Pemberton: What happens when you take a chance

If Steve Pemberton’s life story weren’t real – and documented in his autobiography – you’d insist it were the work of a Hollywood writer.

But the inspiring, uplifting, and at times maddeningly horrific true story is a testament to the power of determination, advocacy, and the love of reading and education.

Pemberton, chief diversity officer and divisional vice president at Walgreens, a company with 370,000 employees in 25 countries, shared his story of overcoming seemingly unsurmountable odds Sunday at the National Black Council of School Board Members luncheon during NSBA’s annual conference.

Taken from his mother at age 3 and made a ward of the state of Massachusetts, Pemberton has only one photo of himself as a young child: a sweet looking, 7-year-old blond, blue-eyed African-American. The photo was taken by his first social worker before he began a journey of foster home placements, where “I knew I was taken in for the money,” he said. The worst of the lot was a 13-year stint with an abusive family that “unleashed hell on me daily.”

What saved Pemberton, born Steve Klakowicz, during this time was that he loved to read. Especially mysteries. “You had to be some kind of detective to figure out someone who looked like me with my last name,” he said.

It was a mystery that took decades to unravel, and that Pemberton recounts in his book, A Chance in the World.

The youth advocate, motivational speaker, husband, and father of three told NSBA attendees that “school was the only place I felt safe,” although he was constantly deflecting questions about his appearance and background. His love of reading was “aided and abetted” by a then-unknown neighbor who left him boxes of used books.

More visible advocates included the spelling bee judge who offered him an encouraging smile that, “as long as I breathe air, I’ll never forget,” he said. “That smile gave me a reason to go on.” The judge, a school board member, later became Pemberton’s unwavering champion, as did several others at his high school.

Even at a young age, Pemberton became “defiant” in his determination to go to college, knowing that “if I did, then (the foster family’s) means of income would be gone.

“All I’ve ever known is to defy and resist and build again,” he said.

Pemberton graduated from Boston College in 1989, but had no family members in attendance to celebrate with. Things were decidedly different in 2015 when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater.

He eventually uncovered the complicated stories of his birth parents and took his father’s surname. “I can’t take back what was lost, but would not take my path back for anything,” he said. Pemberton encouraged the audience to let his story be an example of the possibilities that exist “when you take a chance.”


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