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Inspiring the Inspired – 7 Mentors of Great Historical Figures

Inspiration comes in a variety of forms. Many of us look to famous artists, intellectuals, entertainers and world leaders in search of ways to help us think, create, problem-solve and achieve. Yet, even the most famous and respected figures rely on personal mentors and heroes who are often a friend, family member, or teacher—an ordinary person whose wisdom, guidance and support has inspired them to achieve the extraordinary. The following are a few such examples.

A Music Teacher Inspires a President

As the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton is widely considered to be one of the most influential people of the 20th century. During his administration, the United States enjoyed more peace and economic well-being than at any other time in its history, and he was the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. Clinton was often thought of as the “People’s President,” thanks to his down-to-earth demeanor and blue-collar appeal. One of his most memorable moments happened when he appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show” while on the campaign trail. Clinton dazzled the world by showing off his saxophone skills, which he learned from one of the most influential people in his life: Virgil M. Spurlin.

An early influence on a teenage Clinton, Spurlin was the band director at Hot Springs High School. According to Clinton, Spurlin taught him more than just music, and their relationship was part of the reason Clinton decided to go into politics. In interviews, Clinton praises his teacher for always trying to find things that people were good at and for teaching him how to get organized and allocate resources while on yearly band trips. “I really felt that my early years with him convinced me that I could organize and run things. That I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I could actually marshal other people in a common effort, and of course if you’re in politics that’s very important,” said Clinton.

Clinton remained close to Spurlin until he passed away, and their relationship is just one example of how a teacher can inspire a future leader to hit the right notes.

Oprah Winfrey Learns Her Greatest Lesson

Oprah Winfrey is without question one of the world’s most celebrated personalities. She has inspired millions with her television show, magazines, movies and humanitarian efforts. Though, Oprah wasn’t always the strong woman she is today. As a child, she was very insecure but found strength in her fourth grade teacher, Mary Duncan.

Duncan instantly recognized something special in Winfrey and could tell that something was holding her back, so she encouraged her to read aloud for the class, which helped Winfrey overcome her nerves and gain self-confidence. Duncan also stayed after school with Winfrey on a regular basis, taking her under her wing and asking her to help out with classroom tasks. “She helped me choose books and let me help her grade papers,” recalls Winfrey, stressing the importance of their relationship. “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view. I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship. And we are all mentors to people, even when we don’t know it.”

Many years later, Winfrey’s producers surprised her by bringing Mary Duncan onto the show, something which she describes as one of the most memorable experiences of her life. “My eyes filled with tears, and I said, ‘Mrs. Duncan had a name! Her name is Mary.’ As a child, I hadn’t even considered that Mrs. Duncan might have had a life beyond our class. It was in her class that I really came into myself. After all these years, I could say ‘thank you’ to a woman who had a powerful impact on my early life.”

A Professor Helps Bring a Dream to Life

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an iconic and heroic leader in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world and one of the most inspiring individuals to ever live. Like many others, he developed ambitions for social change as young adult, ambitions that were nurtured and supported by his mentor, Dr. Benjamin Mays, a distinguished African American minister and scholar. The two met when Dr. King was only fourteen years old and attended Morehouse College, where Dr. Mays was president.

After meeting Dr. King and his family, Dr. Mays took an immediate liking to the young student, instantly recognizing something special in him. The feeling was mutual, as Dr. King looked forward to attending Mays’s Tuesday sermons to the student body and oftenstuck around to chat with Mays afterward.

The two formed a close bond, allowing Mays to share many ideas that would heavily influence King’s activism. He taught him about Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent protest and stressed the importance of upholding the dignity of all human beings despite unfair social practices. They remained close for the duration of Dr. King’s life, and Dr. King would come to refer to Dr. Mays as his “spiritual and emotional father.”

A Grandmother Provides the Muse for a Singer

Gloria Estefan is one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time. Along with the band, Miami Sound Machine, the Cuban-born Estefan has sold over 90 million albums worldwide and has won seven Grammy awards.

There was a time in her life, however, when Estefan had doubts about following the path of music, despite her natural abilities to perform–doubts that she overcame thanks to the help of her grandmother, Consuelo Garcia.

