HOLMBERG: A Thanksgiving story — ‘Beating The Odds’ — 25 years later

Posted at 8:23 AM, Nov 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-28 12:23:31-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Twenty-five years ago in Richmond, there wasn't much to be thankful about this time of year.

Crack cocaine had come to town and the streets literally ran red with blood.

I was a reporter back then for the Times-Dispatch, and we were doing a lot of stories about school-age children killing, or being killed.

Those were grim years, when the city was one of the nation's most deadly, when downtown almost became a ghost town.

T-D photographer Bruce Parker and I were both sick of it all, so we set off looking for a young man or young woman from the 'hood who was doing great.

That led us to George Wythe High School and Damon Richardson, a 17-year-old senior who grew up in the Hillside Court housing project with his single mother.

family We showed what he did day-to-day, the mentors who helped steer his life and how motivated this young man was to make a future for himself.

I kept up with him a little bit over the years. I knew he went to Virginia Military Institute, that one of his brothers had been killed in a stolen car being chased by police and that his other brother went to prison.

But it was just by chance recently that we ran into each other and got caught up.


In those 25 years, Damon traveled the world as an engineer, got married and now has two sons of his own.

Now he's here, in charge of testing and assessment at Richmond schools, where he can give back to those who grew up like he did.

I learned Damon's mom is still alive and his stepfather, who was a big motivating factor in his life, has passed on.

But after his first son was born, Damon got to meet his biological father and discovered a new world of relatives.


As a reporter, you develop relationships with those you interview. It's a sweet, thankful thing to reconnect with them and see how their world has turned since.

It was a particular pleasure to catch up with Dr. Damon Richardson.

I hope you get a chance to watch the video. Here's the original story from 25 years ago:

Richmond Times-Dispatch - Thursday, November 23, 1989
Author: Mark Holmberg ; Times-Dispatch staff writer

This is not a story about a teen-age hit man and where he went wrong.

Nor is it about a genius or an exceptionally gifted athlete.

It's about Damon Richardson, a hard-working young man who was raised with two brothers and a sister by his mother in the projects.

"We tend to pick up on stories about youths in trouble, but we don't pick up stories like Damon's," said Shelley White, Damon's guidance counselor at George Wythe High School.

This is his story, a Thanksgiving story about where a disadvantaged young man went right . . .


At 6 a.m. Damon awakens. He doesn't need an alarm clock or a screaming parent. Unlike some youths, he feels only pleasant anticipation as he gets ready for school.

And why not? He loves to study, which is why he has a B+ average. They like him at school; respect him. And if all goes well, by next fall he'll be studying engineering at Virginia Military Institute.

He dresses in clothes bought with savings from his job at Moore's Building Supply. Not expensive clothes, but nice, carefully selected from Broad Street stores. Silk shirt, striped slacks, tasseled loafers, sweater.

After a bowl of cereal, he grabs his school gear, steps out the door and begins his mile-long walk to George Wythe High School as the sun rises over the Capital City.

* * *

Damon Richardson came into this world on Oct. 27, 1972.

His mother, brother and sister lived in Hillside Court, a subsidized housing project in Richmond's South Side. It was Damon's home for 16 years.

Soon after his father named him Damon, the Richardsons broke up.

"I got his middle name, Rodriguez, when I watched a baseball game on the television," remembered his mother, Pearl.

"They were some tough times," she said Sunday as she whisked some rolls out of the oven in her Fulton Bottom apartment. Greens simmered on the stove along with a pot of chicken and rice.

"I don't know how we made it," she said.


But Pearl Richardson, one of nine children born to a dairy farm worker, is no stranger to tough times. When Damon was a youth she worked long hours as a hairdresser -- Damon had a lot of free time.

But even as a toddler, there was something different, something steady about the quiet child who always seemed to be listening.

"He was a good child," Mrs. Richardson said as she poured Kool-Aid. "Somebody in the family had to be good."

* * *

George Wythe is a predominately black inner city public school and part of a national school system that gets blasted for graduating students who don't know how to read or which ocean is the Atlantic. Rakie Cloyd, the notorious teen-age hit man, went to school there briefly before he was shot to death.

But the school, the home of the Bulldogs, is a proud one. A school where the principal frequently arrives with the rising sun and leaves after it sets. One where the Pledge of Allegiance is taken very seriously every morning at 7:45 sharp and the teachers aren't afraid to tackle religion.

