By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2004
When Tom Boyle saw an e-mail one morning on his computer screen from Dave Wright, the same name of the kid he mentored 40 years ago in Detroit through the Big Brothers program, he figured it was junk and let it baste in the in-box before proceeding to delete it during a late day spam-purging.
“I said (the person) can’t be the same one, so I ignored it all day long. At the end of the day there it was.”
But the note was from his long lost Little Wright Brother.
“I was amazed. He was saying ‘Would I be intruding if I asked to renew our friendship?’ We talked about 40 years,” Boyle said. “I was just awestruck. I said this is impossible. This is so great; I thought about this kid so many years ago so much and now I have the chance to enjoy him again.”
Dave Wright decades later had looked up Boyle to thank him for the kindness, care and encouragement he had shown him as his Big Brother back in Detroit on their weekly outings—which had helped direct the course of his life.
The two later talked on the phone. Boyle, who had previously tried to look up Wright unsuccessfully, was struck that his now not-so-little Brother had taken the initiative to look him up and thank him.
Then shortly afterwards in late January Wright flew to Atlanta where they had a mini-reunion and shared their story briefly on CNN as part of a feature on the 100th anniversary in 2004 of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the United States. BBBS is the nation’s oldest and largest youth mentoring organization, founded in New York City, where there will be an anniversary celebration in June. It serves over 200,000 children ages 6-18 in 5,000 communities across the country. It reports research that consistently shows that their one-to-one mentoring helps at-risk youth to overcome the challenges they face.
Wright had grown up at the St. Francis Home for Boys in Detroit, as his father was ill and his mother had only a small nurse’s salary and was unable to raise him and his three brothers at home. Boyle, through the Big Brothers of Detroit’s Catholic Social Services, would pick him up at the home where the nuns would announce him over the intercom. He would take him to events like baseball or basketball games, or out for pizza, a movie or bowling.
Wright went on to tell Boyle how he came to fully realize the impact he had had on his life in recent years, which led him to track him down through the organization. On those outings, Wright recalled to Boyle, who worked 31 years in public relations for Ford Motor Company, he had told him he had a good voice which he could use in sports; the youth listened and with his love of sports, he began to do public address work in high school for hockey games, and continued that work in college in Minnesota. He chose a school in Minnesota, as Boyle had gone to that state once on business and spoke of it and mailed him a postcard, and Wright became fascinated by it. Wright majored in journalism and eventually found a career in public relations and now is the director of media and public relations for the St. Paul, Minnesota, Saints, a Northern League baseball team. He handles nearly 100 games a year in several sports, working state high school and national college tournaments. And his favorite job, he now reflects, was working summers on the staff of a summer camp for underprivileged kids ages 7-17. He still loves working with children and now volunteers in a reading program as a mentor to grade-schoolers, and has lived in Minnesota for over 30 years. He still searches the paper for Boyle’s basketball team at the University of Detroit.
Wright had told this story in a speech to the Arby’s Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, a supporter of BBBS, on how Boyle “kept after me” as to why he was getting Cs in school. Wright had revealed to Boyle that he felt inferior to his older brother who earned As so out of frustration he didn’t apply himself fully.
“Then Tom pointed out to me the things I was good at that Paul wasn’t as good at. I always liked to write and report on things. I remembered and still do just about every event from the baseball game the night before. I like to talk and wanted to be a baseball broadcaster. He told me not to worry about the fact that I wasn’t going to be the next Benny Goodman or Rogers Williams and concentrate on the things that I liked and wanted to do better at.”
Boyle didn’t set out with heroic visions to save young souls when at age 24 he signed up for the program, but simply tried to take his Little Brother on fun outings and encourage him. He worked three years with Wright, and also had two other Little Brothers after Wright. But he does remember being impressed with how Wright, weeks after a sports event such as a Detroit Tigers game, would remember the play and score details of the game.
“It was so important to him to leave that home where there were problems and his home life was challenging. It must have been so refreshing for him, but I had looked upon it like something to do each week. These events he remembered in incredible detail, I’d be amazed by that,” he recalled. “We’d always talk about sports or whatever. I guess I said some things I don’t even remember saying like he had a great speaking voice. He was not brilliant and I’m not brilliant, but we all have traits we can work with. Really his voice has become the voice of athletics in St. Paul.”
