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Bonnie St. John

Civic leader and skier Bonnie St. John was born on November 7, 1964 in Detroit, Michigan to Ruby Cremaschi-Schwimmer, an educator, and Lee St. John, an engineer. St. John's leg was amputated at the age of five; and in 1979, St. John began skiing with an amputee club. She graduated from Mission Bay High School in San Diego in 1982, and competed in the 1984 Winter Paralympics, where she won two bronze medals and a silver medal, becoming the second fastest woman in the world on one leg in that year, and the first African American to medal in the Winter Paralympics. St. John earned her A.B. degree in government magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1986, and received a Rhodes scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, where she earned her M.Litt. degree in economics in 1990.

Upon graduation, St. John began her career in sales at IBM. In 1992, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a director for human capital issues for the White House National Economic Council. St. John left her position at the White House in 1994, and pursued a career as a writer and motivational speaker. She also founded Blue Circle Leadership, a business consultation agency with clients that include Target, FedEx, Microsoft, Pepsi, and Disney, among others. St. John was asked to speak during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, Utah; and in 2010, she represented the United States as a member of President Barack Obama’s official delegation to the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.

St. John was selected by NBC Nightly News as one of the five most inspiring women in America in 1996. She also made appearances on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, Montel, and the Discovery Health Channel. St. John received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Lasell College in 2004, and President George W. Bush honored St. John for Black History Month at the White House in 2008. She wrote six books, including two Amazon #1 bestsellers – Live Your Joy, published in 2009, and How Great Women Lead, which was published in 2012 and co-authored with her daughter, Darcy Deane. How Great Women Lead featured a compilation of interviews with influential women leaders such as Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

St. John is married to Allen P. Haines, and has one daughter named Darcy Deane.

Bonnie St. John was interviewed by The History Makers on August 11, 2016.

Accession Number

A2016.009

Sex

Female

Interview Date

08/11/2016

Last Name

St. John

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Occupation
Schools

Harvard University

University of Oxford

The Bishop's School

Mission Bay High School

First Name

Bonnie

Birth City, State, Country

Detroit

HM ID

STJ01

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Michigan

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

People Fall Down, Gold Medal Winners Get Up First.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

11/7/1964

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Chocolate

Short Description

Civic leader and skier Bonnie St. John (1964 - ) was the first African American to medal at the Winter Paralympics. A world renowned keynote speaker and leadership expert, she also authored seven best-selling books.

Employment

International Business Machines (IBM)

The White House

Blue Circle Leadership, Inc.

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Bonnie St. John's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Bonnie St. John lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Bonnie St. John recalls winning a bronze medal at the 1984 Winter Paralympics

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Bonnie St. John describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Bonnie St. John describes her mother's upbringing in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Bonnie St. John describes her parents' marriage

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Bonnie St. John describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Bonnie St. John talks about her mother's ancestry

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Bonnie St. John describes her father's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Bonnie St. John talks about facing discrimination from her white father's family

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Bonnie St. John describes her father's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Bonnie St. John describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Bonnie St. John remembers being sexually abused by her stepfather

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Bonnie St. John talks about seeking therapy for her childhood sexual abuse, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Bonnie St. John talks about seeking therapy for her childhood sexual abuse, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Bonnie St. John talks about being born with a disabled right leg

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Bonnie St. John recalls her hospital stay after the amputation of her leg

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Bonnie St. John remembers the Palmer Way School in National City, California

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Bonnie St. John describes her introduction to skiing

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Bonnie St. John recalls her training at the Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Bonnie St. John remembers her decision to attend Harvard University

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Bonnie St. John describes her experiences at Harvard University

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Bonnie St. John talks about the National Brotherhood of Skiers

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Bonnie St. John remembers her victories at the 1984 Winter Paralympics

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Bonnie St. John describes her Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Oxford

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Bonnie St. John remembers working for IBM in San Diego, California

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Bonnie St. John describes her service on the National Economic Council

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Bonnie St. John talks about the influence of her Christian faith

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Bonnie St. John describes her book 'How Strong Women Pray'

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Bonnie St. John recalls founding the Blue Circle Leadership Institute

