Man tells how he resisted pull of streets

THIS JUST IN ...

February 24, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

Rodney Ward's older cousin, Mary Francis Lee, asked him to handle her arrangements. As a teen-ager in East Baltimore, he'd started working in a funeral home; the father of a friend had introduced him to the business. It became Rodney Ward's career path out of a neighborhood where the major enterprise was the sale of drugs. A few years ago, his cousin announced that, when her time came -- "When I'm old and gray" -- she wanted only Rodney Ward to process her body.

Mary Lee's time came on a Wednesday afternoon in May 1995. She was just 35 years old.

She was stabbed to death as she tried to break up a fight in the basement of a rowhouse on East Monument Street. Police charged a 17-year-old girl in the killing.

Rodney Ward, then working at James A. Morton & Sons Funeral Home, did as his cousin had requested. He prepared her body for the wake and funeral. He had done this work numerous times before, of course. Along the way, he'd processed the bodies of young men his own age, from his own part of East Baltimore. He had touched, as every inner-city mortician has, the wasted flesh from the city's most violent streets. This time, it was family.

And this time, Rodney Ward took photographs of the body on the processing table.

He did so with permission of Mary Lee's children. I've seen the photographs. They are, as you'd expect, grotesque. Why does Rodney Ward have them? To extend the meaning of his cousin's death. To present, in as powerful a way possible, the consequence of violence in our midst. He does this for middle school students, primarily, kids who are themselves at serious risk of becoming victims of violence -- or perhaps inflicters of it.

Rodney Ward, who is 26, survived the mean streets himself, resisted the seductive whispers of peers to make money dealing drugs. He has given himself a mission -- to connect to kids, listen to them, talk to them, help them. On a regular basis -- and without ever seeking public notice of his volunteer efforts -- he takes time out of his schedule to visit Lemmel Middle School in Northwest Baltimore. Once he showed the kids the photographs of Mary Lee's body; it was his visual aid in a lecture about violence.

"Mary Lee's children had grown up surrounded by violence, too," says Ward, handsome, reverent and smartly dressed. "Once she was killed, I remember hearing them say, 'What can we do to stop the violence? I wish there was something we could do.' So we talked about it, and that's where the pictures came from."

The students at Lemmel, he's found, have more fear than bravado.

"They talk about their neighborhoods and what's going on there," he says. "They talk about crime a lot -- a lot -- and pregnancy and AIDS. A lot of them worry about drive-by shootings, about being the victims of mistaken identity. A lot of them say, 'We could end up dead.' "

And then there are the temptations -- drugs mainly -- that come to kids.

Ward heard the same raps when he was growing up. "I used to hear it all the time," he says. "They called me a nerd because I was kind of straight, because I saw a future without drugs. I went to school. I studied. I had the after-school job at Calvin Scruggs [Funeral Home]. I'd come home, change my clothes, go to work. I remember this one guy from the neighborhood, he was a little younger than me. He'd say, 'Hey, man, why you working in the funeral home? Why you doin' that?' Dag, man, why you work yourself to death? A couple weeks after that he was dead.

"I still have friends living that lifestyle," Wards says. "I hear them say, 'The white man this, the white man that ...' I say -- and I'm cleaning up the language -- 'There's no white man out here holding a gun to your head to make you sell drugs so you can wear fine jewelry. You're here because you want to be here.' "

Several times, Ward was offered opportunities in the drug market. He resisted, at the risk of being thought of as a little strange by guys his own age who made fast money, especially when crack cocaine came along. "At least I don't have to live my life worrying about beefs catching up to me," he says. "I don't have to worry about someone coming around a corner to knock me on my head and rob me of drug money."

That's what he tells the kids at Lemmel. And when he participates in "career days" at other schools, he talks not only about his chosen field, but the need to get on track, develop goals and get on with life in a positive way.

I like what I hear -- more importantly, what kids are hearing -- from Rodney Ward. The city could benefit from a lot more like him.

On location in Glen Burnie

This Just In: I hear Tim "Home Improvement" Allen will be starring in another made-in-Maryland film. Preproduction starts here next week on "For Richer or Poorer," with locations in Glen Burnie and northern Baltimore County. The plot: Yuppies in debt hide out among the Amish!

That's entertainment

I'd hate to see the Bandits leave Baltimore. Just the other night, before the game against the Kentucky Thoroughblades at the Baltimore Arena, there was this scene: The Zamboni machine grooming the ice, thatched huts on stage at the south end of the rink, men and women playing beach volleyball, Ocean City's Miss Best Body On The Beach posing for photographs, while out of the speakers comes a reggae-steel drum version of "Amazing Grace." I mean, you just don't find that kind of entertainment anywhere else.

Contact Dan Rodricks by voice mail at 332-6166, by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278, by electronic mail at TJIDANaol.com, or through the World Wide Web at http: // www.sunspot.net.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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