ANGELS AMONG US
Their actions are an everyday celebration of the season of giving and good will. From saving an entire town to polishing baseball talent; from providing the rest of us with a path to the outdoors to comforting the dying, they prove the transformational power of the simple decision to act for good. Here’s a salute to nine down-to-earth angels in Southern California.
A Friend for Life
Mary Jo Reimer
BILLY HOWARD and Mary Jo Reimer behave as if they’ve known each other all their lives. They talk on the telephone constantly and meet for dinner once a week. They will go as a couple to holiday parties this week, and recently they made plans to do their last-minute Christmas shopping together.
“I just can’t decide what to give you this year,” Reimer, 53, told Howard.
“How about a check?” he replied.
“Well, at least you’re honest,” she said, smiling. “Have I known you long enough to give money?”
“A little bit over a year and a half,” he countered.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Howard, 40, responded with mock despair. “I promise to die soon.”
If morbid humor creeps into their conversations, it’s because Howard has AIDS. Reimer and Howard met when she was assigned to be his friend by AIDS Project Los Angeles, whose Buddy Program matches volunteers with AIDS patients in the final months of their lives. The one-on-one, till-death-do-us-part friendships are based on candor and spending time together.
Reimer, a divorced mother of three employed as a comptroller for a Burbank construction company, first confronted the realities of AIDS when an accountant she knew contracted the disease. “I tried to befriend him in the final months,” she says, “but I didn’t know what to do or say. Emily Post never wrote any rules for this type of situation. During the final weeks of my friend’s life I saw the relationship he had formed with his buddy. Because of his training, the buddy could answer all the difficult questions I couldn’t.”
After her friend died, Reimer underwent 40 hours of lectures, tests and interviews with AIDS Project Los Angeles and became one of 250 buddies. “I always was disturbed by the ignorance surrounding AIDS,” she says, “but the rejection these people suffer is what finally convinced me to get involved.”
The first time Reimer met Howard, their conversation was a bit awkward. But they soon found that they had friends in common. Now they attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and participate in walkathons to raise money for AIDS research. “Billy even has me marching through West Hollywood in the Gay Pride Parade,” Reimer says, laughing. “I don’t know how I could ever explain that to my mother.”
Howard, a former department-store bill collector, has lost 15 pounds in the past 18 months and has developed a malady called neuropathy that causes numbness or a burning feeling in his extremities. “I’ve changed a lot, but I keep on fighting because of Mary Jo,” he says. “When I collapsed in August, 1987, she was beside me within minutes. This year, when I was in the hospital, she was there again with support. A buddy is there until the bitter end. A buddy is better than family because you can tell them anything and know it won’t go any further.”
Reimer admits that the relationship is demanding: “You can’t say everything is going to be all right because platitudes would destroy the trust between us. The most I can do for Billy is to be there and hug him when he cries.”
The Major League Mentor
THERE’S AN autumnal snap in the air, but in the batting cage it may as well be the first day of spring training. Crack. Whap. Manny Benavides, an aspiring major-league ballplayer, is taking his cuts. “You’ll never hit with power unless you bring those hands in,” an old man yells from behind a screen. Benavides moves the bat closer while the old man feeds Iron Mike more quarters.
As the percentage of line drives increases, the old man smiles faintly. “God, Manny,” he says quietly to himself. “If I’d met you three years ago, you’d be in the majors by now.”
Physical prowess alone doesn’t ensure success in sports. A career in the pros also requires discipline. “Inner-city athletes need a mentor,” says Compton College baseball coach Dayle Campbell. “They need a big brother or father figure who understands the game’s fundamentals and the challenges that await off the field.”
For the dozens of major leaguers who once called South-Central Los Angeles home, that man is John Moseley. “Moseley is a strategist whose knowledge of baseball is astounding,” Campbell says. “But more important, he’s an intelligent person who really cares about people.”
A Negro League second baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs during the 1930s, Moseley never made it to the majors. By the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Moseley had retired from the game and moved to Los Angeles. For more than a quarter of a century, Moseley led a double life. During the week he drove a city sanitation truck. On weekends, he became the coach of the fabled Black Sox, which during the early 1960s was a nearly unbeatable park league team made up of boys that practiced at Harvard Park in South-Central Los Angeles. In the early ‘70s, he coached another park league team, the Los Angeles Monarchs.
