Even through a long prison stay, this mentoring relationship stayed strong

On January 15, in the middle of National Mentoring Month, my 85-year-old father was looking for his mentee – a hunt that took him into the heart of Cook County, Illinois, and a jail system that makes Denver's look like Club Med.

Byron had been raised by a single mom in a tough area of Chicago, but he got a break: He was chosen for the Link program, in which mentors paid tuition so that promising, inner-city kids could go to a private Catholic high school that would give them a good education and a shot at college. My parents, who live in the Chicago suburbs, had signed on early through their church to be a part of this, and Byron was their third mentee, the first boy. My parents would visit him at school functions, meet with his mother; they'd occasionally take him to their house, where Dad would enlist Byron in the type of carpentry projects he'd done with my brother. One day, my mother learned that it was Byron's birthday, and she asked what he wanted. A chest of drawers, he said; he'd never had one.

Byron did well through high school but decided to postpone college, taking a delivery job so that he could help his mother pay the bills. As it turned out, though, Byron's life wasn't all work.

It was about a year after Byron had graduated that my father got his first call from Cook County Jail: Byron had been arrested after a gang shooting. Three kids had fired guns that night; a rival gang member had been shot to death. Byron got the longest sentence: He'd had a chance to break out of the life, the judge told him, and he'd wasted it. Byron was sentenced to twenty years for murder and sent to prison in 1994 — right after his son was born.

My father is a lifelong law-and-order Republican, the sort who doesn't understand an unpaid parking ticket — but he'd signed on to mentor Byron, and he wasn't going to stop now. And so for the next sixteen years, he visited him at an assortment of Illinois prisons. The first was Statesville, a place so bad that Byron got himself assigned to segregation, where he'd be better protected from predators; my father remembers it as "a human garbage heap, where the system just throws people away." The other inmates assumed my father was a fed and Byron a snitch; how else to explain an older white guy visiting an inner-city punk?

And through it all, they wrote letters —which today are testament to an amazing, evolving relationship.

"You're telling me what you feel/think and I am responding in friendship and honesty," my father wrote in 1996, soon after his first, eye-opening trip to Statesville. "Wouldn't it be good if everyone did so? I guess you already answered that one when you said, 'My so-called friends claim to care but I know they don't.' And you're quite right. I still recall very clearly at your sentencing the judge asked, 'Where are all your gang friends today? I don't see any of them in the courtroom.' And that's how it goes, Byron. Stay away from people who pretend to be friends just to use you. Lord, I hope you don't have to re-learn that lesson. It's cost you dearly already."

Byron had learned that lesson. Somehow, he managed to walk the line in prison, tutoring other inmates and avoiding taking sides as he moved up through the system to better facilities, ones where he could take classes and learn skills. My father visited him at all of them, sometimes taking Byron's young son along.

"You ask what we think of you," my father wrote in 2000. "Our first emotion is sadness. Sadness that people make children and then take little or no interest in raising them with all that it entails. Sadness that you did the same thing to your son that was done to you. How do we break this chain?

"We see you as an essentially good and intelligent person who made two very dumb decisions when I, for one, know you knew better. Why? The Bible tells us that false prophets have been around for at least 4,000 years. That should be long enough for us to not follow them. I knew you to be inherently a gentle person and how you could ever take another's life perplexes me to this day."

It perplexed my father, but still he stood by his mentee. "Do I love you as a son?" he wrote in 2002, in response to a query from Byron. "Here again, you'll have to deal with reality and not your needs. I'm not your father and you're not my son, so that doesn't happen. But we were brought together by God (the Link program) and so I have always considered you a God-son, and have loved you accordingly.... This is the basis of our relationship...to do, insofar as possible, what real parent(s) might or ought to have done, and to do it lovingly and with true caring."

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4 comments
jon
jon

Patty--Read you for years... best column i can remember... jails in the land of lincoln are tough and if byron made it thru that system he can make it anywhere if he can be not only true to himself, but your pops too... keep up the "inside-out" work!

Jonb

Nwerle
Nwerle

your father did a terrible job at mentoring

and you lie

so I am not surprised

Keeba
Keeba

I appreciate reading an article that tells the complete story; from beginning to end about a close loving relationship. Great reporting!

Jay Marvin
Jay Marvin

What a great story especially for those of us trying to find our place in life and our feelings about what life is all about,

 
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