The Self-Made Man Behind the Marvel
After years of having interview after interview only for Dave to be
labeled as "That Child Abuse Guy" and knowing there are so many layers to
Dave, our office decided to interview Dave ourselves. His life is more than
what's written between the pages of his books, more than what you see from
him on stage, TV, or hear on the radio; and until now there hasn't been a
more candid look at who Dave is now. So, if you've read the books, we'll
tell you what he's doing now; if you've forgotten, then we'll include a
bit of a refresher; and if you don't know who Dave is at all then we'll
give you a taste. Either way, you'll finish reading knowing more than you
did and hopefully have more meaning about his life and yours. In the end, we
hope you'll feel inspired, alter your course, or find a whole new direction
in life. As Dave's wife, best friend, business V.P, and soul mate, and after
five months of research, I am honored to present an extensive inside glance at
a self made man.
I anxiously watch out the window as Dave backs into the parking lot and I time my arrival into his office just as he drops his 150-pound cargo onto the floor: a beat-up "Indiana Jones" type of satchel, an ancient Apple laptop computer, and in each hand a hefty tattered suitcase. A big "thud" escapes the pile as it drops and his eyes frantically search the desk for how much work awaits him. In A Beautiful Mind fashion, he calculates how many hours remain for him to chat with his son and schedule in some husband-and-wife time. His face is sweaty, his countenance is wearied, and I can easily see that he's skipped a few meals. Although there's no time to waste, I give him a quick hug and kiss and brace myself for the 101 questions. And Dave, in turn, braces himself for the work that's cradled in my arms that I'm about to "add" to his desk. Although our team and I have already censored, scrutinized, and prioritized his work, Dave's desk still looks like a demolition derby and its reality is 2-weeks worth of work that carries a deadline of 48 hours. Pyramid stacks of books and photos to autograph, endless lists of important calls to return, mounds of contracts and paperwork to review, urgent radio and TV interviews to approve, critical final proofs for his upcoming book, The Privilege of Youth, to review, as well bewildering travel logistics to map out . . . . . Welcome to Dave's World.
It's 1 pm and Dave takes a deep breath and suddenly dives into the piles of work. He doesn't come up for air until midnight, when he decides to take his first break. After 8+ years of knowing and working with this man, he still amazes me. But even before the notoriety, his workload was always strenuous and people loved him. "It took me nineteen years to be an overnight success," Dave says. Long before he "made it," Dave always had greatness.
Unlike many political candidates who have an agenda, Dave has a mission: A personal motive that has catapulted him beyond other "successful authors" and into nonfiction publishing history. Dave is one of the only authors to have 2 books simultaneously on the New York Times Best Sellers paperback listing, then later becoming 3 books on this same list, while his fourth book, Help Yourself, persisted on the Business Best Sellers list for 12 weeks. All 4 books have been #1 International best sellers. Months ago, Dave's first book, A Child Called "It," passed the 5-year mark on the New York Times Best Sellers list; and his second book, The Lost Boy, just reached the pinnacle with more than 4 years on that same list. No other author has even come close. And although he doesn't possess the kind of wealth that many presume based on such bestseller status (let's just tack it up to Dave being too naive when he first became published), money or fame was never his goal. He gives to others more than the numbers allow, he rarely writes himself a paycheck, and he has no plans to alter this pattern. Bottom line: he's a giver, not a taker. And although not a taker, he's not a pushover either. He'll give, as long as it's genuinely needed and appreciated.
Those who know Dave describe him as "Will Rogers meets Clint Eastwood." Add the wholesomeness of Clark Kent and the tenacity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you have yourself a determined individual who cultivates truth, justice, and the American way. And as much as Dave admires these individuals, they aren't his true heroes. Dave's true heroes are the police officers, teachers, social workers, foster parents, and all those other brave individuals who sacrifice day in and day out, having a direct impact on the lives of others in need. Over the years Dave has become an activist of sorts, promoting a raw message of what he calls The Greatness of America. Having sacrificed in so many ways, he has paid his dues on the speaking and traveling passage for nearly 20 years, and is now literally one of the most sought-after personalities. And if you label him a "motivational speaker" he will cringe, as he loathes the phrase. In retort, Dave will say he is only a "person" trying to make a difference, whenever and however needed.
Dave's difference has garnished him distinctive accolades that include 5 Presidential commendations. He is the recipient of the TOYA--Ten Outstanding Young Americans--award, which has also been bestowed to Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton, and other prominent personalities such as Chuck Yeager, Christopher Reeve, and Anne Bancroft. The following year, Dave was the only American to be selected for TOYP--The Outstanding Young Person of the World--award. Dave also proudly carried the Centennial Flame for the Olympic Games. But before any of these acknowledgments, before anyone came to know Pelzer, while serving active duty for the U.S. Air Force and flying overseas for months at a time, Dave devoted any free moment possible to his pursuit of assisting others, receiving the J.C. Penney Golden Rule award, making him California's Volunteer of the Year. This is why any of us in Pelzer Land will tar and feather anyone who implies Dave is "an overnight success" or that he's "only in it for the money."
But I think what makes the "phenom" in the phenomenon is the fact he was "It" before he was Dave. He could have ended up murdered by his deranged, alcoholic mother, or rotted in prison as a young man because of the life he endured as a child. No, it wasn't living; it was existing. Existing by a breath and a hope. Hanging on by a thread tied to God's pinkie. For over 8 years Dave's mother tortured and dehumanized her son. Track records of anything even close to this kind of abuse would dictate his future as a homicidal maniac, serial killer, blaming his path of destruction on his violent childhood.
