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Nashville Scene Nashvillian of the Year

Don McGeehee, founder of "I Am Somebody"

By Jonathan Marx

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  People frequently see the holiday season as an opportunity to do some good in the world, to donate their time or money to a worthy cause. It's a way to make us feel better about ourselves, to keep from taking our lives for granted. Yet few of us extend that practice to the rest of the year. We conveniently forget that the world thrives on selfless acts all the time, not just when it's agreeable for us. Perhaps that's why people who devote themselves to helping other people seem so heroic. Not only do they refuse to take their own lives for granted, they refuse to take anyone's life for granted.

Don McGehee is one of those people. Through his work at two inner-city Metro elementary schools, he brings hope and positivity to the lives of Nashville schoolkids every day. Six years ago, inspired by nothing more than his own desire to help people, McGehee started the "I Am Somebody" program at Buena Vista/Jones Paideia Magnet School in North Nashville. His goal was simply to work with children, to imbue them with a sense of self-worth.

"I feel that every child is needed and wanted and has a place in society," McGehee says. "Every child."

That might sound like a fuzzy, near unattainable goal, but the teachers and principals at Buena Vista/Jones and at Ross Elementary--where McGehee began implementing the program four years ago--argue that it is a very focused and purposeful goal, and one that has been reached. "He is genuine, he is warm," says Linda Roland, the principal at Ross Elementary in East Nashville. "The children can see that he cares about them. He never leaves the school without telling the boys and girls what they can do."

In a country where hundreds of thousands of people are struggling just to keep from slipping into poverty, this is not a small thing. Many of the children at both these schools come from families who fight this battle every day. "Boys and girls come to us with deficiencies. They don't have a lot of experiences," Roland says. Because they have little exposure to the outside world, or to any kind of positive inspiration, "They come to us with low self-esteem."

But McGehee isn't just making these children feel good about themselves. As teachers, principals, and McGehee himself explain, his work has a snowballing effect: If you get children to feel good about themselves, they respond more readily and more openly to the world around them. "When the boys and girls are in that kind of a mode," Roland says, "it causes more learning to happen."

"For any person to learn well," echoes Pam Greer, assistant principal at Buena Vista/Jones, "they have to have a certain amount of contentment with themselves. If you are living with anger and turmoil, that blocks a lot of learning."

McGehee's program is a huge asset for teachers who face the difficult task of getting children to focus on their studies every day, but the long-term impacts are just as significant. The things he's teaching, "they're life skills, forever," Greer says. "I think everyone in this school will remember Mr. McGehee 25 years from now, and when they're going through conflict or strife in their lives, they'll be able to go back to the principles that he teaches: You have to try your best.

"He's not teaching perfection by any stretch," Greer adds, "but he's stressing, within yourself, be the best self you can be. That carries a huge wallop."

With his weathered, kindly face and his slightly bent frame, Don McGehee--a 75-year-old former pro wrestler and retired state government employee--greets everyone with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Even if you don't know the guy, as I learned in my very first meeting with him, you're still likely to be lured into a friendly conversation. And after only a few minutes in his presence, he has this way of making you feel good about everything.

Every day, when McGehee walks into Ross Elementary and Buena Vista/Jones, children flock to him and wrap their arms around his waist. It's a scene that is repeated countless times throughout the day, as he ambles genially down the halls and passes the classrooms. Some children might wave, others might even salute, but they all greet him. If he stops just for a moment, he is soon surrounded by a throng of children, all eager to show their affection.

Every year, McGehee works with some 600 elementary school students; over the course of a month, he'll spend time in 18 classrooms at Ross and 15 at Buena Vista/Jones. He likes to make regular visits, but in the space of a week, he simply can't make it to every room. As a result, he spends most of his time with kindergartners and first-graders; it's important, he explains, to start instilling self-esteem at an early age.

And so he arrives at the schools early in the day, making sure he has enough time to work with a couple of classrooms and stick his head into a few more. He makes a point of trying not to disrupt the teachers' lessons, but the instructors are always eager to gather up the children for their session with McGehee.

"Has anybody done any good deeds today?" he'll ask the children. "What does it mean to do something good for somebody?" Unprompted, children raise their hands, ready with the correct response: "Altruism!" one bursts out when called upon. Each time a child gets this question right, McGehee hands him or her a $1 bill.

At first glance, the transaction seems odd: Pay a student for answering the question correctly? But the pupil immediately hands the dollar over to the teacher, who donates it to a common classroom pot. The idea is to extend the lesson even further: one child getting the answer right benefits the classroom as a whole. At some point during the year, McGehee explains, every child will have donated a dollar to the pot. Then at the end of the year, the funds are used however the class wants to use them; the children might throw a party, or they might make a charitable donation.

