Sunday, January 16, 2011

Does a comeback kid owe those he harmed along the way?

Most everyone loves a comeback story. That’s borne out by Ted Williams, the homeless man in Columbus, Ohio, who quickly gained attention after a video of him by The Columbus Dispatch’s Doral Chenoweth went viral earlier this month.

In his younger days, Williams, now 53, had been a radio announcer. You only need to listen to a few seconds of Chenoweth’s interview with him to get an earful of his powerful voice. Williams had ended up homeless after run-ins with alcohol, drugs and the law.

But now, he and his cardboard sign declared in the video, he was clean and trying to rebuild his life.

People took notice of Chenoweth’s video that was posted on YouTube. Within days, it received millions of hits. (The original posting has since been pulled from YouTube since it is copyrighted by the Dispatch, on whose site it can still be seen.)

Rapidly, offers began to pour in for Williams — radio interviews, a voiceover offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, an advertisement for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, appearances on the network morning talk shows, a feeler from Oprah about doing something on her new cable network, and more. A tearful on-air reunion was staged in New York City between Williams and his estranged 90-year-old mother.

But with the upside of the attention came more details about Williams’ arrest record for theft and forgery — crimes, he told interviewers, he had committed to support his drug habit. He served some jail time for his transgressions.

Regardless of the background, the Cavaliers and others stood by their offers and most commenters on various news websites genuinely wanted to see Williams turn his life around. It’d be good to believe he’s on the path to doing so.

As he sorts through the offers and begins his new life, a question raised by some observers is why this fellow deserves a second chance when there are other out-of-work voiceover professionals who managed to steer clear of drugs and crime. It’s a good question, but such concerns don’t negate the fact that Williams has every right to try to improve his life and that people who want to have every right to help him do so.

While the jail sentences he served may represent a debt paid for some crimes he committed, a question looms, however, of whether Williams has an obligation to repay the people from whom he stole over the years. He may not have a legal obligation to do so and he might not be able to recall everyone he stole from nor how much over the years. But now that he finds himself in a position where his opportunities for income might be steady, is he ethically obligated to set right his past actions?

If he truly wants to start clean and establish that he is a new man trying to set things right, I believe he has such an obligation.

Once the hubbub dies down and he’s able to get established in a home and on a job, the right thing for Williams to do is to try to figure out all of the people over the years from whom he has stolen and then reach out to them to offer a plan for restitution.

Most everyone loves a comeback story. When that person’s comeback involves helping those he harmed along the way to be made whole as well, it’s a story we can love even more.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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Anonymous said...

In the midst of all the recent horror of Tuscon, Arizona, here we have the happy story of someone who, through luck, has been able to put his life just a little bit back in order. Now, someone wants to come down on him and try to make him attempt to "make right" what he did wrong. To all published records after his "coming out", there appear not to be any current legal charges outstanding against him. Would any of us, none of whom have led perfect lives, at any point in our lives, feel the need to "make up" for wrongs we once committed? For God's sake, can we not allow this apparently good man to continue with what is left of his life? From all appearances, he has talent and skills that others are willing to pay him for. This story is an example of man's goodness to man, must we forever try to make people pay for past sins?

Charlie Seng

yawningdog said...

Perhaps you should read this article on the children he has left behind and the woman who is raising them.

"The ‘Real Hero’ Left Behind by ‘Golden-Voiced’ Homeless Radioman"