Young Man With a Gift

Connor Gifford is a unique historian.
What happens when a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome meets a soon-to-be grandmother close to four decades older than him? In the case of Nantucket residents Connor Gifford and Victoria Harris, a beautiful friendship was born that ultimately changed both their life paths and led to the publication of a book about our nation's history, "America According to Connor Gifford."

In the prologue to the book, Gifford thanks God for giving him the gift of Down syndrome, and he explains that after he was born doctors diagnosed him with mosaic Down syndrome.

"I was so blessed, and that's why I thank God for my gift," Gifford says. "I am sensitive to things like you don't mistreat somebody who is, let's say, black, or Indian, or Mexican. We all have something in ourselves that we can say to the world, 'Look out world, here I come.'"

That sentiment is certainly coming true for Gifford. "The World According to Connor Gifford" [sic] was released on Nantucket in June and is making its New England debut on this Fourth of July weekend. It already is selling well and getting attention from the national news media. Tim Russert wrote an endorsement of the book and planned to have Gifford on "Meet the Press" before his untimely death. Chris Matthews (a part-time Nantucket resident) of MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" met Gifford and loved the book.
Gifford is a native of Perrysburg, Ohio, where he graduated from high school in 2002. His parents pushed to have him take mainstream classes, and he fell in love with history in the eighth grade. He now lives year-round on Nantucket.

Harris' background is in documentary filmmaking, and she's the founder of the Harris Group, which creates Fortune 500 branding campaigns. She was working on a first novel when she met Gifford.

In a telephone interview, Harris and Gifford, each on a different extension, explained how the book came to be.

The two met at Harris' daughter's house on Nantucket in January of 2007.

"Connor and I just really liked each other right off the bat," Harris says. "We got talking about history, and I realized there was this very profound sense of the essence of who we are as a nation in this young man's mind."

Harris went home to Rochester, N.Y., but she could not stop thinking about the conversation. By summer, she knew she wanted Gifford to write a book, and she created the concept of "America According to Connor Gifford." She didn't have any idea what the book would look like, or even be about, but she called his parents, Julie and Chuck Gifford, and asked if she could interview their son about his thoughts on history.

"I felt deeply that the knowledge that was in Connor's mind, that he couldn't necessarily express in the traditional way that somebody sits down and writes a book, could be released if I could interview him," Harris says.

The interviews continued through the fall, and as Harris transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews she began to see patterns in Connor's thinking. What emerged was a profound sense of civil rights. She also realized that Connor could express history best through people and events that he thought we all should know, such as Anne Hutchinson, Benjamin Franklin, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, our westward expansion and Jim Crow laws. It was a natural development of Gifford's personal feelings about history.

"My love for history started in eighth grade," Gifford says, "and as I went through history, I realized that what these people were doing was touching my heart."
Since that article was published in July, Connor's book has taken off and he's on a book tour, including a trip back to his hometown of Perrysburg. (See video here.) Full disclosure: I've known Connor's father, Chuck Gifford, since I was five years old, and his family lived next door to me as I was growing up. I see that Connor has inherited his dad's sense of humor and love of history, and I admire him for his accomplishment. What a great story.

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