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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Marshaling His Forces for the Future

Hugh O'Brian may have made his name playing TV's Wyatt Earp. But his real legacy is his leadership foundation for teenagers.

June 16, 1996|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the summer of 1958, actor Hugh O'Brian received the invitation that would change his life.

O'Brian, then 33, was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, parlaying his fame as television's legendary Wyatt Earp into extra income by guest-starring with a circus.

Then the cable arrived from French Equatorial Africa: Dr. Albert Schweitzer would welcome him at any time.

O'Brian had long admired the German doctor-missionary-theologian-musician. "I'd read so much about him," he reflects. "He was a great humanitarian who could have done anything he wanted in the world, and there he was in the middle of Africa taking care of people."

O'Brian had mentioned that to his friend Norman Cousins, then editor of Saturday Review, who set the trip in motion. Still, the cable, seeming more a summons than an invitation, was a complete surprise.

On summer hiatus from shooting "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," O'Brian shuffled his schedule. Within two weeks he was on his way--by commercial airliner, bush plane and rowboat--to the famed hospital that Schweitzer had founded in 1913 on the banks of the Ogooue River in Lambarene.

There he was met by a very old man with a walrus mustache, wearing white pants, shirt and pith helmet. "That was his uniform," says O'Brian, recalling his first sighting of Schweitzer. "He introduced himself and I was given a little room with a cot, kerosene lamp and mosquito netting. Everybody pumped their own water."

The actor spent nine days at the clinic complex where Schweitzer and volunteer doctors and nurses, working without electricity or running water, cared for patients, including many with leprosy.

Before dinner the first night, Schweitzer, a renowned organist, sat down at an old piano with missing keys. "We had a Bach prelude in the jungle, which was mind-boggling," O'Brian recalls. "Then I was seated at a roughhewn table with men and women from around the world who were donating months of their lives."

Each day of his stay, O'Brian worked as a volunteer, passing out medicine and doing odd jobs. At night, he would talk with Schweitzer. "He invited me to his quarters--the same single cot and mosquito netting--and started talking," O'Brian says. "He could communicate in four languages, but preferred to speak German through a translator."

Schweitzer, then 83, who had received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in behalf of the "Brotherhood of Nations," was concerned about global peace prospects and was impressed that the young American had taken the trouble to visit him. The doctor led the actor through history over those evenings. The League of Nations had failed, the United Nations seemed shaky and Schweitzer was convinced that the United States was the only country in the world with the ability to bring about peace.

"He said the United States must take a leadership role," O'Brian recounts, "or we are a lost civilization."

It was an unforgettable nine days. And, as O'Brian departed, Schweitzer took his hand and asked: "Hugh, what are you going to do with this?"

That question echoed in O'Brian's mind as he looked back at the doctor, his figure growing smaller as the boat rounded the last bend in the river. "That was very simple, but a helluva challenge," O'Brian says.

Traveling back to California, he had 48 hours to reflect:

"Why of all people in the world was I in show business? Why of all people in show business did I have one of the top five shows in the country? And why, of all the people in show business, did this happen that I was invited to come visit this man?

"I said, 'That's enough, God, I think I got the message.' I decided to create something out of my own efforts."

*

It is 10 a.m. on a 1996 May morning and 216 sophomores, each from a different Central California high school, have signed in at Mount St. Mary's College, a mountaintop complex of Spanish tile-roofed buildings perched serenely above Brentwood.

It is opening day of the regional Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation seminar.

Two weeks after returning from his 1958 meeting with Schweitzer, O'Brian put together a makeshift seminar for young leaders. The program has since been refined and broadened, reaching about 14,000 students at 90 seminars each spring. HOBY now boasts more than 185,000 alumni.

Wearing new blue T-shirts with the gold motto ("Catch the HOBY Spirit"), tomorrow's leaders have assembled in the Little Theatre at Mount St. Mary's and, guided by an army of volunteer counselors, are learning the HOBY ropes.

They have seen a video of the "Hugh O'Brian Story," which explains how the actor launched a program in 1958 to develop leadership potential by offering motivational workshops to high school sophomores, teaching them to think for themselves and learn what makes America tick.

Now, Andy LeMay, a 10-year HOBY volunteer speaks to them: "You will be told over and over again that you're special, and you are. You're going to get turned on to things you never thought possible. And when you leave you will have a group of friends anyplace you go."

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