Among Moseley’s former proteges are some of the most accomplished players in baseball. Infield drills with Locke High School second baseman Ozzie Smith helped lay a foundation for Smith’s success with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1979, San Francisco signed Crenshaw High third baseman Chris Brown out of high school after Moseley brought his talents to the attention of a Giants’ scout. “I guess all of us who grew up around Harvard Park were helped at one time by Mr. Moseley,” says Cincinnati center fielder Eric Davis.
“During summers 30 years ago I used to work (former Baltimore Orioles slugger) Paul Blair until 8 and 9 p.m.,” Moseley remembers. “Paul got a whole lot of whippings when I had him out playing instead of doing his chores.”
New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry is one of Moseley’s proudest accomplishments. “That Strawberry couldn’t hit a lick at first,” Moseley says. “I wouldn’t call him lazy, but he could sleep through most anything. When he was late for a game, I’d go over to his house and he’d be sleeping. I’d have to throw a pitcher of water on him to get him out of bed.”
Now 78, Moseley has retired from coaching. But when a major-leaguer introduces him to a talented prospect, he usually accepts the challenge. For example, he took on Benavides, who was introduced to him by former protege and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Marshall Edwards, and now Benavides is working out on weekends with the Giants’ rookie team. “I’ll work one on one with a player who has the personality to go along with his skill, a boy who loves the game but has intelligence enough to know he can’t play forever,” Moseley says.
“I never take money or favors. All I ask is that my boys pass on what they’ve learned to their sons. My reward will come someday in the future when a little boy asks his dad, ‘Who was that old man who taught you all this stuff?’ ”
EVERY TUESDAY at dusk, Dr. David Wood, 33, turns off his computer at the RAND Corp. and drives south along the beach to a scabrous section of Venice. His destination is the Venice Bible Tabernacle, a nondenominational church that serves as the Westside’s largest shelter for the homeless.
By the time Wood arrives, the nave is packed with families bedded down on a filthy carpet. Dozens more are crammed into a dormitory room upstairs. In a corner of the church basement, the pediatrician spends two hours consulting with a succession of families with children. Their complaints are common, usually skin infections or viruses aggravated by the damp and dirt. He checks for concussion in a baby that fell on its head. One woman asks if a raspy cough might be bronchitis. Another worries about her son’s hernia. “No immediate problem, but don’t postpone the operation too long,” Wood counsels.
In addition to volunteering once a week at the shelter as part of his staff position at the Venice Family Clinic, Wood has worked at RAND for a year on a full-time grant, writing a report on homeless families in Los Angeles. “We have a major medical crisis that is largely undocumented,” he says. “Eight years ago most indigents were emotionally disturbed. Today, ordinary families are out on the street. It’s outrageous that an American mother has to choose between health care and food for her children.”
Wood believes that American medical care is inadequate because “treating the poor is a non-issue in the medical profession. The goal of a medical school is quality medicine. No mention is ever made about health care being a basic human right. As long as you’re a competent doctor, there’s nothing immoral about greed.”
A former medical missionary in Ecuador, Wood drives to the Mexican border village of Cerro Azul once a month to help build homes for squatters and give checkups at an orphanage. “My wife gets discouraged that I’m not making any money.” Wood says. “Sometimes, even I dream of what it would be like to have a private practice and play golf. But I wouldn’t be happy. A physician’s duty is to serve the poor.
“I don’t think about whether I’m personally making a difference because to do so would just make me frustrated and confused. I just do what I can and let God take care of the big picture.”
The Heroine of Shoshone
IN 1980, AFTER her mother died, Susan Sorrells inherited the town of Shoshone on the southeastern edge of Death Valley. A thousand acres of land, a general store, an RV park, a hotel, the Crowbar Saloon--even the street lights--were all hers.
Now, Sorrells was not without resources. Her great-grandfather was a mule-team freighter who pioneered Death Valley and started Shoshone’s first businesses. Grandfather Charles Brown, a former state senator, had bought Shoshone and the surrounding land from U.S. Borax. After growing up in her family’s privately owned community, Sorrells attended Smith College, received a master’s in African studies from UCLA and joined the Peace Corps. None of this prepared her for the realization that an Inyo County probate court had made her what she calls “a living anachronism. I didn’t want the town to regard me as a benevolent overlord out of the Middle Ages.”
