Around 5:30 p.m. Friday Ben Vereen came walking into East Tennessee State University’s D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium with a smile on his face that was instantly contagious to those around him.
Vereen was far from his usual stomping grounds, such as the various theaters in New York City’s Broadway district and from the set of the popular TV show “How I Met Your Mother,” where he has a reoccurring role.
In fact, it was a new experience for the entertainer, who was invited to speak at 7 p.m. in the auditorium before ETSU students, faculty, staff and the general public. The event, sponsored by the Office of Disability Services and Delta Alpha Pi Honor Society, was one Vereen was quick to say he was honored to be lecturing.
“I’m honored to be here because I’m speaking ... about disabilities and also a little about my life and my journey. As much as you see me on stage dancing and everything ... I am a person ... with disabilities and I will be talking about that,” he said during a media conference before the Friday night event.
Vereen, a Tony Award-winning actor for performances in “Pippin” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as well as playing the Wizard of Oz in the Broadway musical “Wicked,” was involved in a serious car accident in 1992.
He said after the accident he didn’t know exactly what his life would be like.
“To go through any adversity in life is difficult at the point when you’re in it. It’s getting through it. Some people don’t get through it, they give up in the middle of it and they never see the fruits of the after and so it’s getting through it,” Vereen said. “According to the doctors I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. Young people have got to hear this because sometimes in their consciousness they feel like they can’t go on and they’ve got to know that they are the reason to go on.
“We’re all disabled. Whether you’re in a wheelchair or you’re standing up talking before the nation and the world, you are disabled,” Vereen said. “Until we find the place called love inside of us and give it to everybody else, we have a disabled consciousness and that’s what we’ve got to deal with. My journey’s brought me here to say that.”
Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2007, he said his message has grown into a powerful mantra while advocating and raising awareness for the disease — which is “stop letting it have you, you have it.”
Like many Americans this past week, Vereen’s mind shifted to those injured and killed in the Boston Marathon bombings. Seeing the tragedy unfold firsthand during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, he said simply “we’ve got to learn to love one another more.”
“What happens when tragedy hits this country, in whatever city, the city itself falls into a sense of family, of unity, of protection, caring about one another,” he said. “But, why is it when a bomb blows off or something ... tragedy happens in our society that we become loving people? We must be loving people all the time.”
When asked about a rundown of the topics he would be discussing with those in attendance Friday, he said he’d be talking about everything. Vereen said he plans on visiting the Johnson City area until leaving Sunday.
“It’s an adventure. I’ve never been here before. I’m going to enjoy the city a little bit,” he said.
Sandra Bullin, president of the Psi Chapter of Delta Alpha Pi and one of the masterminds behind the event, said she was excited to host Vereen at ETSU.
“We were very thrilled ... when we got the news that we could get the funding and Mr. Vereen could come and visit us and speak,” she said. “He’s absolutely fabulous. Disabilities come in many shapes and sizes. Disabilities are not always seen. I’m hoping that he touches on several different aspects of that.”
ETSU students Lindy Ley and Aryn King came a little early to get a seat in the Culp Auditorium, and both were eager to see Vereen speak Friday.
“I’m a dancer and I trained in Fosse Style, so Ben Vereen is sort of an idol and has been for a really long time,” Ley said. “When I found out he’s also a diversity and disability awareness speaker, that ... really appeals to me. My mom has recently become somewhat challenged. She has aggressive rheumatoid arthritis. For me, I just ... think he’s a really amazing person and I feel like absolutely anything he has to say will be inspiring.”
King, also a dancer, said Vereen’s disability advocacy is also something that hits home with her, as her twin sister is severely disabled.
“That fact that someone else who is a dancer and kind of has the same kind of outlook on those kinds of things is really inspiring to me. He’s just so good in everything he does. It’s really an honor to be in the same room as him,” she said.