MR. WILLIAM J. PAXTON: Well, growing up I learned -- and what I believe many of us learned about Dr. Carver when we are young -- when we're young -- that he was a smart man, who did a lot of work with the peanut. As I grew a little older, I learned that he did that work at the Tuskegee Institute,the school started by Booker T. Washington. And, as I grew a little older, I guess I also learned that in addition to the peanut, he did more work with soybeans and sweet potatoes. And, that he really, for the most part, tried to not only revolutionize American -- southern agriculture, but that he also really tried to bring people together. And, I think, those are the things that, as I grew older, that really brought me to study Dr. Carver.
I attended Iowa State University, Dr. Carver's alma mater. I missed Dr. Carver by about 100 years -- actually exactly 100 years. He graduated with his master’s degree and left and went to Tuskegee in 1896. And his -- I was a freshman in the fall of 1996 so exactly -- I missed -- exactly 100 years I missed him by and once I was there on campus there was a building named after him. There was also -- in 1998, I believe, there was an all university celebration honoring Dr. Carver. Bill Cosby came and did a free concert. There was a major retrospective of the photographs of P.H. Polk. P.H. Polk was a famous Tuskegee University photographer. Most folks, even if they've never heard of P.H. Polk, they probably have seen at least one of his photographs. And, that photograph is that photograph of Tusk -- a pilot in Tuskegee with Eleanor Roosevelt.
So, I learned about P.H. Polk and I saw those photographs and I took a seminar on Dr. Carver. And, in that seminar, we took a trip to Diamond, to the Carver National Monument, an interesting place the Carver National Monument. When legislation was passed to create it and signed by the President in 1943 -- not too much after Dr. Carver's passing -- it was the first national monument to honor an African American; the first to honor an educator. And, it was the first birthplace monument to anyone other than a U.S. President. So, I was really interested. And, when I was there, I learned a lot more about who Dr. Carver really was, and it wasn't necessarily his 300 uses for the peanut. I mean, I think, that's probably the smallest or probably the least important thing about exactly who he was. And, in so, the more I learned this story about he overcame so many things and how he did it without any sense of self pity and any hint of self-congratulation, I think, those are the things that really brought me to study Dr. Carver. And, also the fact that throughout Dr. Carver's life he was always encouraged and supported and inspired by people who knew him, people who didn't know him, people that looked like him, and people who didn't look like him. And, I think, that was a great story.
And, I think, that's one of the major points that I try to get across in this play. Is that though particularly we cannot be Dr. Carver because I really believe he was a genius. I believe, there is few people like him at any given time on earth, because I mean, he was just -- if you look at not only his work with science and agriculture, but look at his artistic capabilities. You know, he had two paintings that were selected to go to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. If you look at his work with music, you know, he played -- at one point he played piano concerts to raise money for Tuskegee. And, he played the accordion and many different things. He was just very talented. So, while I don't think we can all be Dr. Carver, we can all be the kind of people who helped him out on his journey. And, so one of my goals in my play is to have it be prescriptive and to tell people how they can live their lives and be open and give to others. Because if Dr. Carver has shown us one thing, I mean, it's not that he was who he was it's just that -- it's also that. At each point in his life, you know, whenever he needed assistance or help -- just guidance he let people know it and he was rewarded for that. And, these folks who encouraged him, they didn't know he was going to become a great scientist or a great humanitarian. He was going to have interactions with Gandhi, be recruited to go to the USSR to advise them on Southern Russia's cotton plantations. They didn't know that folks like Will Rogers and Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace, former Vice-President would be, you know, would gravitate towards him. They just thought a person who had a thirst for knowledge and the will to do good and, I think, that's what really inspired me about Dr. Carver and who he was. He, I mean, he's -- and the more I've -- and I've studied Dr. Carver probably intensely since about 1999 and the more I learn about him the more inspired I am by him. If you just look at the era in which he lived, it was a time of great change in this country and he really sought to not only capitalize on it, but to bring others along with him. That's one of the reasons why -- one great story has always been about his friendship with Henry Ford.
If you know anything about Henry Ford, you know, Henry Ford was a very interesting figure. I mean, he was very wrong-headed in many, many, many ways, I mean, Henry Ford was behind the times in the wrong times on any number of issues but he had a great appreciation and great respect for Henry -- for Dr. Carver. And, I think, that was because he recognized, you know, what Carver went through and he recognized Carver's mindset. And, I think, as a scientist and an inventor they both tried to find ways to help improve the living conditions of those who they interacted with. And, you know, they met in 1937 at a chemurgy conference and we don't use the word chemurgy anymore, but chemurgy is the development of industrial -- of industrial uses for farm products. And, so like they worked together to create a synthetic plastic. And, they were even working together to create a synthetic fuel. So, we look at what Dr. Carver was doing at the time back then, it's interesting to see how timely and timeless he is, because he was doing things that, you know, just imagine if he was successful, you know, with his effort to create a synthetic fuel.
