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A celebration of those who've inspired us

In a new book titled, "A Hand to Guide Me," actor Denzel Washington shares the inspiring personal stories of 70 legends and leaders and those who've shaped their lives. Read an excerpt.

Denzel Washington believes that you don't get to the top entirely on your own and, in fact, there are mentors and sources of inspiration helping everyone along the path to success. And now, he shares the stories of those who inspired him and 70 of America’s leading personalities in his first book titled, “A Hand to Guide Me.” Celebrating their 100th anniversary, a portion of the proceeds will benefit the 4.5 million children currently involved in The Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Washington was invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:

Let’s start with a verse from Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Powerful words, don’t you think? It’s a simple sentiment too, and yet I’m amazed how many people lose sight of it these days. Anyway it’s a line that’s been bouncing around in my head as I put this book together, because I’ve been reminded on almost every page of the importance of shaping our children and laying a strong foundation from which they might soar. Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who didn’t want for positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care who you are or what you do for a living — if you do it well I’m betting there was someone cheering you on and showing you the way. I’ll even lay odds.  

There’s a line from one of my movies, The Bone Collector, that ties in to what we’re talking about: “Destiny is what we make it.” In the movie I played a quadriplegic homicide detective named Lincoln Rhyme, on the trail of a serial killer. There’s a scene with Angelina Jolie’s character where my guy gets to talking about the hand he’s been dealt and the meaning of fate and fortune and destiny. It’s one of the real turning point, epiphany-type scenes of the movie because Lincoln Rhyme was planning his suicide before he met up with Angelina Jolie. Then he got caught up in this case, and soon enough there were sparks between the two lead characters. Suddenly there was every reason to live where just a moment earlier there’d been no reason at all.

We’re all destined to leave some kind of mark. I really believe that. We’re all meant to walk a certain path at a certain time in a certain direction for a certain purpose. I believe that too. But I also believe we miss our marks from time to time, and without a certain push in the right direction we might never find the path we were meant to follow. This book is about that certain push, that helping hand we’ve all had to reach for in order to get where we’re going. Train up a child in the way he should go, and he might get to where he’s meant to be headed all along. 

I’ve had that push in my life, going back as far as I can remember. So have the folks you’re about to meet in these pages — actors, athletes, musicians, doctors, lawyers, politicians, business leaders — they’ve all had the guidance of someone or something, at some time or other. They’ve all built on that guidance and internalized it and made it their own. After all you don’t get to the top of your game or the top of your field or the top of the charts entirely on your own, and I want to celebrate the good people who have helped us get where we’re going. Every one of us has a story to share. Every one of us looks back on a parent or a coach or a teacher or a role model who set us straight and steered us right. Doesn’t matter if you’ve gone on to become a ballplayer or a firefighter or the president of the United States. Doesn’t matter if you’ve struggled to keep your family together under one roof or if you’ve just been named Employee of the Month down at the factory. If you’ve achieved any kind of real and lasting success, if you’ve made any kind of difference, it’s more than likely there was someone there to help point the way. 

For me, the first push outside my own home came at the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, New York. I spent a lot of time there as a kid — first out of necessity, then because there was no place else I’d rather be. I was there most days after school and most weekends until I went away to high school. At some point I started working and I couldn’t get to the club as often as I might have liked, but it remained very much a lifeline, a path to purpose. See, my parents didn’t have the time to take me to this or that activity the way parents do today. They couldn’t always be home when I was done with school. They were too busy working. My mother worked in beauty salons. My father was a preacher. He had a couple churches — one in Virginia, the other in New York. In addition to that, he always had at least two full-time jobs. So he was always working, always on the road, always going out of his way to help some other family in need or crisis. And my mother had her hands full running back and forth to work and trying to keep the household going.

The Center of Everything
In my neighborhood the Boys Club was the center of everything. It was my whole world, just about, from the time I was six years old. It was where I learned how to play ball, where I learned how to focus and set my mind on a goal, where I learned about consequences, where I learned how to be a man. And at the heart of it all was a powerful force of nature named Billy Thomas. He pretty much ran the place — and let me tell you, he was a local treasure. Billy helped a lot of kids because he took an interest. He cared. And he made each of us feel like we had something to offer, like we were someone special. For my money, though, Billy Thomas was the someone special. I just thought this guy was it, you know? He had it so completely together that just sitting back and watching him go about his business was an education, and that’s what I did. I’d catch myself trying to walk like Billy, trying to shoot a foul shot like Billy, trying to carry myself like Billy, trying to treat other people with the same respect and dignity he might offer. Even his handwriting was fascinating to me. He was an artist, and you could see it in the way he signed his name. There was a real flourish to it, and to this day I look at my signature and think back to how I used to copy Billy Thomas. It’s in the way I sign my name. It’s in the way I write a letter. It’s in most everything I do.

Another great push found me at a barbershop called Modernistic, on Third Street in Mount Vernon. That’s where I worked starting when I was 11 or 12. The job eventually pulled me from the Boys Club, as making money became more and more important. I still kept my hand in down at the club, but I was itching to work. Soon enough the barbershop became its own kind of lifeline for me, its own path to purpose. The place was run by a man named Jack Coleman, who took me on as a kindness to my mother. At least that’s how I always look back on it. She was in the beauty shop business and she set me up as Mr. Coleman’s cleanup guy. I thought it was the best job in the world. I had all kinds of hustles back then. You walked in the shop and I could tell right away how much money you had. I’d check out your shoes and I’d just know. I’d have people bringing me their dry cleaning, and I’d take it out and deliver it back to their house. I’d run all kinds of errands. They’d step out of Mr. Coleman’s chair and I’d be on them with a whisk broom, brushing off their collar, saying, “Man, how you doin’ today?” Or, “Man, you look good.” There was money to be made all day long, especially if you were respectful and solicitous. My thinking was, if you had some loose change dangling around in your pocket on the way in the door, I’d do what I could to see that money into my pocket before you left.

What an education! What a bunch of characters! It was a real neighborhood joint, and Mr. Coleman wasn’t just the head barber. He was like Modernistic’s master of ceremonies. I thought he was it too — another someone special, another someone to look up to. He had his own business. He called his own shots. He presided over this wonderfully eccentric assortment of souls who paraded in and out of his shop all day long — chess masters, college professors, neighborhood businessmen. That’s probably where I got my first acting lessons — at the barbershop, sweeping up and listening to all these stories from all these colorful individuals who could spin a tale or two.

There was a sign on the wall that said, “Credit is dead, it was killed by the last man who didn’t pay.” That gives you an idea of the tone and tenor of the place. Mr. Coleman was another strong individual, like Billy Thomas, and he ran that place like an extension of his own personality. I’ll never forget how the shop used to close at 6:30, and someone would invariably walk through that door at 6:35 and say, “Oh, am I late?” And Mr. Coleman would say, “No, you’re early. You’re first. You’re first one up tomorrow morning.”

But of course I wasn’t planning to stay at the Modernistic forever. It was just a place to hang my cap for the time being, to hustle some loose change on afternoons and weekends, and to collect some life lessons from the regulars. Besides, my mother didn’t want me to stand 16 hours a day over somebody’s head like she and Mr. Coleman had to do. She wanted something better for me. She worked too hard, she used to say, to see me walk the same path. She expected me to go to college, and I meant to meet her expectations — although, to be honest, I didn’t have the first idea what I’d do when I got there.Excerpted from "A Hand to Guide Me." Copyright 2006 by Denzel Washington. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Meredith Books.