Jack Johnson
 

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

 
Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools
 

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art

 
Ben Harper takes on police shootings on latest album
 

Ben Harper

CNN Music & Art

 

Waterloo Community School Foundation Keynote Speech

There is nothing more sacred than someone’s story. And I’m honored, humbled to share mine with you. Normally, it’s the other way around. Where I’m asking all the questions trying to find my way into a subject’s soul so that I can share their story with the world. It’s my calling. So bear with me as I open up about myself. Thankfully, I’m an A-type personality and am not afraid of the English language – so I think I’ll get through this. But even if I couldn’t. Even if I stumbled and struggled to find my words. I’m still a somebody. And everybody’s story is sacred. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a person that I couldn’t learn something from.

I may not think exactly like you. My values may be different than yours. You know, I may say something that will upset you. But, to me, that’s beautiful. A dance between your experience and mine. Because the worst word in the English language is four letters and it begins with an “S.” It stinks to be around it. When I feel it inside me, I want to blow it out. And it’s a huge relief once it’s gone.

That word: “Same.” What a life buzz kill. How boring to be around people that look just like me, sound just like me, think just like me, act just like me. How can I grow? How can we learn in a world where everything is the same?

That’s the beauty about Waterloo. We’re not the same. We’re black. We’re white. And every color in between. We’re Wahawks and Trojans, Hawkeyes and Cyclones. And that means we sometimes don’t get along.

We’re Christian and Muslim and agnostic, too. We’re farmers and bankers and teachers and even TV people. Who knew? Some of us struggle. Some of us thrive. We say hi to our neighbors and then gripe about the way they keep their yard. We’re gay. We’re straight. And thank God we can all get married here. That’s right we are who we are. Different. We’re different strokes, folks. And that’s awesome!

But the best thing about Waterloo. All those differences equal community. And that neighbor whose lawn you hate – you’d be the first to rescue him if he needed help. That woman who prays about things you don’t want to understand… it matters not in her time of need. You’ll be there. And that’s because we have class in this community. It is principal that balances the pillars that prop us all up. What I take from my experience in this town and in its public school district is a diversity that runs so deep in my bones. I saw it all here. And I soaked it all in. And now I can’t stop building my house on the solid foundation that you helped me lay.

So I’m here today to say, “Thank you, Waterloo. And thank you to the Waterloo Community School District.” The man standing before you is a lost soul without these roots. Another word that you’ve helped me digest: “Perfect.” I’ve always wanted to achieve it. Always thought it possible. Winning is fun. And it suckers you into thinking that perfect is within your reach. We’ve all heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” Well, a wise man named Don Prince modified that for me when I was 25-years-old. He put it this way, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” And that stuck. Grip, up, wrist. Grip, up, wrist in tennis. Over and over. Makes perfect. But now I’m 38-years-old. And my hair is getting gray, too. And I want to punch the word perfect in its nose. It’s too much trouble. An addiction that can quickly spiral out of control.

So let me put it like this… with everything I do, I try and put a cherry on top of it. My life’s three-legged stool is “education, profession and family.” And I’m a lucky man. Because sitting on top of all three words is a fat ole cherry. Ripe. Juicy. Delicious. But they didn’t just magically appear. Some amazing people have planted seeds in my life that helped them grow… and I’ve worked my tail off to make sure that they don’t rot.

Starting with my education here in Waterloo. In kindergarten at Kingsley, Mrs. Kniss let me stay in from recess so that I could finish coloring my art projects. I pressed so hard with the crayons and tried to stay in between the lines. That was my style. And it took time, dangit! She saw that I was inspired and she didn’t let the rules get in the way of me being good at something. But then, she failed me at skipping. And I still haven’t gotten over it.

By the end of elementary school, I had read a million minutes, or so it seemed, and fell in love with writing. A timed test math man, I am not. Instead, it often takes a creative approach to teaching to reach a creative mind.

No one did that better than my 7th grade teacher, Ms. Holmgren. I learned all the European capitals and exports from South America because she played Jeopardy with us. She turned the world into a game. And I like to win. So I dominated the globe.