If you met Dave for the first time or watched him from a distance, you'd never recognize the lows of his past or the heights of his success. "I never expected any of this," Dave says. "I love my life. My biggest blessings are not my work as an author and communicator, but are my wife, Marsha, and my son, Stephen. Accolades and status in one's career are nice and open doors to make more of a difference in this world, but the heart of what I do is for my family. To make things better for my son today than when I was growing up. To me, life is an adventure, and with every day there's another opportunity to go out there and do something!"
Watching Dave's big blue eyes as he claims this stance, I smile. Reality hits you that you're watching and listening to someone who has been through such hell as a child, but now as an adult does not feel hatred nor resentment for anything or anyone. And not in a cowardly approach, but as a brave human being who genuinely wanted to heal himself and help others. Dave doesn't see through rose-colored glasses--he sees through neon-colored glasses. When your life was so dark for so long, you love and appreciate the color of LIFE.
Never a victim
"At an early age I made a commitment that I would do whatever it took to survive. It wasn't easy and it certainly wasn't pretty; I just did what I had to do," Dave says as he reveals ways he had to steal food to eat, since his mother enjoyed starving him, how he had to clean his own wounds when he was brutalized, and how he had to, at any cost, outwit her when she made trying to kill him a game.
"What amazes me is that folks are amazed. But I relate it to the courage of single moms or single dads trying to work and raise their children, or like those brave souls who battle cancer, or those who are dealing with the death of a loved one. You do whatever you have to do. You commit yourself. It's a sink or swim mentality. But I simply had to learn to adapt at an earlier age." Pushing Dave a bit more he replies, "I would have crawled on glass."
Even after his teachers intervened, risking their careers to save this boy's life, things weren't all that easier. He now faced different challenges. Young Dave was placed in foster care, and after being bounced from home to home he applied himself with the same raw intensity, working well over 40 hours a week while in junior high (he had to lie about his age so he could work), taking what jobs he could as a busboy at fast-food joints and a shoe shiner in seedy bars. In high school he worked over 80 hours a week, under the radar, causing him to drop out of school so he could pursue even more work.
Of all the things I wish I could go back and change, I would have never, never dropped out of high school. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I would have stayed, taken all the classes, cut back on work, and prepped myself for college. But back then as a foster kid things were different. Back then, once you were 18 you were booted from the system. After all I had gone through I was scared to death of being homeless and starving in the streets. So, my mentality was work hard to get paid, get paid to buy food, buy food and live. The equation: No money=No food=I die. As a kid in my mother's basement, I promised myself that if I ever got out I'd never go hungry again. I know it sounds very Gone With the Wind, but when you come from a situation like I did, the mentality stays with you. So I worked for the sole reason of survival. I nearly worked myself to death before reaching 18 and I missed out on a lot, but the trade-off was my past became my solid foundation and I learned a very good work ethic. Even now, whatever I do, I can always tap back into that inner drive that propels me forward."
Of course now I must digress and remind Dave of how he's not the young whipper-snapper he used to be and cannot and should not work under those customs. "Yeah, yeah," he says, trying to shrug me off, as that would be a sign of weakness to admit. In all the years I've known him, not only could I not keep up with him (and I have a very good work ethic myself), but he would not heed obvious warnings, couldn't say no to demanding requests, and has a heart sometimes bigger than his head, thus he landed himself in the hospital last summer. Everyone here at Dave's office was so worried and angry at the same time, and vowed to force him to make some changes so he could be around for a long time. That meant turning down many requests from clients, fans, and special projects. Dave fought us tooth and nail, but his schedule has slowed from a tornado to a windstorm, and he has better health and sanity because of it. If you couldn't guess already, Dave is very bullheaded.
At 18 years old, with the California recession taking hold and jobs becoming scarce, Dave then set his sights on his childhood dream of joining the air force. "But the last thing they wanted was an off-beat, skittish, clumsy, low self-esteem, stuttering, high-risk, high school dropout foster kid," Dave confesses. But what the air force didn't know--even after they practically kicked Dave out of their recruitment office--was his resolve. For the next 6 months, nearly every morning rain or shine Dave showed up with updates on his GED attempts and doing whatever he deemed necessary to enlist.
In the summer of 1979 Dave finally enlisted. Dave put in the grunt work as a cook in the back swamps of Florida, earned his Jump Wings, studied advanced college math, and three years later his persistence catapulted him into one of the most prominent assignments the air force could offer: midair refueling of the highly secretive SR-71 Blackbird and the super top secret F-117 Stealth Fighter. The SR-71 was the exact airplane that years ago Dave studied and devoured in magazine articles from the school library and later as a foster child in Mr. Marsh's home (a neighbor and mentor to Dave), never imagining that one day he'd have an opportunity to even see one up close. "As a young lad, Dave was ravenous about my aviation collection. He'd sit in a corner for hours ingesting page after page. Whenever he'd run off with my tomes, which he did quite frequently, I would threaten him with death if he did not return my 30-year collection in pristine condition," Mr. Marsh jokes. "However, for this sad boy's life those books were a key that unlocked the door to his future."
After returning from a 6-month deployment from Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, in May of 1991 Dave was transferred to his Headquarters outside Omaha before it was affected by the military's version of corporate downsizing. Like Dave's beloved Blackbird being phased out, he saw the writing on the wall. When offered an early retirement and exit bonus, Dave hung up his flight suit and never looked back. His adventures as an aircrew member have taken him to some of the world's most dangerous places. "Flying for the air force was more than one of the most exciting periods of my life; for me it was a surrogate family. We lived together, worked together. We had a bond. As a crew we pulled together to get things done. I'm honored to have played a small part in history. For a guy like me, where I came from, I'll be proud to one day relive the memories with my son.'
