WEST DES MOINES — After their first conversation, Mary Clarke knew Ashton Kutcher was much more than another pretty face.
His height and strong brow line jumped out at her on the February night in 1997 that would change their lives. Both from Cedar Rapids, Clarke was contemplating scrapping her modeling agency. Kutcher, a University of Iowa student working at the Airliner bar in Iowa City, had his sights set on Hollywood.
She took him to New York and set him on a trajectory that catapulted them both to the pinnacle of success.
The same clear vision, passion and compassion Clarke saw in Kutcher 20 years ago has earned him the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award, presented Saturday night during “An All-Star Evening” at the Ron Pearson Center in West Des Moines. The annual event raises funds for the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University, which provides character and leadership development strategies through Character Counts and other educational programming for children, families and communities.
The award recognizes Kutcher’s humanitarian, educational and entrepreneurial efforts at home and abroad — from co-founding the Native Iowa Fund to aid Iowans in need, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters, to Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, developing software to help combat human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.
“Thank you for having me home,” he said at the top of his acceptance speech. “I’m probably the first guy to get this award who had a deferred judgment for a felony burglary for trying to break into my high school.”
Kutcher, 39, cited a few other mistakes — failures — that he fully embraces for helping to shape his character through tough life lessons. He credits his family, however, for ultimately shaping his character and along with Boy Scouts, instilling in him the need to give back.
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People are at the heart of all the choices he’s made regarding entrepreneurial projects, investment strategies and humanitarian causes to champion, he said during a media Q&A early in the evening. It’s all about finding like-minded people who have the wherewithal to effect change in all three realms.
“The notion of taking on human slavery seemed insane because it’s such a vast problem,” he said of the work he began in the past few years. “So it was going to take someone insane to take on such an insane problem. I thankfully found a bunch of people as nuts as I am, that thought, ‘Hey, we can actually take this on and make a dent in it,’ and started to move it forward,” he said.
“It’s the same with the Native Fund: saving for a rainy day. How the hell are people gonna save for a rainy day when they can barely save for tomorrow? But what happens, is when you catalyze the good nature of people, it actually happens.”
Kutcher’s ability to make things happen is one of the attributes Gov. Terry Branstad admires, as well as Kutcher’s devotion to his home state,
“He’s a great ambassador for the state of Iowa,”Branstad told The Gazette
“He is really strong in that area of giving back and encouraging and helping young people, especially,” Branstad added. “We’re proud that he hasn’t forgotten his Iowa roots.”