Mrs. Wright didn’t just show us pictures of leaves in a textbook, she asked that we go collect them. And as I looked around for maples and oaks, I paid great attention to the great outdoors and fell in love with nature, as a result. An important thing for a kid that would one day wind up in Big Sur, California, and run seven marathons along its jagged, majestic coastline.

And how about this one… Mrs. Yates was my E-L-P teacher. Our year-end project in 8th grade, the culmination of our middle school experience, was called “Images of Greatness.” One boy picked Abe Lincoln.

One girl was Harriet Tubman.

Someone else was Jesus.

You know who I picked? Yep, Jimmy Connors. She must have laughed so hard when she first read that. But I convinced her about his greatness and she let me get up on stage in tennis whites. And I still remember the first couple lines to that speech.

In high school, I wanted to do it all. Mrs. Citta knows. I showed up at her door before senior year and asked to join show choir. She played a few notes on the piano and asked me to sing the scale. My voice killed cats instead. But she worked with me and I think was more impressed with my dance moves.

Mrs. McCrindle was as good as it gets. She taught my favorite class – speech. For one of mine I took off my shirt and talked about the sad plight of the skinny-chested. During another one, I faked like I was going to light the American flag on fire and instead gave a speech about how great our country is. I also started an all-white rap group called “The Flows” – buddies of mine and we kicked our rhymes to a “Funky Cold Medina” beat. Not Mrs. McCrindle’s favorite speech of mine. What I loved about her is that she took it personally when I didn’t shine.

I was West High’s class clown and graduated with the most school spirit. I went on to bleed black and gold, too. My educational foundation got me into the University of Iowa. My dad told me to “Go to class.” I did. And as a student-athlete at Iowa, it was an honor to be named to the Academic All-Big Ten team four years in a row. The cherry on top of my educational pillar, though, came with my thesis on Title 9 and gender equity in sports along with a Masters Degree in Journalism.

Waterloo, you also gave me my career. And the word here is “Passion.” It oozes out of me like sauna sweat. The sport of tennis is really where it started. Steve McKinstry, Dave Will and the Waterloo tennis program is second-to-none. Truly. When I got to high school, I played the matches. But Mark Hanson burned more calories cheering for me than I did sweating it out on the courts. Don Huff and Steve Gillan got me into the weight room and, as a result, I didn’t lose much. As the great Bill Lane always said, “Life is too short for terrible tennis.” And, for me, that is gospel talk.

I knew I wanted to be a TV guy the moment I met KWWL’s Rick Coleman. Our tennis team was a good one. We won the state title my freshman year, and Rick came to West High to interview us. I told him about my girlfriend and dinners at Pizza Hut and mixed in a couple quotes about tennis – and somehow he made it all make sense. And, most importantly, made me feel good. Like I mattered, somehow. From then on, I knew I wanted to give that same feeling to as many people on this planet as I possibly could.

But it’s not as simple as snapping your fingers and saying, “I’ll take passion for a career. Thank you very much.” It takes hard work. And the credit for showing me this light goes to my parents. My dad’s an engineer. Worked for the same company his entire professional life. My mom’s a teacher. She’s helped shape countless lives. When I was in middle school, they convinced me that a paper route was a good idea. And they were right. I may have missed out on a few things with friends, but at least I could take the money I earned and buy all the Laffy Taffys I wanted.

I parlayed the paper route into a lawn care business.

Then, I detasseled corn in the summers, taught tennis lessons and became the head pro at Sunnyside Country Club – all by the time I was 18.

In college, I went to class, had tennis practice and then worked as a sports intern for KWWL alongside my mentor, Rick Coleman and the incredible Ron Steele – celebrating 40 years as Eastern Iowa’s most trusted name in news – he taught me so much about how to become a quality, credible storyteller. And with all of that going on… I still found time to party every now and then.

For a man whose greatest fear in life is wasting time… clearly the greatest invention our culture has ever known is an alarm clock. I took one with me to California and lived just blocks from the beach in beautiful Monterey for 12 wonderful years.

