The Legacy of a Celebrity Giving Back
A movie star shared his journey of self-discovery with me over lunch.
Posted Oct 09, 2017
There are philosophers who believe the universe was created not by a Big Bang, but by a Prime Mover; an entity who pushed the cosmic gears and made them begin to turn. A single divine jump start after which the world was left to run on its own.
It's not a bad theory as far as beginning of the world scenarios go, and one still hears trickle-down variations of it from time to time. One thing pushes another which pushes another which pushes another, and suddenly George Bailey is having A Wonderful Life. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and a few weeks later it's a twister in Kansas. We hear plenty of tales that turned into twisters, and not nearly enough that didn't, but they exist.
One of them happened back in 1958 when a cocksure young man of 33 was just hitting his stride. He was the highest paid actor in Hollywood with the top rated television show in America when a little old doctor in Africa gave him a portentous push. It wasn't so much a push, but rather a steady gaze, a few choice words, and the example of his actions.
The television show was Wyatt Earp, the actor was Hugh O'Brian, and the doctor: Albert Schweitzer. Today, six decades later, two generations have reached adulthood without ever having seen an episode of Wyatt Earp or heard of Dr. Schweitzer. Hugh O'Brian and Dr. Schweitzer have both passed away, yet 10,000 high school students are still moved by their message every year.
On May 9, 1993, I had the opportunity to spend the day with Hugh O'Brian when he met Rhena Schweitzer Miller, the daughter of Albert Schweitzer, for the first time. The Georgia chapter of the Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation (HOBY) asked me to write an article about their meeting for publication. They also asked me to pick him up at the Atlanta airport.
Not knowing much about Hugh O'Brian, I went to the library and did some research. I learned that he used a couple of different stage names before settling on his current one. One of those names was Jaffer Grey, so being a bit of a prankster, I printed that name on a poster board. When people started exiting the plane, I stood in the crowd of waiting friends, relatives, and limo drivers and held up my sign. When O'Brian stepped out of the jetway, he scanned the crowd from left to right passing over me, but a second later his head snapped back to my sign and he stormed over to me with a big grin on his face.
"Where did you find that name?" he demanded.
"In Who's Who," I replied.
As we walked to my car, he explained to me that he was born Hugh Krampe. However, early in his career, his name was misprinted in a playbill as Hugh Krappe. That looked too much like Huge Krap for his taste, so that name had to go.
We drove to the hotel where a HOBY conference was taking place. Once there, we were shown to a meeting room where Mrs. Miller was waiting. Schweitzer's daughter, then in her 70s, had come to witness one of the 90 youth leadership seminars held annually that were inspired by her father.
The completely volunteer operated HOBY seminars are geared to teach high school tenth graders the Free Enterprise System while at the same time encouraging their leadership skills to emerge. This goal is resolutely stated in HOBY's motto: Motivating Tomorrow's Leaders Today. The students attend several panels made up of local business leaders. These are followed by intensive discussion sessions led by the students themselves. They also participate in a variety of activities and games designed to elicit latent leadership abilities.
Over lunch, Mr. O'Brian and Mrs. Miller reminisced about her father's work. Albert Schweitzer built a hospital in Gabon, and brought healthcare to thousands while attracting the world's attention to the needs and problems of Africa. During this conversation, O'Brian shared with me how his journey to inspire teenagers began. In 1958, partly at the suggestion of a friend and partly out of curiosity, he ventured into the jungle of Africa to visit the clinic of the Noble Peace Prize winning Schweitzer. After a long flight in a primitive bush plane, and an even longer ride in a canoe paddled up river, he finally arrived. The TV action hero, who was accustomed to the finest Tinseltown could offer, was assigned his mosquito-netted cot and promptly put to work building baby cribs.
At the end of that first long day, he was summoned to Schweitzer's quarters. The hour was late and he was exhausted, but the 83 year old missionary wanted to talk. O'Brian told me that an interpreter was brought in, and as the old man spoke, "I looked into penetrating eyes which could see inside me all the way down to the bottom of my feet."
Dr. Schweitzer said many things that night, but etched into the television star's memory were these words: "You are the first young man from the United States who has come to see me. This is good, because the United States is the only country that has the strength to take a leadership role in bringing peace to the world." Schweitzer who had long protested the testing of nuclear weapons was acutely aware of the Communist threat, and told him, "You can't beat Communism by shoving it under a rug."
The words that most hit home with O'Brian however, were these, "The most important thing about education is to teach young people to think for themselves." On hearing this O'Brian told me that he felt God was speaking to him through Schweitzer.
Ten days later, after laboring hard in the humid jungle hospital and observing the ever striving doctor, it was time to go. Schweitzer joined him on the river bank as he got into the canoe, and said, "Never let the world rob you of your enthusiasm." As his guide pushed the canoe off the bank, Schweitzer looked him in the eye one last time and posed the rhetorical question, "What are you going to do with this experience?"
O'Brian had plenty of time to ponder that question. He was left alone with his thoughts for the 48 hours it took him to travel back to Los Angeles. He told me that he wanted to use his notoriety to make a difference, and that he wanted to accentuate the positive instead of the negative. He explained that the trend of the 1950s was to send juvenile delinquents to summer camp while the kids who were trying to do the right thing were being ignored. He said, "I wanted to bring together those kids who wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem; so that they were no longer oddballs, but part of a majority." He said he wanted to bring this peer group together and let them get acquainted. The two messages he wanted to spread were, "The world does not owe you a living." and "Profit is not a dirty word."
Within two weeks of returning from Africa he put together his first seminar. He gathered 25 tenth graders from the local school, Boy's Club, and YMCA. He said tenth grade was his choice because, "That was the year when I first decided to fish or cut bait with my own life."
He called his doctor, his lawyer, his CPA, and a friend who was a teacher. He asked them to serve as speakers and counselors, and at the end of the weekend he knew he was on to something. Today there are now over 400,000 students who have attended a HOBY seminar, and the first ones are now in their seventies.
To learn more about the Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation, visit www.hoby.org.
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist/speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of ...and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children's book about dealing with a bully; and the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.