Skip Lee gets extra credit for this lesson


July 18, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Alvin "Skip" Lee emerges from a distance of three decades. He should arrive in a cloud of dust, but settles for a late-model car. He should be carrying a football under his arm, but opts for something heavier: a little paper brochure.

He wants to talk numbers. A long time ago, the numbers were compiled in stunning amounts of yardage. At Poly in the early 1960s, when the legendary Coach Bob Lumsden was operating his five-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, Lee and Ernie Torain were one of the most fearsome running back combinations in the whole history of local high school football, before or since.

Now the numbers soar far beyond any yardage: in sheer amount, and in importance. Three hundred billion, Lee says. It's the amount of money spent annually by black Americans, money Alvin Lee is trying to harness as it's never been harnessed before in a Visa Card operation that feeds a percentage of its proceeds to the nation's black colleges.

Lee's come a long way from the streets of South Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood and the playing fields of Poly: He won a scholarship to the University of Maryland and discovered football was merely a means to an end; got his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, spent the next 20 years at glitter firms doing finance, advertising, marketing, communications.

All of this was prologue. A few years ago, he launched America's Black Colleges Fund, which he's linked with Key Federal Savings Bank and Visa. The deal is simple: The money institutions, hoping to tap into a long-ignored market, will funnel 25 cents out of every $3 to the black college listed by individual card holders.

Among those singing the program's praises is former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who was in town a few weeks ago. She's now the program's national spokeswoman. She called it "a profoundly important step for black colleges."

"And for black America, which we are trying to shake up," Lee was saying now. "We're talking about power bases. All these years, we've been talking about political enfranchisement for blacks, but what about economic enfranchisement? We're past the days of fiery rhetoric. We have to make our numbers count at the cash register."

He was sitting at Fisherman's Wharf, in Little Italy, with a stack of brochures titled "Real Black Power" in his hands and a sense of perspective in his head.

Nobody has to recite numbers to him, not about the gaping financial disparity between blacks and whites, and not about the crunch facing the country's black colleges. How do you get kids into college who can't afford to pay for college? In the most recent census figures, about one-third of America's 30 million blacks had incomes below the $12,000 poverty line, a figure handed from one generation to the next and the next.

"If I hadn't been an athlete," Lee says softly, "I don't know how I'd have gone to college."

He left Poly with dreams in his head: He and Ernie Torain, explosive backs who'd run nearly at will through opposing linemen, were wooed by scores of colleges. The two athletes talked of extending the legend, attending some university together. They settled on Maryland.

Reality came early, even before college started. Still riding the emotional high of his football heroics, Lee got summer work with a local bakery, riding a delivery truck. Pretty good work for an 18-year old kid.

Among the stops: the state penitentiary. All visitors had to wear a badge inside, to distinguish them from inmates. One day, Lee misplaced his badge.

"I can't find it," he explained to a guard. "I'll show it to you tomorrow."

"I don't think so," said the guard, refusing to let him leave the premises.

Three decades later, Lee remembers standing there in his youthful naivete and thinking, "But I'm me. I'm Alvin Lee."

More awakenings came in College Park. Football was something he played, not something he wished to live. He understood that an education was his passport. Having played a couple of seasons, he got into trouble one afternoon when he told an assistant coach he'd be late for practice.

"Gotta catch up on some lab work," he said.

"You be at practice," said the coach.

Lee went to the lab. It was the beginning of the end of his football days, but the start of something more important, called a sense of perspective. Which, all these years later, has now brought him all the way back to college.

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