Bill Porter, born with cerebral palsy, has been a door-to-door salesman in Portland, Ore., since 1954. As a teenager, Shelly Brady started working for Bill, learning from his indomitable spirit and strong values. Today a wife and mother of six, Shelly often shares Bill’s inspiring story with others, and Bill is a sought-after motivational speaker. Last week, actor William H. Macy won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor in a TV Movie for his portrayal of Bill Porter in "Door to Door," the film he made for TNT about the salesman's life.
Bill is often asked, “What makes you tick? What makes you get up day after day, don a business suit, and sell door-to-door when you could stay home and collect disability payments?”
He answers, “I knew there was something I could do. I felt it deep inside. My mother told me I could do anything I set out to do and I believed her. I set out to work and nothing could make me take my eyes off that goal. When I was let go from the jobs the unemployment office set me up with, I was frustrated and discouraged, but I wouldn’t let those feelings fester. I pushed them aside and kept going back. Eventually, I knew the right job would come my way. You must have faith in yourself and work hard. I learned that from my mother, my father, and God.”
I marvel at the inner strength Bill Porter mustered during the 1980s when he cared for his ill mother and continued to work each day. “I had to go to work. I had to pay the bills,” he’ll tell you. Bill’s admirable character traits are built upon a deep, internal value system.
Shortly before his mother passed away, I was asked to volunteer time for a youth group at my church. The goal of the group was to introduce young women to values they could use today and carry with them their entire life. Those values were: faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, and integrity.
We had the girls choose someone they knew personally who exemplified the seven values and discuss how they were manifested. Well-respected parents, teachers, grandparents, and friends were commonly cited as examples. To the surprise of the girls, I chose Bill Porter because more than anyone I know, he dramatically demonstrates the belief and practice of these seven values. In fact, he has believed and practiced them since childhood, when his parents taught him the importance of possessing the kind of internal values that one can rely on every day all through life.
Irene Porter was a deeply religious woman. She taught her son to love God’s wisdom in very practical terms, not abstractly, but by action, by the way one deals with all aspects of life, positive or negative. Irene didn’t take the good things in life for granted; she gave thanks for every good turn of events, and she didn’t see misfortunes as unlucky, insurmountable coincidences. Pouting or bemoaning one’s downcast state were not options.
The Porter family attended church every Sunday where they prayed and gave thanks to a loving Heavenly Father who blesses their lives. Irene had faith that God didn’t make mistakes; Bill’s cerebral palsy was a part of Bill and thus a gift from the heavens above. In her heart she believed God loved the Porter family and watched over them at every juncture. Irene taught Bill that faith carries one through the toughest of times. Bill learned that faith in God is synonymous with faith in humankind, which allowed him to see his customers as brothers and sisters.
Irene and Ernest never doubted that Bill was a child of God who inherited divine qualities and gifts. He was taught that he had an obligation to discover and share these gifts. Irene taught him to be patient; it takes time to discover all God has given us. After many years of searching, Bill found he had a gift for selling, for gaining the trust of others because he earned it. Along his route, his friends and customers received more than products and smiles; they received from Bill an ability to recognize their own divine gifts and qualities.
Irene felt it was a shame that parents of disabled children didn’t recognize that a handicap can be a blessing in disguise. She understood the feelings of despair and sorrow, as she was initially devastated to learn her baby had cerebral palsy. But she quickly realized that Bill was special, that he was born into this world to teach important lessons to others. She believed her son was infinitely worthy of living in society, not in a hospital where his purpose on earth would be squelched. Consequently, Bill never developed an inferiority complex or a feeling of being handicapped. His mission was to be the best he could be, thereby inspiring others to learn by example that anything is possible.
Bill learned from his parents that knowledge is the key to a successful life. When Bill was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Ernest and Irene educated themselves about the disease. Ernest quit his job as a salesman and found employment with a school for handicapped children, while Irene spent countless hour volunteering for United Cerebral Palsy. The Porters fought the establishment for years to get Bill into public schools. They knew Bill needed a good education if he was ever going to make it on his own.
He memorized the shopping habits and the likes and dislikes of more than five hundred clients. He is able to recite the names of clients who use vanilla when they bake and which ones insist on biodegradable soaps. Knowledge is power to Bill, and he never stops learning.
Choice and Accountability
Bill Porter certainly didn’t choose to be born with cerebral palsy, but he and his parents had a choice of how to respond to the hand they’d been dealt. Many doctors and well-meaning friends suggested institutionalizing Bill. They told the Porters that there were many risks in keeping Bill at home. Instead, Irene and Ernest chose to love, nurture, and raise their child at home in spite of guaranteed hardships and sacrifices.
Bill learned early on that choices exist; choices give one character and personality and distinguish good from evil. The knowledge that he had options was especially valuable to Bill when he first searched for employment.
“You have a choice, Bill,” Irene told him. “You can either get up and march right back down to that unemployment office and show them you’re determined or stay home and stew.” In theory it sounds simple, but many of us don’t exercise our right to choose. Yet not making the right choice can lead to dead-end jobs and unfulfilled lives.
"Why on God's earth did you buy from him when I told you not to?" he complained.
In her defense, she replied, "He's so upbeat and determined, it's impossible to say no to him."
When the husband called to cancel the order, Bill guaranteed his money back in full if he wasn't satisfied. They are now long-time customers who welcome him into their home with open arms-and checkbooks.
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Bill truly is a shining light in a dark world. He has spent his whole life working hard, struggling to learn everything he needed to become and stay independent. He is very much aware of and thankful for all the people who have come into his life to help him out. True, many of them receive a paycheck from Bill (remember, he is fiercely independent). He has accepted a few kind acts without payment...[but watches] for opportunities to "pay it forward."
When Bill sells a product to a client, there is never a hint of deception; he simply isn't capable of taking advantage of another human being. If you order a product from Bill, then you receive exactly what he promised. Guaranteed by Bill and Watkins. To some business people, this righteous attitude may seem naïve or unrealistic but it works; just look at his sales figures. When Bill reviews invoices in the evening, he sincerely looks out for his customers' interest. (Don't get me wrong; Bill loves the bottom line, too.) Every invoice is scanned to ensure that the numbers match up with the products.
In addition to delivering products for Bill, I was assigned the task of refunding overpayments of even a few cents. In Bill's mind, two cents is no different from two hundred dollars; it's a matter of principle. Integrity takes precedence over money at all times....
A verse I recently read encapsulates Bill Porter's life for me:
"...and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12: 1,2).
That is how I see Bill Porter--patiently running a race, a race he is winning because of values his parents and God taught him. May the race continue to be long and fruitful for Bill, for I believe he is a true hero in the eyes of humanity and God.