He wrote a book to change a life

What is it like to be perceived as a nobody? To be invisible? What is it like to know that on one side of an imagined line is the road to hunger, reckless behavior, despair and potentially prison, and on the other, freedom from the dangers of poverty — and possibly a path to success and purpose in life?

Tragically, millions of Americans know the answer to those questions, but few put themselves into a position to effect positive and lasting change. Tom Seeman was able to cross that imagined line, find success and enrich lives of those less fortunate. 

Just over a year ago, I was introduced to Seeman by a mutual friend who felt — because of my own childhood framed by poverty, dysfunction, evictions and homelessness — that Seeman’s childhood and story would resonate with me. It did. 

As a white child and teenager, Seeman grew up living in a predominately Black housing project in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Toledo, Ohio. Fate had deposited him into a family of 14, where alcoholism and anger regularly reared their ugly heads.

During several conversations, he told me that as a survival skill within his neighborhood, he learned to both take punches from and make friends with the young Black and white men whose home life was as chaotic and uncertain as the streets.

Because of his home life, come the fourth grade, Seeman made a shocking — but liberating — announcement. When his teacher asked his class to name the greatest thing each of their parents had given them, he stood and said: “The greatest thing my mother has given me is that she’s always there to help me. And the greatest thing my father has given me is an example of what I don’t want to be.”

I knew that mindset. Simply by vocalizing what had long been locked inside his mind, a tremendous weight had been lifted from Seeman’s shoulders. Replaced by a lightness in mind and spirit that allowed him to focus on escaping the life he was born into. 

If one is tough enough, lucky enough and blessed enough to escape such a childhood characterized by poverty and difficulty, there is almost always one epiphany, mentor or tragedy that forces the mind to focus. Seeman told me he was fortunate to have more epiphanies and mentors than tragedies. One such mentor was a priest from St. Francis — a Catholic college preparatory high school in Toledo — who told Seeman he could have a full scholarship.

Thanks to that priest seeing something in Seeman; his selfless mother; and the encouragement of others, he was suddenly transported to a safe haven of academic excellence. That unexpected gift — along with his own hard work — made it possible for him to secure a scholarship to Yale, get a law degree from Harvard and work at McKinsey & Company before moving on to run several companies. 

During his college days at Yale, people began asking Seeman the same question: “How did you get out?” It was a question I knew well.

Statistics about such poor, tough and dysfunctional neighborhoods indicate that it is almost a certainty that one would not “get out.” That one would not choose wisely. That one would fall into a pattern of hooking school, substance abuse and crime.

Seeman managed to avoid those traps. He worked and studied hard as a teenager and took advantage of the acts of kindness shown to him along the way. Acts that did open a path that Seeman widened.

Later in his life, numerous people suggested Seeman tell his story via a book. One such person was former President Bill Clinton. While honored and humbled by the encouragement, Seeman was quite hesitant to do so. First, because to do so would entail ripping off scabs, reliving pain and quite possibly hurting or embarrassing family members. And second, because the process can be overwhelming.

For those reasons and more, Seeman told me he kept rejecting the idea of a memoir detailing his challenging childhood. But then those around him offered up the most important reason of all: “What if your story could not only reach someone going through what you endured — or much worse — but change a life for the better? What if your story could inspire others to follow?”

That reasoning got Seeman’s attention. He told me: “As friends and business colleagues encouraged me to write my story, I thought to myself, how would such a book have impacted me and my friends back in the day when we were struggling to beat the odds; would it have helped even one of those who didn’t make it out?”

Seeman knew that he and his childhood friends would have jumped at the chance to read a story from someone who had faced and transcended “the life.” Academic theories from those who had never experienced it were one thing. Words of wisdom from someone who had lived it, survived it and then flourished on the other side was another.

So Seeman wrote his story, titled “Animals I Want to See: A Memoir of Growing Up in the Projects and Defying the Odds.”


After achieving his goals for success as an adult, Seeman made an inspiring pledge to himself: “Every day, do something kind for a stranger.” He has fulfilled that pledge and then some. Be it by donating massive amounts of money to the Boys & Girls Clubs or funding a scholarship that actively seeks disadvantaged students to attend St. Francis High School in Toledo. 

As one who did live “the life,” I know that stories such as Seeman’s need to be told more often, as they shine a light on children and communities often forgotten by the politics of the day. 

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

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