"The teachers teach you here," Damon says as he walks the terrazzo hallways.

For Damon, George Wythe has been a safe, happy place. A home. "A lot of times I wish it wasn't my last year." He stops and looks around at the brown hallways with the naked fluorescent bulbs overhead. "I'm really going to miss everybody here. But at least when I leave I know I'll have some knowledge."

When his mother moved from Hillside Court to Fulton Bottom recently, Damon hated the idea of changing schools. He is grateful that his father, who lives near Wythe, allowed him to move in with him for his last year of high school. A few minutes past 7 a.m. he opens his locker, A-675, and grabs his government textbook and stashes his gym bag. He visits with a girl from his English class and then walks to his first class upstairs in room 216.

He's waiting there when the teacher unlocks the door 10 minutes later.

* * *

Somehow Pearl Richardson found time to be there for her children. "She always provided for us -- we always found a way," Damon remembered. "My mother kept me going."

"I stayed on him," his mother admitted.

But for much of Damon's youth there was always "Nanny," his grandmother on his mother's side, not to mention "Dr. Pepper," her switch.

She won't say how old she is, but Elizabeth Walker, Damon's grandmother, admits being married at age 13. She started her family of nine soon afterward."He's never been a sassy boy," Mrs. Walker said from her Church Hill home after she and Damon went to church Sunday -- just like they've done nearly every Sunday for Damon's 17 years. "I call him on the telephone if I need something and, `Yes'm Nana,' here he comes."

Mrs. Walker grew up on a truck farm with her grandparents, some aunts, nieces and nephews.


"I never seen my father," she remembered. "They said he was going to town to get something for the new baby and he never came back.

"We didn't have nothing," she said, clearly relishing the memory. "We didn't have nothing to worry about. We ate fatback meat and brown gravy with onions and hot biscuits and we broke that bread and sopped that gravy . . . " She slapped her thigh and smacked her lips. "Lord, that was good.

"In the old days, people used to really hunt," Mrs. Walker said. "Nowadays it's got turned around -- they shoot humans, and they can't eat ' em."

Gospel music played on the radio as Mrs. Walker warmed to the topic. Damon listened, seemingly spellbound, as his grandmother's voice gained momentum like Martin Luther King's used to do.

"Don't get started with the gang that hangs out on the street and you won't have to fool with it. Yessss, Lord! Taste and you'll want to keep on tasting!

"Go to school and study to do good!" she said. "Be good to your fellow man. Be independent and help teach the other boys!

"Be somebody!" Although she remained seated, she seemed to tower over her listeners.

"You are somebody!"

"Oh, that boy," she nodded at Damon, "he's got a smart way of learning . . . he was always quiet. Best to be quiet and learn more."

The deeply religious seamstress railed against television with its violence and permissiveness. She talked about Dr. Pepper, her switch, and how she would "sting" with it if a child continued to act up after he was warned.

"Promising that you're going to switch `em and then breaking that promise will ruin a child. Yes, you'll ruin them if you let them have their way.

"But you must not correct a child when you're blood mad and ready to fight. Do it calmly."

Mrs. Walker, the 13 year-old newlywed, had been married 32 years when her husband died.

"We had a standard and we taught it to our children. You had to go by it if you were under our roof. You had to obey."

She laughed, as she does so often. "Even when I was young I had an old folks' mind -- I just knowed these things."

She smiles at Damon, then looks out the window. "Lord, would you look at all that dirt on my car."

No doubt Damon was making plans to wash it.

* * *

The bell rings at 8:45 for the second period at George Wythe. Damon walks down the hall two classrooms, takes a seat and pulls out the contemporary German short story he's translating.

This is one of his favorite classes.

Ernest Roane, his German teacher, strides into the room and begins his instruction in his European accent. The 10 or so students are working on different levels and on different projects.

Roane paces, challenges, covers the chalkboard with precise script. The students pay strict attention.

Midway through the class, Roane abruptly stops teaching German and begins an English grammar lesson so he can better explain verb conjugation.

It's part of his usual routine, he explained after class.

"I believe in the total approach to education," Roane said. "I read their essays from English class so I can find their weak points."