After years of roaming the states while on military leave, promoting a unique message of resilience and accountability, he knew this message that resonated was only a matter of time. But Dave almost didn't make it. His quest nearly faltered before he got a foothold. He was managed by a young, arrogant, clip-on-tie type of "motivational speaker" who insisted Dave adopt a single speech that he could replay word for word. Dave refused to yield, clinging to his core belief that one needs to work differently with kids from junior high than with hardcore juvenile hall residents. Dave was also adamant about specific tributes for those in the education, social work, and foster care. Dave also saw himself speaking to corporate/business audiences.
A Core Belief
"Every audience has a different dynamic, a different rhythm," Dave explains. "I refuse to go out there and play some tape in my head or talk like a broken record. The audience can smell that. They want, need, and expect pertinent, real-life information to enhance what they're facing. It's my job to push things to the limit. You only get one chance to make an impression, and I give it every ounce I have."
Another person within the firm, Dave's "manager," didn't like Dave's vision and attitude, and after time much tension was created. His manager warned that if Dave didn't relinquish and conform soon, he would never make it. "I've been hearing No' my whole life, that I would never amount to anything. I've always been told I was worthless, that foster kids were losers, yadda yadda. You name it, I heard it. But I knew that in everything that mattered to me--getting out alive, working, foster care, the air force, and my speaking/publishing career--there was always some type of struggle. Big deal. For me, the word No' is a positive thing. It makes me more motivated, my focus more clear on what exactly I need to do to make things happen. I came to realize that I saw things differently than many others. Therefore, I will fight for what I believe to be right and true."
After a series of unforeseen blunders--mismanagement, deceptions, and the printing of his first two books rather than publication, to be a bit more precise--Dave said goodbye to his "manager" and headed out on his own. Later this individual confessed to Dave that it was never personal, but just that Dave was "do-able."
Earlier in Dave's career, he carried with him the same reasoning he had with his mother and in the military. "I used to think: Don't make trouble. Those in charge know what they're doing, so don't speak up, don't make a fuss if you see something wrong. Just deal with it. I now know I should have intercepted, intervened, and said my peace a lot sooner in these relationships. I should have relied on right versus wrong, and protected myself."
Even after Dave was able to officially get his first book published, Dave had certain regrets. "I think in the beginning of my book career I was just too damn nice; I was too naive." Dave stresses how he should have researched things better, and to this day he'd probably be working with healthier business dealings. To add to the list, his first book agent confessed his embezzlement of Dave's funds. "Some people take being nice as a sign of weakness. Personally, I'd rather be overly nice than have to be a jerk sometimes. But I learned the hard way there are times to keep my guard up and protect my family and my business team. I've worked hard in my life, and no longer can I allow greedy, dishonest, or envious people to take advantage of me."
Dave's first marriage had suffered from the strain of his air force overseas deployments, his work as a volunteer, and now with the demise of his speaking relationship, everything was just too much for both people. Although the divorce from both his wife and his firm nearly did him in, the thing that crushed Dave the most was not being able to be with his son at all hours. "Thank God for cell phones and Hallmark cards," Dave sighs. He recalls after being on the road for weeks at time, he would drive 3 hours from the airport to his rented summer cabin--with no heat in the dead of winter--unpack and repack, and begin his 4-hour drive to pick up his son, head back to the cabin, and make the venture again 2 days later; just in time to drive back to the airport to begin another tour. In one year he put in over 60,000 miles from all the shuttling. "The one thing I wanted to do for my son was to be there for him. Sure, I couldn't see him every day, but we'd talk every day. And when his baseball games would end at nine o'clock at night, I wouldn't get home until one o'clock the next morning. And now that my son is a young man and doing his own thing, I'm so glad I logged those miles to watch him grow."
Like everything else in Dave's life he forged ahead. About the same time Dave's former wife remarried (Dave attended the ceremony, and the two are friends to this day), his speaking gained momentum and he found himself working 16-18 hour days. Dave and I met over the phone in Florida, and he later hired me and moved me to California. Dave and I worked diligently to promote the message of resilience and responsibility. We were broke (we couldn't even afford the Duraflame logs to heat the pitiful summer cabin I worked in and Dave lived in), we were tired, and struggled with what little-to-no time we had for our personal relationship. Both Dave and I had our "lessons" we learned in past relationships. We were both guarded in our own ways, but we loved each other enough and believed in each other enough to give it every ounce of ourselves. We knew we were meant for each other, but the obstacles that were stacked against us seemed to always get the upper hand. (To this day, we have to battle for time to nurture and protect the love and respect we both have for each other. But like anything in life worth fighting for, it makes you appreciate it. And it's damn well worth it!)
The Montel Factor
Bit by bit the business took root. One day, late summer of 1997, Dave got lucky; his hard work finally began to get recognized. He received a call to appear on the Montel Williams Show. At first Dave declined, as he did several times before since he didn't want to sit on a panel, spewing how he was horribly abused while playing woe to his violin. This time, when the producers told Dave they were fans of his work and that they understood the true message of his plight, Dave agreed to appear only if he could pay homage to those who rescued him as a child. The host surprised Dave by having his teachers on the show. And although a few naysayers within the publishing house were "disappointed" because Dave didn't "land Oprah," Montel Williams surprised them all because of the exposure he generated for Dave. Dave and I have always respected Montel and his shows and were confident the message of fortitude would come across. And it did. "If it wasn't for Montel and his staff, A Child Called "It" would have been pulled from the bookshelves and died on the vine," Dave admits. Dave and Montel hit a cord with his viewers and Dave has appeared on the show four times since then. When Dave was asked to appear with his fourth book, Help Yourself (a down-to-earth, Norman-Vincent-Peale-with-Grit guide), Montel whispered to Dave that the book helped him as he went through his painful divorce.
A Child Called "It," despite being destined to survive, thrive, and enlighten millions of readers, went through some controversy, some doubt, and in the end had to continue to prove itself with certain entities. When Dave's book first had little exposure, one woman stated that it was nothing but a manual on how to beat a child. A year later, this same woman called the office crying how the same book changed her niece's life and those around her, and kept an open line of communication with Dave and his office. She's one of Dave's biggest fans now.