Shoshone wasn’t much of a town. Collapsing borax and talc prices had driven away miners, and the population had tumbled from 250 to 125. Those who remained enjoyed about the same level of government service as the tribespeople Sorrells had worked with in Liberia. Shoshone had no ambulance or hospital; the nearest doctor’s office was 150 miles across Death Valley.
People soon arrived at Sorrells’ door with schemes of salvation. Developers wanted to buy her out. State officials offered to build a prison. The Department of Energy said Shoshone would be a perfect place to store nuclear waste. “The bottom line to every offer ended with Shoshone becoming a ghost town or a dude resort,” Sorrells says. “I didn’t want the friends I grew up with evicted by some absentee corporation with plans to build retirement condos. I was determined to save the town by creating an environment that would attract industrious, caring people.”
Sorrells had begun applying for grants for the town even before her mother died; in 1977 she had used a $250,000 federal grant to start a nonprofit medical clinic and make a down payment on an ambulance. The next year, Sorrells began a profit-sharing program for the managers of her businesses, which operate under an umbrella corporation run by Sorrells and her husband, Robert Haines. By 1982, Sorrells was devising programs to attract new people. A fish-farming project created two jobs and provided the community with fish dinners. In 1984, she helped finance a community center in return for the citizens’ help in building a park. Two years ago, she organized a Chamber of Commerce.
New residents brought fresh energy and ideas, and soon seed money arrived for the Death Valley Economic Development Corp., an alcohol-treatment center, services for victims of rape and child abuse and a visitors’ center.
Sorrells, 40, concedes that Shoshone, population now 150, isn’t very profitable. “But my goal is not to make money, but to preserve the history, culture and ecology of the desert.” Toward that end, Sorrells last summer started a desert museum and oral-history project. “The mining and Indian cultures are disappearing as our older people die,” she says. “We need to record the history of Indian crafts and the tales of old miners, while they’re still around.”
A Man to Match the Mountains
THE LICENSE plate on the pickup at the head of the caravan reads “BLD TRLS.” Some people farther back wear buttons declaring “I Dig the Santa Ana Mountains.” All are volunteers from the flats of Orange County who will spend the next 10 hours on Santiago Peak, hacking back chaparral and filling washouts left by last spring’s rain. Their goal is to rebuild 2 or 3 miles of the Main Divide Trail in Cleveland National Forest.
Driving the lead truck is Ken Croker, 53, of Costa Mesa, head of the Orange County Sierra Club’s Trail Maintenance Program. An aerospace engineer with McDonnell Douglas, Croker began exploring the Santa Ana Mountains 20 years ago. He quickly discovered that a hike in Cleveland National Forest was no walk in the woods. Except for a few fire roads, there was no way in. Most of the wagon trails and Indian paths had disappeared under a blanket of yucca, sage and buckthorn.
Rangers told Croker that because the Cleveland produced no timber or minerals and had little grazing land, their budget was one of the smallest in the Forest Service. If Croker wanted to hike, he’d have to clear the trails himself.
So, once a month from September to June for the past 16 years, volunteers with picks, shovels, hoes and a rake follow the roar of Croker’s 30-pound, gas-powered brush cutter into the Santa Anas, clearing paths blazed a century ago by pioneers, prospectors and horse thieves. Aided by old maps, the volunteers, who seldom number more than 20, have rebuilt more than 45 miles of trails. Hikers now can visit 1930s miners’ cabins on the Trabuco and San Mateo trails or meander along a creek bed in Hot Spring Canyon to a 142-foot waterfall.
Because the trails used by weekend hikers grow over within five years, it’s a never-ending job. “I’ve made close to 200 trips into these mountains over the years,” Croker says. “We try our best to keep these trails open so people down below will have a place to escape.”
A Teen-Ager Who Learned Philanthropy as a Second Language
BY THE TIME Pedro Reyes turned 14 he had been arrested seven times, jailed once for car theft and had knife scars covering both arms. A turning point came in the summer of 1986, when his mother needed money and he was unable to find a job.
