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Gardner, Chris

Chris Gardner

1954—

Stockbroker, philanthropist, author

Chris Gardner is a stockbroker and philanthropist whose rise to prominence provided the basis for both his memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness, and a successful Hollywood film of the same name. From a poor background, Gardner endured a year on the streets of San Francisco as a homeless single father and came out the other side a multimillionaire financial manager. However, he insists the meaning of his life is no mere fulfillment of the American dream of financial success. In an interview included on the DVD release of The Pursuit of Happyness, he said, "My story has been portrayed in certain media outlets as a rags-to-riches story. That ain't important. The important thing is the commitment to my children, to be there."

Overcame a Difficult Childhood

Gardner was born in Milwaukee on February 9, 1954. He had a harrowing childhood, with an absentee father and a violently abusive stepfather, Freddie Triplett. In his youth, his mother, Bettye Jean Gardner, was incarcerated twice: once when Triplett reported her for working while on public assistance, and later for attempting to set fire to the house with Triplett inside. Each time, Gardner and his older sister were shuttled between relatives and foster homes.

Gardner credits his mother, despite her misdeeds, with transmitting to him the "spiritual genetics" that guided him through the traumas of his upbringing. She instilled in him a sense of self-reliance and awareness of his unlimited potential. Gardner's three uncles provided him with his most positive male role models. Emulating his uncle Henry, he enlisted in the navy after he graduated from high school. He served as a hospital corpsman and made the acquaintance of a heart surgeon, Dr. Robert Ellis, who offered him employment as a civilian. Following his discharge in 1974, Gardner moved to San Francisco and became a laboratory assistant to Ellis.

While employed in the medical field, Gardner married Sherry Dyson in 1977 after a long-distance courtship. Their relationship was ill-fated; Sherry conceived a child, but had a miscarriage. Gardner began having second thoughts about his ambition to become a doctor, but his decision to abandon that option put further strain on his marriage. He had an affair with another woman, Jackie Medina, who was studying dentistry. When Medina became pregnant, he left his wife and moved in with her, although he and Sherry did not legally divorce for another nine years.

Undertook a Dramatic Career Change

Gardner's son, Chris Jr., was born in early 1981. The young father struggled to make ends meet. He left a position at a Veterans Administration hospital to work as a medical supply salesman. Around this time, a pivotal event in his life occurred after a routine sales visit to San Francisco General Hospital. In the parking lot, he saw a well-dressed man in a red Ferrari. Gardner offered the man his parking space in exchange for the answers to two questions: "What do you do and how do you do it?"

The gentleman was a stockbroker named Bob Bridges, and he arranged for Gardner to make initial contacts at several brokerage firms. Attracted by the financial world, Gardner put his sales job on the back burner while he applied to training programs in San Francisco's financial district. His car languished on the street, collecting parking tickets. When a man at E. F. Hutton offered him a position, he quit his sales job right away. Unfortunately, the man who hired him lost his own job before Gardner arrived for his first day.

This bad break came at a tense time in his relationship with Medina. They had a fight, and she called the police. He was arrested and, because he owed $1,200 in parking fines, sentenced to ten days in a county jail. He came home to an empty apartment; Medina had taken Chris Jr. and fled. His possessions had been cleaned out—and he had an appointment the next morning at the Dean Witter Reynolds brokerage house. With no alternative, he showed up for his interview wearing the clothes in which he had been arrested. Despite the sartorial transgression, he was offered a six-month traineeship.

Kept Homelessness a Secret at Work

For four months, Gardner did not know where his child was. Then one day Medina appeared at his boarding house to hand over their son: she had had enough, and now it was his turn. He was glad to take custody of his son. He had vowed, during his own troubled childhood, never to leave his own children without a father. However, the boarding house did not allow children, and he could not afford an apartment with his trainee stipend. So began the period of a homeless, working single father that is the centerpiece of the book and film The Pursuit of Happyness.

Gardner and his toddler son slept some nights at a cheap hotel, under his office desk, in the park, or—on a couple of occasions—behind a locked bathroom door in a Bay Area Rapid Transit station. He told his colleagues nothing about his situation. Finally, he persuaded the Rev. Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, to let him stay in the church's shelter for homeless women. Gardner left a strong impression on Williams, as the minister told the magazine Jet: "Every day he was the only man in line—and I'm talking about a long line of people—who had a child with him. He came and ate and volunteered … even then he was different, different from any person I had ever met, or seen in line seeking help."

The Glide shelter was a step up from the street, but it required the two Gardners to arrive at the church before the doors closed at six in the evening, and to leave by eight in the morning, taking their possessions with them. Gardner recounted the experience in the Chicago Sun-Times: "For a year, I'd take my son, his stroller, a big duffle bag with all his clothes in it, my briefcase, an umbrella, the biggest bag of Pampers in the world, one suit on my back and one suit in a hanging bag and we'd hit it every day."

