Thursday, April 1, 2010

Meeting Greg Mortenson

Meeting one of my heroes, Greg Mortenson
was a great thrill...

In early March, Lorena, my host and contact at United World College in Singapore, sent me an email that concluded, "Greg Mortenson will be at our school while you are here. Would you like to hear him speak?" I don't know why but I waited a day or two before responding "yes" and then watched for Lorena's reply. When it finally came she wrote, "We were too late in getting our request in....sorry." Oh well I thought, a close call but it wasn't meant to be. I was disappointed.

I first learned who Greg Mortenson was when I listened to an interview on WNYC radio just as his book, "Three Cups of Tea" was being released in 2006. I ordered the book from Amazon that night and was really absorbed in the story as I read it. His perseverance and idealism were and have been inspirational to me, as they have been to millions of readers. I've given the book as a gift, recommended it to many friends, and loaned my copies to others.

Greg Mortenson is a hero in the truest sense of the word. He has endured tremendous hardship and risked his life to build schools for girls in some of the most dangerous and remotest corners of the world. The chance to meet him is something I would cherish. I can count on my fingers the number of living people I'd be as excited to meet. In that group would be Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Wendell Berry, and Paul Farmer. Back in 2000 I shook hands with Senator Bill Bradley shortly before he dropped out of the race and that was something I will always remember. I sometimes wonder what our world might have become if Bradley had been president on September 11, 2001.

During lunch one day at United World College last week I began a conversation with a lady named Joy, who looked and sounded  like an ex-pat American. She was, and as the conversation proceeded I learned that she was also one of the people organizing Greg Mortenson's visit. Before lunch was finished she had told us to keep in touch with her and that we might be able to attend Mortenson's talk after all. On Thursday Lorena gave me the good news. Greg was scheduled to speak at 10 am on Saturday and we were on the guest list.

Those of you who know me well know that I am seldom early for appointments. I'm nearly always on time but just can't get the hang of being early. I broke my pattern and arrived at school at 8:30, before any of the organizers were even there. A few people began to wander in as I sat at a table outside writing in my notebook. The temperature was already above 80 degrees F.  At about 9 a.m. I looked up to see two men walking towards me. The big man on the left was Greg Mortenson. I think my jaw must've dropped and my eyes popped open wide. I felt like a kid meeting a famous ballplayer. He must've sensed my awe because he walked up to me, put his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Greg." I think I said, "I know," but don't remember exactly what I said  after that.  A few minutes later I went into the auditorium where I had done several performances during the week including a family concert two nights before. I kind of hung around in the back looking for an opening to go up and speak more with him. I was nervous but knew I had to do it because I often give the advice to kids that "you'll never know unless you try." He realized what I was up to with my camera and "Bridges" tee shirt in hand and he again made it easy for me to approach. We talked for about five minutes. I told him about Bridges of Peace and Hope, asked a few questions, and had some photos taken. Before I left he tore the end off a piece of paper, wrote down his email address and phone number, and thanked me for helping to promote peace.

As I walked back outside the theater I again felt like a kid. It was a good, mixed up feeling. I felt a little like I had just won a contest, but I also felt like the teenage boy who finally got the courage up to ask a girl to dance, but didn't know what to do when she said yes. His talk was excellent and with some more twists of fate perhaps Bridges of Peace and Hope and I will have opportunities to collaborate with Greg Mortenson and Pennies for Peace. As my friend Ken Buescher often says to me, "You are one lucky guy!" You're right Ken, I am.


  1. How wonderful, John! I can't believe I missed this entry. The universe was working with us on this one in a way. I'd just finished the children's version of Three Cups of Tea when you were there. I'd told my kids about the possibility of this connection. How great for you that it actually came to be! As a Mets fan, you know our mantra..."You just gotta believe." When you look at what Greg's accomplished there certainly is no doubt!

  2. John - Great story. I know I would love to meet Greg mortenson too. I enjoyed the show at the Oneonta theater today. You do great things for everyone, young and old. Many more people could benefit by taking inspiration from people like you and Greg Mortenson.