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Former Congressman Ric Keller served eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He chaired the House Higher Education subcommittee and served on the Judiciary and Education committees. Today, he is an attorney, writer, humorist, motivational speaker and television commentator. His TEDx Talk, “The Power of Self-Deprecating Humor,” was the sixth most-watched TEDx Talk in the world in May 2022. Keller received his bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State University, where he graduated first in his class. His law degree is from Vanderbilt Law School. He lives in Winter Park, Florida, with his wife, Lori, and their blended family. Visit his website at www.rickeller.net.

When I was thirty-four years old, I filed my papers to run for the U.S. Congress. There were a few problems. First, I didn’t have any rich friends or political connections. Second, I had never run for office before and was unknown. And third, I was such an underdog that I literally could not pay people to work for me because they said I had “no chance.”

 Six months into the campaign, it was a disaster. The frontrunner was beating me in the polls by a jaw-dropping 27 percentage points. She had raised $400,000 compared to my $100,000. And the chairman of my own party asked me to drop out.


 My intuition told me to stay in the race, so I did. I trust my instincts no matter how unconventional or unpopular they seem. (You should, too.) I set a new fundraising goal of $400,000. I had no clue how I’d do it. But I wrote it down on my goal card and read it every night and every morning.

 A few weeks later, I got a phone call. I was invited to Washington to give a five-minute speech. It was like American Idol for politicians. A newly formed group of CEOs and business leaders were considering putting some big money into a handful of congressional races. They had looked at hundreds of races across the country and narrowed the list down to sixteen finalists. I made the cut.

 I flew to Washington the morning of the event. Before it started, I chatted backstage with my competitors, who included future Vice President Mike Pence and future Senator/Ambassador Jeff Flake. I then stood in the back of the room and waited my turn. The room was full of tension.

 I was the last one to speak, and my first words were, “I’ve been waiting for a couple of hours. I feel like Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh husband on his wedding night. Technically, I know what I’m supposed to do, but at this point, I don’t know how to make it interesting.” The room exploded with laughter. I spoke from the heart without any notes.


 That little icebreaker changed my whole life. The group ranked me number one in the country. They spent $400,000 to support me—the exact amount of my goal. And a few months later, against all odds, I won a seat in the United States Congress by a narrow margin of 51% to 49%.

 The date was November 7, 2000. As a young Vanderbilt law student, I had written a note to my dad and stepmom on Nov. 7, 1990, which said, “I plan on busting my ass to get elected to Congress.”

 Ten years later, to the exact date, I was elected. It was now time to give my first election-night victory speech. I made it up onto the stage. For ten years, I had visualized myself up on this stage. In my imagination, people were cheering, signs were waving, flashbulbs were going off, and the TV cameras were rolling. Now, it was real life. And it was surreal. It was exactly how I imagined it would be.

 I didn’t have a written speech prepared and didn’t need one. After thanking everyone, I told the audience a little-known secret about an emotional turning point in my childhood. I was seventeen years old and didn’t have enough money to go to college. My mom, a single parent, had worked as a secretary for Mr. R.T. Overstreet. He was eighty-one years old and president of the Overstreet Investment Company.

 Over the years, Mr. Overstreet had often asked my mom to type up checks for various charitable contributions. Seeing this, Mom suggested that I meet with Mr. Overstreet and ask if his company would consider making a charitable contribution to help me pay for my college.

 I was nervous. I walked into his large office, and he offered me a seat. I cut to the chase. I told Mr. Overstreet—with all the passion I could muster—that I wanted a college education so badly, and I promised him that I would graduate number one in my class, with a perfect 4.0 GPA, if his company would only take a chance on me and help with college.

 He told me that he would have to run my request by the board of directors. He asked me to come back next Tuesday. I couldn’t sleep the night before the big day. I went to his office and awaited the decision. Mr. Overstreet informed me that his corporation would not be able to pay my college tuition. He said if the corporation paid for my education, they would have to do it for all the employees.

 I thanked Mr. Overstreet for at least trying. And then, uncontrollably, tears started to run down my face. It hit me at that moment that my dream of getting a college education would never come true. Mr. Overstreet then leaned toward me and said, “Son, you can wipe the tears away. I said the company couldn’t pay for your college; I didn’t say that I couldn’t.” With that, Mr. Overstreet cut a check and sent me to college.

 Four years later, I stood onstage and graduated top in my class. Mr. Overstreet lived just long enough to see me graduate from Vanderbilt Law School.

 This excerpt is from Ric Keller’s new book, “Chase the Bears: Little Things to Achieve Big Dreams.” Reprinted with permission from Health Communications, Inc.


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