And, so those are some of the stories that I try to tell when I portray Dr. Carver. And, the neat thing about portraying someone like Dr. Carver is he has such a great story and there's enough research on him out there. And, there's enough newspaper articles and articles and just -- radio shows even that you can actually hear his voice, see his mannerisms and hear his humor. Dr. Carver was a very humorous person, so I really try to bring that out. I try to share that with folks because -- and my main job is to simply not get in the way of the story because Dr. Carver has such a great story. It is very inspirational and it's the kind of story that, I think, people come in expecting to hear something about the peanut. They come in expecting to learn 300 uses for the peanut. They don't learn that. They probably learn zero uses for the peanut really in this play, but they learn the kind of person he was. I mean, Dr. Carver didn't patent anything for personal gain. He wanted everyone to be able to benefit from what he was able to create. And, I think, that's very inspiring to me, you know, in a world -- it's kind of -- we wouldn't really understand Dr. Carver today, I think, because he was very selfless, very -- not that people aren't selfless today, but he was just so very committed and so very driven to do what he did. And, I think, a lot of it stems from his own upbringing. As you may know he was born in slavery near the close of the Civil War, he was orphaned as a little boy; so he never knew either of his parents. For the most part, he was raised by a white couple until he was about 12 where he moved away to go to school and he had his first black parents, Aunt Mariah and Uncle Andrew Watkins, and you know, he suffered several things in order to get an education. But, he never gave up hope. He was very resilient and he just showed that if you work hard enough and you have a goal and a dream you can achieve that goal and that dream. And, he was also very creative and that's one thing that I also try to inspire in the play.
This was a person who, as a little boy he saw a painting and he wanted to learn how to paint. But, there were several problems, as he used to say, the first problem was, as Dr. Carver would say, I didn't have any paint. The second problem was I didn't have any paintbrushes. The third problem was I didn't have any canvas. And, the fourth problem was I didn't have any money to buy these things. And, the fifth problem was if I did have any money there weren't any stores around to buy these things from. And, so Dr. Carver was very creative and he created his own paint by finding berries smashing them together, taking leaves putting them with water, using the clay, mixing dirt with water and then he would paint all around. He would use old bark -- he would find pieces of bark, large rocks he would paint on. Sometimes he would just paint on the grass. And, the great thing was Dr. Carver would say he would have all these great masterpieces around the Carver homestead until it rained. But, then after it rained he would invariably again make more paint and make more masterpieces. And, so I think, that's one of the great stories about Dr. Carver's story and his life about who he was.
And, Dr. Carver really didn't have any need -- didn't have any need for money which was really interesting. And, most folks don't understand this, but Dr. Carver used to get in trouble for not having his checks cashed -- for not cashing checks on time. He would often receive strongly worded letters from the treasurer saying, you know, Dr. Carver you are messing up the books. You know, please take care of this. And, so I think, that's another interesting fact. And, that's why it's easy for me to understand why Dr. Carver could turn down Henry Ford's offer to come work for him because he really had no use for money. He really believed that he was doing necessary work where he was and he was very committed to that, and very committed to his students, and very committed to helping improve the health and living conditions of the southern farmer. He remembered his Aunt Mariah's advice to "lift as he climbed" and he never forgot that.
And, yeah, so I think, those are probably some of the major points about who Dr. Carver was that, I think, really inspired me to share his story. And, I will tell you when I first wrote the play I took it to a theater professional on campus, Jane Cox, known in Iowa as the "Queen of the One Woman Show." She's performed from Russia to the Kennedy Center and she's great. And, I wrote what I thought was a pretty good play. And, I took it to her and I'm not going to say she said it was crap. But, she didn't say it was genius either. Because it was all about Dr. Carver being famous, all about his conversations with the Kellogg brothers, all about his conversations with Will Rogers, President Ford, ah, Henry Ford, and President Roosevelt, and Vice-President Henry Wallace. And, so that -- it was all about that; it wasn't about the struggle; it wasn't about the incidences in his life that made him who he was that, I think, that are really inspirational to me. And, so we turned it around and we changed it to focus on those more pivotal points in his life that, I think, are more prescriptive for the rest of us.
And, it's my hope that the play is -- that it fulfills the true purpose of art as told by Paul Robeson in years past and by Harry Belafonte, more recently. That it not only shows life how it is, but how it could be, and not only shows life how it could be, but gives us ideas about how we could actually help bring about that change. And, so those are the major reasons why I find Dr. Carver so fascinating, you know, even after 8 years now of learning more about him. And, I've been fortunate enough to meet several of his former students. And, the main thing about actually portraying Dr. Carver is you meet folks who have some connection to him. For example, the lady today whose grandfather went to school with Dr. Carver and who she said had -- who enjoyed being in school with him. And, so I think, those are the most inspirational things that you see, that he was actually a real person and you see the types of feelings that he engenders even now, you know, 60 some odd years after he passed away. And, I'll point out that, you know, Dr. Carver passed away January 5th, 1943 and that's typically the day that we celebrate his life because we don't know when he was born. And, so I think, that's fairly interesting. And, his epitaph, I think, really succinctly sums up who he was. His epitaph was -- "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world." And, I think, that's probably, I mean, I think, that really sums it -- sums up who he was. Like if I only had 15 seconds and someone said tell me about George Washington Carver, I think, that's what I would say. "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."