Fed Up

Fed up with violence, Chuck Wall calls for an outbreak of random kindness

by Susan Reed and Doris Bacon
in Bakersfield

 

One morning last spring, Professor Chuck Wall was pondering his next assignment for the students in his human relations class at Bakersfield (Calif.) College. He was half listening to the radio news when he heard the newscaster say, "We have another random act of senseless violence to report." In an instant, the numbing banality of the words had fired his pedagogical neurons.

 

"I just took out the word ‘violence’ and stuck in the word ‘kindness,’" says Wall, 52. "All of a sudden I had a great phrase that turned a negative into a positive."

 

When he walked into his classroom later that morning, Wall told his 18 students, ranging in age from 18 to 67, to pick up their pens. Then he directed them to take down the week’s assignment: "Today I will commit one random act of senseless kindness."

 

Hands shot up in confusion. "I don’t know what I’m supposed to do," complained one student. Says Wall: "They wanted me to tell them what kindness was about. I insisted they figure it out for themselves."

 

At the class’s next meeting, a week later, Wall’s students were more animated than he had ever seen them. They all had stores to tell. Shane Gautreaux, 20, had distributed blankets he’d bought from the Salvation Army to a group of homeless people who lived under Bakersfield’s Beale Street overpass. Lisa Holiman, 28, had rescued a ragged stray collie, bathed and fed it, then put up posters trying to find the dog’s owners. One day later, the collie was reclaimed. Jo Marshall, 55 and recently divorced after 37 years of marriage, set aside her anger at her then-out-of-work former husband and counseled him on how to obtain an extension on his unemployment benefits. And Jessica Fredericksen, 41, committed perhaps the ultimate act of generosity: Spying a harried motorist circling the student parking lot, she pulled out of the space she had just taken and waved him in.

 

"What was important to me," says Wall, "was the impact the assignment had on them personally." The students, in fact, were inspired to kick off their own continuing campaign for kindness. They had bumper stickers printed that read, "Today, I will commit one random act of senseless KINDNESS . . . Will you?" Kern County sheriff Carl Sparks ordered 150 for his patrol cars. After the Associated Press ran a story on the campaign, letters began pouring in to Wall from as far off as Canada. "Dare we hope that kindness is coming into fashion?" asked one letter writer. Several Bakersfield businesses offered to underwrite the printing costs, which allowed the students to make a dollar profit on each sticker. The proceeds, they decided, would go to the Kern County Braille Center.

 

Though certainly an act of kindness, the students’ selection of the Braille Center was by no means random. Chuck Wall is blind. In the early 1960’s, just before he entered Bakersfield College, he learned he had retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease that ultimately robs its victims of their sight. After Wall transferred to San Francisco State, his vision deteriorated. Dejected, he decided he would have to quit college. But a friend told a dean of Wall’s condition, and she found him state aid as well as readers to help him with his ssignments. He graduated with honors before going on to earn a Ph.D. in education at UCLA. In 1964, he married Diane Barry, now 50 and a housewife, and in 1984 he returned to Bakersfield to teach business management and later became director of the program. "He’s one of the most popular professions in the school," says Wall’s teaching assistant, Monique Craig. "I think it’s just natural for him to be nice."

 

Wall’s disability - he can only distinguish light and dark and gets around with a cane - hardly seems to limit him. Last year he ran for mayor of Bakersfield, a city of 200,000 ninety miles north of Los Angeles, and came in a respectable third out of five candidates. "You lose for a reason," says Wall. "I had a lot to do."

 

Now that his kindness campaign has unexpectedly caught fire, he has even more to do. He regularly receives letters asking for help in starting similar drives. In response, he has copyrighted his "kindness" phrase and is licensing it at minimal charge to nonprofit groups.

 

His students are beginning to see an impact too. Jessica Fredericksen arrived home recently to find that her three teenage sons had unexpectedly cleaned the house. "Just a random act of senseless kindness," explained one.

 

People, December 13, 1993

 

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