By George Brown
Jeff Yalden may not look like the guy you’d want your daughter to bring home for supper.
But looks can be deceiving.
Beneath the chrome dome, earrings, scraggly goatee, black Harley-Davidson T-shirt and tattooed arms beats the heart of a pussycat.
A 300-pound pussycat.
Yalden, a motivational speaker, life coach and author from Massachusetts, spoke to St. Augustine high school students on their first day of classes last week. At 40 years of age, he’s old enough to be their father, and in fact he has two daughters of his own who provide source material for his comedic speeches.
As a high school student preparing for college entrance exams, Yalden held the distinction of being 128th in a class of 133 students.
He took the SATs twice and scored only 610 out of a possible 1,600 — the lowest score in the state of Michigan. “My community college rejected me.” He suffered from a stutter, a facial tic, bad acne and a learning disability.
Yalden pulled himself up by his bootstraps and enlisted with the United States Marine Corps where he quickly learned the virtue of self-reliance and teamwork. He became a two-time “Marine of the Year” and played for the All-Marine Corps championship basketball team.
A failed relationship sent him spiralling back toward his old ways and soon, he found himself hospitalized with depression and suicidal tendencies. His wife abandoned their two daughters at an airport with a one-way ticket to meet him.
“My two daughters are sitting on a bench with three bags to their name.”
In 1994, after an honorable discharge from the Marines, Yalden realized his destiny was in his own hands. He reached deep inside himself for the fortitude and character to make powerful, life-transforming choices.
It’s the story of his life, warts and all, that he uses as an educational and motivational tool.
“The choices you make today have a huge impact on what happens later on.
“Education is everything,” he told the students.
High school is the only time in your life when education is free and he encouraged them to learn from their teachers, friends and family.
“Take advantage of your opportunities to get involved.”
Yalden said there are three things we should want every day: a life that’s meaningful, a life that’s fulfilling, and a life that’s rewarding. “It’s got nothing to do with money.”
And he told them to laugh. A lot. “If you’re not laughing you’re not learning.”
One of Yalden’s catch phrases is Take Time to Think and he suggested students free themselves from peer pressure and make their own choices but to live a life of respect and have no regrets.
The decision Yalden made to become involved in the life of his second wife’s grandfather made a world of difference to him. “I wish you could have met him.”
He was 95 when they first met and only a few years older when he died, but Yalden committed to meeting him every morning when he was home from the road, just to sit and talk.
“And it occurred to me he was old. It occurred to me he was going to die.”
“If I can be half the man he was when I die, I’ll be a good man.”
He said it’s important for young people to connect with older relatives and to love them unconditionally.
“If you had someone in your life who had less than one month to live, and you could say something to that person, who would that person be? What would you say? And why haven’t you done it?”
He encouraged the students to be positive influences in each other’s lives. “Be present every single day, every single moment of the day. If you’re not, you’re missing out. Be present with your friends. Embrace life.”