When A Child Called "It" first debuted on the New York Times Best Sellers list, calls from media began to trickle in. But Dave would drive them crazy when he'd decline their offers. Dave felt the message needed to be addressed in the proper way; and if interviews didn't fit Dave's schedule, he wasn't about to cancel a foster-youth event in Kearney, NE just to get some face time on TV. Not Dave. He's booked in towns that aren't even on the map, but he always maintains his promise and priorities. When one talk show producer ordered Dave to ". . . just dump em and come do the show," Dave was stunned and immediately said "Never." They just didn't want to realize that he was "Dave" before the book made it big. And as Dave, he would make sure it was handled in an appropriate manner. Yes, as most people, Dave was sometimes tempted with the fame at the peak of its lure, but he would always come back to reality. As a humanitarian and businessman, he never strayed from his stance.
Not Politically Correct
And it's not just the media that Dave has ticked off. There are some past clients who've popped a few forehead veins over Dave. Although the vast majority of people understand the message and embrace Dave with open arms--his idiosyncrasies and all--there are a handful who believe that Dave is not their cup of tea. He once received "boos" all over the room and a seven-page hate letter from clients outside Seattle, WA. His crime? Saying the word "Ladies." Another client in a different city complained that he said "Yes, Sir. Yes, Ma'am," when chatting with his clients. One client even stated that Dave was going to hell because he said the word "hell" in his books and on stage. Dave will openly state that he's not into being politically correct. It's just not in his nature. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, he will say what's on his mind in a PG-13 manner. And if he steps on a few toes to get his point across, then you better have on thick shoes. But while other speakers spend time handing out business cards fishing for work, Dave's speaking reputation--just like his books--spreads strictly by word of mouth. Nancy Lauterbach, President of Five Star Speakers & Trainers, has seen it all. "At first I had no idea who Dave was, so when I finally heard him speak I was absolutely blown away. He has all the platform skills, speaking from his own life experiences, which are from the worst kinds of situations, rather than doing what many speakers do: draw attention to themselves by relaying something they heard or read about from someone or something else. Dave provides real-life tools for his audience and has a genuine concern for others to better themselves. He captivates the crowd and leaves them spellbound. Not only does he receive standing ovations after he speaks, but--out of admiration for all that he's accomplished--the crowd jumps from their chairs even before Dave begins."
Yet the reason many clamor for Dave's appearances is NOT the sensationalizing of abuse. That's not what he does. People come to witness that genuine human spirit behind the man that propelled him from one end of the spectrum to another. When it comes to Dave's presentations, different is hardly the word and unique doesn't do it justice. It doesn't matter if he's on stage or in a studio, Dave may deliver it differently but the message stays the same. With young adults, Dave likes to say the F-word: FOCUS and grabs their attention with his humor and intensity. And his adult audiences are in awe as Dave entertains them with his opening monologue--a censored Dennis Miller--while firing off impersonations that are eerily authentic, while transitioning into the heart of the program. Bob Tretter of the National Association of Health Underwriters says, "In my seven years as Convention Chair, David's the first speaker I had to ask to return to the stage for a curtain call. The audience just wouldn't stop applauding. They gobbled him up. Knowing David through his books, my expectations were high yet he exceeded every one of them. What makes him unusual within the speaking realm is that he's not self-serving."
"I know some folks want to hear all the gory details about what happened to me as a child. But I refer to specific childhood situations to qualify my message. I want them to realize the person standing in front of them is there because of persistence, personal responsibility, and by the grace of God," says Dave who is not there to hold hands and cry about his life, nor is he there to complain how he didn't get a fair shake. He wants to encourage others to realize their strength and inspire them to make life better for themselves and others. "It's all about the indomitable human spirit."
"This isn't rocket science," Dave explains, "but since the dawn of man, life has never been fair. You do whatever you have to do to making things better. You can waste all your time replaying what happened to you and how unfair it all was, and if that helps you to move on, well, then I'm in your corner. But if you never get over it and are still pissed after all these years and are still having problems dealing with it, you need to get some help and move on."
"You survive. You move on, but with a purpose. I know so many people who are only in bliss when they are miserable. They blame their parents, their spouse, their siblings, the system, whatever. You know what's amazing--and I've been saying this for years when I work with kids: If you can get out of bed in the morning, get dressed, brush your teeth, and wipe your behind, then you can do whatever you have to do to get past your problem. Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, you can do it."
And while he may appear to be cold-hearted or stoic, he is anything but. Denise Baron, the Barnes and Noble Community Relations Manager in Syracuse, states, "David was not quite what I expected. He's so down-to-earth, so human, and so gracious. Unlike other authors who push' their latest book at signings, he's more concerned about chatting and listening to the audience while offering some encouraging advice. He's very personable and it shows. His best asset is he has the ability of make the impossible seem possible."
Dave's favorite kind of presentations are when he's using his David Letterman-like opening, while weaving in his near-perfect impersonations of different characters like Darth Vader, Austin Powers' fumbling nemesis, Dr. Evil, and personalities such as Clint Eastwood, Presidents Clinton and Bush, Sr., and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The method to Dave's apparently over-the-top madness is to break the ice. "I know that folks are mostly expecting me, because of my past, to be sad and solemn." But he deliberately appears on stage with jacket unbuttoned, his hand casually placed in his pocket, while greeting the audience with his tag line, "How the hell are ya?" He never uses a podium, notes, or a clock. When things become a little too serious, he throws in a one-liner joke or two. "I never want folks to cry over me." I remind Dave that people cry when they read the books. "I want the audience to feel good, with no hype, no b.s. Just to walk away with a sense of self-worth and appreciation. I give it everything I have, and since I only have one chance it's all or nothing. I cross the line, I step on toes, I praise those who make a difference, I say God Bless You', that America's great, and to be kind to your fellow man. Yet above all, rather than drone on and on about the horrors of abuse, I do my best to spread the message of the indomitable human spirit. That's really the premise: Everything I do--speaking, writing, or being a Samaritan--I do right to do right."
