School Philanthropist Remembers His Roots

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Prostitutes spotted Chris Gardner and his toddler son cash to survive homeless on the streets of San Francisco, but he credits a schoolteacher from Louisiana with giving him the moxie to move beyond them.

Now, sitting in a posh office building thousands of miles and many years away from his turbulent past, Mr. Gardner is paying tribute to that teacher—his late mother—and all the other educators who helped him build his multimillion-dollar brokerage business investing teacher-retirement funds.

Over the past decade, the 44-year-old stockbroker and philanthropist has given 10 percent of his company's profits to educational efforts in some 25 communities from Selma, Ala., to San Diego where he conducts business. The donations—totaling more than $700,000 to date—have been used for everything from the purchase of students' clothes and classroom supplies to underwriting national professional-development conferences and research studies on success in school. The philanthropist places the net worth of his company between $7 million and $10 million.

"Everybody wants to make money, but we've also got to make sure we make a difference in the communities where we do business," said Mr. Gardner, the president of Gardner Rich & Co., a New York-based brokerage firm he started in 1987. "If you are helping schoolteachers, you are helping dozens of kids."

Mr. Gardner's projects include helping to sponsor the National Teacher of the Year program run by the Council of Chief State School Officers and a similar program honoring educational support-staff workers run by the National Education Association. Mr. Gardner helped develop and then then fully financed the national State Teacher of the Year conference in 1997, a three-day forum held annually in Dallas.

Fighting Spirit

The philanthropist become the darling of the American Federation of Teachers this fall when he both underwrote and promoted the union's guidebook on success in school for middle school students and the adults in their lives. The publication, written in hip teen-speak and titled "Hard Work Pays: What You Have To Do in High School To Get the Life You Want," features Mr. Gardner's Ferrari on the cover along with a huge dollar sign.

After giving $50,000 of the $100,000 needed to produce the work, he now speaks to teenagers about the book in the context of his own dramatic life story.

It is a path, he acknowledges, that young people should not follow too literally.

Mr. Gardner's Chicago office is filled with mementos of a man who understands and respects fighters.

A life-size elephant head gazes down from a lavender wall, boxing memorabilia once owned by Muhammad Ali is encased in glass, and a black-and-white portrait of his mother, Betty Jean, sits atop a great desk overlooking the tenement where he once lived and ran his business.

"You start thinking you're a smart guy, and you look out the window and remember where it all started," Mr. Gardner said.

It has been a long journey.

Mr. Gardner grew up in the Deep South at a time when, as he put it, being black often meant plucking cotton from thorny bushes. Mr. Gardner was the only son out of a dozen children born to sharecroppers in Deli, La., and he says he was the favorite child of his mother and her three sisters, all schoolteachers.

The family migrated to Milwaukee, where Mr. Gardner graduated from high school a mediocre student. At 17, he lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he spent four years as a medic. Following that hitch, he took a job in San Francisco selling medical equipment.

But Mr. Gardner was money-hungry. With a dream of making fat cash fast, he gave up his career in sales after meeting a rich stockbroker who drove a Ferrari. When a position in a broker-training program fell through, Mr. Gardner found himself out of money. Soon after, he said, his girlfriend took their toddler son and moved out of their home—taking all of Mr. Gardner's possessions and locking the door.

Minutes after he realized his girlfriend had left him, he noticed police officers across the street examining the tags on his parked car. Mr. Gardner owed $1,200 in unpaid parking tickets, which landed him in jail for 10 days. Ever-ambitious, Mr. Gardner called from jail to ask a business associate about a possible opening in a training program and set up an interview for the day he was to be released.

Mr. Gardner told the interviewer about his situation, and his honesty landed him the position. With the little cash he had, Mr. Gardner moved into a boarding house.

That security wouldn't last long. One night, his girlfriend dropped off their son, Christopher, then 14 months old. Since no children were allowed at the boarding house, Mr. Gardner ended up shuttling the toddler from low-rent motels to homeless shelters. Some nights, they slept in subway stations.

"Every day, I would leave [my shelter] with my son in the stroller, a briefcase, Pampers, and my only two suits," Mr. Gardner said. Prostitutes handed the boy $5 bills. "If it had not been for those ladies of the evening, I wouldn't have been able to feed my son," Mr. Gardner recalled.

After Mr. Gardner passed his broker-licensing exam, his life began to turn around. He worked at nationally known firms for several years, and in 1987 started his own company out of his apartment in Chicago. He opened his business Oct. 19—the very day the stock market crashed.

But Mr. Gardner persevered. His first client was the Chicago Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund. Teachers' unions in other cities followed. Soon, he expanded his business to New York City and San Francisco. He even purchased a Ferrari once owned by basketball great Michael Jordan. The license plate reads "Not M.J."

"I'm trying to get the message across that the ultimate asset is a brain, not your jump shot," Mr. Gardner said.

A Personal Investment

Mr. Gardner appears to have achieved hero status with people in the education world from kindergarten teachers up through the union ranks to Reg Weaver, the vice president of the NEA.

"I don't think he's ever received the proper recognition from the education community or the community at large for his efforts," Mr. Weaver said in an interview.

Mr. Weaver brushes aside any suggestions that Mr. Gardner's flashy persona and quest for wealth send the wrong message. "People might want to label Chris as being extravagant," Mr. Weaver said. "I label him as someone who cares about schools, people who work in schools, and public education. I want people to think about the number of children ... who have been impacted by his generosity."

Mr. Gardner's pledge to tithe 10 percent of his company's profits seems impressive, said Steven Lawrence, the director of research for the Foundation Center in New York City. As a whole, the nation's largest 217 corporate foundations gave about $51 million to K-12 education in 1997, the last year for which figures are available.

And the philanthropist's willingness to intervene in his projects mirrors a trend started this decade in which funders want to see their dollars at work in a more personal way, said Laura Fleming, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization that monitors giving to education.

"I wish there were more business leaders like him, because he's asking us what he can do rather than telling us what he wants," added Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the AFT. "Usually, someone comes in with a preconceived idea, and they try to get us to fit into the concept."

Karen Marquardt remembers Mr. Gardner's decade-long pilgrimages to her kindergarten classes at a former alternative school in Springfield, Ill. She was the first of two teachers who received donations from Mr. Gardner, about $300.

"He'd become personally connected," said Ms. Marquardt, now a kindergarten teacher at DuBois Elementary School in Springfield. "He'd be wearing an $800 suit, and the kids would be hugging him."

Back in Chicago on a recent night, Mr. Gardner is in his 60th-floor office looking out over the Chicago skyline, the city's lights glittering like diamonds, his former tenement a world below him.

He is summing up his charitable approach. Exhaling slowly, he said simply, "You do what you can."

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Page 12

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as School Philanthropist Remembers His Roots
Web Resources
  • This page from the Wall Street Directory offers contact information for Chris Gardner's company, Gardner, Rich & Co.
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