“My mother brought me and my five sisters to California (from Mexico City) in 1980 so we would have a better future,” Reyes, 17, recalls. “She worked as a housekeeper to put me through school. Then, when she needed help, I was a useless nobody. I had no contacts, no references. I could see the look in her eyes. She thought she had failed.”
Reyes, who lives in Los Angeles’ Pico-Union neighborhood, knew gang members on the streets. A lot of them said they wanted an education, a good job, a little respect, but it seemed instead that they were all just waiting to go to jail--or to die. Reyes decided that he would be different. But his efforts at job-hunting were fruitless.
At Belmont High, where he enrolled in fall, 1986, he found direction in the form of Youth Community Service, a club at 21 Los Angeles high schools that is designed to promote leadership and community involvement among students. The group didn’t supply him with a paying job; it simply changed his life.
“I liked the people a lot,” Reyes says. “Before long, I was traveling around the city talking to other students about how we could improve the community. I’ll never forget the special new word they taught me: philanthropy. This word went straight from my brain to my heart.”
In February, 1987, Reyes recruited six Belmont classmates and started a program to help students just arrived from Central America and Cambodia adjust to their surroundings. “I was once like them when I came here to L.A.,” Reyes says. “I was real confused, and now that I have adapted, I want to help out some other kids so they won’t feel like I used to feel.” Later in the year, he helped organize a Wipe Out Weekend during which students from across the city painted out graffiti.
When he learned last September that the downtown Children’s Museum needed help with weekend crowds, Reyes volunteered his time for six Saturdays. After school, he worked for free as a translator for a nonprofit company making a documentary film about refugees. When his commitment to the Children’s Museum was fulfilled, Reyes spent weekends cleaning inner-city neighborhoods for Los Angeles Beautiful and planting saplings in a Citizen Forester program sponsored by Tree People. He currently volunteers one day a week as an assistant crew leader with the Conservation Corps, helping to paint out graffiti.
“Pedro Reyes is a valued contributor to at least six different community groups,” says Cathryn Kaye, director of Youth Leadership Programs for the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles. “He has personally kept at least three students from dropping out of school and convinced one other to distance herself from a dangerous crowd of people. He leads outdoor games at the Braille Institute. Not a bad record for someone who didn’t even speak English until recently.”
A senior at Belmont, Reyes hopes to enter community college next year and become a counselor or case worker. He has no time for after-school jobs right now, but he’s confident he’ll be able to find employment next summer. “At last I know people who can give me references,” he says. But that probably won’t stop him from volunteering: “Every time I do something as a volunteer, I get to meet a lot of different people. There are so many different things you can learn from people.”
A Mother Who Stood Up to the Gangs
THE GREETING on Patricia Patrick’s telephone answering machine is jarringly succinct. “Hello, you have reached MAGIC, Mothers Against Gangs In Communities,” the tape begins. “Those of you calling to make threats should know we’ve come too far to turn around. . . . “
Since starting MAGIC eight months ago, Patrick has received half a dozen death threats and hundreds of abusive phone messages. The pressure has only made her more determined in her fight.
It would have been easy for the 30-year-old Long Beach-area mother to remain passive. Neither the neighborhood where she lives nor the schools her two daughters attend are plagued by gangs. Then, last March, a 16-year-old Long Beach boy who once dated her sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. “Suddenly,” Patrick says, “the gang violence I’d seen on television became a personal reality. After the funeral, my friends kept saying, ‘Somebody’s got to do something.’ Finally, I decided that somebody would be me.”
She thought up an acronym, announced a news conference and invited everyone she could think of. Nine police departments and the Los Angeles County district attorney sent representatives. Patrick told them that only parents could solve the gang problem.
Today, Patrick speaks about three times a week to schools and community groups. Her message: “I tell parents to use discipline to overcome gang influence. If you pay the rent, you have a right to know what’s in your kid’s room. Go through their notebooks, look at their clothes. A lot of kids change into their gang colors after they leave home in the morning. Make sure yours don’t by dropping by their school. Most of all, never take money from your kid unless you know exactly how he earned it.”
