By Jonathan Hicks
Redemption. We are a society that is in love with getting and giving second chances. It would seem I am no exception. Almost two years ago in The Rock River Times (May 21-28, 2008, issue), I wrote of an encounter with one of my longtime idols, wildlife biologist/author/television host Jeff Corwin. It was an encounter that, while valuable, left me a bit disappointed. Corwin seemed almost cocky and occasionally disinterested—the kind of feeling one gets when the person with whom you are talking keeps checking his or her wristwatch. Corwin had been a hero of my mine; and while I never lost respect for the job he did, I was no longer sure if on a personal level he deserved my adulation.
So, when Corwin visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign April 6, I attended with low expectations and a bit of skepticism. His lecture came in promotion of his most recent book, 100 Heartbeats, a chronicle of the plight of critically-endangered species and the people who are fighting to protect them. In addition, he endorsed CorwinConnect, an Internet-based community designed to encourage people interested in wildlife to match their interests for the sake of conservation efforts.
What I expected was a short lecture; what I got was one of the most significant evenings of my life.
Corwin shared stories of animal interactions he had during his many years as a wildlife ambassador. He spoke to the largely college-age audience for more than an hour before taking an additional 40 minutes of unscripted questions. He was humorous, charming and candid. He was confident, yet humble. He was receptive and engaged with his audience. Most significant to me, he was the personality who had grown to idyllic status in my own mind so many years earlier.
Not only did he converse with the crowd onstage for better than two hours, he spent his time following the lecture/Q&A signing copies of his books and DVDs, posing for pictures, and engaging students on a more personal level. At that point, I could not have imagined how the evening could get better. Yet, it did. I was one of the last people to meet Corwin, and after a brief conversation with him, was fortunate enough to be invited to a private reception following the book signing.
At the reception, I found myself drinking pink lemonade on leather couches below crystal chandeliers. It was an unlikely scene, as I stood with one of my heroes and about 20 other students, all—including Corwin—clad in jeans and T-shirts. During the 40-minute reception, my fellow students and I took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to further engage one of the most famous wildlife biologists on the planet. Though I reveled in every moment of it, I asked only two questions. First, I asked how he maintained a positive attitude. As it turned out, he didn’t really do anything…his response about all of the good things going on in the world revealed he stayed optimistic without thought or effort. He just seemed unwilling or unable to acknowledge the possibility of failure.
My second question involved human values. Conservationists tend to hope that we can go into places around the globe and encourage others to think the way we do. In other words, we hope they will adopt the values we have. So, I asked Corwin to describe some experiences in which he had succeeded or failed in encouraging a shift in people’s values. His response surprised me. He said unequivocally that he didn’t think about such things. His focus was on the animals, and he hoped that his passion for the cause would be enough encouragement for others to think more like us. His interest in the role of human value systems was minimal, at best.
In that moment, I had an epiphany. All at once, something profound occurred to me. I had spent the entire evening (and much of my adult life) thinking that as a wildlife advocate I wanted to be just like Corwin; but his response revealed to me that maybe this seemingly-perfect wildlife ambassador still had room to grow. Though he had completely surpassed all of my hopes and expectations, beginning at that moment, I stopped wanting to be Jeff Corwin and started wanting to be better than Jeff Corwin.
So, not only did Corwin redeem himself, he continued to inspire me in ways I didn’t think possible. For that, I will be forever indebted to him. Yet, I walked home that night under a starry sky having realized something truly significant: Jeff Corwin is a great person, advocate and ambassador…but maybe you and I could be even greater.
From the May 19-25, 2010 issue