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Magic Delivers Message, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Trainer-Inspirational Speaker Becomes an Inspiration to All, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Professionals Motivated by Magic, Minnesota Business & Opportunities Magazine
East Sider's Life, Work Nationally Renown, by David Forster
Rob Chalmers '72: A Little Magic, A Lot of Ability, Macalester Today
Maybe We Can Start Making New Mistakes, by Rob Chalmers, Pioneer Press Op-Ed

East Sider's Life, Work Nationally Renown

Businessman opens minds with magical words

By David Forster
Columnist (Paper Unknown, May 14, 2001)

For the record, Rob Chalmers isn't handicapped. Sure he struts in stilted, uneven steps, his fingers and hands are locked into awkward positions, and he exerts more effort to get words out than the average person. But then again, Chalmers isn't average. And he isn't handicapped.

"[My mom] said, 'You're handicapped only if you want to be,' and that's what stuck," says Chalmers, a 50-year-old, gray-bearded East Side resident with cerebral palsy. "Only if you want to be. I decide."

Last fall Chalmers won the Arthur Rubloff Memorial Award, a national prize selected by the United Cerebral Palsy Association. The annual award honors a disabled person who displays leadership and achievement to such a high degree that people of all backgrounds should model their lives after the winner.

Jo Erbes, executive director for the United Cerebral Palsy of Minnesota, nominated Chalmers because he's such a role model in the community, she says. In his free time, he teaches kids how to run a business as a volunteer for Junior Achievement, how to play chess in summer community education classes and, through school visits, how to see disabled people for who they really are.

For the past 20 years, he has helped others develop their speaking skills as a member of Toastmasters. From 1993 to 1995, he was the president of the United Cerebral Palsy of Minnesota's board of directors.

"He's very talented, very perceptive," says Erbes, who has known Chalmers for more than 10 years. "He interacts very well with the audience."

Despite all the volunteering, much of the attention Chalmers receives comes from the work others pay him to do.

He is president and sole employee of People Magic, a speaking, training and consulting firm he created in 1985. With the aid of magic tricks, he challenges audiences to look past the outward appearances and labels others often are stuck with -- obstacles that Chalmers is all to familiar with.

"People have labeled me most of my life, except my friends and family," he says.

Chalmers does not wear braces, use a cane or even own a handicapped vehicle permit. Watch his slight frame slowly step out of his car and take his time stepping over the curb, and one wonders why he doesn't at least get a pass. Well, he explains frankly, "because I'm not handicapped. ... It's all attitude and perception."

Chalmers, a Macalester College graduate with a degree in psychology, has devoted a career to opening minds, and he loves every minute of it. To hime, the company barely registers as work.

"I realized I retired when I started People Magic," he says.

While the company allows Chalmers to live comfortably -- "I wouldn't be doing it for 20-some years if I weren't making a good living," he jokes -- he values the happiness it gives hime more than the paychecks.

Throughout the years, he has trained empolyees of such companies as 3M, IBM and Land O' Lakes. Speaking engagements have taken him across the country and halfway around the world. Two years after Peple Magic formed, Chalmers found himself giving the opening address at the International Symposium of Youth & Disability in Israel.

"It was a mind trip," he says about the experience. Chalmers was voted the highlight of the week-long conference and at the closing banquet more than 200 people gave him a standing ovation. "I thought, 'If this business flops, this makes it all worthwhile.'"

Today, People Magic is still going strong, and Chalmers is still getting people off their seats. In March, he had a few minutes to speak at the Neighborhood Development Center's Twin Cities banquet before the keynote address by U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Dave Bonko, the center's marketing director, says Chalmers' speech "touched just about everybody." So everybody stood to let him know it.

"That's pretty tough to do in five minutes of time," says Bonko, who earlier this year began helping Chalmers market his company.

Welstone, acknowledging the inspiring delivery, told the audience he had to scrap his prepared speech.

"It's a natural thing," Chalmers says about his speaking prowess. "I don't know how it happened."

Although he might appear destined for his current line of work, People Magic might never have happened of Chalmers hadn't picked up judo 25 years ago. His judo instructor also was teaching sociology at Bloomington High School, and one day the instructor asked Chalmers to speak to his classes. He accepted, and soon other teachers were asking Chalmers to speak to their students.

While he was touring the high school classroom circuit, the wife of a Bloomington teacher happened to be organizing an arts festival for disabled adults at the College of St. Thomas. She heard about the popular speaker and asked Chalmers to give the keynote address at the festival. It would be his first paid speaking engagement, and Chalmers wanted to make sure he was giving his employers their money's worth.

"I know I had to come up with some shtick that I had never done before," he says. So Chalmers asked a professional magician from his judo class to teach him something to spice up his deliver. At the festival, he showcased a revised routine complete with a colored scarves trick.

The shtick must have worked--Chalmers received the highest rating out of all the speakers.

"I thought, 'Hey, there's got to be something there,'" he recalls.

After a few more years of speaking and training on the side, budget cuts at his job with then-St. Paul mayor George Lattimer forced Chalmers to take the plunge into starting his own business.

While Lattimer was sorry to let his administrative aide go, Chalmers told him, "This is the kick in the butt that I need." With some financial help from the late Tom Ryan, a county contractor and lobbyist who had suggested the new venture, People Magic opened in January 1985.

The company has become a large part of his life, Chalmers says, adding that he likes the business work almost as much as the stage time. Bonko calls him a perfectionist, someone who is passionate about his work and very thorough with the details.

Ths smooth transition to the stage shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knew Chalmers as a kid. His kindergarten teacher once told Chalmers' mother that her son is always the first to volunteer.

"I guess I had this performing bug," he reasons.

Instead of sending him to a school for disabled students, Chalmers' parents sent him to a public school in his hometown near Chicago. Classmates weren't cruel, Chalmers says, just a little overprotective.

"I would fall down on the playground and ten kids would run to help me up," he says.

When Chalmers describes his childhood to people, some tell him that his parents were in denial of the child's obvious disability. His response?

"If it took being in denial to get where I am today, that's great!" Chalmers says, busting into a laugh. "Look at me now."

Now he spends most of his days plowing through a new marketing list of potential clients 8,000 names long. People Magic is about to get busier, and Chalmers relishes the work ahead.

"I'm only on the B's," he says with a grin.

When the disability issue is brought up, Chalmers discussed the importance of regarding people for who they really are, not what they might first appear to be. It's a struggle all people face.

"I just wound up making a business out of it," he says.

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