The Person Who Changed My Life

Celebrities Recall their mentors

Excerpts edited by Matilda Raffa Cuomo


James Earl Jones. Photo courtesy of Eva Rinaldi

Former First Lady of New York, Matilda Raffa Cuomo, wanted to help reverse a significant problem in the state her husband governed: an alarming school dropout rate. “The three pillars of support for children are the home, the school and the community,” Matilda said.  As part of her plan to help build awareness about the importance of mentoring, she asked prominent 
celebrities to recall the Person Who Changed My Life, a compilation of essays from Prominent People [Who] Recall Their Mentors.

James Earl Jones: Self-Reliance
Outside of my family, my most influential role model was my high school English Teacher, Donald Crouch…Growing up, 
I had a hard time speaking and felt self-conscious. Professor Crouch discovered I liked to write poetry, a secret I was not anxious to divulge. One day, I showed him a poem I had written, and he responded that it was too good to be my own work, that I must have copied it from someone. To prove I hadn’t plagiarized, he wanted me to recite the poem, by heart, in front of the entire class. I did as he asked, got through it without stuttering, and then from then on I had to write more and speak more. This had a tremendous effect on me, and my confidence grew as I learned to express myself comfortably out loud.
On the last day of school, we had our final class outside on the lawn, and Professor Crouch presented me with a gift — a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. This was invaluable to me because it summed up what he had taught me — self-reliance. His influence on me was so basic that it extended to all areas of my life. He is the reason I became an actor.


Diane Sawyer. Photo courtesy of Asterix911

Diane Sawyer: Be Honest with Yourself
Isn’t it strange how mentors arrive unexpectedly? Sometimes from completely different corners of your psychological and geographical world? Sometimes, complete strangers. After all, family comments – and directives – come freighted with so much history and tender nerves. Too intense. Too much seems to be riding on their opinions.  I don’t have a single turning point – just hundreds of small ones. Add them together and they are a road, a path. And often it’s the truth from an unvarnished truth from an outsider that can blast you like a jet stream from one path into another.
I think of Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, who said once, “I love you, I hate that piece.” It was thrilling to be knocked down and affirmed at the same time. It almost felt like praise and reminded me that criticism can wake you up – when it’s backed by support.
Every one of my mentors has made me more confident by treating me as if I could grow. I think that’s a gift to give someone at any age – including in their 50s.


Martin Sheen. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Martin Sheen: When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Will Appear
Father Al arrived at Holy Trinity for his first Parish assignment when I was 14. He was an energetic young man with an innate wisdom who believed our personal relationships were reflective of our relationship with God. I served Mass with him regularly, and he was my confessor. Even as a boy, I dreamed of going on to New York to pursue an acting career, but my father was determined that I attend college. A deformed left shoulder at birth made me, in my father’s eyes, incapable of earning a living as a laborer. When I flunked out of high school in my senior year, my father was disappointed and angry. Father Al advised me to go to summer school and graduate. He also suggested that to appease my father I agree to take the entrance exams at the University of Dayton. I did both… I purposefully failed the exam. My father got the message but would still not bless my dream. Father Al stepped forward again, and careful not to offend my father, loaned me enough money, out of his own pocket, to get me started, and soon I was on my way. Several months later, when I was settled in New York, building a life for myself in the theatre, my father very lovingly came around and became my greatest supporter. Although my journey took me far away at times, I became lost, he [Father Al] was always there like an anchor, reminding me to continually ask those two key little questions: Who are you? Why are you here? As long as I can answer at least one of them, I always know where I’m going, and Father Al will always remain with me.

Kenneth Cole

Kenneth Cole

Kenneth Cole: Maybe Someday I Can Fill My Father’s Shoes
My father, Charles Cole, would wake me up at 5:00 a.m. many Saturday mornings, starting when I was 10. Then we would go to his shoe factory in lower Manhattan, and I would sit with him in his office and watch him while he worked… As I was about to embark on my legal education, my father’s right-hand man left the factory to start a competitive business. To help my father, I put off law school to learn the business as quickly as I could. I became fascinated with transforming an idea into a new style of shoe. With my father’s encouragement, I took it upon myself to create my own collection of footwear, different than anything the factory had ever made… I made great strides in a very competitive field, but I reached a point when it all started to become a little empty. So early on in [my] company’s development, I decided to make the awareness of meaningful social issues an important part of the company’s culture, so that what one stands for is more important than what they stand in.
My father, my mentor, by his example, was a testament to the value of hard work and the concern for one’s fellow human beings. He did everything with all of his heart and with all of his “sole”.

The Person Who Changed My Life