In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Denzel Washington, the Academy Award-winning actor and a national spokesman for the youth-mentoring organization, has gathered accounts from 70 Americans prominent in politics, sports, entertainment, journalism, and business—notables such as Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bob Woodward—profiling the people who had a positive impact on them early in their lives. Their stories describe the teachers, coaches, family members, and early bosses who gave them the courage and the skills to follow their dreams. One such mentor for Mr. Washington was his professor at Fordham University in New York City, whom he describes in the following excerpt.
I was blessed at Fordham to cross paths with Robinson Stone—Bob to his friends and students. He was my English teacher, but he had acted for many years, and he was involved in the theater program as well. He knew his stuff. He was in “Stalag 17.” He was in “Othello” on Broadway with Uta Hagen, Paul Robeson, and Jose Ferrer. He’d accomplished a lot, and he was eager to share what he knew. Very quickly he became a real positive presence in my life when I was trying on this idea of becoming an actor. He was enormously helpful and encouraging.
I wound up appearing in a student production of “Othello,” and after that he ended up writing a recommendation for me when I was auditioning for a couple of graduate school programs in drama. … I still have the letter. I keep it with me when I travel, along with a bunch of other personal stuff—the program from my father’s funeral, things like that. Touchstones to keep me connected when I’m on the road or on location, because I’m one of those guys who needs a little reminder every now and then, a little push. I guess we all need those little prompts and props and visual aids telling us where we’ve come from in order to keep focused on where we’re going.
That letter of recommendation was a big deal, which is why I still carry it with me. I read it at the time and wondered if Bob Stone was talking about someone else. I read it now and try to find the young man he was going on and on about in the young man I actually was. He wrote, “Do take him if you want some genuine experiences of inspiration, and if you want the excitement of aggrandizing a talent which is finally going to be among the most exciting and fulfilling of our time.” I must have reread that letter a hundred times, and each time I think, “Wow.” I remember what a charge it was to take in those kinds of positive statements about myself when I was only 22 years old. What a rush! To have someone believe in you that much is a tremendous boost. It left me thinking, “Well, something’s going on here. I better pay attention to it, and nurture it, and see it through.”
Some people might hear those words and think them some kind of burden, but I took them as a blessing. That’s another key: I knew I was blessed, and I know now of course that we’re all blessed. But Bob Stone’s words, back then, they kept me going. It’s not like I walked around thinking, “Well, he thinks I’m so great, so it must be so.” But he gave me something to live up to. He lit a fire in me.
From A Hand to Guide Me, by Denzel Washington with Daniel Paisner,
© 2006 Meredith Books. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Lighting the Path