The story of Walter Carr, the student who walked 20 miles to get to his first day on the job with Bellhops Moving company, inspired people around the world. It was a story of a young man with a strong work ethic and tenacity, and it was a story of all of the right people at just the right time. It was picked up by 1,900 news outlets and shared millions of times around the world. (ABC News, CNN with Poppy Harlow, Fox Business with Walter Payne).
To many, Walter’s story was surreal to read about. It was even more surreal to live through. The homeowner, Jenny Lamey, who wrote the initial Facebook post that quickly went viral is one of my closest friends. In fact, her move was bringing her to be my neighbor. I was at the Lamey’s new home Friday night helping to unpack boxes and organize their kitchen with another friend.
As we did, she shared what happened earlier that morning. That’s when I first heard the story of Walter Carr. Immediately inspired, I urged her to repeat it for my 17-year-old son who was with us at the time. The next day Jenny wrote the pivotal post that ultimately changed a young man’s life. By Sunday night she told me that post had gone viral. She said she had been contacted by the media and that a big surprise was planned for Walter the next morning.
My background is in television news. I currently have my own company and offer media relations services as well as media training. I could see the potential of a news story brewing. As her friend, I offered Jenny my unsolicited advice. I wanted her to be ready for the media attention that would likely follow. Little did I know just how much attention the story would receive.
On Monday July 16th, Bellhops’ CEO Luke Marklin surprised Walter by giving him his own personal car.
On Tuesday, the story was on ABC World News Tonight with David Muir. Walter had been at the Lamey’s new home for dinner, but still fresh from their move, they didn’t have a television installed. I invited Jenny, her boys, and Walter to come down to our house to watch their debut on national news. Immediately after, we were helping Walter call in for a live interview with a Canadian TV station... from my foyer. A Skype call with the BBC was in an hour. Things were getting crazy, fast.
By Wednesday, the story about Walter Carr was said to be the "top story of the day". Interview requests were flying in from all directions: locally, nationally, and even internationally. Everyone wanted to share this incredible story; everyone was trying to reach Walter. I received a call from Jenny, “Walter’s media schedule is just getting to be more than he can handle,” she said. “With the Bellhops team in Chattanooga, they need someone in Birmingham who can help him manage his schedule and handle media requests. Would you be interested?” Within 45 minutes I was by Walter and Jenny’s side for their live interview with CNN Headline News.
The next 24 hours were a whirlwind. But even weeks later, media requests continue to pour in, as do job, college, and movie offers. Jenny and I have found ourselves in the position of acting as a close friend and mentor for a 20-year-old man whose life has been forever changed.
Here are 10 Lessons I Learned from Managing the Walter Carr story:
1) Anything Worth Having Is Worth Fighting For- Walter understood intrinsically this one basic law of opportunity. When his transportation failed him and all other options weren’t available, he didn’t give up. He was determined to get to his first day on the job, even if it meant walking all night.
2) See the Good in Others- My friend Jenny has eyes that see beauty and a heart that celebrates it. In the days after she wrote her blog post, I sent her one of my favorite quotes by Cinnabon CEO Kat Cole and told her that it was a perfect description of her.
The fact that Jenny slowed down in the midst of a hectic move and thought of Walter's circumstances ultimately helped to change his life. The same could be said for the Pelham police officers who stopped to help Walter, buy him breakfast, and deliver him safely to the Lamey’s home.
3) Find Your People- The team that came together in the days the story developed were all united in helping to guide Walter with making decisions that were in his best interest. A certified financial planner, Evan Carter with ACG Wealth even offered to work pro bono with Walter, to educate him about money management and help him make wise choices with his newfound windfall. Meanwhile, I made a list of the most important messages he shouldn’t miss, from job offers to scholarship opportunities. Separately, Jenny is someone I can always depend on as a friend, and I didn’t hesitate to support her when she needed it.
4) Strike While the Iron is Hot- From a media relations perspective, a news cycle changes quickly. Knowing this, we took advantage of granting as many media interviews as were possible. From early morning wake up calls to late night texts and schedule changes, through it all Walter was gracious and acted like a media pro. I was amazed once again by his work ethic, level of responsibility and patience with a demanding interview schedule.
5) Take Care of the Smaller Fish - I had the privilege of helping Walter manage media requests coming in from network giants like ABC, FOX and CNN. But as a former local reporter, I made sure the local media were cared for as well. I made a point to be available to local reporters and passed along news tips as the story developed. Some of the best stories were from them.
6) Pay It Forward - Perhaps the most rewarding part of this experience, was being by Walter’s side as he made the decision to give back to an organization that was meaningful to him. As the GoFundMe account Jenny set up was soaring with donations pouring in, Walter gave a portion of the proceeds to the Birmingham Educational Foundation. I will never forget helping to facilitate the phone call between Walter and the executive director as he told him the news. On a side note, this small act of paying it forward even led to a second wave of publicity for Walter including ABC Nightly News naming him their “Person of the Week”.
(7) Redefine Success - In a world that focuses on financial success and getting ahead, true fullness and joy comes from our connectedness with others and the difference we are making in other’s lives. I would argue that every individual connected to this story is a ‘success’. From the company CEO to a local police officer, and even Walter himself. All are committed to living their lives in a way that benefits others and that makes them successful.
8) People Long to be Inspired- One of the most inspirational articles on Walter Carr was written by Mike Kerrigan with Fox News. In the days that followed, the great majority of comments on Walter’s story were from people who were drawn to its positivity. They were inspired. With everything going on in the world, this was a story that united people. It was a role Walter was eager to embrace. When he called the executive director of the Birmingham Education Foundation to let him know he was giving them some of his donations, Walter also asked if he could speak to high school students to encourage them to never give up in pursuit of their dreams.
9) Bring Your Work Home (Pass Along Life’s Lessons to Your Children)- Those of us who were close to the Walter story joked that our kids were tired of hearing about it! In a radio interview with the Matt and Aunie Show on Talk 99.5 in Birmingham, Andrea Lindenberg quipped regarding Walter’s almost marathon walk, “I’m just trying to teach my son to walk to the sink with his dirty dish!” I referred to Walter’s dedication when my own son asked if he could leave work early to attend a concert. Every day we are presented with teachable moments. We only have 6,570 days before our child turns 18. It’s our job to make them count. So many of our life lessons come through situations at work. Pass them on.
10) Share Your Gifts- Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.” We all have gifts that we’ve been given and skills we have acquired. Share them. It gave me great joy to come alongside and support Walter, Jenny, and the Bellhops team when the media wave hit. It could have been overwhelming for them otherwise. I was in my element and well versed in the industry. I was sharing my gift, and there is no sweeter place to be.
It has been incredibly humbling and rewarding to play a behind the scenes, supporting role in this story. It's an experience I will never forget and I'm grateful for the opportunity. And wow! It does make for a great story, doesn't it? I guess that's how it came to be the "top story of the day".
Wendy Garner is a former news anchor and reporter, turned business owner. Her company Wendy Garner Media & Marketing works closely with businesses and non-profits to help tell their story through media relations, publicity, as well as video production. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.