A Father, A Daughter And Lessons Learned
When we met Wil Smith last year, we learned that he and his daughter, Olivia, had been unlikely college roommates at Maine's Bowdoin College in the late '90s. At 27, not only was he older than the other students, but he was also a single dad raising an infant.
"I wasn't planning on having you as my roommate. I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had you, they wouldn't let me come to college so, I hadn't mentioned it to anyone," he told Olivia at StoryCorps last year.
To make ends meet, he got a job working at Staples office supply store at night, and sometimes had to take Olivia with him, where he would hide her in the closet: "I think I lost something like 27 pounds, just from stress and not eating, because I didn't have enough for both of us."
Now, Olivia's own college experience is not too far off. "You won't have the early struggles that I did," Wil tells Olivia during a follow-up visit to StoryCorps. "You won't have a child."
Wil is helping Olivia with her school search, a role he says he's happy to have after a battle with colon cancer. It was a diagnosis he received just before recording the StoryCorps interview in 2012. After undergoing chemo treatments, he is now cancer-free.
"When I was going through treatments, one of the things that helped me through was knowing that had I not been there to help you through this process, you would have figured it out by yourself. But now I'm grateful that I am here and with you," Wil says.
"I'm also glad that we're here," says Olivia. "Thank you for always being there for me and just giving me the life that I have."
Click on the audio link above to hear the Smiths' story.
Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher with Nadia Reiman.
And as StoryCorps celebrates its 10th anniversary, all week NPR will be revisiting some of your favorite stories. You can read Wil and Olivia's story in the new StoryCorps book: Ties That Bind.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're celebrating 10 years of StoryCorps this week by revisiting some memorable stories. This one starts in 1996. Wil Smith was 27 and had just enrolled as a freshman at Bowdoin College. Not only was he older than the other students, but he raising his infant daughter, Olivia.
WIL SMITH: I wasn't planning on having you as my roommate. I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had you, they wouldn't let me come to college, so I hadn't mentioned it to anyone. And I got a job working at Staples, cleaning at night. I had to take you in with me - at work - sometimes, and hide you in the closet.
WILL SMITH: I think I lost something like 27 pounds, just from stress and not eating because I didn't have enough for both of us. My basketball teammates were my first babysitters. I just remember coming from class; and there were four giant guys - and then there was this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room.
GREENE: Were you ever embarrassed, bringing me to class and just having me in general?
WILL SMITH: I felt a little awkward but never embarrassed. There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you and see you sleeping, and then go back to my studies. And my graduation day from Bowdoin is a day I'll never forget. You know, all of my classmates, they stood up and gave me the only standing ovation. (Crying)
OLIVIA SMITH: I remember walking up with you and having my head on your shoulder.
WILL SMITH: Yeah. The dean called both of our names as he presented us with the diploma.
OLIVIA SMITH: So technically, I already graduated from college.
WILL SMITH: Nice try.
WILL SMITH: That degree only has my name on it, so you've still got to go.
OLIVIA SMITH: I really admire your strength.
WILL SMITH: I draw my strength from you. I always have, and I still do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: That's Wil Smith with his teenage daughter Olivia. Now just before recording that interview, Wil found out that he had stage 3 colon cancer.
WILL SMITH: You know, you took care of me in the hospital as if our roles were reversed. I was in the hospital bed, and you were rubbing my head and you're telling me everything was going to be OK. You watched me at my weakest point, where no father wants to be, and you didn't shed a tear.
GREENE: StoryCorps recently checked in with Wil and Olivia, to find out how they're doing now.
OLIVIA SMITH: The best day of this past year was when you had your last chemo treatment.
WILL SMITH: That was a good day.
WILL SMITH: Now, I am feeling a little better and doing the college search.
It's crazy, like growing up on a college campus and now that I'm finally that age, I don't really believe it.
You won't have the early struggles that I did. You won't have a child.
WILL SMITH: You know, when I was going through treatments, one of the things that helped me through was knowing that had I not been there to help you through this process, you would have figured it out by yourself. But now, I'm grateful that I am here and with you.
OLIVIA SMITH: I'm also glad that we're here. Thank you for always being there for me, and just giving me the life that I have.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Olivia Smith and her father, Wil, at StoryCorps. And we can tell you this morning, Wil remains cancer-free. Their interviews are housed at the Library of Congress, and tune into the program tomorrow for more from StoryCorps.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.