In addition to my TV career at KSBW and the two Emmy Awards that came alongside it, I had the great fortune of working at one of the world’s greatest tennis resorts, John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch. There I got to teach people like Alan Greenspan and Rupert Murdoch along with all sorts of entrepreneurs and business owners. And you know what they told me when they found out where I was from? “Anytime a resume comes across my desk and the applicant is from Iowa, it moves to the top of the heap. Because boy do those people work hard.”

While in California, I helped start up a magazine called Artworks. I interviewed some of the greatest artists that have touched a canvas in the last 100 years (Wayne Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari) and interviewed music greats like Tony Bennett, Zac Brown, Lenny Kravitz and Jason Mraz while attending some of the world’s biggest music festivals: Coachella, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and Outside Lands.

Our publication wound up on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble and eventually led to the establishment of The Carmel Art and Film Festival. We partnered with the Sundance Film Festival to help make that happen. It’s since become a world-class event. And somehow, despite all of those jobs all at the same time, I never burned out.

Ultimately, the cherry on top of my professional life came in February of 2013, when my family and I packed up everything, said goodbye to the beach and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. My experience at CNN has been profound. It is the Mecca of TV news for a reason. There are 5 billion buttons in the control room. Every one of them scares me. But it is a true blessing to put on the headset alongside so many amazing storytellers. Every morning, the three big red letters along the side of the building remind me of what I’m walking into. “This is CNN,” I think to myself. And I’m apart of it.

Most importantly, my strongest rock in this world. It is anchored here. My mom and dad, Bob and Nancy Bamsey. The word here is love. So deep and pure it defies definition. They’ve been my biggest fans. And my kick in the pants. Their values echo the drive of this town. They’ve helped maintain its infrastructure and mold its future leaders. They care about Waterloo’s success and have been proud to call it home for more than 60 years.

I cannot think of better examples of how to live and how to love. They have shown me the way. This man and this woman didn’t just give me their heart… they gave me their name. BAMSEY. I carry it with honor everywhere I go. And every time I literally or figuratively stamp it on something I’ve done or hope to become, it represents them, too. And that means the world to me.

I’ve always called my brother, Matt, my hero. And that’s because he is. Cool, honest and a proud papa, too.

Waterloo, you’ve also produced the most beautiful woman in the world. My wife, Jenny. I first taught her tennis at Byrnes Park. I was an upperclassmen, she was in 8th grade. So we only talked about forehands and backhands until we lost touch. Many years later, I bumped into Jenny Knipp again on South Beach in Miami, of all places. And thank God our discussion went deeper than how to hit a kick serve. While the Hawks broke our hearts at the Orange Bowl – all you’ve ever done, Jennifer, is make mine beat brighter and fuller than a harvest moon.

And you are responsible for the greatest cherry on top of any man’s life this side of the Mississippi. A feisty kid by the name of Harper Grace. This sweet, independent three-year-old is the reason I was destined to breathe the Earth’s air. Every moment. Every memory we share (and there have been lots) completes me more and more. I love you to that harvest moon and back plus infinity. And the beauty is… you already know that.

You know, it’s hard to do the word love justice by just saying it. But I’m gonna give it a shot. It’s been 20 years since I graduated from West High… and Waterloo I gotta say, “ I love you to death.” Listen carefully as I say it. “I love you to death!” Feels good, huh! Now live that way everyday! “Live life to death” and I guarantee you’ll find a cherry on top in almost everything you do!

KWWL-TV article
Waterloo Courier article

5 Comments

  1. Ann Rhodes says:

    Awesome speech, Ben! Brought tears to my eyes. I am so proud and happy that you are a part of our family. Much love. Or should I say, I love you to death. Ann

  2. Sandi Jordan says:

    Wow! What an incredible speech. I’m amazed at your positive attitude.

  3. Teresa McGee says:

    You are the cherry atop any community lucky enough to have you. The speech brought tears to my eyes, too, especially the reason you are breathing earth’s air. Congratulations and thanks. And I love you to death, too. Teresa

  4. Jim Giannakakis says:

    Excellent job Ben! I knew you would kill it. What a honor to be chosen to speak to your hometown. I know you make them proud man. Thanks for sharing this very inspirational.

  5. Luke Bentley says:

    Proud!!! Love ya brother!

Leave a Comment

*