A parishioner at St. Jude the Apostle Church, Atlanta, Boyle has always loved working with kids, having taught religious education back in Michigan and having coached basketball to third- and eighth-graders. Now retired from Ford, he teaches business communications at Georgia State University and religious education at St. Jude’s in addition to coordinating lectors and working in baptismal preparation ministry. He is also a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and serves as a substitute teacher at St. Pius X High School.
Boyle noted how the “new breed” of Big Brothers and Big Sisters today, like his eldest son Mike Boyle, face much harder challenges than he ever did in volunteering with the mentoring program.
“I always liked (Dave) to feel better about himself than he had before … It was the right thing to do and he was a nice kid and it was easy. As to determining the way a 10-year-old’s life would move, that was beyond me. I had no grand scheme on it. It was just a way to help,” he continued. “I applaud Big Brothers and Big Sisters of today even more than in my years because they seem to be doing more than I ever did … Here I am getting attention for taking a walk in the park with a nice kid like Dave.”
The oldest of Boyle’s four children, Mike became a Big Brother after admiring, as he grew up, his dad’s plaque honoring his years of service to the organization. Mike has indeed faced bigger challenges, as his first Little Brother, who came from a physically and verbally abusive home, got drunk at 14 and drove a car into a tree, where his brother and a friend were killed. He continued to work with the troubled Hispanic youth for a second year at a juvenile detention center before the youth went to live with his grandmother in Puerto Rico.
“That was very frustrating. He had lots of problems in his life, and in that case it was probably too little too late. But you never know how you touch somebody,” Mike said. “The ball is in his court. I did a lot for him. I kind of feel if I help him again it’s because he really wants it.”
He now has an African-American Little Brother named Chucky who he has taken to Thrasher games, movies and walking his border collie in the park. He also helps him with homework, to show that “I put priority on school.” He sees his role with the 12-year-old as that of a friend and role model.
“I’ve been getting involved in taking part in his school. He screws around at school. He has a discipline problem.”
Mike, who works as an independent business consultant, tries to have intelligent conversations with Chucky about subjects such as how school systems are funded in part through property taxes and the high cost of education, to instill in him its value. He has been rewarded when the youth later asks a follow-up question that shows he’s been listening.
“I try to impress upon him the value of his education and that the school system spends $10-12 thousand dollars a year on him. He didn’t get it at first. He said, ‘The principal pays for your education,’” Mike said. “He does call me out of the blue just really excited about something, wanting to tell me about it and says ‘when I grow up I want to be like you.’ It makes you melt when you hear that.”
Maybe not exactly like him, as currently Chucky’s career plan is to be a professional football player and his backup choice is a lawyer, “because they make a lot of money,” said Mike with a chuckle, adding that the youth thinks it’s “cool” that he’s a Notre Dame graduate.
The younger Boyle, a member of Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, said his dad’s reunion with Wright encouraged him to carry on with the mentoring organization, as “it did show me the effect really can be long-term because my father has been attributed for a lot of significant life decisions that his Little Brother made.”
Noreen Shanfelter, director of media and public relations for the national office, said that stories like Boyle’s “are the heart and soul of the organization,” which is why she shared it with CNN when they called her wanting a story for their centennial celebration, and the organization is including it in a compilation book of stories. While they only were matched a few years until Wright moved, “That memory and example never left him. To me that’s just incredible,” she said. “Certainly these relationships that form are very meaningful and you wouldn’t believe the stories I’m reading.”
Wright, in his speech in Florida, had told attendees to never doubt the positive impact they can make, whether they see it or not.
“When you take the time to work with a kid, it is true you may not know for a long time if you had any impact at all. In fact, it is probable that, in many cases, you may never know if you ‘got’ to them and made their life a little more pleasant,” he said. “But I stand here tonight as a 50-year-old man who is grateful that he had a Big Brother many years ago and treasures the time now spent in a mentoring program he is involved in now. I also stand here tonight as the 10-year-old who was crying out for male companionship—although he didn’t know it at the time.”
Tom Boyle looks forward to catching up more with his Little Brother on another planned meeting this summer. He is still touched by Wright’s thoughtfulness. “He had some strikes against him. He has done so nicely. I was just so pleased. I guess that he would have done fine, but I think the nerve he’s shown in what he’s going after (is remarkable). He looked at himself and the talents he had and has gone after” his goals, he said. “His thoughtfulness—that’s a special breed of person. Usually we just go onto plan B and never look back. Dave Wright did look back and the whole Big Brothers Big Sisters is probably better off for what he’s done.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, Inc. can be reached at (404) 601-7000 or www.bbbsatl.org.