But to make sure they don't confuse the issue, McGehee explains to the students that altruism comes in all kinds of forms. It can be something as simple as holding the door open for someone. "I tell the children every morning, 'You'll have the opportunity to do a good deed today.' "

Moving to another topic, McGehee tells the children a story about a woman he once knew from Clarksville. Born into poverty and crippled by polio at a young age, she learned to walk through sheer force of will and eventually became a competitive runner in high school. After running track at Tennessee State University, she went on to become an Olympic champion. "She worked hard and hard and hard," he tells them. The woman was, of course, Wilma Rudolph.

"What is that one word when you don't quit?" he asks. The kids eagerly raise their hands, waiting to be picked by the teacher. "Perseverance," one answers. Even if the child's young palate can't quite form the word, he clearly knows what it means.

"They say the words 'altruism' and 'perseverance' like it's part of their everyday vocabulary," says Jenny Mills, a third-grade teacher at Buena Vista/Jones.

Week in, week out, these are the two main lessons repeated in each kindergarten and first-grade classroom. Yes, they are big words for such young children, but their meaning, McGehee insists, is crucial to developing a well-rounded sense of self.

"To see them being able to give definitions of those words tells us they are growing, they are learning," principal Roland observes.

"Altruism" and "perseverance" are the first of many ideas that McGehee teaches students while they're at Ross and Buena Vista. He also discusses subjects ranging from cultural diversity to the importance of learning. All of these ideas are central to the "I Am Somebody" program, but, as McGehee explains, the students learn these things in different ways as they get older.

With the youngest students, the point is to introduce the basic concepts, simply to get the children to understand them. But with older children, he encourages debate and discussion. A couple of weeks ago, he says, "I talked to a sixth-grade class about education. I tell them that I study every day myself, that I'm trying to learn more. Old as I am, I don't know everything. I try to use that as an example to motivate them to keep on studying."

Or, to get the fifth- and sixth-graders to understand better the idea of altruism, McGehee will take $150 from the program's coffers and hand it over to a class. The students then have to decide, through classroom debate, how they'll donate the money.

One consistent thread in McGehee's work, whether he's talking to 6-year-olds or sixth-graders, is his frequent invocation of positive role models. If he's not talking about Wilma Rudolph, he's teaching the children about Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, or Michael Jordan. It might seem obvious why McGehee has selected each as a role model. But it's worth noting that all four are Southerners who faced incredible challenges, who entered a world where the odds were stacked against them because they were born black, poor, or profoundly handicapped. The children themselves come from circumstances similar to these role models--something McGehee acknowledges. He wants each of them to leave the classroom realizing that they, too, have the potential to shape their lives and the world around them.

But for these children, McGehee himself is probably the most stirring role model of all. As teachers and principals explain, he is a walking, breathing example of goodness and generosity--one the kids can identify with because he is so often there for them.

"Children can see through people who can preach a good sermon but don't walk that walk," says Buena Vista/Jones assistant principal Greer. "Mr. McGehee is a good role model [because] he is so consistent with his visits. They know he is not a paid teacher; he wants to be here."

"He is just a great inspiration," adds Jo Beene, the family-school coordinator at Buena Vista/Jones. "It's something that you can't really put in words; you have to see him and his sincerity with the children to understand the impact of what he's doing."

Sitting in a classroom with McGehee and two dozen first-graders, you don't just see an elderly man and a bunch of kids--you see a very real, profound link between generations, between innocence and experience. Sit there for a short while, and each child becomes a distinct person, one bursting with potential and an unwritten, promising future.

This is why McGehee is so insistent that each child be recognized in some way, that not a single one go unnoticed. Thus, at the end of the year, the "I Am Somebody" program holds a special schoolwide ceremony in which each student is honored with a certificate for his or her improvements, achievements, and abilities--whatever they may be. The goal, he says, is to acknowledge that "everyone would be able to excel in something."

Thanks to a couple of sizable private donations, McGehee's program has grown since its inception a few years ago, when he started with nothing more than a handful of ideas and a little cash. As a result, he's now able to recognize the children in a greater variety of ways. Owing to the generosity of one donor, he says proudly, every single classroom got to have a holiday party this year. And when the end-of-the-school-year event comes around in April or May, surplus funds will be divided into cash awards for students who've excelled in various areas.

Other funds might be used throughout the year to buy books or clothes for students whose families can't afford them. "Two years ago," teacher Mills recalls, "Mr. McGehee came in on a cold day and asked, 'Who does not have a coat or jacket?' One child raised her hand, and he went out and bought her a coat. This one child was real tough, real macho. But when Mr. McGehee came in [with the coat], her heart melted. You would have thought that he was her grandfather. He was a figure to her that she was not getting anywhere else."

And that's exactly the kind of role model these children need, principal Roland confirms. "Oftentimes, the boys and girls--and we are 98 percent black--they're not accustomed to other cultures or values; to have another person from another culture come in and touch them, that's a positive.