"Look at Oprah and how she was raised. Colin Powell; he lived in a rat-infested ghetto. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America with nothing. Lance Armstrong fought against so many odds. McKayla Hanson, a teenage girl who has one leg competes as a shot putter and runs the broad jump as well as track. . . . That's one gutsy lady." (Dave is so impressed with McKayla that he plans to feature her in his next project, Help Yourself for Teens.) You think it's an accident that all these people achieved certain greatness? They all had challenges. They all addressed them, and they all became stronger because of it. The bottom line: It's up to the individual. You take a few hits, you brush yourself off, and you get up. You press on. And above all, you never, never," he emphasizes pointing a finger, quit on yourself."
"You take a few hits, you brush yourself off, and you get up." You press on. And above all, you never, never, quit on yourself"
Dave takes a moment to collect himself before lunging into another example of bravery. Those directly affected by the September 11 attacks and their bravery to "carry on." And don't get him started on ". . . the valor of veterans, past and present, who sacrificed for the freedom of America." Dave's a walking encyclopedia of political and military historical events and can hold his own in the most heated discussions.
Grouping Dave with these brave individuals, he instantly brushes off the compliment (something he does quite often, yet unintentionally offending some who are expressing their astonishment and respect for what Dave has endured) by saying, "Trust me, I'm nothing special. The only special thing I had going for me was my determination to never cave in." But recently he's learning to be more comfortable accepting genuine compliments.
A Private Anxiety
When it comes to sharing his message in person, Dave's clients, sponsors, and audiences don't realize how terrified of speaking--public or private--he truly is. He's a walking oxymoron. He's a very private person who dislikes drawing attention to himself, but once you pull the string he becomes the male version of the Chatty Cathy doll. To compound matters, he speaks way too fast, has a slight mumbling lisp (his mother forced him to swallow ammonia several times, and to this day his tongue is scarred and flares up), and has difficulty pronouncing certain words, but like a casting fishing line he throws out another attempt. A few times, whenever he becomes too nervous before he goes on stage, he vomits. For years, to counter that effect, Dave refused to eat anything for the entire day. But then he found himself fainting behind stage from lack of nourishment. So much for prevention. "So many people come a long way to see me. Before I step out, I pray I don't mumble too much and that I do my best. I know there's a lot against me, so I stay focused on simply doing my best, by giving my best. In the end that's all I can really do."
Just when he managed to heal last summer from exhaustion, heat stroke, and vertigo, he was almost re-hospitalized this past Spring, but now couples his rigorous workout routine with a high protein diet. (He's finally listening to his wife and staff!)
It's Dave's quiet inner drive and tenacious disciplined focus that has set him apart from those who seemingly fall by the way side. "This may sound a little weird, but whenever I'm asked about the key to my success, it has always been that guttural ignorant persistence. You do more, you give a little more of yourself in everything you do until it becomes a natural part of your lifestyle." But Dave fully realizes he will never be the best. He has no ambition to be so. He understands his limitations and simply applies himself to do the best he can do.
Mainly because his mother refused for Dave to speak unless given permission first, it wasn't until foster care that Dave discovered just how bad his speech impediment was. "I was finally able to start doing in middle school what kids had done in elementary school. I loved to run, play, and ride my bike, but here was this smallest kid in school who knew nothing about nothing, and the social pressures to fit in were enormous." (After much prodding from his peers, he called a girl a whore because he was told it was a compliment. Needless to say, after class he was beaten up by the girl's brother.) Because of Dave's scrawny size, stuttering voice, and shy demeanor, he was the target of the schoolyard bully, Tony, who had a penchant for making fun of Dave before beating him up.
"Finally, one Saturday I snuck in with a friend of mine to see a movie called, Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood. I later went home and spent the entire weekend learning to imitate one of his tag lines." This soon put Dave on a never-ending odyssey of mirror casting characters. But not without backfiring first. After practicing all weekend, Dave was readyor so he thoughtto confront his nemesis. Dave details this bittersweet scene in his adventurous romp-fest-with-heart story, The Privilege of Youth, which was released in January 2004:
Even though my stomach was in knots and Tony was at least a foot taller and 25 pounds heavier than me, I maintained my cool façade. This time, I told myself, I was ready for them. This time I took a half step back, raised my chin while nearly closing my right eye, and in a low but clear voice I fired back, "Are you talkin' to me?"
Tony's face froze. Without giving him a chance I maintained control. "I said, Are you talking' to me?' Cause if you are, you have to ask yourself a question: Do you feel lucky?' I paused for effect. Around me small gasps of admiration broke out from the group. Maintaining my stare, I lifted my chin up just a tad as I raised my voice, "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya . . .punk?"
Tony's eyes seemed as if they would tear up. Maybe he felt bad for making my life hell. And now, I thought, he's learned his lesson. When Tony shook his head, that's when I knew I had him; until he fired away with both fists to my face while shouting, "Lucky! I'm lucky cause I can kick your ass! Get it . . .punk?"
It was over before I hit the cement. Tony stormed off but half of his gang stayed behind. "Do it again!" one kid howled. Getting up, I wiped the blood from my lip, hoping my nose didn't burst with blood and that I could find some tape for my glasses. Nodding in a way that conveyed the message "All right. Show's over. Geek boy got his butt kicked again," all I wanted to do was crawl under a rock. "Hey, it's okay," one of the boys said with sincerity. "We thought what you said was cool. How'd you do that? I mean, do it again, man!"