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Bonnie St. John describes her accomplishments with the Blue Circle Leadership Institute

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Bonnie St. John talks about her divorce from her first husband

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Bonnie St. John describes her writing career and marriage to Allen Haines

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Bonnie St. John remembers writing 'How Great Women Lead'

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Bonnie St. John recalls her move to New York City, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Bonnie St. John recalls her move to New York City, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Bonnie St. John describes her program for women of color at the Blue Circle Leadership Institute

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Bonnie St. John talks about her book, 'Micro-Resilience'

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Bonnie St. John reflects upon her life

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Bonnie St. John shares her advice to future generations

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Bonnie St. John talks about her plans for the future

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$5

DAStory

2$1

DATitle
Bonnie St. John describes her introduction to skiing
Bonnie St. John describes her accomplishments with the Blue Circle Leadership Institute
Transcript
What age were you when skiing became part of your life?$$So that, I was about fifteen, and I was attending Mission Bay High School [Mission Bay Senior High School, San Diego, California]. So I grew up in National City [California], which is near the border, and it's the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. But I had gotten special dispensation to go to school all the way on the other side of town. So again, my mother [Ruby Page Schwimmer] wanted us to have a better education, she wanted us to go to a better school. And because in San Diego [California] they had integration rules. So if you were black and you were going to go to a more white school, they would give you permission to go outside your neighborhood school. So we were helping integration. So I went to Mission Bay High School and met a friend, Barbara Warmath, who invited me to go skiing with her family over Christmas vacation. She gave me a little coupon on my birthday in November saying, "Come skiing with our family over Christmas vacation." So between November and December, I had to find the special equipment, I went to the Salvation Army and got an old pair of ski pants and got ready for this big adventure.$$And her parents were fine with a woman with one leg--a teenager with one leg going skiing, and your mother, and--$$Well, let's talk about Barbara first.$$Okay.$$So I think it's amazing that Barbara Warmath invited her one-legged black friend from the wrong side of the tracks, and looked at me and said, skier. When I was on 'The Montel Williams Show,' they brought her out as a surprise guest. I hadn't seen her in years, and they kept her hidden, and she walks out on stage and he asked her. He said, "Didn't you think it would ruin your Christmas vacation to drag your one-legged friend along?" You know? And she said, without hesitating, she said, "I knew she could do it. I knew she could do it." And to have a friend, who A, reaches out across differences and B, believes in you in that kind of a way and sees the greatness in you when other people don't see it. I think, I do a lot of work with corporations on diversity. And that is such a great story. Because not only is it a diversity story, about what we experience when we don't limit ourselves to people who look like us, but it made the U.S. more competitive. Because Barbara Warmath was recruiting skiers in the black neighborhood in San Diego, which I don't think the U.S. team was, we won more medals in 1984 because there was a black girl from San Diego from the team. You know, if I had not been there, we wouldn't have won as many medals. And so diversity does make us more competitive. So, so Barbara's story, I think her perspective is just amazing on its own. Barbara's mother, I ran into her in Salt Lake City, Utah in the ski area years and years later. And she said, the first thing she said to me was, "I'm sorry." And I said, "What? You took me skiing. You changed my life." And she said, "I know. But by the end of that first week that you went skiing with us, I tried to talk you out of ever skiing again." She said, "You were bruised and bleeding and I said to you, 'Bonnie [HistoryMaker Bonnie St. John], swimming is a good sport.'" And I don't even remember her saying that. But I, but she was willing to take me along, but what she was telling me years later, was that it was very upsetting for her. That she didn't think it had worked out very well at the time. But I don't even remember that. I remember. By, it was a hard, it was a very tough week, the first week of skiing. I was bruised and beat up. But by the end of it, I was skiing. So do you ski?$$No. But I have.$$You have skied.$$I've tried.