"Role models are so very, very important, and often children see the street models. They want to be like other people, they want to mimic what they see. Even though there are lessons to be learned from people out on the street, they need to know that there's another way."

McGehee's own childhood was a difficult one. Born Jan. 10, 1924, in a back-lot house at 1516 East Douglas Ave., he was 6 years old when his father left home. "It really broke my heart," he says. Don, his older brother, and his mother "were left there in the Depression without anything. I believe my mother got $50 a month alimony, which wasn't too much. So my brother and I both started working as soon as we could."

The two McGehee siblings helped eke out an income by selling magazines and newspapers. By his early teens, Don was working as a car hop, then as a soda jerk at Whitman's Pharmacy and other drug stores on Gallatin Road. Quitting school in the ninth grade, he soon skipped town, looking for work wherever he could find it, in Florida, in Massachusetts.

Like many of his generation, McGehee was soon drawn to the military. He lied about his age and joined the U.S. Marine Corps only months before the start of World War II. Up to this point in his life, McGehee says, he was saddled not just with poverty, but with low self-esteem.

"It was really a stigma--'from a broken home.' Of course, nearly everybody was poor, but we were poorer than poorest. I didn't feel right at school, and I didn't do right, and I wasn't motivated really to learn. There was something holding me back."

That started to change with the Marines, where a superior officer took an interest in him. Recognizing that this athletic young recruit had an innate leadership ability, the colonel promoted McGehee to sergeant. At the tender age of 18, McGehee ended up flying from base to base, instructing officers in hand-to-hand combat. Then he went to the South Pacific, performing a 16-month tour of duty.

When McGehee returned to Nashville after an honorable discharge in 1945, life was much different than it had been during the Depression. McGehee was older, smarter, beginning to develop a sense of confidence--and a sense of duty. That year, he began his lifelong commitment to volunteer work, starting out at the Nashville Boys' Club, where he taught youngsters how to swim and "play roughhouse," as he puts it.

It was in 1945 that McGehee also began his lifelong association with the YMCA. After doing volunteer work for the institution, he was soon hired on as athletic director. In the more than 50 years since, he has maintained his involvement with the Y, whether as an employee, as a volunteer, or as a member.

At one point early in his career there, he ran a "newsboys' club": "Back then, boys used to sell papers on the street," he says in his amiable drawl. "That was back before they had the racks, and most of 'em were poor kids. And some of 'em would go around barefooted. I'd have them come in there, 'bout this time in the wintertime, they'd come in after the Banner sports edition had come out. They would have a devotion, and they did it themselves. I'd say, 'Now here's your devotion book, The Upper Room. Y'all go back.' And then they'd go swim and play, then we'd come out and eat. And Frank Varallo would send me chili, Russell Brothers would send ice cream and feed those kids there."

From the late '40s into the '50s, McGehee worked on and off at the YMCA, taking time out to get his GED and study at Peabody College. It was during this time that he met a young downtown movie theater employee, Mary Ruth Terry. They married in 1949 and later had two sons, Terry and Danny.

It was also around this time that he embarked on a career as a professional wrestler. Given his athletic bent, it was a natural way to make some extra money. Professional wrestling wasn't anything near the bombastic, mass-media phenomenon it is today, but there were similarities. Take, for instance, the stage names, and the way wrestlers are either bad guys or fan favorites: In the ring, Don McGehee became "Robin Hood McGee." He was, of course, a good guy.

It was a tough way to make a living. Robin Hood McGee had to take to the road, finding work wherever the job took him. "I wrestled in Canada and all through the state of Michigan, every pig path in Michigan, and then parts of Ohio and other states," he remembers.

By 1955, tired of the wrestler's lifestyle--which frequently involved the threat of violence from knife-wielding fans who took the matches all too seriously--McGehee returned to Nashville, where he ran the YMCA's health-club facilities and started appearing on local TV. He showed up three times a week on WSM, where he did an exercise segment on Jud Collins' Noon Show program--he was Nashville's own Jack LaLanne.

In 1960, McGehee was offered a steady job with the city when four men from a local political machine approached him. H.E. Flippen, Jim Roberson, H.H. Hooper, and Neil Brown were, as McGehee puts it, "the four powerhouses in local government." With the help of Silliman Evans' Tennessean newspaper, they'd just gotten Leslie Jett elected sheriff (which in pre-Metro Government times was the top law-enforcement position in the city).

Like so many politicians before them, the men promised to clean up the city. They wanted to appoint McGehee the chief juvenile officer. "There was no such thing as a Juvenile Department anywhere except maybe in Memphis," he recalls. "They knew that I had been working with young people and wrestling on television and had a pretty good reputation as a clean wrestler. And so I talked to 'em two times and turned 'em down. I really didn't want to get into politics or a political job. I liked the Y, I liked the people there, and I just hated to leave.

