Whoopi Goldberg has been in a lot of movies. The Color Purple, Sister Act, and I'll admit, one of my favorite Goldberg movies, when she played the female coach of the professional New York Knicks basketball team, in Eddie.
The list could go on and on. How many people can ever say they won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony Award? There was the movie with the late Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost, the one woman show on Broadway, and of course, there is Goldberg on television these days as a host on The View.
But here comes Whoopi Goldberg in a different light. A very positive one! Up front and personal. We all know that most of the time, with some Hollywood types, what you see is not always what you get. You can click here to see the story I did on TV.
Here was Goldberg at a maximum security prison. The graduation speaker for a highly successful program called, "Hudson Link," a program that raises private dollars to pay for college educations for prison inmates. "Hudson Link" was just recently the focus on an HBO documentary, and I was very proud to be the emcee for their annual fundraiser.
Here was Goldberg, arriving at the prison in Ossining New York more than an hour before the graduation. Without much fanfare, she walked in and did what many might consider the unthinkable. She bee-lined to the graduate area and maneuvered around, in this case, the regular visiting room where family members came to see their locked-up loved ones, which was now the make-shift area for the ceremony. Goldberg talked to each and every one of the inmates as the new graduates put on their caps and gowns.
Whoopi Goldberg was so unassuming, and the graduates in return were so thankful. There is irony in all of this. They may have long histories as hardened criminals, but they also admitted to Goldberg that yes, even in a state maximum security prison, the men watch her and the other ladies of The View.
Sometimes, in life it's amazing what you can overcome.
I recall growing up and feeling that I was one of the dumbest kids ever to come from the N.Y.C. public school system, but later, would go on to obtain an education, and even appear on Face the Nation, as a journalist discussing Caroline Kennedy's interest in the U.S Senate, or the fact that I have moderated a debate with Hillary Clinton.
At this graduation, it was Goldberg's turn to discuss her shortcomings.
Without notes, and speaking from the heart, Goldberg told the graduates about her learning disability being dyslectic and having never attended college, but she talked about how her mother always believed in her, and said, "Baby, that (college) may not be for you, but there are other things."
It was so fitting for Goldberg to publically talk about her short-comings and what she had to overcome. Basically, illustrating what I say in my speeches, in life, we all fall down. The question is, do you get back up?
The class valedictorian, a young man by the name of William Brown, told the audience in his speech that he almost turned down his opportunity because he worried if he would be inadequate, if he would be at a loss of words.
Well, William with his black cap on, and tassel to the side, did just fine.
His family was there, expressing tremendous tears of joy, and I watched them cry during his speech. The Brown family had put off retiring to stand by their son. His father, William Brown, mother, Victoria Brown, and Aunt Judith Little were in attendance. His mother told me:
"I feel very proud of him," with her voice trembling, and her husband rubbing her back in full support "...for the way he has dealt with everything in his life, and especially being here."
Another family at the Mercy College Graduation were loved ones of graduate Mark Boatswain. Mark received his Associate Degree, and his mother, Elaine Barnett, and sister, Marsha Thomas couldn't have been happier.
Think about this for a moment, after all the years of seeing a loved one in prison, and the turmoil that comes with that. At least on this day, the families were on top of the world.
So Whoopi Goldberg was giving back to the community, but so are the educators, the ones that put their life on the line going into these correctional institutions. I talked to seven-year English Literature and Composition professor JoAnn Skousen.
Skousen reminded me of my wife, Marilyn Carter, a life-long educator, who years ago in the upstate Cortland N.Y area, took tremendous pride teaching at juvenile detention centers. Part of me, never understood it. So I put my question to professor Skousen, and found her answer amazing.
Professor, you been doing this for seven years. Are you worried about your safety?"
That's a really good question. It's a question a lot of people ask me. These are maximum security prisoners. They have reasons that they are here, and I'm always aware of that. I know there is a reason they are behind bars, but no, I have never once felt threatened or worried. These men are so respectful, so appreciative, So honorable, they would protect me with their lives if they needed too, and I always sensed that. So I've never been worried, never been scared.
I followed up.
"Why do you do what you do, professor?"
I do it because I want to change lives, and I know that education changes lives. I appreciate that this is not a penal institution. It is a correctional facility. I feel in many ways, I'm correcting what went wrong, and helping them become different people so that when go on the outside they are ready to serve the community and be a part of it.
Maybe I'm getting old, only days away from the milestone of my 50th birthday, but the response of professor Skousen brings tears to my eyes. This woman, surrounded by alleged hardened criminals in a classroom, just knew that right was on her side. You could see it in her eyes.
My experience in life has shown me that one person; yes, one determined person can change the world.
It was also the first Mercy College graduation for President Timothy L. Hall. Just three weeks ago the new president arrived from Tennessee, and was bursting with pride at the graduation.
I have to admit, I did not start out supporting this program, a college education for prison inmates (and I raised that opposition to Goldberg and another entertainer that supports it, Harry Belafonte. You can see the interviews here). But look at the millions it saves tax-payers. Again, the money for Hudson Link is privately raised, and it saves tax-payers because only a handful of their graduates have ever returned to prison, which in New York State costs about 60,000 a year per inmate. You do the math.
"There aren't many programs that I know of where you can spend a dollar here, and get a 12 dollar return there. It makes percent sense." Said Sean Pica-Hudson Link.
Another Hudson Link official put it this way.
"There is a big difference between incarceration, and rehabilitation. The men that are graduating here are the ultimate example of what rehabilitation can mean when we as a society look at them as men, not as prisoners," said Christian French-Hudson Link Board President.
The new graduates will never forget that someone like Whoopi Goldberg took time out her day to travel two hours outside New York City to attend their graduation, they will never forget Professor Skousen, that someone believed in them, or their families that have been there in bad times and now in good ones.