For ‘Mr. Rick,’ my brother from another mother
He’s sidelined by an injury now, but “Mr. Rick” showed up one bright Thursday morning to volunteer for our Real Men Read program. He was the first. And for a while, he was the only.
This one is for “Mr. Rick”— a gregarious, bespectacled white guy in his 80’s with an effervescent laugh who will always be my older brother from another mother.
I miss seeing him on Thursdays, waiting inside a classroom, brimming with the infectious joy of a kid in a candy store. I miss hearing the children with toothy smiles, percolating with excitement as they spy him from the hallway.
Mr. Rick flashes a wide grin, waving to “our” babies, to “our” children.
Never mind that Mr. Rick and I met just six years ago through what we have both since come to see as fate — drawn by a mutual mission to hopefully make some small difference.
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Our story began after I wrote a column asking men to join me in reading to the children at south suburban Matteson Elementary School, believing that our presence might not only assist with literacy but also help fill the gap for much-needed male mentors.
“Looking for a few good men,” I wrote, honestly hoping that Black men would answer the call to Real Men Read at Matteson, a predominantly Black school, though Mr. Rick would teach me an invaluable lesson: That more important than the color of a man’s skin, what’s needed for mentoring Black children is the content of his heart.
Mr. Rick, or Richard Siska, showed up one bright Thursday morning. He was the first. And for a while, he was the only. We were ebony and ivory.
Plainly dressed and dripping with the enthusiasm of a newly minted grandpa, he said he had stumbled upon my column. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not doing anything,’ ” he quipped. “ ‘I can do that.’ ”
And so he did. On many mornings, it was just Mr. Rick and me. Then others joined. Some came and went. In times of my discouragement over the absence of other men, Mr. Rick’s presence was enough to help me keep the faith.
He became a one-man public relations machine known to pester public officials and show up at village meetings, recruiting and extolling the virtues of our program.
Of course, I wrote again. We even stood on the street with signs. News traveled. The news cameras came. So did the men. On rare Thursdays, we had as many as 40.
Indeed they came from near and far, though eventually drizzling to a core group. From two, we grew to the “Magnificent Seven,” to the “Faithful Dozen” or so, who showed up come rain or shine, snow or sleet.
Men like Melvin Wormely, Kevin Callahan, Don Denton, Herbert Hopkins, Gabriel Wallace, Regis Browder, and others too numerous to name. Through surgeries, chemo, and radiation. In sickness and in health…
Also among them, Gregory Huelsman, Matteson’s principal, who inherited and fully embraced the program, and young male scholars from Southland College Preparatory Charter High School — thanks to Superintendent Dr. Blondean Y. Davis, also Southland’s CEO, who has always supported our vision of literacy and male mentorship.
We’ve come a long way — delayed, in some ways, by the pandemic that has relegated schools to remote learning — but not denied. In fact, our Thursday sessions are now online as a growing vibrant video library that allows us to reach children district-wide — and potentially across America.
This evolution, and also the publicity generated, is drawing new readers — for which we are thankful. Still, something is missing.
An injury this summer has kept Mr. Rick so far from joining us in our recording sessions.
But I just want my brother to know that I — that we — would not be where we are without you. I love you, man. Happy Thanksgiving. Get well soon.
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Email John Fountain at Author@johnwfountain.com