Man who inspired 'Happyness' skips opening

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MILWAUKEE -- Maybe it was home-state spirit. The man whose rags-to-riches story is told in the movie "The Pursuit of Happyness" spent its opening night speaking at a company party in Wisconsin.

Michael Riggs, the CEO of JHT Holdings Inc., in Kenosha, said he arranged through a talent agency for Chris Gardner to be the inspirational speaker at the company's Christmas party on Dec. 15.

But with all the recent attention on Gardner and the new film starring Will Smith, Riggs doubted Gardner would make it, especially because the movie was premiering the same night.

He was wrong.

"He said, 'I could have been in Rome or with the world's biggest star, Will Smith. But I heard there was a company in Kenosha that had been doing great things, and I'd rather be here with fellow Wisconsinites'," Riggs said.

Gardner, a Milwaukee native, was a homeless, single father in California before becoming a millionaire business executive ? the story told in the film based on his autobiography.

He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his recent fame hasn't changed him much, and that he still keeps his "day job" heading a Chicago-based brokerage firm.

"I got up this morning and put my pants on the same way and it felt comfortable," Gardner said.

"This all isn't about me, the movie or the book. This is for us, for everyone who had an opportunity to become negative and decided to go the other way.

"For every father who had to be a mother and every mother who had to be a father, and everyone who had a dream who was told it couldn't happen."
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