The 'Whitey From Virginia' Who Believed In Black Kids
George Kettle died today. To thousands who made their living in the Virginia real estate world, that means the man in the Century 21 sportjacket, the magnate who controlled the realty franchise for the Washington region, has passed on. But in Southeast Washington, Kettle represented something else--a way out, a chance to get what people in the suburbs get--an education, summer vacations, job training, internships, new clothes, all the little things that spell the difference between growing up poor and growing up with the expectation of success.
I first met Kettle in 1987, when he stood before an assembly of students and parents at Winston Educational Center at 31st and Erie streets SE, and said, "I'm the whitey from Virginia. Boys and girls, if you will make a commitment to work and study hard in school, I'll make a commitment to you that each and every one of you, without exception, can go to college."
At the time, Kettle told me he expected his promise to cost him $600,000. Two decades and millions of dollars later, after Kettle had hired tutors and counselors, given over his summer home to dozens of inner-city kids, and written all manner of checks for tuition, clothes, books and transportation, Kettle had a network of accomplished young black professionals and civil servants--managers, teachers, police officers--who attributed their success to their own hard work, and the leg up provided by a quiet, no-nonsense guy from the whitest of suburbs.
Not all of Kettle's Dreamers--that's what he called them, a reference to the I Have A Dream Foundation, which inspired Kettle's investment in kids who seemed destined to drop out of school--made it. Despite his best efforts, a few ended up on the street. But most stuck with the program, remaining close to the full-time counselors Kettle hired to look after the needs of the kids in his program. In the end, Kettle always told me, it wasn't so much his money that made the difference, but rather the constancy of presence. "Kids just want to hold your hand," he said. "They're desperate for somebody to tell them they love them."
As I reported a couple of years ago, at a dinner he throws for his first class every year, Kettle sees the girl who grew up to work in a big job at the CIA, the young woman who pushed through eight years of emotional struggle but finally got through college, and the young man who tried to kill himself in high school, got help and is now a union electrician making $34 an hour.
Kettle got involved out of a sense of obligation very much informed by his religious faith--he believed that God required him to put his money and energy toward the success of those who might otherwise be lost. Kettle's generosity inspired others to adopt classes as well, including Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin and even some less wealthy people.
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