Garcia, according to her famous granddaughter, was a woman ahead of her time; someone who wanted to be a lawyer even thought it was unheard of for a woman to do so, and someone who could easily inspire others with her strong spirit.

“The most valuable lessons I learned from my grandmother were to discover what makes you happy, and do it with as much energy and joy as you can muster,” said Estefan. “And that success takes perseverance, determination, and an unwavering belief in what you have chosen to do. My grandmother always pointed out my strengths and filled me with hope for the future. She constantly nourished my inquisitiveness and shared many quests for seeking answers to my questions. She wasn’t afraid to let me see her vulnerability and made that intimacy an asset to be celebrated. Primarily through her example, I learned that we, as women, have limitless potential. I finally said yes to music because of her.”

A Drama Teacher Inspires an Oscar-Winning Performance

Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows the name Tom Hanks. The award-winning actor is one of the world’s most popular entertainers whose films have grossed over $4 billion worldwide. Though most people know him from movies and television, Hanks’s acting career began in the halls of Skyline Hills High School in Oakland, California, under the direction of drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth.

Eager to learn the craft, Hanks took all six of Farnsworth’s classes, during which Farnsworth immediately spotted a genuine comedic talent but encouraged Hanks to be a more dramatic and versatile actor. “Tom was very smart in that respect,” recalls Farnsworth. “I always knew he would go places.”

Indeed, Hanks did. In 1993, he won an Academy Award for his gripping depiction of Andrew Beckett, a lawyer infected with AIDS fighting against bigotry and homophobia in the film, Philadelphia. During his emotional Oscar speech, Hanks credited his experiences with Farnsworth as a major source of inspiration.

“Here’s what I know… I would not be standing here if it weren’t for two very important men in my life, two I haven’t spoken with in a while but I had the pleasure of just the other evening – Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me ‘Act well the part, there all the glory lies’, and one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson. I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.”

In thanking Farnsworth that night in front of millions of people, Hanks reminded us of the true value and inspiration that teachers bring.

A Journalist Learns the Importance of the Story

When it comes to journalists, they don’t come any greater than Walter Cronkite. Often called “the most trusted man in America,” Cronkite covered nearly every major news event in his sixty-year career. He liked to tell stories with great passion, a passion he learned from his high school journalism teacher, Fred Birney.

As a student at San Jacinto High School in Houston, Cronkite was inspired by Birney’s pioneering efforts and passion for journalism. During a time when few schools had journalism classes or student newspapers, Birney convinced the Houston Board of Education to allow him to teach a journalism class once a week at three local high schools.

“He was a newspaperman of the old school and taught us a great deal about reporting and writing. He also became a sponsor of the San Jacinto High School newspaper, the Campus Cub. Under his tutelage, we published it monthly, whereas it had previously been published in a casual manner, just three or four times a year. During my junior year, I was the sports editor of the Campus Cub and its chief editor in my senior year,” recalled Cronkite.

Upon nearing graduation, Cronkite was torn between pursuing a career in journalism and becoming a mining engineer. But thanks to Birney, the choice was clear.

“He taught me so much in those high school classes, and by securing me early jobs, he cemented my desire to be a reporter for the rest of my life. He was my major inspiration. I always credit Fred Birney for my career,” added Cronkite.

The Man Who Inspired Gandhi

There are few people who have had a more profound effect on the world than Mahatma Gandhi. As mentioned earlier, he was an inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as for Nelson Mandela and so many others.

Gandhi also learned from someone, Dadabhai Naoroji, an Indian leader who helped to start the Indian Independence Movement in 1857. Upon learning of Naoroji’s intentions, Gandhi was eager to join in the efforts. In 1888, he wrote Naoroji a letter, which read, “…you will, therefore oblige me greatly if you will kindly direct and guide me and make necessary suggestions which shall be received as from a father to his child.”

Naoroji took Gandhi under his wing and instilled in him the importance of peaceful protests. Thanks to the teachings, Gandhi was able to hold the largest demonstration of nonviolent resistance in 1947, which handed the country of India back to its people. Upon describing their relationship further, Gandhi would later write, “The story of a life so noble and yet so simple needs no introduction from me or anybody else. May it be an inspiration to the readers even as Dadabhai living was to me. And so Dadabhai became real DADA to me.”