They seemed to me at first an unlikely duo.
Michael Wainwright is tough-talking and streetwise, with a frenetic sort of energy and a pipeline to summer jobs in Watts. His South Los Angeles rep is rooted in a resume that includes a college degree and a prison term.
John Martin is an easygoing retiree, a charming, glad-handing networking whiz whose business career includes video sales, online banking and operating a Mojave Desert gas station once visited by Oprah Winfrey.
Still, together they have made college possible for more than two dozen South Los Angeles kids. And an afternoon with the two men showed me that what they have in common easily eclipses their differences.
It started with a lucky meeting at a funeral.
Martin ran into a woman who volunteered at Wainwright’s Neighborhood Youth Achievers jobs program in Watts. She knew Wainwright was trying to get kids into college. Martin was doing the same thing and had connections. She encouraged the two to meet.
For his part, Wainright didn’t expect much, he said. He was used to people “coming into the ‘hood to help,” and then finding it hard and leaving.
“But John was so committed, so adamant. Then I found out he was Catholic. I knew it was a match after that.”
The routes their lives had taken were different, but their roots had much in common.
Wainwright was the youngest of eight children. His father worked seven days a week in an Indiana steel mill to keep them all in Catholic schools. Martin was the second of six . His mother died when he was 16, and his father paid the Catholic school tuitions on a dental technician’s salary.
For Wainwright, religion was a refuge and a redemptive force. His faith helped him recover from drug addiction and restored his respectability. He still starts each day with morning Mass at St. Lawrence of Brindisi in Watts and prays before he goes to bed.
Martin credits Catholic schools with helping him raise three kids on his own. “They’re grown up now, and about as perfect as children can be,” he says. He thanks the love, structure and discipline of their Catholic schools and colleges.
Mount Carmel High, Martin’s alma mater, was a mix of black, white and Latino when he graduated in 1965. “But you were more concerned with Friday night’s dance than the color of the guy sitting next to you,” he recalled.
In 1976, declining enrollment forced the closure of the all-boys school at 70th and Hoover streets. “It hurt,” Martin said. “But most of us were too young to do much about it. We were starting new families and careers.”
Down the road though, a group of Mount Carmel alums began offering financial help to other struggling inner-city Catholic schools.
Martin visited Verbum Dei — an all-boys school in Watts that had been threatened with closure for years — and saw Mount Carmel “without the white kids. Everybody was all ‘Yes sir,’ ‘May I help you sir,’ just the way I remembered being.”
He came home wondering how to help, settled in to watch a college basketball game and got the answer — divinely inspired, he insists. New York’s Marist College was playing, and when cameras cut to the crowd, Martin recognized a high-school buddy, Dennis Murray — Class of 1964.
Murray was now Marist’s president. Martin called him to talk about the boys he’d met in South L.A..
“He said ‘Send me some kids.’ I said ‘They’re poor.’ He said, ‘We’ve got programs. Send me some kids,’ Martin recalled.
So Martin sent Marcus Scroggins, a Verbum Dei honor student who played football and basketball, tutored kids, worked on the school newspaper and cooked dinner every night for his siblings. The next year, 2006, he sent four more; the next year 12, including girls from St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood.
He wanted to offer the same chance to public school kids, but he didn’t know whom to talk to or how. Enter another gift from God in the form of Wainwright.
Wainright’s students were not the “Yes, sir” type, with uniforms and doting parents. The first two Martin enrolled, from Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, came with challenges he hadn’t encountered before.
In her college application, Sha-Ron described her family as “a welfare mother with a jailbird brother and a missing father.” She stood Martin up on their first meeting because she’d been jumped on the way home from school and was embarrassed to show up battered.
Vince was lively, smart and eager, but when Martin went with him to his home to meet his parents, “the LAPD was there, and dad was handcuffed outside on the lawn.” In so many words, Vince told him: This is my life, where I’m from. But I think there’s something better, and that’s what I want.
The scholarship effort has grown since the two men began collaborating. More than 20 kids have enrolled in Marist from Catholic and public schools alike. This fall, Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes took five of Martin and Wainwright’s students — three of them from Locke High. And Martin often taps into his network for additional support — to help pay for winter coats, airline tickets and cellphones.
The men say they’ve grown too. Martin learned how much things had changed since he grew up in a South Los Angeles, “where there were few guns and everybody’s dad had a job.” He’s seen how — without a lot of support — brilliant kids can be undone by family drama and neighborhood trouble.
And Wainwright has stepped outside of Watts, into a world of money and mentors — men who share his faith, if not his background, and who sincerely want to help.
There is awe in his voice when he talks about the prayer fellowship he visited “in this beautiful house on the hill, overlooking the ocean in Laguna. I was the only black guy there,” among the doctors, the pilot, the business owners, “and they treated me like a brother.”
Awe too when he thinks of young people like Sha-Ron and Vince and being able to send them off to college.
“These are kids,” Wainwright marvels, “who have never been outside of Watts. “Don’t let anybody tell you that’s not a gift from God.”