As much as I thought I was about to receive another pounding, I muttered the phrase again. "No," a different boy broke in, "do that, that thing, with your face and eye." When the boy raised his voice I flinched. "Dude, it's okay, it's cool. Just go ahead and do it for us."
With the fear of being set up again racing through my veins, I reluctantly reared my head back, stared one of the boys down, and imitated Dirty Harry's voice. Seconds later the boys beamed at me. "Again!" they pleaded.
I repeated my performance almost a dozen times and threw in other imitations without thinking. I felt ten feet tall. Surprisingly, the entire group, which had tormented me in the past whenever Tony was around, now gave me a combination of slaps on the palm of my hand. As the group departed, one of them warned me, "Pretty cool, but don't forget, you're still a doofus. And when Tony's around, I don't know you. You think I want him kickin' my ass? I don't think so. So remember, man, I don't know you."
Now, in the confines of his office, Dave can laugh about it. "I went through a lot of glasses back then. I always had the luck of saying the stupidest things at exactly the most inappropriate time. And sometimes I still do. But yet what I love about life is that all of us have a chance to come full circle. I never thought back then I'd be doing this for a living, let alone incorporating things I did over 25 years ago."
Years ago, Clint Eastwood and his wife Dina, a big fan of Dave's work, said hello. The High Plains Drifter himself gave Dave, who at that time had never picked up a club, his first golf lesson. "Full circle," Dave repeats with a nod. "Isn't life great?"
A Grand Life
If anyone has come full circle in the game of life it's Dave, and his understated office is proof that someone knows in the back of his mind he is living this fantasy-like life that was paid with blood, buckets of sweat equity, and childhood dreams. There are photos of him midair refueling the SR-71, and another of the Stealth Fighter taken over the Persian Gulf. Also hanging on the wall is his Olympic Torch that he carried in the Torch Relay. (It still works, as he uses it occasionally to light his infamous stogies.) Next to the Torch is a bookcase filled with books he's collected since his foster home days, along with the books he's written that are in dozens upon dozens of different languages. But these books are hidden by and fight for space from his prized photographs: Different photos of his teachers that saved his life, and his wedding photo. On his L-shaped desk are more photos that he treasures. As Dave points to each one, he says, "My beautiful red-headed wife; Stephen throughout the years; and my two Bichon doggies." The only celebrity photo in his office is quietly displayed in one corner of the bookcase: President Reagan standing with Dave. And hanging on a coat rack next to the bookcase is Dave's flight suit--which he can still fit into!
The Tabloid Attempts
All these pictures hold special meaning for a man who takes nothing for granted. In addition to Dave's saviors, Mrs. Konstan and Mrs. Woodworth, the teacher Dave is closest to is Steve Ziegler. To this day, the facts surrounding Dave's rescue as a child weighs very heavily on Mr. Ziegler and Dave. For Ziegler, it's the shame of all that Dave endured; and for Dave, it's the shame of what everyone saw. Mr. Ziegler, who lives an hour away, visits twice a year and is endearingly emotional when they first see each other. The two men almost cry. "When I was first reunited with David in the spring of 1993, only then did the realization of the sheer torture he endured some twenty years ago begin to come into focus. As my student in the early 1970s, it was quite evident I was dealing with a deeply troubled youngster. Back then child abuse remained very well hidden with few if any laws to protect children, so I had very little to go on. And while David gives me much credit for my intervention, I simply encouraged my colleagues to join me on exposing to the authorities what we all suspected." Not only was Dave rescued, but this particular case opened so many doors for intervention and education on child abuse prevention.
"Today, to experience just a ten-minute conversation with David, one can realize the tremendous advancements he has made in his life. His is the shining example and mentor to each and every young person who has ever entertained the thought of my life is not worth anything.' It remains a genuine honor to know him today. He continues to provide an incredible service to countless people, and I truly have great respect and admiration for this fine young man. However, on a more personal level, I must say it is a further honor for me to think of Mr. David Pelzer as Dave my friend."
The teachers, as well as an army of social workers, foster parents, neighbors, and even relatives (whom have told me personally of their horrors) are the validity to Dave's story. Most of Dave's teachers have been honored to appear on different talk shows and have given numerous interviews. They especially like to talk to any media who is ignorant enough to believe it didn't happen. Mrs. Woodworth had her way with one of these investigative reporters, and after listening to Woodworth the reporter was humbled and decided there was no grounds to run her story of doubt.
Dave has definitely had his moments as tabloid fodder. The United Kingdom's The Mail on Sunday attempted to smear Dave's name under the headline banner Is He Making "It" All Up? I remember joking with Dave and saying that you know you've made it big when you're in the U.K. tabloids! But it was last summer's New York Times Magazine's "Dysfunction for Dollars" that was the biggest blow yet. All of us at Dave's office understand that there is a minority that wants to believe Dave's past and all that he has accomplished is nothing short of fiction. In countless interviews, Dave has gone out of his way to prove himself. All we expected was a fair and balanced approach. And that's what the reporter promised. Repeatedly. Yet every single word of the text was filled with malice. We feel that the reporter skillfully and deliberately went out of his way to lead the readers to the assumption that Dave was a liar. (To date, Dave's grandmother claims that Dave was never abused and is doing everything for fame and glory; even though Dave was told that she was in fact the first to notify the authorities on his behalf. Also, one of Dave's brothers, who suffers from Bell's Palsy and who idolizes his mother, claims he was taken out of context in the "Dysfunction for Dollars" article.) What was NOT in the article were those people who could easily validate Dave's story, endless proof of his dedication that has spanned a 19-year career, and the stories of those whose lives he has literally transformed.
