Grandparents are amazing — everyone knows that. They help support families in myriad ways, from providing childcare help to financial assistance to the wisdom of experience. And in some cases, when called upon, they become the de facto parents.
Below is a list of 16 influential people who were raised in part or solely by a grandparent, and for whom a life of success and achievement (and for some, infamy) was made possible in part by the crucial role of a grandparent who assumed responsibility for them at a young age.
“Sister, if you see something you don’t like, do everything you can do, that’s right to do, to change it,” Annie Henderson used to tell her young granddaughter as she was growing up in Stamps, Arkansas.
It’s advice the little girl took to heart. Now, decades of writing, teaching, and activism later, Maya Angelou is a literature and civil rights icon.
Angelou was raised by Henderson in the rural South after her parents, “for all intents and purposes, abandoned my brother and me.” Deeply faithful and the proprietor of her town’s general store, the older woman was well respected within the black community and much loved by her grandchildren – “the greatest person I ever met,” says Angelou.
Now a great-grandmother herself, the poet still models herself after Henderson. “I try to be the same kind of grandparent I had,” she says. “My grandmother was the best. She didn’t talk much. She spoke very softly when she did, although she had truly a huge voice.”
Born in Abbott, Texas, during the Great Depression and abandoned by his parents shortly afterward, Willie Nelson was raised entirely by William and Nancy Nelson, his grandparents.
The Nelsons were cotton pickers and amateur musicians, who sang gospel and learned music from a mail-order course – knowledge they passed on to their two grandchildren.
In fact, by the time Nelson and his sister, Bobbie Lee, were in early elementary school, they already knew how to play guitar and piano, respectively. Willie wrote his first song at age six, and, seeing music as his ticket off the cotton fields, joined the touring band Bohemian Polka at age ten.
Ever the troubadour, Nelson looks back with fondness at his grandparents, whom he calls, “his true, and earliest, inspiration.”
Millions of Americans credit media queen Oprah Winfrey for inspiring them to succeed. As for Winfrey herself–she credits her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who raised her until age 6 on her rural Mississippi farm. “I am where I am today because my grandmother gave me the foundation for success,” she says.
A strict disciplinarian with little money, Lee taught her granddaughter to read by age 3, allowing the girl to skip kindergarten and get ahead in school.
Oprah was also a frequent guest in Lee’s church, reciting bible verses by memory, to the wonder of fellow parishioners. “All the sisters sitting in the front row would fan themselves and turn to my grandmother and say, ‘Hattie Mae, this child is gifted.’ And I heard that enough that I started to believe it.”
When Lee took ill, Winfrey moved to Milwaukee to live with her mother–but it’s Lee who “probably saved my life.”
Rapper Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) was born when his mother was just 15, and died when he was only 8. Thankfully his grandmother in Queens took him in.
50 has cited his grandmother’s role as the most important person in his life. He even dropped an entire verse written from her perspective on “Talk About Me,” despite her reportedly not being a huge fan of his work.
It’s every grandma and grandpa’s dream that their grandchild grows up to become President of the United States. For Stanley and Madelyn “Toot” Dunham, grandparents of Barack Obama, that dream came true – and it couldn’t have happened without them.
After his parents divorced, Obama was raised by his grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii, from age 10 until he left for college. While his mother was a constant presence in his life, he credits both Toot and Stanley with instilling his “Midwestern” values: “They gave me love, a thirst for education, and a belief that we’re all part of something larger than ourselves.”
Toot passed away on November 2, 2008, just two days before her grandson was elected President.
“She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility,” read the statement released by Obama and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, upon her death. “Our debt to her is beyond measure.”
The most-decorated female gymnast of all-time, Simone Biles’ early life was rougher than any Olympic competition. In and out of foster care as a youngster, Biles was eventually adopted by her maternal grandfather and his wife and raised in a suburb of Houston where her gift for gymnastics was honed to champion stature.
The Supreme Court judge famous for never talking in court spoke loud and clear about his grandfather, Myers Anderson, calling him “the greatest man I have ever known.” Anderson and his wife Christine took Thomas and his brother in and raised them in Georgia after a fire consumed the Thomas home.
Film, television, and stage actor perhaps best known for his role as Bobby Donnell in The Practice, McDermott was raised by his maternal grandmother and made her proud by twice being one of People magazines 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.
