"God must love the common man, He made so many of them..." Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Keynote: Sidney Poitier

Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier was the keynote speaker in the second general meeting of the conference. Personally, I must say that being a fan of his, I was so excited to hear him speak.

Poitier shared "snapshots (experiences) from the album" of his life to show how the "simple basic truths" he learned from his parents have guided his life. His parents, Reggie and Evelyn, were uneducated tomato farmers living on Cat Island in the Bahamas. To sell their crop, the loaded a boat and went to Miami. It was on one of those trips in 1927 that Sidney was born.

He was born two months premature and the midwife told Evelyn to prepare for the worst because "there was not enough of the baby to take ahold." While Poitier's father went in search of a shoebox to bury him in, his mother "with a reservoir of hope" went to the local soothsayer. Evelyn was told "your son will have a full life and the world will know him."

Poitier, who learned to swim before he could walk, grew up in a thatched-roof cottage without running water or electricity. He called himself "a boy with a fair amount of imagination and no common sense." This often resulted in being corrected by his mother's "whap-whap method" because his "behavior and her tolerance were out of sync."

"How steady are we as captains of ourselves?" Poitier asked. He then related three stories about three separate nights he spent in jail. "These experiences have helped me to steady myself." When Poitier was 12, he and some friends stole corn from a neighbor's field -- resulting in his first night in jail. In 1943 at age 16, he was arrested in Harlem during a "massive civil disturbance" and spent his second night behind bars. During the winter of that same year, he was arrested as a vagrant for sleeping in Penn Station. Upon his release the following morning, a policeman gave Poitier fifty cents and directed him to Brooklyn's Catholic Orphanage for shelter. He stayed there long enough to decide to join the Army. After his time in the service, Poitier began working as an actor in New York.

Poitier only briefly mentioned his Hollywood experiences. "They have all made me look good," he said of his co-stars.

Poitier is a strong believer and supporter of philanthropy. "It is the profound manifestation of the very best of us." Without it, he said, "the world would be a less hospitable, less humane place." He encouraged constant "bit by bit" repayment for any kindness ever extended.

In the end, he said, "It doesn't matter how many times you get knocked down. What matters is what you do with your time after you get up."

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