When he was 12 years old, Steve Pemberton found a crumpled-up brochure for Boston College. On the front flap, Gasson Hall’s 200-ft bell tower stretched into the air.
Pemberton had never really thought about the idea of attending college. He grew up in the foster care system, and a higher education didn’t seem like it was in his cards. But after seeing pictures of the Heights on the cover of the pamphlet, Pemberton began to rethink his future. From that point in the seventh grade onward, Pemberton was determined to beat the odds and become an Eagle.
Pemberton carries himself with a certain presence. He must reach just over six-feet, and has a voice that booms throughout a room. He is the kind of guy who has a firm handshake, seemingly developed from years of working in the corporate world. In casual conversation, he addresses people by their first names, giving off a sense of importance and professionalism.
From the looks of Pemberton today, one would never believe what he endured as a child.
Pemberton, who is now the global chief of diversity for Walgreens Pharmacy, grew up in an abusive foster family. He describes his childhood as a constant struggle of trying to find his identity. He struggled to decipher where he came from and who his parents were. Pemberton recalls constantly feeling forgotten and alone, and describes his foster parents as doing everything in their power to thwart his efforts to find his identity. They limited his access to libraries, computers, or extracurriculars, preventing him from researching where he came from and who his parents were.
Despite the tribulations he faced as a child, he found solace in books that his neighbor, Mrs. Levin, would sneak him weekly. He started to picture a life outside of his own, and to this day is thankful for Mrs. Levin’s gift, he said.
When he was 16, Pemberton finally escaped the foster system. He recalls the joy he felt when he finally slipped away from the grasp of his abusive foster parents. This ecstasy was short-lived, however, as he soon realized that he had nowhere else to go.
To this day, Pemberton describes his high school English teacher as his greatest inspiration in life. In his final year of high school, when he had nowhere else to turn, his teacher, Mr. Sykes, took him in and gave him a home.
“All he had to give me was a home, a place to live,” Pemberton said. “And boy, that was exactly what I needed.”
From people like Mrs. Levin and Mr. Sykes, Pemberton began to understand the real meaning of the Jesuit mission. He is well aware of the importance of being at the service of others, he said.
After losing parents, siblings, and any semblance of a community or home in his childhood, Pemberton, more than most, understands the goodness of a servant’s heart. Now, he strives to give back to his family, friends, and community, and sees the value in doing things for a greater good, he said.
“You are so unequivocally and absolutely alive when you are here. There is no way you can’t be alive. There is no way you can treat this place like a hamster wheel.”
Despite how far he has come in life, developing from an orphan into an executive in the corporate world, Pemberton still said that he has never been satisfied. He describes this as his Achilles’ heel. Because he was born into a struggle, Pemberton has trouble seeing the good in the world, he said.
“My wife is working on me,” he said.
Everytime he returns to BC, however, Pemberton once again feels at home. He fondly recalls moving into his freshman dorm room in Duchesne East, watching the Marathon from his perch in 66 Commonwealth Ave., and hopping on the T to head into Boston.
When he describes home to his family and friends, Pemberton is always thinking of his four years on the Heights, he said. Since his graduation 27 years ago, he has spoken at BC five times. He never gets tired of coming back, he said.
“You are so unequivocally and absolutely alive when you are here,” Pemberton said. “There is no way you can’t be alive. There is no way you can treat this place like a hamster wheel.”
Pemberton still lives by the advice that one of his freshman professors gave him when he turned in an assignment late: “You’re going to do this, or you’re not.” Pemberton remembered taking that as a challenge and still thinks about the slogan in his day-to-day life.
Day-to-day, Pemberton lives with his wife and three children. When he started talking about his family, his face lit up.
Pemberton married his wife, Tanya, 19 years ago. Together, they have two boys, Quin and Vaughn, and one daughter, Kennedy, otherwise known as “daddy’s girl.” From his children, Pemberton has learned how to be in a happy family.
Without ever having parents of his own, Pemberton is always learning what it means to be a father. Over the 16 years since his first son was born, Pemberton has learned about parenthood through the eyes of his kids.
“To have a child teach a parent what it means to have a parent, isn’t that an amazing circumstance?” Pemberton said.