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Dr. Harold Hellenbrand: And that allows me to introduce tonight's speaker.
And I'm going to that with a story with a few edits in it that you all know.
A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was attacked by bandits.
They beat him up and left him half dead.
By chance, a priest came along, but he passed the man by.
A temple assistant walked over but he also passed the beaten man by.
Then, a despised Samaritan came along, a newspaper man, the Samaritan smoothed his wounds with olive oil then he took him to an inn.
He handed the innkeeper two silver coins telling him take care of this man.
If his bill runs high I will pay you.
Now, which of these men would you say was enabled to the man who was attacked by the bandits, Jesus asked.
The man he was speaking to replied, the one who showed him mercy, the newspaper man.
Then Jesus said yes, now go and do the same.
It was that dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho then skid row now.
We live in a spiral of time too distracted to see that our human plight always swings around.
Who among us has not been on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho?
Whom have we passed by?
Befriending a soloist on skid row, extending mercy to the neglected,
Steve Lopez resurrects the parable of the Good Samaritan.
His mercy awakens a soloist to preemptive music.
You see, and Antonio made this point, we are all soloist until love and dignity make us mutual friends.
Steve Lopez has went on as a journalist for an arranger of urban papers, but he does not report, he chronicles.
He helps us see and hear issues of health care and poverty through the stories of real people.
News and news formats, they come they go.
Chronicles parables, they live on.
Welcome today a supreme chronicler of our many days and our Jerichos and Jerusalems of today, LA's own Steve Lopez.
( Applause )
Steve Lopez: Thank you very much, thank you for coming.
Congratulations on the beginning of this great adventure.
One more shout out to the protestors.
Come on let's stand up and let's do it again.
( Cheering )
( Applause )
You're in here to engage not just on your own endeavors but to engage the world around you, to take up causes.
Let's, let's hear it now for the group back there.
( Cheering )
( Applause )
And please don't let this be the last day that you drag the signs out.
This situation's not going away.
Maybe there's somebody in this crowd who will grow up and move onto Sacramento one day with some solutions to these problems.
We could sure use it.
Any political science majors here do you think?
Yep, I see some hands, I see some hands.
Anybody interested in running for governor?
There's going to be an opening soon.
So, you're thinking what is this guy doing here?
Who is he anyway?
And, what is this talk of newspapers?
Who reads the newspaper anymore?
Has anybody here seen a newspaper?
Do you read the LA Times?
Have you heard of the story the Soloist?
No, yes, a lot of you have.
Some of you read the book.
There's a book called the soloist based on my relationship with the man I'm going to tell you about.
She's got one right here.
You want to stand up and show that to them, what they're missing?
This is what you're missing.
This was turned into a movie, and the move stars Jamie Fox as my friend, and Robert Downey Junior as me.
And I'm here because Robert Downey Junior was busy tonight.
Imagine Robert Downey Junior's career.
He goes from playing iron man to playing me.
Can he recover from this?
I don't know.
So, this is the beginning of a journey.
And perhaps it's fitting for you to tell me, for me to tell you about a journey that began four and a half years ago for me.
I look for stories.
I get phone calls and emails from people like you saying why don't you write about this and why don't you write about that.
And I appreciate those.
And, don't forget about me after tonight.
And if you think there's a good column, you know my name now and you know where to find me.
Right? If there's some outrage that needs some coverage, if there's something about the impact of the cuts that you think I can shine a light on, you know how to reach me.
I like to take action.
I like to get involved.
And sometimes I just wonder around looking for stories.
I feel privileged to have my job.
One of the great things about it is that I don't know what's coming next.
I don't know what I'm going to be writing about next.
And I like, I like that I'm always surprised by it.
One day I'm walking through Downtown Los Angeles, the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, there's a little park called Pershing Square.
Do you know where that is?
And, I saw a guy playing a violin and the violin was missing two strings.
But the music was not bad for a guy missing half his strings.
It was classical music.
And I thought, well how does he do that and what is his story?
And I looked a little bit closer.
And I saw that he had all of his belongings in a shopping cart.
And he had written a little sign on the side of the cart.