Even amid these intensely arduous circumstances, Gardner was committed to learning his new trade. His determination paid off: he passed his licensing exam on the first try, and he was the only one in his training program offered a permanent position at Dean Witter. Even with his increase in salary, it took several months before he could save enough money to afford an apartment. He and Chris Jr., who was now two and a half years old, slept on the floor the first night in their new place in North Oakland. Gardner told Reader's Digest that when the next morning came, Chris Jr. said in alarm, "‘Dad, we need to take our things.’ … I told my son, ‘No, boy. We have a key now. We are home.’ We skipped to the train that day."

At a Glance …

Born Christopher Paul Gardner on February 9, 1954, in Milwaukee, WI; son of Thomas Turner and Bettye Jean Gardner; married Sherry Dyson, 1977 (divorced); Jackie Medina (partner); children: (with Medina) Chris Jr., Jacintha.

Career: U.S. Navy, 1972-74; medical research assistant, 1974; medical supply salesman; Dean Witter Reynolds, stock broker, 1981-83; Bear Stearns & Co., 1983-87; Gardner Rich & Co., founder and chief executive officer, 1987-2006; Christopher Gardner International Holdings, founder and chief executive officer, 2006—.

Memberships: National Fatherhood Initiative, board member; National Education Foundation, board member.

Awards: National Fatherhood Initiative, Father of the Year, 2002; Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women Twenty-fifth Annual Humanitarian Award, 2006; Continental Africa Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Africa Award, 2006.

Addresses: Office—Christopher Gardner International Holdings, 401 S. Financial Place, Chicago, IL 60605.

Earned His Fortune in Business

With his darkest days behind him, Gardner could finally devote his full efforts to his work in the business world. When he did, he advanced quickly. He left Dean Witter in 1983 for a job with Bear, Stearns & Company in San Francisco and became one of the firm's top earners. Medina came to visit her son and his father in their new home, and during her brief stay she and Gardner conceived their second child. Jacintha Gardner was born in Los Angeles in 1985. Chris Jr. spent a period living there with his mother and new sister, while his father worked in New York at Bear Stearns's Wall Street office.

Two years later, Gardner took custody of both his children and moved to Chicago, where he opened his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich and Company. The company specializes in debt, equity, and futures transactions for public and private institutions. Gardner owned a controlling interest in the firm until he sold his stake in a multimillion-dollar deal in 2006. He then founded Christopher Gardner International Holdings and became its chief executive officer.

His new company maintains offices in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Inspired by a visit he took to South Africa in 2003, which included a private meeting with Nelson Mandela, Gardner launched an initiative to raise $1 billion in investment capital for South Africa, hoping to create jobs and opportunities there.

There can be no doubt that Gardner has earned his tremendous wealth, and that he has enjoyed it. Never forgetting his fateful encounter with Bob Bridges and his Ferrari, he acquired a customized Ferrari of his own from its previous owner, the basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Gardner owns several residences, including a condominium in New York's Trump Tower. His Chicago office sports a custom desk made from the tail wing of a DC-10 jet.

He has also donated his money and his time to a variety of causes, especially those serving homeless and at-risk urban populations. One recipient of his philanthropic endeavors is Glide Memorial Church. A quarter century after his time of need, he has repaid his debt by sponsoring the Cecil Williams Glide Community House, a nine-story complex in the Tenderloin. Gardner also donates clothes and shoes to the church and comes periodically to volunteer. He offers career counseling and job placement assistance to needy communities in Chicago through the Cara Program.

Immortalized on the Big Screen

Gardner currently serves on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the National Education Foundation and the National Fatherhood Initiative. The latter group named him Father of the Year in 2002. Other honors he has received include the Humanitarian Award given by the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women and the Friends of Africa Award from the Continental Africa Chamber of Commerce, both in 2006.

Gardner has become a sought-after public speaker. His own experience conveys powerful messages about breaking destructive cycles, commitment to parenting, and achieving goals through perseverance. He told Jet that he disdains the phrase "motivational speaking": "I see it as a matter of shared empowerment because I'm getting as much from the audiences as I am giving to them, and one of the things I've learned is that men are in so much pain. At the end of every speech I'm signing books and a guy comes up, he's got this look in his eye, all I've got to do is stand up and open my arms and he'll fall in them crying like a baby."

Gardner's life story has now reached millions of people. After he was featured on the television program 20/20 in 2002, he realized that his story contained the elements of a heartwarming narrative. His autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, went to the top of the New York Times and Washington Post best-seller lists in 2006. Later that year, Columbia Pictures released the film by the same name, directed by Gabriele Muccino and starring Will Smith and his son Jaden in the leading roles. Gardner joined the film crew during production as an associate producer. He was initially unsure about how Smith would portray his life's most trying moments, but in the end, as he remarked to People magazine, he felt that Smith "played Chris Gardner better than Chris Gardner ever did. He got paid better, too."

Selected writings

Books

The Pursuit of Happyness, Amistad, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

Black Enterprise, January 2007, p. 112.

Chicago Sun-Times, May 28, 2006.

Jet, December 18, 2006.

People, January 8, 2007.

Reader's Digest, December 2006.

USA Today, May 23, 2006.

Online

Christopher Gardner: The Official Site,http://www.chrisgardnermedia.com/ (accessed December 27, 2007).

Other

Gardner was interviewed on video in "The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner" on the DVD of the film The Pursuit of Happyness.

—Roger K. Smith

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