Roane has taken a special interest in Damon; it's a relationship he likes to establish with all of his foreign language students at Wythe, Armstrong and Huguenot. "I monitor his work in other classes . . . he has to show me his report card. He knows he has to measure up."

Besides teaching German, Roane believes he must "mold, encourage, discipline and guide. I am their mother, father, brother, sister, judge, policeman and educator. I must prepare them for tomorrow."

* * *

Damon is shy, but not painfully so. He carries his 6-foot-3-inch frame proudly down the George Wythe hallways, smiling and talking to his friends.

Once he reaches his English class, LaVerne Williams sends Damon and three other students to the library so their senior speeches, which have been singled out for their quality, can be videotaped.

Damon faces the camera, his long, slender fingers nervously ruffling his cue cards . . .

"Sex," he says. "Now let's stop and think about it."

He goes on to explain why sex education shouldn't be taught in school. He compares abortion and teen-aged sex to shoplifting: "They don't teach safe- shoplifting in school, do they?"

* * *

Nearly a decade ago, Henry Sanchez graduated from George Wythe and attended Virginia Military Institute on a track scholarship. Now that he has graduated and is enjoying success an an mechanical engineer for Virginia Power, Sanchez wants to influence other George Wythe students down the same path. He has volunteered to help one hard-working student each year.

"People can identify with me, I'm from their neighborhood," Sanchez explained.

So he's working with Damon to get him enrolled in VMI on some kind of scholarship. ' ' We're waiting for his SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests)," he said. "He's got the grade point average and the extracurricular activities. It looks good.

"I really want Damon to go," added Sanchez, who still lives near his old neighborhood. "I'll do everything I can to see that he gets there. Maybe one day he can come back to George Wythe and tell his story."

* * *

After eating the steak nugget and french fry lunch paid for with his savings, after algebra 2, physics and computer class, Damon had a free hour before the basketball team's mandatory hour-and-a-half study hall.

He found a chair in the hall and relaxed.

"There are a lot of people telling you right from wrong," he says, his long legs stretched out in front of him. "My mother, my aunts, my uncle, teachers, coaches, counselors, especially my grandmother." He says he's grateful for their advice, and their caring.

He talks about Isaac "Kareem" Gregory, a man who got many of the kids living in the projects interested in organized sports.

"He got me involved in track at a young age.

"When kids hang around the streets with nothing to do, that's when they get into trouble," Damon adds.

"A lot of my friends are involved in drugs -- a few of them have died. And some of them are in jail." He stares at one loafer, then the other. "If you do drugs, you're going to get caught. Like my grandmother says, the Lord is watching all the time."

His eyes look off into the middle space between his shoes and the lockers. "I guess I've always looked towards the future . . . where I would be . . .

"My father works in a grocery store -- so does my older brother. I don't want to be a laborer . . . I know I'm better than that."

Last summer he worked two jobs -- at Moore's and at Overnite Transporation -- so he would have money for school expenses.

"I want to enjoy my last year."

So, for the first time, Damon is trying out for basketball.

And a wide grin warms his brown eyes when one of the coaches walks by and says: "Don't forget to come out for track, Damon."

Head basketball coach Bob Booker, like Damon's teachers, doesn't baby him."Damon!" Booker barks as the 16 varsity hopefuls streak up and down the wooden court. "Why do you open your legs like that when you jump? Sheez . . . "

And when he misses a layup . . . ' ' If that's the best you can do, don't bother . . . ."

Damon hopes he'll make the team. His lean, 150-pound body is lightning quick, but not gifted with an exceptional basketball ability. Whatever edge he gains will be gotten the same way he gets his grades -- through hard work.

But that's the kind of attitude that Coach Booker can appreciate: "He'll be all right," he says with a knowing smile.

* * *

It's after 8 p.m. and about 40 degrees outdoors when Damon, fresh out of the shower, begins his 10-minute walk home.

It's been a long day, a good day. He'll be in bed by 10 p.m. so he can do it again tomorrow.

As he walks, Damon talks about Thanksgiving, which he'll spend at his mother's. There will be fragrant rolls in the oven. Gravy on the stove. Loving relatives. The delicate and detailed drawing Damon made of his mother three years ago will watch over the afternoon from its honored place on the countertop.

Thanksgiving will be special for Damon.

"I've got a lot to be thankful for."