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Son of Drug Addict Beats the Odds After Staying With Suburban Family

The Washington Post

Tony Spencer says he will remember the sit-down dinners, the laughter, the love he now shares with Jack Adgate and his family. The Adgates say they will remember Spencer’s determination to succeed.

The lives of the young man and the family, crossing boundaries of race, economics and culture in Northern Virginia, became intertwined last fall when the Adgates took Spencer into their home.

Spencer, a street-savvy black 19-year-old, the son of a drug addict and virtually self-supporting since age 10, needed a place to stay for a while. The Adgates, a white middle-class family in the suburbs, opened their doors. They waved goodby recently in a red-eyed but only temporary farewell.

Honor Roll Graduate

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In a world filled with negative images and blighted dreams, Spencer, a recent graduate who made the honor roll at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, has a story that shines bright.

In this story are assorted guardian angels who are rooting for Spencer to succeed. They include the Adgates, who unofficially adopted Spencer for most of his senior year; county school officials, such as a basketball coach who has lent him a car; role models at a management consulting firm that has a black president, and a group of women who fret over his future.

“It’s like an extended family,” said Sheila Coates, president of Black Women United for Action. “He’s a beacon of hope. He has no home, no parents, he’s strictly responsible for himself, and he’s going to make it.”

Statistics Against Him

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Statistically, Spencer is not supposed to stand much of a chance. Born out of wedlock, he was passed around five households of relatives and friends in Northern Virginia during the past 10 years.

But, Spencer, diploma in hand, is working on plans to attend Norfolk State University and talking about a career as an accountant--an aspiration that took hold only months before.

“All I know is that I didn’t want to be a part of the street life,” said Spencer, a beanpole six-footer with an easy grin and hazel eyes that darken when talk turns to his past, a past he calls “my situation.”

He said it was his relatives, particularly his grandmother, who instilled in him the grit to stay off the streets. He will not talk about his mother, a former government secretary whose life and exact whereabouts he no longer knows.

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Help From Relatives

He now lives with a cousin, a 43-year-old divorcee who has supported two children on her own. “I’m sure at times he feels unanchored, out there just floating around,” said the cousin, Betty Holloway, a tax specialist for Fairfax County. Spencer also has lived with his grandmother in Alexandria, Va., an aunt and a friend of his cousin. He has remained as long as the financial resources or the good-will held out, according to some relatives and friends.

Spencer is convinced that someone up high is watching over him. “An angel has been right behind me all the way,” he said.

But the people who have swooped in to fill voids in his life in uncharacteristic ways insist that Spencer alone has kept himself from slipping through the cracks.

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They are impressed by a self-disciplined young man who prays, studies and irons his clothes every night.

Scene of Tranquility

Among them are the Adgates, who live in a woodsy subdivision in Springfield where the tranquility is shattered only by roaring lawn mowers and a soccer coach’s whistle from a nearby ballfield.

Spencer entered the Adgates’ world when the 1975 Buick Skylark he purchased for $200 clunked out last fall. The teen-ager was attending high school in Springfield but living in Vienna with a friend of a cousin. He found himself without a car to commute across county to Robert E. Lee High School, where he was a valued guard on the varsity basketball team.

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The Adgates, whose 18-year-old son, John, was a teammate and friend of Spencer’s, offered to let Spencer move into their home where he could catch a ride to school with their son.

“All I asked him was to keep his room clean and occasionally take out the garbage,” said Jack Adgate, the vice president and general manager of an office products company in Silver Spring, Md. The arrangement initially was to be for only two weeks. But as the days passed and Spencer’s Buick showed no sign of resuscitation, the family decided to extend his stay until graduation.

‘Let’s Do It’

“Everybody said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it,’ ” said Jack Adgate, a lifetime Jaycee, adding that it was Spencer’s maturity and self-discipline, never race, that were factors in their decision.

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Adgate, a bearded 42-year-old whose wife, Linda, works in retail management, said he had been vaguely aware of Spencer’s circumstances through a longtime friend, who was the teen-ager’s basketball coach.

The coach, Charlie Thompson, said Spencer was a valued player, but it was his determination to succeed in life that made him stand out. Thompson, who is white, was so impressed by Spencer’s “stick-to-it-iveness” that he sometimes rearranged the time of his team’s basketball practice to fit into Spencer’s haphazard schedule of odd jobs. The coach also has lent Spencer one of his cars, a red Volkswagen, for several months so he could drive to his after-school job.

“Some need a shoulder to cry on; Tony’s need was a car,” said the coach, who included Spencer on his automobile insurance policy.

No Regrets

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For the Adgates--who also have a 21-year-old son, Greg, and an 8-month-old son, Jeffrey--the offer that brought Spencer into their lives has caused no regrets. Among the mementos on the mantel of the family fireplace, there is now a framed picture of Spencer in a graduation gown, another of him shooting a basketball.

Their goodbys in mid-June were far from a final farewell. Spencer still drops by on weekends for grilled hamburgers or a ball game. Jack Adgate talks like a worried father about driving Spencer to college.

Going away to college is Spencer’s big goal now, and everyone believes he will succeed. “He’ll make it; he’s a tough kid,” said Theodore A. Adams Jr., the president of Unified Industries Inc., a minority-owned consulting firm headquartered in Springfield, where Spencer was placed through his school’s cooperative education program.

It was through Spencer’s job as a clerk at the company that he was introduced to members of Black Women United for Action, whose office is in the firm’s building.

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Spencer brought tears to the eyes of the group’s education specialist. “He was almost unbelieving at first that the opportunity would be there for him to go away to a four-year college,” said Alma Bryant Fortson, a retired public school counselor whose group is now scrambling to find financial aid for Spencer. “He was so eager to absorb all I was telling him.”


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