And it said little Walt Disney Concert Hall.
And there he was on a drizzly day playing a two stringed violin.
And, the big Walt Disney Concert Hall, of course, is just up the hill from there several blocks.
It's the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
And, here's a guy who was, he might as well have been a million miles away from there.
He was kind of dressed in rags.
He clearly had some issues going on.
And, I noticed something about him.
He didn't have a hat out the way sometimes you'll see with a street musician.
He didn't have the violin case open.
In other words, he was not playing for money.
He was playing as if it were a practice session.
And I wondered why would you do that right here in this spot?
And, I walked across the street and introduced myself.
He jumped back.
He was scared to death of me.
I thought boy, I'm never going to get a column out of this guy.
And when he calmed down I said, excuse me, but why do you play in this particular spot?
And he pointed and he said right there is the Beethoven statue.
And I play here for inspiration.
And I thought that was profound and that it was an inspiration to me.
And I wondered what might his story be?
And, all that he'd say to me was he used to play a while back.
But, things kind of fell apart and he was trying to get back on track.
Now, here's a guy in his 50's clearly homeless living on the street trying to get back on track with a two string violin.
I went back to my office and I wrote down on my list of column possibilities violin man.
And, when I had time I went looking for him again.
And I couldn't find him.
And I got worried and I went all over Skid Row.
And as I walked Skid Row I thought to myself, my goodness how did this happen.
Thousands, I mean thousands, literally thousands of people, living in tents, living on the pavement, many of them dealing with a chronic severe mental illness.
Many of them veterans back from the wars.
And I thought how can we let that happen in this country?
That's something to get some signs about and stand up and shake a fist and protest.
How can this exist?
How does it exist a few blocks from City Hall, a few blocks from the Los Angeles Times?
We've got to do something about this.
And, I asked if anybody had met this man, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.
And they said the guy with the violin, we haven't seen him lately.
So, I went back out looking.
And one day I saw him.
He had moved over to the Second Street Tunnel.
And this time, when I went to see him he was glad to see me and happy to talk.
And, each time I went back to see him he was even warmer and told me more about his story.
And one day, scratching names on the sidewalk.
And I said well who are they, Robert, and Elizabeth, and James, and Dorothy?
And he said, this guy dressed in rags with his two string violin and everything in his shopping cart, those were my classmates at the Juilliard School for the Performing Arts in New York City.
I said, Nathaniel you went to one of the greatest music schools in the world?
He said yep and it was a while back and I'm trying to get back on track.
And I said, you know what, I'm here to help you.
Let me get you those two strings.
And he said nope, I can't let you do that.
Why not? I can't cover it Mr. Lopez.
I can't pay for it.
I don't take anything that I don't earn.
I went back, I checked with Juilliard.
You ever heard of a guy named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers?
And they checked and said nope, never had a guy here by that name.
And I thought, oh my goodness, he's so delusional he thinks he went to this school and he didn't.
What am I going to do with this column?
I moved on to something else.
The next day Juilliard calls back.
They'd made a mistake.
Nathaniel Anthony Ayers was a student there.
Nathaniel Anthony Ayers grew up in Cleveland, got interested in music hanging out at his mother's beauty shop after school.
And the radio was on and he tapped his foot and he loved it.
And, she got him piano lessons.
And, in junior high he joined the band.
And every instrument that the teacher gave him he was almost instantly able to play.
And he said I can't help you.
Go and see this other guy.
Harry Barnoff, a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, took Nathaniel under his wing when Nathaniel was 12 and 13 and he trained him and told him you have got a chance.
But, it's not going to be easy.
Nothing is going to come easy to you in life.
You have got to work.
But, there's a great opportunity here.
It's an opportunity that all of you out here tonight have.
But you've got to work at it, Mr. Barnoff told Nathaniel.
And Nathaniel set his mind to it and practiced, and practiced, and practiced and got himself a scholarship to the University of Ohio, but wasn't satisfied because Mr. Barnoff had gone to Juilliard.
And Nathaniel went to the airport and got on a plane.
They used to have something called student standby back in my day.
You just showed up in an airport, said you were a student, showed them your ID, and waited for an open seat on the next plane.
