Carson cancels Iowa campaign events to visit ill mother

Melissa Nann Burke and Chad Livengood
The Detroit News

Republican presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson on Monday underlined the central role his mother has played in his life, canceling a campaign trip to Iowa to fly to Dallas and be with her in her last days.

Carson's campaign issued an advisory early Monday saying Sonya Carson "has been in failing health" and is "critically ill." She is 86 years old.

In speeches, the 63-year-old Carson routinely talks about lessons learned from his single mother growing up poor in Detroit. He told their story again Monday as he announced his presidential campaign.

"She always had a desire for education, but she was never able to get beyond the third grade," Carson told the crowd at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts.

After his father left, "we were thrown into a situation of dire poverty. And she still maintained that dream of education – but now it was for us, more so than for herself."

At age 13, Sonya Copeland, one of 24 children, had married Robert Solomon Carson, a minister of a small Baptist church. They moved from rural Tennessee to Detroit, where Robert worked in a Cadillac plant.

The couple had two sons, Curtis and Benjamin. Robert left when Ben was 8, after Sonya learned he had another family with a woman he'd married before she'd met him.

She worked long hours in domestic service for wealthy families — sometimes two and three jobs at once — to support her family. She observed how the well-off families thought and acted, and passed those lessons onto her sons.

By the 1960s, she could no longer afford their longtime home on Deacon Street in Detroit. After two years living with family in Boston, Sonya moved her sons back to Detroit into a multi-family building across from the industrial area of Delray.

A couple of times a year, Sonya would disappear for weeks at a time. Her boys later learned she was seeking treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts.

She hid her illiteracy from her boys, requiring them read at least two library books a week and give her written reports, even though she couldn't read them.

"As I started reading those books — which I really didn't want to — and started reading about people of accomplishment, I began to recognize that the person that has the most to do with what happens in life is you," Carson said.

"You can do it on your own if you have a normal brain, and you're willing to work, and willing to have a can-do attitude. Remember, it's that can-do attitude that allowed this nation to rise so quickly."

She pushed Ben to improve his grades when he was at the bottom of his class, and forced school officials to drop plans to enroll Curtis in a vocational program. Curtis went on to become a mechanical engineer and Ben a world-renown neurosurgeon.

"I believe that if we have something inside our heads, nobody can take it from us," Sonya says in Ben's book, "Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence." "I allowed no excuses for failure," including racial prejudice.

In the same book, Sonya recalled a neighbor who criticized her after learning that Ben and Curtis helped Sonya cook. She defended her household, saying she was teaching her sons to be self-supporting and to love others.

Sonya saved and managed her money, and eventually the family was able to move back into their beloved home on Deacon Street. Ben Carson says his mother refused to be a "victim," staying off public assistance except for food stamps.

"The reason for that was she noticed that most of the people she saw go on welfare never came off of it. She did not want to be dependent," Carson said Monday.

Speaking of Sonya's thriftiness, Carson said were she treasury secretary, "we would not be in a deficit situation."

"She was very thrifty. She would drive a car until it wouldn't make a sound. Then, she would go and collect all of her dimes and nickels and quarters and buy a new car," he added. "She knew how to manage money."

Sonya later earned her GED and went on to attend junior college. She became an interior decorator specializing in furniture restoration, upholstery and ceramics, according to "Think Big."

Ben Carson has credited his mother's influence and encouragement for his success.

One of things she's most proud of is "that Bennie still honors God, and submits his claim to Him," she told The Detroit News in 2000.

(202) 662-8736