Like everything in his life, Dave now looks at that time as a mixed blessing. "I've learned a lot. In my heart I know who I am, what is true, and why I do what I do. I'll never be taken in like that again. I have a lot more resolve now. I have my integrity. As a Samaritan I lead by example, especially as a father to my son. I know people who really don't care what they say, do, or how they live. They do anything they can for fame and fortune. That's okay for them but not for me. Am I trying to be perfect or God-like? Absolutely not. I know my faults, but with the blessings I've been given, I take what I do seriously. I can't and won't waste time and energy with people that are so miserable that they want to do nothing except destroy those who are trying to do good things in this world. Then Dave lightens the mood by saying, "And maybe God wanted to make sure I never become full of myself!"
Ironically, Dave did the same exact interview with Palm Springs Life Magazine (which was published one day after the infamous New York Times Magazine article) and it was a beautiful piece. The writer took an honest, fair approach and offered the readers an inspiring story. After both articles came out, our office was besieged with calls and faxes from all over the world--Even from one man in London, who was associated with the Nobel Peace Prizerallying for Dave and all that he has done and given to others. It's funny how life comes full circle.
All Too Human
While words like humble, appreciative, focused, and tenacious all describe Dave, given the circumstances he can be instantly brood, cold, and extremely impatient. "He's a person who often wears his emotions on his shirtsleeves. One learns quickly when he's in the business mode' to cut to the short of it; no long drawn-out dribble, just the facts. He doesn't waste our time or his with useless meetings," says office manager. Rey Thayne, Jr. "He's quick. He can take a multi-layered problem, cut to the heart of it, and turn it around. With all that he does in a single day--whether home or on the road--is amazing. He's committed to anything he tackles. He knows exactly what he's doing before others even have a clue."
To say that Dave is intense is an understatement. But it is a quiet intensity that he carries deep inside, releasing it in everything he does. From making a cup of coffee, to giving his all on stage, to working out in the gym, Dave is intense. "He has a dedication to the goals he sets for himself, without being egoistic or possessive, and he has the guts to see it through," reveals Doug Onliey, a personal trainer for 30 years, currently at the local World Gym. "I first saw Dave three years ago when he first moved to the area. What struck me most about his routine was his focus--not socializing like everyone else who looks to be looked at. If you didn't know better, you'd first think he was too stoic or stuck up. It took me three years to meet him, and this was even before I knew he was a famous author and Samaritan. But I wised up when people would come up to Dave, asking him for an autograph or relating that they know of his work. He's a good man with a lot of depth. Without being solicited, he sponsored one of my clients, who wasn't doing too well with her health goals. He didn't want her to quit on herself. Dave only did so with the condition she would never find out who sponsored her. I've been around enough to know who's real and who's full of it. And Dave's the real deal."
Although he receives offers to be a board member or consultant from some of the most elite organizations, Dave humbly yet strictly declines. Not only because it would distract from his focus of his mission and his already hectic schedule, but also because in the past he was involved with those who "have meetings to have meetings to have meetings," thereby getting nothing done. This is why having his own foundation is something he chooses not to do. For Dave, he dislikes the regulations, loathes the endless paperwork, and feels he would lose valuable time, which would be better spent on making an immediate decision and going directly to the source of the need. "I love to help and offer my assistance, and I do this every single day in so many ways, but I like to help effectively, discerningly, and immediately. To not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing." Dave gives without wanting the spotlight, and he gives on his terms. He wants the aid to go directly to the need; he doesn't want it to get eaten up by the process.
Within certain circles, Dave's charity is legendary. Mateo Rizzo, Assistant Superintendent of Jefferson County School District and former principal of the elementary school Pelzer had attended, states, "I've known David for over eleven years. I was there when he first gave his book to his teachers as a gift when they still worked there. He never forgets his school roots. He calls me asking what we may need and has visited our school countless times, on his own time, to speak to our students." As a principal, Rizzo seemed more like a father figure than a hard-nosed warden. "David's a walking testimony of what I stress to our student body: To be one of character, responsible, respectful, and above all, live with a positive attitude with what life may throw your way. Dave's the type of person I wish we could clone. I wish the world had a hundred of him."
Whether it's driving six hours one-way on his only day off to speak at the school where one of his teacher's daughter works as a school administrator; or providing for a foster family who adopts kids with extremely special needs; or being the one responsible for insuring that children from the local Child Help House and their staff kept their plans to go to Disneyland, Dave's list of good deeds--going above and beyond--is endless. "When you look at my past and all I have now, the least I could do is make other folks happy. But I just don't like to make a big deal about it. I prefer to respect the privacy of the situation."
Another arena Dave likes working below the radar is in his writings. In the case of Dave's long-awaited upcoming book, The Privilege of Youth, not even his publisher knew Dave was even writing again until one day in September 2002, Dave's office mailed Dutton a completely typeset and cleanly edited manuscript, which was placed on the desk of Brian Tart, Dutton's V.P. of Editorial. "I have to admit," says Tart, "it blew me away and a lot of other people here [at Dutton]. My first question was When in the world did this guy make time to write?' But that's Dave. He has this commitment in everything he sets out for. He makes things happen. It's his passion and ethics that make a direct connection to his readers. If you knew Dave like I do as a friend and business person, you'd be rooting for his success." Being no pushover in the publishing business Brian adds, "In this next book, Dave's going to surprise a lot of people. His style has come a long way. He seems more comfortable. There's more character development. It's more psychological. It's a heartfelt inspirational timepiece on the joy of friendship. A real page turner."
"He's the airport king," claims agent Laurie Liss, V.P. of Sterling Lord, Literistic. "I first heard of Dave by way of A Child Called "It." Years later. I was then introduced to Dave through one of my clients, Richard Paul Evans," the runaway-hit author of The Christmas Box and A Perfect Day.