Isn't that a pretty good deal?
I think they ought to bring that back.
Nathaniel goes to New York City, takes a cab to Juilliard, auditions, nails the audition and is given a full scholarship to Juilliard.
And that's the man who is sitting out here on the street in Skid Row.
What went wrong?
In his third year he began to see and hear things that nobody else did.
He was terrified.
He was losing his mind.
He ended up in handcuffs.
He ended up in jail.
He ended up in psychiatric emergency rooms.
His career was over.
And 35 years later he was trying to get back on track.
He was every single day of his life trying to get it back.
And, although he'd had such an unlucky break, he had one thing that few of us ever find when we walk this planet.
He had purpose, he had passion.
And it kept him alive.
It kept him anchored.
It kept him focused and motivated.
And, he wonders out to Los Angeles.
He bumps into the Beethoven statue and he thinks this is an inspiration.
I'm home. I wrote that first column and readers responded in a way they've never responded to anything I've written.
I've been to Iraq.
I've been to Bosnia.
I've witnessed the fall of communism in Russia.
I've gone to volcanoes, to hurricanes.
I've written dispatches from around the corner and around the world for 35 years.
Nobody ever responded to anything I'd written the way they responded to this.
And they knew that I'd made a connection.
And I think there's a longing in all of us to make a connection, to find your muse, to reach beyond your own existence and maybe help somebody.
And people were rooting for me to find ways to help him.
And they were rooting for him.
And in a matter of days my desk at the LA Times was surrounded by boxes.
I went over and I opened them up.
And there were notes from readers saying, Mr. Lopez I read your column about Mr. Ayers.
I was inspired.
And I always thought I'd get back to this violin but I'd rather that he have it.
Six violins, two cellos, a piano, readers wanted to get involved.
They wanted to make a connection.
They wanted to discover that there's grace in giving, in public service, in opening your hearts and minds, in learning to look past generalizations and stereotypes, about who that is walking across the street and bedding down for the night on Skid Row.
They're not strangers.
They're our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.
And, I wrote about Mr. Ayers and readers wanted to know more.
And I followed him around Skid Row afraid that he was going to be mugged for those instruments.
And I spent a night with him on Skid Row.
And that was the night when this became more than me writing a story.
That was the night that Mr. Ayers became my teacher.
That was the night that instead of me just helping Mr. Ayers, he began helping me find out why I do what I do.
He gave me an opportunity for the first time in my life to step out and do something for someone.
I'd never been the guy who volunteered in the Big Brother program.
And, I was feeling good about doing something for this man.
And the rewards were many, sometimes just a smile or a handshake, sometimes the satisfaction on his face playing one of these new instruments.
And, that night on Skid Row, to clear a space for his bedding he crushed cockroaches with the heel of his boot.
He kicked the cockroaches into the gutter.
He grabbed cigarette butts, he flicked them into the garbage can.
He looked up into the windows where people live and he said to me.
Mr. Lopez, did you know that Beethoven and Mozart once worked through the night in rooms like those?
They lived and breathed as humans do and they created something that lasted for centuries.
Are you inspired by that Mr. Lopez?
How do people do that?
Where does that creativity and passion come from?
I don't know Mr. Ayers, but yes, I am inspired.
Mr. Ayers said the Lord's Prayer.
Mr. Ayers got two sticks out of his cart.
On one he had written Beethoven on the other he had written Brahms.
And when I asked what those were for he said Mr. Lopez, when the rats come out of the sewer I chase them away with Beethoven and Brahms.
And he did.
He went to sleep and I stood there ashamed.
How can this exist?
How can we ignore the conditions in our own neighborhoods, our own communities?
How can there be such injustice and economic disparity in the world?
How can we sit silently?
And, I began shaking a fist and shining a light on this, banging on the doors of City Hall.
I wanted answers.
I wanted solutions.
Mr. Ayers' greatest gift to me was the privilege of knowing him well enough to tell his story.
We were invited to Disney Hall that place that was a million miles away.
And Mr. Ayers told me I can't go up there.
People shouldn't have to pay good money to see great music and have to sit next to a guy like me.
