15 Famously Successful People Who Credit Their Teachers

by Staff Writers

There's no question that teachers can have an incredible impact on the lives of their students. Great teachers can spark inspiration, confidence, and instill values that last a lifetime, well beyond the confines of a classroom. For these 15 celebrities and public figures, their teachers helped cultivate their self-confidence and talent, allowing them to lead famously successful lives. Read on to find out how teachers made a difference in the extraordinary lives of these former students.

  1. Brian Williams: Famous news anchor Brian Williams has been called the "Walter Cronkite of the 21st century." He's the anchor and managing editor of NBC news and is clearly doing very well these days, but had it not been for an inspiring teacher, he might not have done so well. Williams credits his success to the help of an English literature teacher, Mr. Bob Kitzin, who Williams says, "turned me around." Williams was a young man who could go either way, down a dark path or a great one, and Mr. Kitzin helped him go the right way, making him excited about learning. Williams says that without him, he "wouldn't have become a serious thinker in life."
  2. Patti LaBelle: Grammy Award-winning singer Patti LaBelle has a special place in her heart for her high school teacher, Ms. Eileen Brown. LaBelle says that Ms. Brown was her mentor and very helpful not just to the singer herself, but her family as well. She has continued their special relationship, and the two have remained good friends, speaking often on the phone.
  3. President Bill Clinton: Bill Clinton is best known for two things: his legacy as the 42nd president of the United States, and his love of playing the saxophone. Clinton's high school band director, Mr. Virgil Spurlin, helped to grow both of Clinton's identities. Mr. Spurlin didn't just support Clinton and his classmates as they developed musically, he took an interest in their lives and was always there to help if they were having trouble at home or in school. Clinton says that he has thought of Mr. Spurlin and his influence all his life, staying in touch with him until he passed away. He believes that his years with Mr. Spurlin made him what he is today, and that he convinced him that he could "organize and run things," doing whatever he wanted to do in life.
  4. Bipasha Basu: Bipasha Basu is now a famous Bollywood actress, but she wasn't always so comfortable in the limelight. As a young girl, she was very shy and uncomfortable with public speaking. Yet her teachers helped her work past her shyness and become the outgoing woman she is today. Basu says, "I want to thank all my teachers in school for who I am today. I was an academically good student but my personality developed because of their encouragement. They gave me responsibilities like being a prefect and then the head girl of the school. My shyness of public speaking went away. Happy Teachers Day! Respect for all the teachers."
  5. Maya Angelou: So many schoolkids read Maya Angelou's works in class, but without the help of a teacher, those works might not ever have existed. Angelou's neighbor-turned-teacher, Mrs. Flowers, encouraged her to read, taking her to the library and telling her to read every book within the small room. As she read, Angelou found a love of poetry, a love that was deepened as Mrs. Flowers had her come to her house and read to her, so that Angelou could really learn to love poetry as she spoke it aloud. Thanks to Mrs. Flowers, we are able to enjoy the voice of Maya Angelou today.
  6. Jerry Penacoli: Extra host and multiple Emmy Award-winner Jerry Penacoli is well versed in culture, but that might not have been the case if it wasn't for his drama teacher, Mr. Bauer. Penacoli credits Mr. Bauer with taking him to Philadelphia to experience the theater and ballet, things that his parents could not afford to do for him. Mr. Bauer encouraged him to open up and try out for school plays, and even wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation when it came time for Penacoli to go to college. It was this letter, and Mr. Bauer's encouragement, that helped Penacoli earn a full scholarship to college, and a lifetime of success.
  7. Senator John McCain: Senator John McCain has been a naval aviator, prisoner of war, a Senator for nearly 30 years, and even almost became president. He's lived an amazing life, and much of his success is due to his high school teacher, Mr. William Ravenel, a World War II veteran. At the time, McCain was living a transient life as the son of a naval officer, and Mr. Ravenel gave him what McCain calls "some moorings and a compass," as he taught not just English, but values, standards, and morals. Mr. Ravenel was admirable, and stood out as an example that McCain and his fellow students wanted to follow. McCain says that Mr. Ravenel's lessons taught him about real honor, lessons he drew upon even as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Mr. Ravenel's influence over McCain's life was incredible, and McCain says that he was an inspirational man, not just to him, but his fellow classmates as well.
