Tales of tenacity inspire us. Hearing how others endured terrible trauma and overcame hardship give us hope. We learn how potent determination can be when facing adversity.
A story of tenacity touched my life when I was young and I've carried it with me for half a century. There's a lesson in the story.
In 1980 I was in my second year of law school (BU). I took an elective course on Entertainment Law. The class was taught by a then-unknown local businessman; his name was Sumner Redstone.
Sumner was a visiting professor; this was the only class he taught. Sumner's business career began when he joined his father's company after serving with distinction in the military during World War II.
Sumner's father owned a small chain of movie theaters in Boston (National Amusement). During our class Sumner candidly explained the economic structure of the entertainment industry. Movie studios historically used their power -- in violation of antitrust law -- to dominate that industry. They profited unfairly by exploiting movie distributors and exhibitors.
Unknown to most customers, movie theaters are owned by small businesses, not the studios. Because studios control whether to give or withhold popular films they can extract up to 90% of box-office revenue from exhibitors who have to settle for scraps. The only real income theater-owners make is from food concessions, which explains why theaters sell popcorn and soda at inflated prices and are strict about not letting in outside food.
In the 1940s the U.S. Dept. of Justice recognized this blatant violation of antitrust law and sued movie studios. It agreed to a Consent Order designed to re-structure the industry. Studios, however, retained their power and kept repeatedly violating the Consent Order. The Justice Department went back to court several times to enforce the Order but with little success.
Sumner Redstone realized he belonged to the weakest part of the entertainment industry. Famously declaring "Content is king," Sumner plotted a path to power. With strength and cunning Sumner acquired new businesses that enabled him to wrest control of several huge media companies. He ended up owning CBS (television), Paramount Pictures (movies), Blockbuster Video (video) and Viacom (distribution). As a result Sumner became a multi-billionaire with a net worth of $2,600,000,000.00. His extensive influence made him one of the biggest media magnates in the world. His business moves were chronicled in the press and lauded by industry observers.
This, however, is not the core of the story. It wasn't merely Sumner's rise from humble origin to big success that makes him notable. Sumner faced an earlier -- more tragic -- event that we should focus our attention upon.
We return to my personal involvement in this story. It was 1980, my second year in law school. Sumner was teaching his only course and I was rapt in it. Halfway through the seminar Sumner brought up a controversial subject about which I was uncommonly knowledgeable: i.e., pornography.
Sumner offered the traditional view that confuses pornography with erotica and concludes obscenity law is unenforceable due to vagueness. Like innumerable speakers before him Sumner said we can't define pornography. He quoted Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously wrote, "I know it when I see it."
At the time I was active in radical feminist politics and supporting a new legal initiative on pornography devised by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. That effort specifically and importantly defined pornography, something Sumner said couldn't be done.
The lecture was held in a large auditorium. I sat in the back, far away from the teacher. After sparring with Sumner on this topic in classroom discussion I approached him after class to continue our debate. I wanted to inform him about new ideas of which he obviously hadn't heard.
When I reached the podium I was stunned. I noticed Sumner's hands and forearms were horribly disfigured; they looked like claws. I couldn't see his injury from my seat. I later learned the tale behind it.
A decade earlier Sumner had been in an upper-story hotel room at the Copley Hotel (Boston) when a fire broke out. The fire raged and he had no where to escape. Sumner retreated to a balcony and clung to its railing. Fire burned the flesh off his hands and arms while he hung on for dear life. Many people, suffering the intense pain, would have let go and dropped to their death. Sumner did not; he hung onto the railing until firefighters were able to rescue him. In his autobiography Sumner attributes his survival to his "sheer will to live."
After the fire Sumner faced more challenges. His injuries required 30 hours of extensive surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was warned he would never be able to live a normal life. Eight years later, however, Sumner was fit enough to play tennis every day. He pursued a disciplined regimen of physical exercise. It was around then that Sumner began teaching at BU. Later he went on to become a billionaire and media mogul.
Sumner lived to 97 years old; he died in 2020. Sumner lived 50 years past a day when he could have easily fallen to his death. During that half-century he not only salvaged his health, he succeeded to an extraordinary degree. Few achieve heights as rarefied as the one he reached.
I find inspiration in this story. Sumner, through strong determination and grit, survived trauma and overcame terrible injury. That day in class when I saw up close what Sumner was living with, I was truly shocked. I couldn't imagine going through life so handicapped. And he not only persevered, he prospered.
I've written here before that there are moments in life when we face only two options: struggle or surrender. Those capable of fighting deserve applause. Such effort is virtually superhuman. I know how indescribably hard it is.
In 2012 Sumner donated $18 million to Boston University School of Law, funding construction of a five-story classroom structure now called the Sumner M. Redstone Building. Future students will benefit from Sumner's struggle; some might even learn about it.