The lives of Richard Pimentel (top) and Art Honeyman, while at Portland State, are depicted by actors Ron Livingston (top right) and Michael Sheen in Music Within. Photo courtesy of MGM CLIP+STILL
"EXPERIENCE A MOVIE that will make you believe anybody can change the world."
So reads an advertisement for Music Within, an award-winning film about somebody who made a difference: former Portland State student Richard Pimentel.
Newly released on DVD, the independent movie tells Pimentel's story, from abused child to deaf war veteran to talented PSU student to champion of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It stars Ron Livingston as Pimentel, and Hector Elizondo as the late Ben Padrow, beloved PSU speech professor.
Pimentel, now a successful trainer and motivational speaker on diversity issues, returns to Portland State June 14 to give the spring commencement address. He wants to be clear on one thing.
"Please don't just consider my life to be an example of someone who went out and overcame adversity," he says. "I consider myself someone who was lucky enough to run into people who taught me, helped me, and allowed me to do the things I wanted to do--pretty much right here on the Park Blocks."
Yet Pimentel did indeed overcome adversity on his way to Portland State. He persevered through a childhood of abuse at the hands of his mentally ill mother, including stints in a local orphanage. After graduating from Jefferson High School, it was his dream to study public speaking under Ben Padrow.
Padrow was a legend. As coach of PSU's 1965 College Bowl team, he and his students set scoring records on the nationally televised quiz show and returned to campus as champions.
But after meeting Padrow and auditioning for entrance to the Speech and Hearing Department, Pimentel was in for a shock.
"He told me I was the smoothest, most accomplished speaker he'd ever heard, but I was pretty much full of crap," Pimentel says. "I was all show and no substance. I should go out and earn a point of view, and come back when I was ready."
So Pimentel walked away from Portland State and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He went to Vietnam and, within months, a mortar attack left him almost completely deaf.
PIMENTEL RETURNED to Portland in 1970 and enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program for returning soldiers. His goal still was to become a professional speaker, but Veterans Administration officials declined his application on the grounds that no deaf veteran had ever succeeded in such a career.
Embittered, Pimentel decided to vent his frustrations to Padrow. The young vet marched into the professor's office and shouted that he would never be able to achieve his dream; he'd gone out into the world and come back disabled. Padrow laughed. It turns out that part of the Speech Department's mission was speech therapy for deaf people.
"Padrow told me, 'You bet you can learn to be a public speaker.'"
With Padrow's backing, Pimentel secured the rehab grant from the VA to pay his full tuition, room, and board. He started dreaming big again, and then someone--Art Honeyman '65, MA '74--came into his life and set his dream in a whole new direction.
Music Within is almost as much about Honeyman, who has cerebral palsy, as Pimentel (pictured at left with Michael Sheen). Critics have hailed British actor Michael Sheen's portrayal of Honeyman. His flailing and funny one-liners are a huge departure from his roll as Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen.
Pimentel and Honeyman first met in the PSU cafeteria. Honeyman was alone, struggling to drink a Coca-Cola.
"I went up to him and said, 'You appear to have a Coke problem.' I opened his Coke. Then I said, 'Don't try to talk with me; I'm deaf. I can't understand you. I read lips, and if I read those lips, I'll get seasick.'
"Then I turned to walk away, and the most marvelous thing happened. He grabbed me and started talking to me. No one can understand Art, because he makes all these strange noises. But guess what? They were within my hearing range."
And Honeyman threw a zinger right back at Pimentel. He said, in reference to his cerebral palsy, "You better wash your hands. It's contagious." A friendship was born.
ONE NIGHT, Pimentel and Honeyman went out for a midnight snack at the Pancake House, one of their favorite spots. The regular waitress had been replaced by one they'd never met.
"This waitress had never seen Art or anyone like him; she just stared," Pimentel recalls. "Finally, she said, 'I can't believe that something like you would come someplace where people are trying to eat. I won't serve you because I don't even know if you're a human being.'
"And she ended by saying, 'I thought people like you were supposed to die at birth.'
"I was stunned; I didn't know what to say. And Art turned to me and said, 'Why is the waitress talking about you this way? I don't think you look any worse than you usually do.'"
By sunrise, the two were in jail under the "Ugly Law," which until the mid-1970s allowed the arrest of anyone in public who was considered so "maimed, mutilated or diseased" that their appearance was upsetting.
"At one time I wanted to be the youngest corporate vice president in America," Pimentel says. "But with that incident I became intolerant of discrimination."
Pimentel approached Leonard Cain, professor of sociology. "I asked him, how do I fix this? Dr. Cain said, 'You can mobilize the disability community, but only if they know they are a community.'
"At that point I switched from debate to sociology."
As a sociology class project, Pimentel asked US Bank and Tektronix if he could train supervisors on disability issues to see if it would affect employment rates for disabled people. It did, significantly. Pimentel took his training program on the road, spending a decade traveling coast-to-coast educating tens of thousands of managers as well as workers. Government agencies and Fortune 500 companies acknowledged Pimentel's program as a breakthrough for disabled people in the workplace.
BY THE MID-1980s, Pimentel found himself in the middle of a new kind of civil rights movement, and he had the ear of national figures, including Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Pimentel became an important spokesman for disabled workers, and years later, for people living with AIDS. He was able to motivate people on every side of the debate, building a network that included the abled and the disabled, as well as liberal and conservative political figures.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act--the Emancipation Proclamation for the disabled community--was signed into law in 1990, Pimentel was publically thanked by the chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for educating employers on disability issues.
Passage of the Act was a huge victory, Pimentel says, but now he's seeing his life's work come full circle: disabled veterans are again his number one priority. Thousands are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with even more severe disabilities than Vietnam veterans experienced.
He is designing a fresh training program for the employers of this new generation of disabled veterans.
"The movie is really important in drawing attention back to the issues right now for the young men and women returning from war," Pimentel says.
"But if one thing has become perfectly clear to me, it's that my life story was not about me at all. It was about the people who tried to help me along the way--and to some degree, the ones who tried to harm me as well."
Lisa Loving is a Portland freelance writer and community radio host.
[photo: At the Portland premier of Music Within, Richard Pimentel (center) gets a chance to discuss the movie with its star, Ron Livingston (right), and producer Brett Donowho.]