And I called and I said is it okay if we come to a rehearsal?
And they said okay.
We got to Disney Hall and musicians came off the stage to meet Mr. Ayers.
And he was confused by that and said, how do you know me?
Well, we've been reading about you Mr. Ayers.
We're inspired by you.
But you're in the orchestra.
Yes, but look at your accomplishments Mr. Ayers.
You've had such courage; you've had such faith in the music.
We really admire your relationship with the thing you love.
You've been so faithful to it.
It keeps us going.
When the orchestra had cleared the room after they played Beethoven's third,
Mr. Ayers pulled out his violin and alone, just the two of us, he played.
It's the first time he'd been in a concert hall in 30 years.
And not long after that he was wearing a T Shirt and it said Yo Yo Ma on it, Disney Hall, concert date.
And I said what's up?
And he said Yo Yo Ma is coming to town can we go see him?
So, I called my friends in the orchestra.
And they said sure, come on up.
And we were escorted to our seats because Mr. Ayers is now treated like a VIP.
He'd made that long trip from Pershing Square and the little Walt Disney Concert Hall shopping cart to the real thing.
And we watched the Yo Yo Ma concert.
And we were invited backstage.
And, one reason we were invited backstage is that those many years ago when Nathaniel was a student at Juilliard Yo Yo Ma was his classmate.
They were in an orchestra together.
And Nathaniel looked into the mirror in a greenroom checking his hair and tugging at his tie, nervous about this reunion with his old classmate.
And I thought boy, what are we going to do here?
What is, what is anybody going to say?
Yo Yo Ma appeared in the doorway.
And I looked at him and fortunately he knew what to do.
He walked over and he shook Nathaniel's hand and he said Nathaniel you're a friend of mine, anybody who loves Beethoven like you do is a friend of mine.
And there was a pause, and Nathaniel shrugged.
And Yo Yo Ma knew it wasn't enough.
He then, reached around and grabbed him and held him and hugged him and said, Nathaniel you and I are brothers, we are brothers in music.
He stepped back, he looked at Nathaniel, and then he handed Nathaniel his cello.
He said I've got to meet some other people, why don't you take this and fiddle with it for a while.
And Mr. Ayers and I watch Yo Yo Ma walk out of the room.
And Mr. Ayers looked at me and said Mr. Lopez that was Yo Yo Ma.
And I said yes I know that it was Yo Yo Ma.
And he said no.
That was Yo Yo Ma.
And I thought, yes.
But, if you look at those two careers launched from the same stage at the same time, Yo Yo Ma becoming an international icon and Mr. Ayers getting up every morning and fighting the demons and dealing with this condition, this there but for the grace of God condition that had become his life, finding his way to the music every day, an inspiration to members of the LA Philharmonic.
And here he is saying Mr.Lopez that was Yo Yo Ma.
And I thought, but you know what, you are Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.
And I'm proud to be your friend.
He's taught me faith.
He's taught me hope.
He's taught me about the power of a human connection.
You're all going to make connections here.
You're going to find your musses.
You're going to find your Mr. Barnoffs.
You're going to find your inspiration.
You're going to find your way.
With any luck, you're going to find your true passion.
Before we walk down here, there's a bright young student who works for your school newspaper.
And she came up to me with a tape recorder and said you talked about finding that passion.
How do you do that?
And, I didn't have an answer really.
But then, I thought about it and said well you take advantage of an opportunity like this.
You take advantage of what you're doing here.
You try on everything for size.
If one major doesn't work out, switch to another.
Try it all, engage in the world.
Take advantage of all the opportunities that are here for you.
Do things that are a little bit scary.
Take on things that are a little bit risky.
Be willing to fail.
And maybe in the course you'll find your passion.
I hope that you do.
I know that you will.
And I want to say you tonight congratulations on being here.
Go after it and don't let anybody or anything stand in your way.
( Applause )
Dr. Jolene Koester: We have a small token of appreciation for Mr. Lopez.
We're using Mr. here this evening.
So, Steve on behalf of the freshmen class 2009 at Cal State Northridge thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
( Cheering )
( Applause )