The Road to Inspiration

The Road to Inspiration

Find out what keeps the Today show’s Bob Dotson on the move.

Bob Dotson sits on a suitcase on a railroad platform.

On my NBC Today show segment, “The American Story With Bob Dotson,” I’ve talked with countless ordinary Americans whose ingenuity and pluck express the best of our country, people whom most TV journalists wouldn’t notice. A New Yorker who paid for his three granddaughters’ college educations by selling potato peelers on the street. Or kids in a remote Alaskan village who formed a lifesaving ambulance brigade.

It seems everywhere I travel I find remarkable people in unremarkable places. In fact, I’ve come to believe everyone is remarkable. If our leaders—and our television reporters—would take more time to listen to the wisdom of ordinary, resourceful Americans, our country could solve many of its most intractable problems.

You might ask why it’s so hard to get powerful people to slow down and pay attention to ordinary folks. I’ve got a slightly different question. What made me slow down and listen?

After all, when I was getting started in the news business, I was just as hungry as the next young reporter for conventional success—a network reporting job, or maybe one day anchoring a national newscast. What put me on a different path?

The answer is one story I’ve never told on television. It starts the day I graduated from the University of Kansas, back in 1968. I was sitting in a café in Lawrence with my dad, having a cup of coffee.

Like most times we were together, we weren’t saying much. We didn’t dislike each other. But we didn’t really connect, either. Dad always wished I’d been more athletic, less bookish. We rarely talked about anything in depth. By that point in my life I felt like I hardly knew my father.

Suddenly Dad put down his coffee cup and fixed me with a strange look. “You know,” he said, “I never graduated from college.”

I put down my own cup. “Excuse me?” I said.

“That’s right,” said Dad. “I never graduated from college. I never did what you just did.”

For a moment I didn’t know what to say. My dad was one of the most successful, hardworking people I knew. In fact, that’s part of the reason we didn’t have much of a relationship.

Dad owned an optical store near our home in St. Louis. He knew all about optometry. He’d fitted thousands of people with glasses. He worked constantly, and when he came home he buried himself behind a newspaper. Didn’t you have to go to college to fit people with glasses?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Dad’s face filled with emotion. “I dropped out of school in fifth grade,” he said. “I had to. My dad skipped out on our family, joined the Army and never came back. I had to go to work to help my mother feed us—me and my younger brother and sister.”

I was stunned. I’d never heard my dad talk like this before. I’d been a pretty self-involved teenager. I’d just assumed my dad was like all the other plain-faced, plainspoken working dads in our neighborhood. A real square.

Dad’s expression tightened. “Eventually Mom couldn’t take care of three kids. She sent me to work for a farmer. I was just ten years old. When I was eleven I went to St. Louis and worked as a janitor in a car factory sweeping the floors.

"All the workers on the assembly line where I cleaned were immigrants. They didn’t speak English. It was pretty lonely.”

Dad said he eventually became a janitor at a St. Louis optical store. With the owner’s encouragement he went to night school. “I took classes for twenty-three years!” he exclaimed with pride.

He received an honorary master’s degree in ophthalmics. He bought a lens grinder and opened Dotson Optical Company. The business paid for our house, the food we ate, the clothes we wore—and my college education.

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