From Nobody to Somebody

Introduction: Every Journey Begins With a Stumble

Metamorphosis From Nobody to Somebody

“Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

— Old Breton prayer

(Reatha Clark (upper left) Photo: King family)

Pavo, Georgia

In 1948, a rusted blue Chevy pickup pulled up in front of Reatha Clark’s house at four o’clock in the morning. As she squinted through the darkness of a small house unlit by electricity, bright eyes dominated a little, delicate face that expressed such intelligence her parents knew she would grow up to “be somebody,” as they told her over and over. Reatha bounded out of the house, jumping over the hatchback like a barrier in a steeplechase, and sat giggling with four other young African American girls. She was not going to ballet class or soccer practice like most kids. She was off to pick cotton.

Madison, Wisconsin

In 1954, Joanne Schieble, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, fell in love with Abdulfattah Jandali, a grad assistant. When she became pregnant, the couple flew to Syria to meet his parents according to Muslim tradition. She called her father, a mechanic from Sheboygan, to seek his approval to marry Jandali. The conversation was short, “I will disown you.” She gave the child up for adoption.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Jacklyn Gise became pregnant while a sophomore in high school. She and the boy’s father, Ted Jorgensen, a bike shop owner and unicyclist in a circus act, were married in Juarez. When school authorities found out, she was expelled. They allowed her to graduate on the infernal condition that she would not talk or eat with other students. They had a son named after her father, Jeffrey Preston. Before the boy was two years old, the couple divorced.

Orange, New Jersey

Mark was an identical twin. His parents were both local police officers. His father fit the tough-guy cop’s image. Mark would describe him retrospectively in a more positive light as “hard-charging and hard-drinking.” By the time Mark was in his teens, he had suffered a broken jaw, was hit by a car, shot in the face with a pellet gun, and had broken his knuckles in fistfights.

Denmark, South Carolina

The Randhawa’s were Sikh immigrants from Punjab whose lives seemed forlorn and aimless. They emigrated to the United States with four children when Ajit Singh was offered a job at an all-black college. Mrs. Randhawa opened a small dress shop, and although her oldest daughter too young to work legally at 12, she employed Nimrata as a bookkeeper.

Baltimore, Maryland

Michael’s parents got divorced when he was ten, and when his father left home, he felt abandoned. Carrying the same name may have led to feelings of estrangement, and by the sixth grade, he was afflicted with a severe form of Attention Deficit Disorder.

Two Wise Men From East Hoboken

Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954), “I coulda been somebody.”

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” –Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront

The two best-known philosophers to emerge from Hoboken are longshoreman Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. His famous line underscores the plight of Reatha, Steve, Jeff, Mark, Nimrata, and Michael. As Brando looks back on his life with regret, “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody,” he is reckoning with a world that sends abandoned children straight to hell, and like Monopoly, denies them the right to collect $200. Their best hope is mercy from the welfare state. We throw up our hands and take comfort in the words of that other Hoboken sage, “That’s life.”

Anyone familiar with childhood adversity will confirm the system is locked and loaded against helpless victims. As a business model, it beats Amazon or Google. In our too busy, too online, too influencer-driven world, institutional solutions are preferable to homebrew because there’s no money in old-school remedies, like sipping tea with honey instead of prescription opioids. That means family and community give way to government handouts, which create a dependency that can last for generations. Secondly, lost souls are herded into foster homes before juvenile detention takes the reins and a final chapter in and out of the penile system. The future is as grim as Thomas Hobbes’s description of life in the 1300s, “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”

It is why it may come as a surprise to learn the children in Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives took a turn for the better. Rather than succumb to the siren song of victimhood, they pivoted to a heart-pumping tune of triumph. From Reatha through Nikki, everyone became some of the most famous and successful people in history. How they found the detour is the thesis of our story.

“The clearest indicator of intelligence is the ability to deal with uncertainty.”

— Judea Pearl (Turing Award winner)

Dr. Reatha Clark King

Interviewing Dr. Reatha Clark King
  • Dr. Reatha Clark King became a Fortune 500 officer and president of a university before joining Exxon Mobil and Wells Fargo boards after graduating with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago. She mastered everything she put her mind to, and she would add, including picking cotton.

Steven Paul Jobs

  • Joanne Jandali’s son, better known as Steve Jobs, grew up to become the founder of Apple Computer.

Jeffrey Preston Bezos

  • After Jacklyn Gise Jorgensen divorced Ted, she married a Cuban immigrant, Mike Bezos, who adopted her son at age four. He became Jeff Bezos, graduated from Princeton, and drove out to Seattle, where he founded

Commander (and Senator) Mark Edward Kelly

Interviewing Mark Kelly
  • Kelly became the Space Shuttle commander (as was his brother Scott). His jaw must have healed nicely because he became a star on the speaking stump, and in 2020, was elected U.S. Senator from Arizona.

Ambassador and Governor Nimrata (Nikki) Haley

Interviewing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
  • Nimrata Haley, better known as Nikki, became governor of South Carolina, where her bookkeeping skills came in handy, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Olympian Michal Fred Phelps II

Interviewing Michael Phelps (center)
  • Phelps took swim lessons more seriously than most of us. When he announced his retirement at the Olympics in Rio 2016 at the age of 31, he had collected 23 golds, three silvers, and two bronze medals, becoming the most decorated Olympian in history. Today, he devotes his time to children with emotional and mental disabilities.

Introduction: Every Journey Begins With a Stumble

According to pediatricians, three-year-olds ask the question “why” 400 times a day. Most parents say, “That’s absolutely true.’ If three-year-old Reatha Clark heard Hamlet say “to be or not to be,” she would interrupt and ask, “Why not to be?” Steve Jandali, a gadget freak from his earliest days, would ponder, “Why slings and arrows?” If “As You Like It” was performed in front of redheaded Mark Kelly, he would say, “Mr. Shakespeare, “why is the world a stage?”

The children know the world’s stage. It is why they are curious about scenes that are too chaotic or random in their cruelty. As adults, we should ask the same questions. For those not born on third base, as we like to say of the rich, but who take their first step well behind the foul line, the question “why” liberates the players from the original script. With answers, you rewrite the plot. With answers, you get a better ending.

It is why Socrates, the Greek teacher/philosopher on trial for impiety, drank to the jurists’ health by downing a cup of hemlock poison. He said to them, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” a theory that resonates with us today. To deal with the complexity of the modern world, its tendency to act in random and unforgiving ways, we must ask why.

Questions are the antidote to chaos.

When I set out to find the secret, I kept hearing the same thing. It didn’t matter if the story was four-year-old Jeff Jorgensen or eighty-year-old Grandma Moses — they never stop dreaming. The question was why?

Now, like the three-year-old reading Shakespeare, I wanted answers.




The journey from ordinary to extraordinary

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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes

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