How a 5-Year-Old Orphan Realized his Dreams

I was planning on taking a few days off, but I heard a story today I couldn’t wait to share with you.

I spent today with my 4-year-old son at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Both he and I love the place.

Kids over 8 can do experiments in the laboratory. The museum was quiet today, so I asked a woman if she would make an age exception for my 4-year-old. She smiled and said “I’d love to.”

So we donned our goggles, white gowns, and rubber gloves and sat down at the ‘Cheek Swab’ experiment. You swab the inside of your mouth with a toothpick, drop the cells onto a glass slide, dye them blue, and view them through a microscope.

We couldn’t find the cells on the slide and Walter – a museum volunteer – helped us find them. When we found the cells, Walter explained them in detail.

My son became restless and distracted and I said, “he’s a little young for this.”

Walter replied, “When I was about six (1940s), I was at the St. Paul winter carnival and I ducked into a big red brick building to warm up and I saw a bunch of people experimenting with microscopes. It so piqued my curiosity that I began to read about microscopes at the local library and that led to an interest in biology, which eventually led to becoming a doctor, and now I am a father of three doctors. I was orphaned at five you know. I had no parents. You’re doing the right thing. You don’t know what curiosity this moment my lead to. People ask me why I volunteer here when I could be out making money speaking and lecturing and I tell them it’s because I owe my success to this place. That red brick building I ducked into sixty years ago was the old Science Museum of Minnesota. I volunteer hoping that I can pique curiosity in more youngsters.”

I was amazed, but the impact of his story didn’t hit me for several minutes. I walked away. As my son was zapping Rhino viruses at a video console, I approached Walter and said, “I have a website and I want to tell your story. I want to confirm – did you say that you are an orphan that became a doctor and went on to father three more doctors?”

He replied, “Yes”

“Can I write about your story”, I asked.

He cleared it through the Science Museum of Minnesota and gave me more detail.

Here’s a few more tidbits…

After he was orphaned, a local church took care of him and his sister. They didn’t have family in America so they were alone. When a church member offered to adopt him, he told the church he didn’t want a new daddy because he loved his old one. So he didn’t get a new family. The church separated him from his sister and sent him to work on a farm.

Not only was he an orphan, but he was also stricken with polio a year later.

As a teenager he moved to the city and took a job at the Armour slaughterhouse in South St. Paul. He almost bought some farmland, but he realized farming wasn’t his passion and enrolled in college. He worked his way through college working two jobs, one at the slaughterhouse and another at 3M.

He founded several cancer research foundations.

I asked him what he thought was the key to fathering three doctors. He said, “I never taught them anything. I don’t believe in teaching. Everyone is self-taught. You don’t learn a thing until you ‘discover’ it for yourself. I coached them. I did it by asking questions – questions that spurred curiosity. The best teachers I ever had just asked me questions. Don’t lecture or tell your kids anything, ask them great questions. It’ll get ‘em thinking and they’ll be fine.”

I hope Walter inspires you as much as he inspired me.

The strange thing is…
He didn’t ask me many questions.

8 thoughts on “How a 5-Year-Old Orphan Realized his Dreams”

  1. Hey Steve, I think the story was definitely worth breaking your “blog-fast”. 🙂 The advice offered is pretty cool, I was always told what to do so you can imagine how difficult it was to leave for college and find that I had no idea how to take care of myself. It would’ve been nice if my parents allowed me to ‘discover’ things on my own without always getting in trouble. 🙂

  2. Thanks for that great story. Of course you shouldn’t take a break from blogging:-) This reminds me that I’m a spoiled shit who should stop complaining about things. Walter’s theory of learning also reminds me of a great article I read to today about “unschooling”. Kind of like homeschooling on steroids. The kids learn whatever they are interested in and are free to do what they want. I’ll email you the link tomorrow since I’m right now at a bar having a few beers and blogging…… I think this story ties in beautifully with your post the other week about howt he school system crushes souls and that there are much better ways to learn than simply go to school.


  3. Hey Steve,

    Over the last few years I have been involved with an increasing number of interfering, meddling, over-protective, paranoid (yes, well-intending and loving) parents who have successfully produced kids with virtually no skills for life in the real world; not the synthetic, manufactured version of the world they were raised in; but the dirty, lumpy, bumpy, unfair, unpredictable world that most of us inhabit.

    They love their kids and want the best for them but sometimes it’s more loving to let a child fall over, get a little grubby, dust herself off, get up and keep going, than it is to race her off to the doctor every time she gets a scratch on her knee.

    Discovery is the key!

    Craig Harper

  4. Hi!

    LOL I like great stories.

    What a pity that such a great doctor, and father too, was abandoned by his parents when he was a little kid. His parent sure had inherited some good genes to him. He’s a doctor himself, and too a father of 3 doctors! LOL that is a very talented family.

    I deeply believe curiosity can lead to many possibilities, and what brings up curiosity? Obviously, for me, I think there are only 2 ways: by education, and by self-discovering. And good education should boost themselves to self-discover more things, thus to bring them more curiosity, and eventually, to know wider, and deeper, of more things. Teaching is just part of educating, which is only bringing new knowledge to people directly, without requiring them to think, which is, of coz a very bad thing. But teaching is also important by telling them basic knowledges and truths, without these basic stuffs, no matter how many curiosity they have, they will not have enough basic knowledge to discover more. So actually I don’t quite agree with “I don’t believe in teaching”.

    Everything must appear together harmoniously to have good results. Just curiosity, or just education, or just teaching, will not have any good results.


  5. HI, I stumbled onto your blog a few weeks back. I have yet to not check it at least once every couple of days. I am glad you just started, as I feel that I would be compelled to spend months catching up with the archives.

    I just wanted to point out that there are millions of stories out there, like the one you illustrated today. I always felt that everyone could be on biography. Sometimes it would be boring, but sometimes not so boring, as your story points out. But I have met many people, like you did at the Science Museum, that have wonderful things to tell as long as I am willing to listen. To me? Pure magic.

  6. Steve,
    I’m home-schooling my almost 6 year old daughter, who is a very curious young lady. It is trips to the Science Center and the Children’s Museum that make for new subjects at home. She asks questions, and I figure out ways to teach her more about her favorite subject. I am always amazed at how she takes things, and what she has to say about them. She is my little teacher a lot of the time. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *