Letters from Van France: How a Disney Legend Changed a Life


Get a box of tissue and be prepared to read through tear-filled eyes.

Disneylander Jerry’sstory.

Note:October 2, 2013marks the last day of Van France’s 100thyear. Van was an icon – a genius in sharing Walt’s vision of training and hiring “The Disney Way.”

There are countless impactful quotes by Walt Disney and Van France, but one of Van’s phrases that sticks out in our minds regarding our new friend Jerry, is this:

“What happens ’backstage’ will end up ‘on-stage’. If we aren’t friendly with each other … smiling and saying ‘good morning’ and things like that, then we’ll have a similar attitude toward our guests.”

These words, written by Van Arsdale France, Professor Emeritus and Founder of the Disney University, are the epitome of blending true character into the workplace setting, a closely held Disney value. Van was a pioneer in thinking differently about the way we behave at work and interacting in our jobs … and he knew how to practice “backstage” what he preached “on-stage”.

We met Disneylander Jerry at a recent book-signing event. Jerry anxiously arrived at the Citrus Heights Barnes & Noble an hour prior to when signing was scheduled to begin. He had to be first in line; there wasn’t any other option. Resting on his lap was his new book, Disney U. Once we got over the surprise that there was a line at all, we couldn’t help but notice Jerry waiting, in his wheelchair, and watching the clock. He seemed anxious and eager but politely waited. When his turn came, he quickly tried to share his story – about Van France, a relatively unknown but deserving rock star in the field of people management. When Jerry got to the front of the line, he shared with us his compelling connection to Van. With tears streaming down his face and voice cracking with emotion, Jerry said, “Van is my hero, my role-model, my cheerleader and inspiration. He is my mentor and responsible for my success.” The story Jerry proceeded to tell us further deepened our profound respect for Van

Van, a hero to many who worked for Disneyland, had reached “beyond the berm” and touched the life of a young man in desperate need of support. If we had any hope the Disney U would bring back to life the story of a man whose legacy deserved to be shared within and beyond the Disney community, the story that Jerry would soon tell us added another layer of meaning and resounding relevance.

Jerry told us about the letters – a scrapbook full of handwritten letters that he would soon share with us … letters from Van written between 1992 and 1998, Van’s last decade. Where digital communication today can seem fleeting, disposable, and at times sterile or too-perfect given the conveniences of auto-correct and spell check, the letters Van and Jerry exchanged were charged with heart and soul–replete with doodling, stickers, and Van’s all-too-frequent typos.

Van’s letters changed Jerry’s life, and Jerry’s changed Van’s.

We all know about D23, Disneyana, and the many fan clubs of today. In 1991, Jerry attended the precursor to these widely popularevents, The Mouse Club, back in the days when inspiring soon-to-be anointed Disney legends gave back to the fans. In addition to Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Glen Keane, one of those genuine visionaries with bountiful energy was Van France. Jerry was ready to exit the Mouse Club event and wait another long year for his Disney fix (fan club meetings like this came but once a year), when he discovered there was one last presentation. Jerry wasn’t too interested in the session subject about the Disney University, and he had never heard of the presenter Van France. But Jerry thought “Why not! I’m not ready to be done getting my Disney fill for the year, so I’ll see what this guy Van has to say.”

The lessons he heard that day from Van moved Jerry, who has cerebral palsy, in new and different waves. In Jerry’s own words:

“Most of my childhood was spent off to the side of my peers, and into early adulthood, most of my time was spent watching life slide past in the exploits and events of those around me. But where Disney was … I belonged.”

Once home, the newly-inspired Jerry read Van’s book Windowon Main Street. Then, the normally introspective and shy Jerry took a leap of time beyond faith and wrote to Van about the possibility of becoming a cast member. For unknown reasons,Jerry’s letter never made it to Van; Jerry, discouraged, assumed Van to be acelebrity Disney leader, one who didn’t engage off-stage as he had on- stage at the fan club event. Jerry soon realized he couldn’t have been more wrong about his assumptions that Van didn’t have time for people like him.

The next year, Jerry would have another opportunity to meet the influential Van, who was volunteering and speaking at the 1992 Mouse Club event. Jerry attended Van’s session and planned to approach him after his session. Jerry had to see if this guy Van was “all talk” or for real. How could Jerry have been so off about his first impression of Van? Jerry’s instinct told him to not give up. It was Jerry’s dream to work at Disneyland and maybe Van would like him– tell him how to go about navigating the employment process and share about jobs Jerry could perform with his disability.

