Today was Diversity Day for Bloomington MN high schools and I went out to Jefferson High School in Bloomington to staff a table for a group in which I am active called World Citizen www.peacesites.org.
I had the written program for the day, but wasn’t certain when I was supposed to be there, so I went out early. The first two periods of the day featured an assembly talk by a “Dr. Bartlette, Speaker”. I had no idea who this person was, and the program didn’t say any more about him or his topic. It was a very nice day outside, and the choice between listening to somebody give a speech to a bunch of kids captive in a school auditorium, and enjoying some fine spring weather seemed a no-brainer.
But something drew me into the auditorium for the second talk. Still, rather than sit down, I stood in the back, much like a teacher on duty. At least I had an escape route.
Dr. Bartlette was given a very low key introduction, and walked up to the podium, a short man, wearing a short sleeved dark shirt, very plain appearing. He began to speak, quietly, and with something of a speech impediment.
He quietly told his life story, born in a small log cabin up the hill and in the woods outside of a town, born with severe facial deformities, unable to speak, growing up shunned as a native American in North Dakota, but also shunned by his own father who had expected him to be normal at birth, and he wasn’t. He was shunned by virtually everyone except, it seemed, his mother, and ultimately a wealthy woman in the town of 1700 people became something of a guardian angel. She saw something in him, or perhaps it was her sense of his worth as a human being that led her to help him thrive. His life began to turn around. In his high school years someone, perhaps the wealthy woman (I don’t recall off-hand), prevailed on the most popular high school kid to befriend him, and the youngster did, and Don blossomed, becoming class and student council president and valedictorian of his class.
He had his audience completely engaged. I was standing back there, choking back tears, choking back tears, choking back tears. And he continued to tell his story.
He continued to learn, and ultimately achieved his doctorate and now, as his business card says, he is a “Public Speaker”, worldwide. He now lives in Ohio.
Doctors went to work on his face, replacing the deformed half-nose with which he was born with a plastic nose that serves him well. Other major facial and other defects needed correction as well. He got his degrees, and one of his first jobs was as Human Rights Director for the city of Bloomington MN in the late 1970s. It was not a time, he said, where diversity was celebrated.
He finished his talk to great applause from the young people in attendance. He came back to thank them for their attentiveness to his story. He left the stage, and I thought I’d not see him again. But my 45 or so minutes in his presence profoundly impacted me.
After the talk I saw him walking a short distance away. I went up and shook his hand and thanked him for a powerful witness to possibility. We compared notes: he had graduated from his North Dakota high school the same year I did: 1958. He knew my small towns; I knew his. We will likely stay in touch. There is much for us to connect about.
I looked him up on the internet. Material about him can be found by searching Don Bartlett Macaroni at Midnight (yes, there is a story to that). A movie about him is apparently now in production.
If you ever hear that he is in your area, make it a point to stop in.
You won’t regret it.