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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

Trainer-Inspirational Speaker Becomes an Inspiration to All St. Paul businessman Rob Chalmers turned his disabilities
into success by using magic

By Daniel Spiller
Columnist (Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 9, 1997)

A friend of mine, cursed with a heartbreaking array of birth defects, has endured the pain and frustration of 13 major surgeries to repair the deformities.

Even after all the operations, however, his handwriting still resembles hieroglyphics and his walk remains an ungainly waddle mainly governed by one hip that tends to resist going in the same direction as the rest of his body. Despite the physical problems and the pain that attends them, however, the gent has reach the top of his profession while remaining one of the most disgustingly cheerful people on the planet.

"I had a choice of whether to laugh or cry," he once told me. "I chose to laugh."

I thought it was just him, but maybe there's something about profound disabilities that steels the psyche and burnishes the spirit. I offer Rob Chalmers, a buoyant and engaging St. Paul businessman, to support this theory.

Consider: Chalmers, 47, was born with cerebral palsy that has left him with speech impediments and muscle rigidity and spasticity.

So how does he earn his keep? Why, as an inspirational speaker and professional magician, of course.

It's enough to make a fellow downright mortified ever to have whined about the petty throbs and twinges of the aging process.

Chalmers is founder, president and 100 percent of the staff of a training and consulting firm called People Magic. Specifically, he targets the corporate and professional market with training programs on diversity, using his magic to make the point that judging people by their looks can be just as deceiving as the tricks he's performing.

He also has found work in sales training, using a similar approach to argue that making hasty judgments about people can limit one's markets severely. And when business is slow, he can make bottles and cans by the armful appear and disappear, all in the interest of promoting recycling and conservation.

"He's a great role model," said Joan Fawcett, executive director of Arc Suburban, a support and advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities. "When he starts his presentation, you're very aware of his disabilities. But it doesn't take long before you forget all about them," said Fawcett, who was on the planning committee that hired Chalmers to perform in April for a meeting of the United Way Council of Agency Executives.

"In the end you realize that his message is about what people can do, not what they can't do," she said. "It's truly inspiring."

Gerry Stenson, president of Norwest Corporation's 12-bank south suburban district, had a similar reaction to Chalmers' appearance on a diversity training program for the district's 225 employees. "Rob might speak a little differently than most people, but he communicates very, very well," Stenson said. "He's disarming, straightforward and entertaining, and his message is very effective." Chalmers, who owns a degree in psychology from Macalester, has fairly simple aims for his presentations: "The idea is to get people to look at themselves and others," he said - and to rethink what it means to be old or young, black or white, male or female, able or disabled.

In the end, the message is best conveyed by a colored scarf labeled "people," which he extracts from an apparently empty Plexiglass box to signify that, while we might tend to put people in different boxes, "we all come out of the same box."

The way I figure it, People Magic exists today because Chalmers was taking judo lessons ("to toughen my mental and physical conditioning") back in 1980, when he was nearing the end of a five-year stint as an aide to St. Paul Mayor George Latimer. Chalmers, whose job involved coordinating compliance with the Federal Rehabilitation Act, was invited to deliver the keynote address at a conference for organizers of arts programs for disabled people.

He was not exactly enchanted with the prospect: "Just giving a speech didn't sound particularly entertaining," he recalled. But then he remembered that his judo trainer also was a semi-professional magician and asked to be taught a trick or two to help brighten up the presentation.

The result was a trick involving transforming red and blue scarves into green and yellow ones to emphasize the message that, just like the scarves, "people are not always what they seem to be when you label them on [the basis of] outward appearances."

As speaking invitations added up, he began adding tricks to his repertoire and in 1982 he decided to try making a living at his diversity training and consulting business.

He has not gotten rich in the ensuing years. Indeed, People Magic's revenues will not crack six figures this year. But there's been enough business for 15 years now to chase the wolf from the door of the two-bedroom home he owns on St. Paul's East Side.

He also was successful enough to be named in September as winner of the Courage Center's Judd Jacobson Memorial Award, a prize for entrepreneurship named after George Q. (Judd) Jacobsen, a quadriplegic who was a radio broadcaster and cofounder of three travel agencies during his 38-year career.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
November 9, 1997
Reprinted by permission

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