Politics & Government

Curry and St. John teach same lesson at forum

Paralympic silver medalist, businesswoman and author Bonnie St. John speaks Tuesday at the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center in Columbus.
Paralympic silver medalist, businesswoman and author Bonnie St. John speaks Tuesday at the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center in Columbus. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Bill Curry and Bonnie St. John are two distinctly different people from different times, but they gave messages that worked together Tuesday morning.

Curry, a white kid from the segregated South of the 1950s and ’60s, was able to harness every bit of his athletic ability to earn a scholarship to Georgia Tech and play 10 years in the NFL and later become a successful college football coach.

St. John, a mixed-race woman raised in San Diego, overcame the handicap of having just one leg to become a Paralympic snow skiing medalist. She graduated from Harvard University and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar.

Curry, now 73, and St. John, 54, see the world through a similar lens, which became clear as they each addressed the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum on its second day at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.

“There is a drumbeat of hatred that is pounding at our door,” Curry said, alluding to racial issues in the country.

He told a story of trying out for the Green Bay Packers as a rookie. As a Southerner who hadn’t played with African Americans, he was apprehensive about how he would be received by the Packers’ many outstanding black players.

One night he was approached by veteran Willie Davis, a future Hall of Fame inductee, who told Curry, “I like your effort; you can make this team, and I’m going to help you.”

“We must give and forgive until we defeat hate,” Curry said.

He also talked about race, football and those who don’t want to see others succeed, whom he called “the fellowship of the miserable.”

“We love them. We pray for them. We avoid them,” Curry said. “Only God can change those folks and he does.”

As St. John prepared to address the more than 1,200 people attending the two-day forum, she was in a room with Curry. She asked the coach, who had just finished his speech in sermon-like fashion, to pray over her.

He did. He evoked Martin Luther King Jr., telling her that bad people are going to do bad things, but the big issue is whether good people will stand by and do nothing.

Toward the end of her talk, St. John also talked openly about race. Her father was white and died when she was 12. Because her mother was black, her father’s family rejected her.

After she achieved her athletic, business and educational success, she said she reached out to one her father’s brothers.

“I had asked him to meet with me, because I wanted to learn more about my father, who I didn’t really know much about, and he said OK,” she said. “... He made it very clear that I was still black, and that that mattered to him. ... He actually said, ‘Having black people in my family is like being gay and I don’t want to be outed,’ to my face.”

The rejection hurt.

“My father’s brother does not see me as family, and made it very clear that he never will,” she said. “No matter what I accomplish, no matter where I graduated from, I will not be good enough because of the color of my skin.”

She then challenged the audience.

“That is today, folks, and there’s too many people out there that feel that way,” she said. “And if the good people in this room don’t fight that tide that is rising, we can’t win. People who look like me can’t win that fight. It’s only all of us that can keep America the America I believe in, the America of all of us, which is stronger.”

Other speakers

The second day provided two compelling personal stories — one of a Navy SEAL who survived against all odds and the other of a football star who took inspiration from his mother’s tragic death to start a foundation that houses single mothers.

Marcus Luttrell’s story already has been well chronicled in his book, “Lone Survivor,” which topped the New York Times best-seller list in 2007. It then was made into a movie of the same name in 2014, with Mark Wahlberg playing Luttrell.

The Texan was part of a four-man SEAL reconnaissance team that entered the mountainous border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in June 2005. The mission quickly turned deadly after herdsmen spotted the Americans, culminating in a firefight against a heavily armed group of Taliban.

Luttrell was the only one of the four to make it out alive — albeit with a terribly battered and wounded body — after being sheltered by a local group of villagers. He would later receive a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross for combat heroism.

“My existence, what I’m an expert at, is surviving in chaos and pain,” Luttrell said.

Saying he doesn’t suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, the former service member was brutally honest about his mentality entering the military’s elite special operations unit and the eight years he spent in the Navy. His focus was to beat you, even if it meant a battle to his or your death. To earn his respect, he said, you’ve got to get bloody with him.

“You can’t break me mentally, period,” he said. “I didn’t come in here to lose, man. I came in here to take you out. ... That’s the mentality, that’s the mindset that you have to have.”

Former NFL running back Warrick Dunn’s story was a different kind of survival story.

People know of his 13-year NFL career with Tampa Bay and Atlanta. When he was 18, his mother — Betty Smothers, a Baton Rouge, La., police officer — was killed working a part-time security job. She never had the opportunity to fulfill her dream of home ownership, which motivated Dunn to start Home for the Holidays in 1997. It has provided homes for single mothers and has helped about 150 families.

“I like to think how I am an example of how your own life circumstances, whatever they may be, can help serve others once you get your bearings and can put things in perspective,” he said. “My case was an extreme, but we all have things we can learn from and help others.”

Dunn compared the formation of his charity to pro football.

“Making it to the league was a big accomplishment, but to me starting the charity was an even bigger accomplishment.

The second-day forum lineup also included Shana Young, director of the Leadership Institute at Columbus State; Henry Cloud, a psychologist and author of “The Power of the Other”; Patricia Florissi, vice president and global chief technology officer of EMC Corp.; and Army Gen. David G. Perkins, who commands U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Perkins was a late substitution for Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, who had been called to testify on readiness in front of Congress. Perkins is in charge of all of the Army’s training and his message was one focused on leadership.

“What you need to remember is when things are going really, really bad and things aren’t working out, don’t see that as a challenge, see that as a leader development opportunity,” Perkins said. “Because the way you react to that, your subordinates might remember it for 20 years. ... Which is why the Army puts such a premium on leaders.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams