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On Faith: Offer compassion to those who are different

February 05, 2011|By Tom Thorkelson

I met an amazing human being during a visit to Seattle a few years ago.

His name was Bill Porter.

Bill and I were born in the same month but under entirely different circumstances. He was afflicted with cerebral palsy. His mother told him he could accomplish anything if he set his mind to it, and encouraged him to achieve his goals. It was her faith in Bill that gave him faith in his potential. Despite being told by counselors that he was unemployable and should stay at home and collect disability checks for the rest of his life — and after company after company (including Fuller Brush) refused to give him a chance — he wrangled a job with Watkins Products as a door-to-door salesman.

He was given the poorest territory in his town, and everyone expected him to fail. The story of how he ultimately became the most successful salesman in Watkins' history is one of the most inspiring that I have ever heard. His achievements have been chronicled in the 75th anniversary edition of the Reader's Digest, in innumerable magazines and articles, in a best-selling book written by his long-time employee Shelly Brady and received the highest viewer response ever recorded when his story was aired on "20/20."

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Shelly Brady gave the talk, with Bill inserting comments as he felt inspired. While communicating with difficulty, he displayed humility and great humor. The story meant a little more to me than to some of the younger members of the audience, because, when I was growing up, the "Watkins Man" was a regular fixture in my home. An inspirational movie was made about Bill's life and we were able to see some clips from it during the presentation. I was constantly wiping away tears as the story progressed, as was most of the audience.

I also remember John and Alex Stuart's young son, "John-John." The family lived just a block away and I would often see John, riding his bicycle in the neighborhood, with John-John sitting in a special seat attached to the back of the bike. John-John was also born with cerebral palsy, but his family gave him the loving attention that has resulted in his earning a bachelor's and master's, as well as full employment as a social services counselor.

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