MAGIC has grown to more than 900 members, who share information and support, paint over graffiti and work with other gang-awareness programs. Perhaps their most significant accomplishment has been to persuade about 100 teen-agers to renounce their gang affiliations. “It’s not easy,” Patrick concedes. “Most (gang members) are cocky and crazy. But when you get them by themselves, they are totally different and vulnerable. They will listen.”
The Nutty Professor and His Physics Roadshow
STANDING ON A revolving platform, arms outstretched, the fourth-grader at Riverside’s Longfellow Elementary School smiled bravely as she began to spin. Having given her a push, Robert Wild, 67, steps back, winks to the 120 students clustered nearby on the floor and says, “Now, drop your arms.”
As the girl’s arms fall to her sides, the platform suddenly begins to turn faster. “This is what happens when a ballerina pirouettes,” Wild explains amid astonished squeals from his audience. “The weight speeds up when mass moves toward the center. It’s a basic principle of physics.”
For the past 25 years Robert Wild, founder of UC Riverside’s department of physics, has loaded his laboratory equipment into a pickup truck for visits to local elementary schools, inspiring some teachers to refer to him as the “Mr. Wizard of Riverside.”
Wild performs one experiment after another to the delight, and occasional consternation, of the Longfellow youngsters. He uses a laser beam to transmit sound. He shows how a magnet dropped through a metal cylinder falls more slowly when the polarity is reversed. He taps a tuning fork, and another of similar pitch begins to vibrate across the room. “This is what scientists call resonance,” he says. Forty-five minutes into the presentation, the children are buzzing with questions and inching forward on their knees.
For his finale, Wild muscles a bed of nails onto the floor. He lies down, places a large log on his chest and asks a volunteer to hit it with a small sledgehammer. “Jose, you better not miss,” he warns. The grinning 9-year-old steps forward, waves proudly to the class and brings the mallet down with a resounding thwack .
“Now why didn’t the nails go through me?” Wild asks when the laughter subsides. “Because the bed has 2,000 nails, each one inch apart. Since my weight was evenly distributed, the average pressure per square inch was only .22 pounds--not enough force for any of the nails to enter my body.”
In a report last September, the Educational Testing Service declared the scientific achievement level of America’s public-school students to be “a national disgrace.” Wild, who recently retired from teaching, agrees. “Too many children think science is dull,” he says. “There’s no way to get a child interested if you teach science out of a musty workbook. We scientists may never experience the halcyon days of Sputnik again, but at least we can do our best to inspire children.”
The Benefactor Behind the Little Red Schoolhouse
RETIRED LONG BEACH businessman Cliff Tucker has been sailing the Pacific for more than half a century. During all the time spent at sea, however, the only community he grew to love is isolated Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island.
Situated on the windward side of the isthmus, Two Harbors offers clean air and clear water, magnificent views and a neighborly population. For years the only thing that marred the 200 townspeople’s perfect idyll was that they lacked a school.
Every morning at 6:30, a dozen or so children would begin the first of two 90-minute commutes on a dirt road across the island’s spinal ridge to the nearest school, in Avalon. “For years my wife, Marybelle, said we should do something to help those kids,” Tucker recalls. “Having spent most every weekend out there for more than 30 years we knew just about everybody. After she died several years ago, I decided it was time to take action.”
In 1985, Tucker, 72, shipped the community $7,000 worth of equipment to build a playground. Then he offered to build Two Harbors a $90,000, one-room elementary school. “That’s when I learned how hard it is to give away money,” he says. “Here I was offering to pay for everything, but the Long Beach Unified School District, which operates schools on the island, didn’t care. Finally, I convinced the new superintendent to come to Two Harbors and take a ride on that bus.” The red clapboard school opened in September, 1987.
“Cliff was the man with the key to the lock,” says Long Beach schools Superintendent Tom Giugni. “He did everything from designing the building to transporting all the materials.”
Tucker never spent much time in school. After high school, he held a succession of jobs until 1958, when he bought a small Long Beach company, Scotsman Manufacturing, which made travel trailers. In 1973, Tucker began producing portable buildings and modular offices, a decision that made him a multimillionaire.
When Tucker’s next project, a $150,000 day-care center for Avalon, is complete, he wants to build a library next to Two Harbors School. “The only thing I won’t do,” he says, “is put my name on a building. Fifty years from now, who’s going to care about some guy named Tucker?”