$$So you, you know when you start skiing, you snowplow. They call it pizza pie now, it's when you put your skis like this. Well, when you have one ski, there's no pizza pie, right? Cause you're on one ski. So I couldn't snowplow, I couldn't slow down. And I stopped by running into people on the bunny hill, you know. It was the only way I could stop. So for the first three days, I couldn't stop without crashing. It, you had to learn to turn and do the hockey stop in order to slow down or stop. But what that meant, was after three days, I was perfect parallel skiing. My tips never crossed, I could go on the intermediate slope. So the first three days was horrible. But once you get over that, you're like an intermediate skier, like that. And I loved, so by the end of the week I was hooked. I was like, this is great. I went to the club where I had gotten the equipment from and I started skiing with them and got over it. So it was a horrible start, but it, I was hooked.$$You write about being rescued, in a sense, by the National Brotherhood of Skiers. How did that come about?$$So, it's interesting these communities I was able to find. So I found this community of disabled skiers, and I went to national championships with the disabled skiers. But I was always the only black person there. And it is this great vision. Imagine this vignette of going to a ski area, and there's a ski lift, and right out on the edge of the ski lift, there's a pile of wheelchairs, and artificial legs, and crutches. It's like Lourdes [France], right? They've been healed, they've walked away. And, and so I hung out with this group of disabled skiers, and for the first time--my mother had always hidden my disability. "Wear pants, cover it up, put your leg on. Don't hop around the house." But with the disabled skiers, we were on the dance floor on one leg, you know, we were having a ball. It unlocked me to say, "This is me. This is fun. This is my, you know, join the party." So this helped me with my disabled identity a lot. But I was always the only black person in the disabled ski group.$So we're talking about your business and how it evolved?$$And it was interesting for me because part of the reason I was willing to take a risk and start my own business instead of going to get another job was that I wanted to start a family, and I got pregnant, and I was going to give birth to Darcy [Darcy Deane], my first child, my only child. And the idea that if I went home and started working on a business, if I failed, I would have been at home with my daughter for a couple of years, and then I could go get a job, you know. And so for me it became, sort of a no lose situation. It was, I can follow my dream and write a book and be a speaker and see if that works, but I'll be at home. What I didn't count on was how hard it was gonna be to juggle all those things, and to suddenly, you know, you don't have an IT [information technology] department to fix your computer when it breaks. You don't have an accounting department to cut your paycheck. You know, you--everything was my responsibility. Does the printer not work? You have to get a new one, you know. You have to be jack of all trades, plus being a mother, was complicated. But it did work out in terms of feeling like, "Well, I'm gonna try this experiment, and start my own business, and if it fails, then, you know, that's what happened. But it didn't fail, you know, so here I am. She's twenty-one years old and I'm loving what I'm able to do with Blue Circle Leadership Institute and make a big difference. But it evolved over the years. So early on, I was mainly doing keynote speaking, and Susan Rowan [ph.] was dead right about that. It allowed me to make a living. I homeschooled Darcy and took her on the road with me from first grade through fifth grade. And again, because I was gonna go and give an hour's speech and come back, I could travel with her and we had a ball. I would get sitters to watch her while I was doing my speech, but she could, you know, the sitter would follow me around and be with me. And she had a ball, you know, just being a kid and getting to go through airports with mom and see different cities and, you know, order room service or a movie, you know. She thought it was great or go in the hotel pool, and we did home schooling, so we did her school work and we had great adventures. Often, there would be a serendipity of something that augmented her schooling. When she was reading 'Mississippi Burning' [Kirk Mitchell] in school, I got a speech in Mississippi. And one of the ladies picked us up in a pink Cadillac. I was gonna speak for a reading teachers' convention. And we're driving through and she says, "Darcy, have you ever picked cotton?" She says, "No." And she pulls the Cadillac over and we go into the field, you know. So she's reading 'Mississippi Burning,' and we're picking cotton in the field. And there was another, she was reading 'A Shard of Glass' ['A Single Shard,' Linda Sue Park], I think, is a book about Korea, and I was at a conference where they were doing a pottery thing. And the teach- the leader of the pottery workshop heard that Darcy was doing that book and said, "Oh, I know all about the Korean pottery that they're talking about," and she showed her the techniques, you know. So we created this experience of learning that was very organic. Where you're meeting people and augmenting the curriculum, and we have the books with us and we're studying. And I loved it. It was challenging, but it was a very organic way to live.