“When I first met Eric Motley,” says New Orleanian and bestselling author Walter Isaacson, “I knew there must be a wonderful backstory.”
About Isaacson, you already know. The acclaimed biographer has made a name for himself with popular books about Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. Motley is less known, although “Madison Park: A Place of Hope,” his new memoir, might change that.
Isaacson quickly noticed how smart Motley was when they first connected.
“But after a while,” Isaacson writes in a foreword to Motley’s book, “I realized there was something much deeper … a true inner strength based on spiritual humility.”
When Isaacson headed the Aspen Institute, the prestigious Washington think tank, he hired Motley to work there, too. Motley’s résumé made him a natural fit. After serving as the youngest appointee in the George W. Bush White House, he moved to a high post in the State Department. It was a remarkable outcome given the obstacles of Motley’s youth.
Born to single mother too troubled to take care of him, Motley was raised by his grandparents in the small African-American community of Madison Park in Alabama. Despite long odds, his grandparents, with the help of their friends and neighbors, decided that the young Motley would eventually go to college.
As a grade schooler, Motley appeared bright, but he fell behind in class, prompting his teacher to move him from the “rabbit” reading group to the “turtles.”
In church the next Sunday, Motley’s aunt stood up and asked the congregation to donate books to Motley’s household.
“Little Eric doesn’t have a library,” she explained, “and he needs the practice.”
Motley “was mortified by the unwanted attention,” he tells readers. “But within a few hours, community folks started dropping by until our porch looked as if we were having a paper drive.”
The help didn’t stop there. Six retired teachers in the Madison Park community volunteered to tutor Motley after school. “A rotating team of two came by our house every afternoon to coach, drill, and encourage me,” Motley writes. “They didn’t stop at reading. They must have figured while they were at it, why not tutor me in math, too?”
The intervention worked.
“I was restored to Rabbit status by spring,” Motley writes. “The effort … didn’t stop there. Not only did the townspeople see to it that I could read, by God, they would make sure I went to college.”
Motley graduated from Samford University and eventually earned a doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Later, he would work for the leader of the free world. Reading is now one of his favorite pastimes.
“Each step of the way,” Isaacson writes, “Eric sought out and was able to attract someone who would mentor him.”
Which leaves us to wonder how many other Eric Motleys are out there waiting for our help.