Nervous,intimidated, and definitely feeling inferior, Jerry approached Van. Jerry was surprised and relieved when Van remembered him from the year before and Jerry sheepishly told him about the letter he sent that received no reply; Van apologetically explained he never saw the letter pass his desk at Disneyland.

What ensued next would impact Jerry for the rest of his young adult life. Van told himnotto send his letters to Disneyland,but to instead write Van at his home address. And so began eight years of a true pen-pal relationship – but there was more: Van became Jerry’s dedicated life coach. In his younger years, Jerry’s interpreted his cerebral palsy as a burden and something that should hold Jerry back. Van was the first to encourage him otherwise. Van encouraged Jerry NOT towork at Disneyland but to instead get hiscollege degree, to persevere and push through where stigma and seeming adversity had formerly created roadblocks. No one from Jerry’s family had ever completed, let alone attended college. Largely due to Van’s encouragement, Jerry would be the first to do so.

Jerry listened to Van and continued to write his newly found mentor. And Van wrote Jerry back.

After the book signing in Citrus Heights, Jerry welcomed Doug to his home to peruse the scrapbook of letters exchanged between him and his mentor, Van. One-by-one, Jerry shared the handwritten letters, typos and all, that influenced him to “stay the course” in his educational pursuits. The letters encouraged Jerry to not give up … when his disability seemed to do otherwise. It may seem ironic that Van France, the founder of Disney University, ultimately dissuaded one of Disneyland’s most loyal fans from working at the theme park; such a move is a testament to Van’s quality of unambiguous honesty, a legacy further validated by the letters Jerry saved.

Jerry worked hard while studying public relations at Sacramento State University. Van cheered him along, providing strength and inspiration where Jerry’s at times faltered. After eight years of work and study, Jerry would finally receive his hard-earned diploma. The graduation ceremony was around the corner. Jerry had three tickets; two for his parents, and the third reserved for Van.

Communication between Jerry and Van also extended beyond written letters ; Van had given Jerry his phone number years before, and they talked often. Jerry called Van’s home in October of 1999; he wanted to wish Van a happy birthday and share his graduation news. He immediately knew something was off when the line was disconnected. Via the forwarding phone number, Van reached family and learned Van was in the hospital; Van was very sick and his condition was terminal. Jerry was devastated – distraught, he hadn’t thought to even consider life without Van.

Too weak to hold the phone, Van’s family member held the phone up to Van, allowing the two pen pals to have one last exchange of words:

Van: “You have more experience with wheelchairs, but I am having trouble getting the hang of it.”

Jerry: “You’ll get it…I’ve just had more practice!”

For his graduation, Jerry’s parents pulled together a ticket to Disneyland, his hard-earned graduation gift. By now, Van had his Main Street Window. Honoring Van and all his support, Jerry, now an analyst for the California State Department of Transportation, honored Van. In the graduation invitation reserved for Van, Jerry wrote Van one last letter, sharing everything Van had meant to him. Jerry then purchased two Mickey Mouse balloons. He tied the graduation announcement to the invitation and directed his wheelchair to the sidewalk directly beneath Van’s Main Street window. In a fitting sendoff to the mortal Van, Jerry released the balloons, sending Van his invitation and thanking him one last time for all his support. Jerry let go of the balloons – Jerry never let go of Van’s lessons.

Jerry had always hoped that the reading world would one day learn the story of how Van exemplified what it meant to beatrueDisney legend? Walt Disney’s instinct in hiring Van, a brilliant developer of human potential, was trendsetting. Who could have foreseen that the philosophies created and cemented by the brilliant Van would continue to guide the Disney University philosophies still taught today? No one had to teach Van to “Walk the Park” like Walt Disney had done– Van embodied this – he personified this infamous philosophy that inspires true hands-on leaders. Van, more importantly, was and continues to be a true mentor … just ask Jerry.

Pam and Doug operate a speaking and consulting business, DougLipp.com. Doug Lipp is the author of Disney U (McGraw Hill, March 2013), which highlights the founding philosophies of the Disney University and Van France’s achievement in creating Walt Disney’s vision for hiring and training. They can be reached at pam@www.douglipp.com.