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

"You have given me more than you know and I feel like it's impossible for me to pay you back," Byron wrote my father this past March. "I just pray for you and hope someone looks at me the way I do you. Yes, yes, yes, I have much to learn about being a father. It's almost like I'm returning to be the father I was supposed to be at first.... I continue to be an example in here to those looking for guidance. I try to be the best at whatever I do, especially work. I understand you and hear you loud and clear: 'no more mess ups.' You have more than the right to say it. You would have been right to say it the first time."

In September, his sentence served, Byron was finally released from the prison in Dixon, and my mother and father were there to greet him. They took him to the room where he'd be living on the south side of Chicago (his mother had passed away while he was locked up); they gave him the old family minivan so that he could look for work. Far more important than the car, though, was the counsel my father provided as Byron re-entered a world that was now all cell phones and text-messaging, advising him on how to find a job in this tough economy, helping him get a bank account that required two forms of ID when Byron had just one — a driver's license that my father took him to get, just as he had twenty years before, and after they dealt with a non-moving violation ticket still on the books from the early '90s. After three months, Byron finally found work, at a laundry exactly 47 minutes from his home, a job that barely paid minimum wage, but more if he was willing to handle hospital waste. Byron had no problem with that; he'd volunteered at the prison hospice, watching over those departing this life who had no one else, collecting certificates of thanks from his jailers.

One night early this month, home from the late shift at the laundry, Byron was sitting in the minivan, waiting for a friend, when two cops pulled up behind him. They asked what he was doing, checked his ID and found a failure-to-appear warrant from a traffic violation back in 1994, one that had not shown up when Byron went for his driver's license. Then they hauled him off to jail, where there were two non-working phones for 76 men in the holding cell.

On January 14, as I edited Joel Warner's cover story about a black kid who claimed to have been beaten by Denver cops, I got a call: Byron had disappeared into the hands of Chicago cops, and now could not be found in any database. The next morning, my father set out to find him, moving from the criminal court building to Cook County Jail, telling everyone he could find over the six-hour search that he was looking for his godson. It could have been the novelty of an 85-year-old white man looking for a 37-year-old black godson that convinced people to finally locate Byron in the computer; after almost two days, Byron was bonded out. Last Wednesday, he and my father went to see the judge, who returned the $300 bond and dismissed the charges. Byron had a good excuse for failing to appear: He'd been in prison.

My parents had wondered how someone like Byron could survive the horrors of jail. Now they wonder how someone who survived jail can make it on the outside. Untangling bureaucratic red tape is tough enough; how does Byron handle being the wrong color at the wrong time with a very wrong record? But still they press on, the mentors and the mentee.

Ten years ago, my father wrote this to Byron: "While it's true you'll be around forty years old when you get out, I can tell you I've had 35 great years since I turned forty...so prepare for it carefully and thoroughly. Use your time constructively and help others all you can, for that is one of the rules for a happy and good life."

A good life, for a very good man.

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4 comments
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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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