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Friendship spawns best-selling book, movie

Latter-day Saints don't own the corner on goodness.

This is what Shelly Brady has learned from her friend Bill Porter. During their more than two-decade-long professional friendship, she has watched him trudge mile after mile selling door-to-door products — something he did for more than 40 years. She's watched him be unflinchingly honest — something he learned from his parents and his faith. She's watched him painstakingly type customer orders with his curled fingers on his old typewriter — something he did out of loyalty. If you don't want mistakes, you do it yourself; that's his philosophy.

And she's watched him do it all while shrugging off his cerebral palsy. The word obstacle is simply not in his vocabulary.

Sister Brady of the Powell Butte Ward, Gresham Oregon Stake, with her husband, John, who is stake president, and their six children, has learned all this from Mr. Porter because she's been his assistant since her senior year in high school in 1980, minus the few years she was in college. He typed the orders, she delivered the products — on time and on the customer's doorstep. He wouldn't have it any other way.

He doesn't sell door-to-door anymore for Watkins Inc., home products, though the 70-year-old has a sales web site. After his story aired on the 20/20 TV news magazine program in 1997, not only did his sales skyrocket, but so did requests for him to give motivational speeches across the country — with Sister Brady by his side as his assistant, side-kick and perhaps his best friend.

This year their friendship and partnership resulted in a bestselling book and, subsequently, a TV movie. "Door to Door," starring William H. Macy, an academy award-nominated actor, and Kyra Sedgwick, aired on TNT during the summer, and Ten Things I Learned From Bill Porter, written by Sister Brady and published by New World Library, spent several weeks on the New York Times Best-seller List.

"He is like family," Sister Brady told the Church News during a telephone interview. "He's like a brother. My children love him. There are so many children of our Heavenly Father [who] are doing great things. They are good and wonderful people. We can learn from others and follow their example. They have so much to teach us."

Bill Porter and Shelly Brady did not have parallel lives before becoming boss/part-time employee, as described in Ten Things I Learned From Bill Porter. He was born in 1932 to Ernest and Irene Porter, devoted members of the Catholic faith. When he was a year old, a doctor diagnosed that he had cerebral palsy.

In the early 1930s, children with disabilities were often put in institutions. Absolutely not, said Irene Porter, when that suggestion was made. In Ten Things, Sister Brady writes, "She vowed to do everything in her power to understand and conquer the illness that crippled her son."

A young Bill was expected to do yard work and, as his father said days after Bill graduated from high school, "Get a job!" And get a job he did. After being told by the local employment offices to collect disability checks and stay home, he began pounding the pavement for job interviews. Rejection after rejection only pushed him on, until he was finally granted a chance to sell household products such as spices and laundry soap for Watkins Inc. on a route that nobody else wanted. Walking up to 10 miles a day, he became their top salesman and broke just about every company sales record.

But he did not drive, so delivering products to his some 500 customers was a challenge. Finally, in 1980, he posted a want ad at the local high school for a delivery assistant. Seventeen-year-old Shelly Soentpiet answered the ad. She said she felt immediately comfortable with the salesman. "Maybe he sensed I accepted him completely as an ordinary person. I thought it was cool he was so successful," Sister Brady said.

She had a diverse background herself. Her best friend when she was a little girl was the boy across the street, Carl, who had Down syndrome. Her parents were divorced, and her stepfather was of Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese lineage and reared in The Netherlands. Reflecting on those early years after the divorce, she said, "Those years were really some awful years. Everything that I've experienced helps me understand others. I have a strong testimony that people can change. The Atonement can change people."

When she was 12 years old, her mother, on the verge of divorce from her second husband, moved the family for "five glorious years" to Hawaii, where an aunt introduced them to the gospel, and they were baptized. The family also grew with the adoption of two Korean children and a baby. Then it was back to Portland.

Sister Brady worked for Mr. Porter for the school year before she left for BYU-Hawaii. In 1984, she married John Brady in the Seattle Washington Temple, and they began their family, which today includes Michelle, 17; Katrina, 15; Teressa, 12; Kevin, 10; Erica, 7; and Emily, 2.

In the meantime, other assistants for Mr. Porter had come and gone, and he asked acquaintances, "Where's that Shelly gal?"

They've been boss, assistant and friends ever since. In fact, in 1989, she took her boss to the open house of the Portland Oregon Temple, just months after his mother had died. "He told me that gave him a lot of comfort."

She has also given him a copy of the Book of Mormon, and over the years they've shown respect for each other's faiths. With his parents gone, and being an only child, he was enfolded into the Brady family. They even purchased his home to help him financially, but it remains his home and will be for the remainder of his life.

In 1995, the Oregonian ran an award-winning article about him, his accomplishments — and his example. This led to the 20/20 package, which brought 18,000 e-mails from viewers. When New World Library contracted with Sister Brady for the book, there was only one way to write it — she would tell the world what she learned from her friend.

The publishers asked her to write chapter 10 on the spiritual nature of Mr. Porter's life. A former Young Women teacher, she described the spiritual lessons from the life of Bill Porter by using the Young Women Values: faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works and integrity.

Sister Brady said that with all the editing done on her book by the publishers, there were two chapters they virtually left alone — chapters 6 and 10. "They hardly touched it. I thought, 'Wow!' "

The renowned salesman himself told the Church News during a telephone conversation that the TNT movie is a "little Hollywood" but the book is the "real thing."

Of Sister Brady, he said: "We're more like family. We trust each other and she did a lot for me personally that I can't do on my own. If I were to run into trouble, I can rely on her to talk things over."

But he keeps his best tribute for his mother — the kind of mother Sister Brady said she hopes she is to her own children. Mr. Porter said: "I think of the impact of mothers. They are vital in the growing-up stage. Younger ones can build on what they're taught by their mothers."

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