"With Dave, one day he's at an air force base praising the troops, and hours later he's already driven hundreds of miles to do a fundraiser for kids. He's one of the few clients who works too hard. He needs to take a rest now and again. For Dave, he doesn't see it all as work, but some grand adventure. He loves to make people laugh. Two weeks ago he phoned me saying he's putting in the paperwork so he can rally the troops in Baghdad."
"Writing is about twenty-five percent of what Dave does," says Rey Thayne, Jr. at Dave's office. "Then his speaking engagements with all the different programs are another thirty percent. The bookstore signings, that's ten percent. Usually when a bookstore knows Dave is coming into their area, for any kind of event, they call the office; and even though he's already booked for a full day's work, we do our best to accommodate their request. Dave knows that may be the only chance some get to see him. Then, besides the daily requests for interviews, the remainder of his time is broken down into Special Projects'Governors' requests, cases from district attorneys to comment on, black-tie functions, military appearances . . . you name it, we're asked. We try to schedule as much as we can, but he's easily booked over a year in advance . . . but he's only one man! Some of the same people who tell Dave to slow down and take care of himself are sometimes the ones who want to work him to death!" Rey states.
A Full Plate
This January, even Dave will feel he has more than his usual workload to carry. In the course of 27 days, he will visit 27 citiesand that does not include the numerous air force bases he plans to visit during his down time. (By mid-November, on Dave's website look for an itinerary with specific bookstores Dave will be visiting during this tour, along with the contact information. And please be advised, the calendar will not be open to any additional requests.) Then after the January tour, he will have a brief five days off before he travels to London for another tour. (Which started as four days worth of work, but because of the overwhelming demand Dave will now spend an additional ten days.)
"If anyone can pull it off, it's Dave," says Tart at Dutton. "He is by far one of the busiest most dedicated people I've ever came across." Dave adds, "I was talking to one of my brothers a few weeks ago." (Dave refuses to reveal names as his way of protecting their privacy.) "And we both agreed that if our mother gave us anything it was a strong work ethic."
Even with all that Dave's achieved, he still carries a heavy load of guilt. "It's this feeling that creeps up on me. There's shame from the fact that I was finally rescued at age twelve, while my brothers had to deal with the brunt of our mother's madness. It never escapes me. And the fact there are millions of folks who've never had the breaks I've had. Do I work hard? Yes. But all in all, I'm so lucky. That's why with all that I have I am appreciative. And I can't help what some folks may think of me. All I can do is to be a good steward with the blessings I've been given."
Chief Master Sergeant George Fust of the United States Air Force has known Dave since they both served together on their first assignment over 23 years ago. "Notoriety hasn't changed his attributes. He's still the caring person I knew back then. He truly likes helping others. When I asked Dave to visit my base whenever he'd be in the area, he personally phoned me within days saying he'd make it happen. He not only rearranged his schedule, but he spent the entire day praising those defending our nation's freedom. When it comes from Dave they're not just words, but genuine sincerity. His patriotism is inspiring."
"For me, that's one of the things that makes America great: you help out those you know, those in your community, which in turn strengthens the country. For some time now many have become disillusioned. They've given up on themselves. That's not what made, and what continues to make, America the beacon to the world. But in fact, it's our individual resolve to make things better, not only for ourselves but for our children's children. I am an optimist. I believe as a nation our best days are ahead of us. That's what President Reagan gave America, and that's what Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign was truly about: Taking the bull by the horns and making an impact. That's what I believe!"
"I am an optimist. I believe as a nation our best days are ahead of us."
"Dave, you're sounding very political. Is there something you want to tell me?!" I chide.
"That's one thing I've learned: In a course of a life one never knows what events may transpire," Dave says, paraphrasing a famous quote. "Do I have political ambitions? No." (I breathe a sigh of relief.) "At least not at the moment," he qualifies. (I'm worried again.) "But I'm not ruling anything out. Besides, there are two things: First, I can't even govern my own house; you do. And secondly, if I have an announcement to make, I'll do so on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno!"
Recovering from his political riff, Dave continues, "When you help out, you don't do it for the praise or the glory. You do it to do right. One of my brothers is a police officer. For over 27 years he's been doing the right thing. Firemen rush into burning buildings with the chance of a collapse. Teachers give their heart and soul for our children. There are so many folks out there busting their butts day in and day out doing the right thing, knowing their faces will never be plastered on the cover of some glitzy magazine. It's in their nature to just do it. I like being in the position that I can make someone happy by doing the unexpected; whether it's buying a police officer lunch, waving to the local fireman, or saluting the flag outside my home every time I drive off, I believe in showing my support for living in a democracy that has allowed me to accomplish so much."
In the short term, Dave plans to continue to contribute quietly and in his own way to help the cause. Between yet even more work, he wants to hit the golf links more often, and when he finishes his next book, Help Yourself For Teens, he'd like to get a degree in volcanology, learn to play the piano, and after that, who knows? One thing's for sure: with every day he has remaining, Dave will make the most of it.
Thirty hours after Dave returns home with only a few hours of sleep, and after a grueling early morning workout followed by a full ten hours of office work, Dave is calling it quits for the day. In a rare indulgence, we manage to steal some time together, as Dave pilots his modified, trademark glossy-black Hummer towards the setting sun. Though tomorrow holds even more work with more challenges, for the moment, a rare moment, Dave is carefree. Minutes later, Dave is in full-relax mode at his favorite hangout, Sullivan's Steakhouse. I sip my Perrier with a twist of lime and smile as I watch Dave. With a mojito in one hand and a cigar in the other, Dave listens to the live jazz band, and acts like he's in heaven. As he takes a drag from his stogie and a quick sip of his drink, I almost miss the words of his mantra as he whispers, "Thank you, God. Thank you for making me the luckiest person in the world."
Copyright Marsha Pelzer 2003. Reproduced with the permission of the author. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced without written permission from Dave Pelzer's office, PO Box 1846, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270. DavePelzer.com
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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