  8. Narada Michael Walden: Narada Michael Walden has met and worked with the likes of Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin as a three-time Grammy Award-winning producer. But before he met these famous singers, he was encouraged by a Catholic school nun in 3rd grade, who was very supportive of his talent in playing the bongo drums, even getting him to enter and win the talent show, sparking a lifelong love of music. That talent was further curated in high school by Walden's band teacher, Mr. Agney, who supported his love of playing the high school drums, as he even became the drum major and led the whole band. It was this young love of music, and great support from his teachers, that helped Walden become prominent and successful within the industry.
  9. Hilary Swank: Hilary Swank is an Academy Award-winning actress and one of the leading ladies of Hollywood, but she came from humble beginnings. Her very first acting job came in elementary school, when Mr. Sellereit at Happy Valley Elementary gave her a part in the school production of The Jungle Book. Even after so many years, Swank has not forgotten about the impact that Mr. Sellereit had on her life: after receiving her Academy Award, she told an interviewer that she wanted to say hi to him and thank him, pointing out that it was a skit he had her perform in his class that helped her find her calling. Mr. Sellereit is still teaching, and says that Swank's recognition "is really an honor and I'm really embarrassed."
  10. Tom Brokaw: Former anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw is a trusted face to many. He has stood out as a leader in the news world, and that's thanks to his schoolteacher, Mrs. Frances Morrow. Brokaw credits her with spotting him early on, encouraging him to read above his grade level and be imaginative in class. Brokaw says that with her support, he was able to build confidence, a trait that has served him well in his lifetime. The two were able to meet up once again years later, as Brokaw took her to lunch and thanked her for her influence on his life.
  11. Oprah Winfrey: Oprah Winfrey is a teacher and mentor to many around the world, but she got her start with the help of her fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Duncan. Winfrey says of her teacher, "I know I wouldn't be where I am today without my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan." Winfrey says that Mrs. Duncan believed in her and made her embrace a love of learning, and one of the defining moments of her life was in Mrs. Duncan's classroom when Winfrey was no longer afraid to be smart. In 1989, Winfrey's producers surprised her by bringing Mrs. Duncan in as a guest on the show, and she was able to publicly thank her beloved teacher.
  12. Richard Dreyfuss: Richard Dreyfuss played a high school music teacher in Mr. Holland's Opus, and the success that brought him to that amazing role can be credited to a very grumpy teacher, Mrs. Wilcox. Dreyfuss' inspiring teacher does not have the usual story, though — instead of inspiration and support, Mrs. Wilcox made Dreyfuss successful because she had no patience and constantly expected the class to fail. It sounds like a harsh stance to take with students, but Dreyfuss insists it worked for him. He says that everything he came to love in his life was learned in her class, and as Mr. Holland's Opus opened, he was compelled to track her down and say thank you. To that, Mrs. Wilcox said, "Thank you very much" and promptly hung up.
  13. Bill Gates: Can you imagine a world without Microsoft? Without the help of Bill Gates' teachers, the software giant might never have been created. Gates is one of the world's most famous dropouts, leaving Harvard behind to found Microsoft. But even he acknowledges that he would not be where he is today without the guidance of his math and drama teachers growing up. Gates says, "There's no way there would have been a Microsoft without what they did." He's now put his staggering amount of money where his mouth is. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates and his wife donate millions to expanding educational opportunities worldwide.
  14. Antwone Fisher: Antwone Fisher, today a New York Times best-selling author, spent his childhood in foster homes, but he found trust in an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Profitt. Fisher says that Mrs. Profitt was the first adult he ever trusted, because she spoke to her students with a tone of respect. He believes that being in her class made all the difference in his life, and he and his classmates took her trust and confidence with them into their lives.
  15. Megan Mullally: Will and Grace star Megan Mullally hadn't considered a career in acting until she was cast in a high school role by her English teacher Mr. Surbeck. Assigned the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Mullally had to read her parts aloud in class, and it was the first time she'd ever done any kind of acting. In that moment, the wheels began turning and Mullally was inspired to follow acting into what has now become a successful career.