Plenty of the pathos he brought to films like Batman and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may have sprung from his own complicated childhood, in which his young mother pretended to be his sister and his grandparents acted as his parents.
He didn’t find out the entire truth until his mother and grandmother passed away, at which point he may have decided The Shining was the next movie for him.
Before he was a Hollywood legend, Jack Nicholson was a Jersey boy, raised in the town of Neptune City by window dresser John Joseph Nicholson and beautician Ethel May.
But in 1974, an interviewer for Time Magazine revealed a family secret that the then-37-year-old actor couldn’t have anticipated: June, the woman he thought was his sister, was actually his birth mother.
And the people he believed were his parents? Were really his grandparents. By the time Nicholson discovered the truth, both June and May were dead.
Now a grandfather himself, the multiple Oscar winner says he has made peace with the past. “Show me any women today who could keep a secret, confidence, or an intimacy to that degree,” he says, “you got my kind of gal.”
Jamie Foxx was adopted by his grandparents as an infant and recognized his musical talent from an early age. Most families worry about their kids getting into the entertainment biz, but when he won a classical piano scholarship after high school, his grandmother told him that’s how he was going to make money.
Foxx dedicated his 2005 Academy Award for the movie Ray to his grandmother for the impact she had on his career.
Comedian, singer, and Academy-Award winning actor Jaime Foxx started his career path in a small Texas town in the home of his grandparents Esther Marie and Mark Talley. From a young age he had musical and comedy talent, and despite a strict Baptist upbringing he found a way to star in a movie called Booty Call.
This Bond-playing, Irish-accent wielding ladies’ man was raised largely by his maternal grandparents in Ireland before embarking on an acting career that included roles big and small.
The real American idols in this story are Kellie’s grandparents, who raised the country singer and TV star from age 12 to adulthood.
Hailed by many as one of the greatest comedians ever, Richard spent much of his childhood in a brothel run by his grandmother Marie Carter, who also helped raise Richard. Certainly not the ideal situation for a kid, it nonetheless shaped the young artist on a path to comedy legend status.
At the end of every episode of The Carol Burnett Show, the comedienne would quickly tug at her ear. Unbeknownst to many at the time, the gesture was a sign to her grandmother, Mabel “Nanny” Eudora Jones White, that she was doing well and loved White very much.
Burnett continued the tug even after Nanny passed in 1967, to honor the woman that raised her.
Today, the 86-year-old legend praises her grandmother not only for being her rock, but for inspiring her entire career. Burnett went to live with Nanny in Hollywood during the late 1930s.
Together, the pair saw up to eight movies a week, and a young Carol would hone her skills by reenacting the films. She translated that talent on to stage and screen, and even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Of Nanny’s role in her upbringing, Burnett simply says, “I knew I could count on her, and I knew she loved me.”
Next time you hear the soaring solo that ends “Layla,” you can thank Rose and Jack Clapp. They’re the grandparents of guitar great Eric Clapton – the ones who brought him up and helped buy him his first electric guitar.
Towards the end of World War II, the rocker’s 16-year-old mother, Patricia, had a brief fling with a married Canadian soldier. A few months later, Clapton was born in the second floor of his grandparents’ home in Ripley, England. Until age 9, he believed Patricia was his older sister, and Rose and Jack, his biological parents.
The couple enjoyed the big band sounds of the 1930s and ‘40s and raised Eric to appreciate music – especially American blues. In 1962, they lent the then-17-year-old money to purchase an electric double cutaway Kay guitar, which he played in his first band, The Roosters.
And the rest is rock history – thanks to his grandparents.
Barack Obama isn’t the only U.S. President to be partially raised by his grandparents. After the death of his father, Bill Clinton’s mother, Virginia, traveled from Hope, Arkansas, to Louisiana to finish nursing school, leaving the boy to her parents, Eldridge and Edith Cassidy
The Cassidys took care of Clinton for four years, running a small grocery at the same time. The store was a formative place for the future politician, who saw that his grandparents ran one of the few businesses in Hope that extended credit to the black community. “My grandfather just had a grade-school education,” he says. “But in that country store he taught me more about equality in the eyes of the Lord than all my professors at Georgetown.”
Today, Clinton’s childhood home is a national historic site, and he remembers his grandparents as the people who showed him that, “a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on.”