisiana, and later grew up working-class in the black neighborhoods of Milwaukee. He says his stepfather was abusive. When he was about 6, his mother tried to burn down the house with his stepfather in it. She went to state prison for four years, and he was shuffled among relatives and foster homes. He saw his real father only twice: when he was a father himself, at age 28, and at his funeral.
His life’s experience forms the foundation of those he chooses to help today. Gardner reaches out to many programs serving the homeless, donating time, assistance, and funds. Foremost among these are the Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco and The Cara Program in Chicago.
Gardner also serves as a board member of the National Fatherhood Initiative, whose mission is to improve the well being of children by increasing the proportion of children growing up with involved, responsible, and committed fathers. He was the recipient of the group’s Father of the Year Award in 2002.
Most recently, Gardner was honored by the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW) with the 25th Annual Humanitarian Award, and by the Continental Africa Chamber of Commerce with the 2006 Friends of Africa Award.
The quote on the cover of Gardner’s book, "The Pursuit of Happyness," captures the true essence of what he represents today. It reads, "I hold one thing dearer than all else: my commitment to my son."
NAVY MEDIC, HIGH FINANCE
At 17, Gardner joined the Navy, inspired by an Uncle who also served. He was assigned as a medic, and stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for four years. When he was discharged, he was offered a job by a staff heart surgeon and ended up in San Francisco, working as a research lab assistant at UC-San Francisco and at the Veterans Hospital there.
With dreams dashed of being a doctor because of the high cost of medical school, Gardner found himself at a turning point. He was in the parking lot at San Francisco General Hospital one day when a man driving a red Ferrari pulled up behind him to get his space. Gardner told him he'd give him the space on the condition that he answer two questions:
"What do you do for a living?" and "How do you get to do that?'' The man was a stockbroker, and Gardner decided that would be his route to riches, too.
In 1982 he started at the Dean Witter training program, and soon found himself raising his infant son by himself. The boarding house where Gardner lived did not allow children, and he struggled to find an alternative – leaving him to spend long nights at a homeless shelter or in the BART (SF-Bay Area Rapid Transit) bathroom.
Fixed on his goal, though, Gardner worked, making more than 200 calls a day to snag clients for Dean Witter.
"Every time I picked up the phone," he recalls, "I knew I was getting closer to digging myself out of the hole." Within five years he had opened his own institutional brokerage firm in Chicago called Gardner Rich, which is thriving today.
Gardner has two children and resides in Chicago and New York. His son, Chris, is now 25 and trying to make his way into the music business. His daughter, Jacintha, 20, is a business student.
Photo Credit: http://www.chrisgardnermedia.com/