"Then the third time, I accepted. Of course, that was a political machine, but they were good to me. And I liked their mission of what they were trying to do."

Regardless of whether these men succeeded in their mission, they gave McGehee the perfect opportunity to utilize and develop his skills helping out young kids in trouble--the kind of experience that continues to pay off even today.

During his tenure in city government, McGehee took some time off to study at the University of Southern California's prestigious Delinquency Control Institute; then, in 1963, he was recognized by the American Legion as one of the country's four outstanding youth workers. The attention was enough to earn him an invitation from Gov. Frank Clement to head the state's Department of Pardons and Paroles.

McGehee had known Clement for some time. He'd met the governor at the YMCA and ended up serving as his health adviser at the 1956 Democratic Convention. Working for the state, he says, "Everybody came through me to be heard for a pardon or to get their sentence reduced. You had attorneys and people just all the time sending in petitions. And of course, you're offered bribes and different things--and I'm talking about big money."

He never flinched, though. He served in the position until the 1970 election of Gov. Winfield Dunn. From there, he went back to working in local government, setting up a school in the county workhouse, until he was appointed to the directorship of the utility service division in the state's Public Service Commission. For 15 years, he helped monitor the services of utility and telephone companies, investigating customer complaints and helping to determine rates and regulatory policies. "We had little people, they didn't know who to go to. We took pride in saying, 'You may be fighting the biggest utility company, but we're gonna treat you fair.' "

McGehee retired from his position 10 years ago, but he never stopped his volunteer work. To hear him talk about all the things he's done, one guesses that every spare moment of his life was spent in the service of other people.

After his retirement, he helped out then-Sheriff Hank Hillin for a while, running the gym at the downtown Metro jail. But one day, he happened to be with his pal Vic Varallo--the nephew of chili king Frank--who'd invited some students on a field trip to his farm in Jackson County. It was here that McGehee met Jenny Mills, the third-grade instructor at Buena Vista/Jones school.

"He was telling kids about life skills, listening, how important school was, and nutrition," Mills recalls. "And we were just about to do a lesson on nutrition. So I said to him, 'The kids are really listening to you. Would you come out and talk?' "

"So I brought two or three boxes of apples," McGehee says, "and talked with 'em. I started going every week, maybe a couple times a week. [But] the other children would see me bringing the apples and different things, and I felt like I was letting them down. So I went to the principal. I said, 'I feel guilty, I'm working with two third-grade classes, and would it be all right if I would work with all the grades?'

The principal talked to the teachers, and all agreed it was a good idea. "So I came home and sat right here in this chair and got a sheet of paper, and it all just came to me in about 35, 45 minutes. I had down what I wanted: to give each child a certificate, that nobody would be left out, but yet those who excelled would be recognized." Thus was born the "I Am Somebody" program.

This year, McGehee says, his program has grown from its modest original budget of about $2,000 to $13,000. Ideally, he explains, each school would have three volunteers. Instead, he does all of the work at both schools by himself.

Still, working single-handedly, McGehee has earned some noteworthy and well-deserved attention: In 1998, he was one of 10 finalists for the Mary Catherine Strobel Award for Outstanding Volunteer in Middle Tennessee. As a result of that, he was chosen in 1998 for an award by the national Points of Light Foundation, which every day of the year selects a different volunteer for recognition.

Now on the cusp of his 76th birthday, McGehee acknowledges that he can't keep the program going all by himself for too much longer. How appropriate, then, that he is arranging for the YMCA to take over "I Am Somebody" in the next century: Not only does this bring his association with the institution full-circle, but it fleshes out the work already being done by the Y in the inner city.

"We're teaching character development and self-esteem, and Don does the same thing," says Mike Brennan, the YMCA's district executive director. "Don goes in and teaches these kids that there is hope, that there is the chance to get out of the inner city."

Brennan insists that when the Y takes over "I Am Somebody," the basic principles of the program will stay the same. "I would just see it expanding [to other schools]. He's done such a good job that we would just take the same format. He can't go any further, but we can." Regardless, both Brennan and McGehee insist that the program founder will stay involved, no matter what. As long as he can move, he'll be there for the children.

In an issue of the New Yorker from this past January, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the "six degrees of separation" phenomenon. The reason we can all be so easily connected to each other, he explains, is because "not all degrees are equal.... A very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few."

Gladwell is talking about "connectors," those people who, well, seem to know everyone. In his own life, he points to a connector named Lois Weisberg. But "[it] is not merely that she knows lots of people," he writes. "It is that she belongs to lots of different worlds." He could just as easily be writing about Don McGehee, one of those people who has, as Gladwell puts it, "an innate and spontaneous and entirely involuntary affinity for people. They know everyone because--in some deep and less than conscious way--they can't help it."

Think about it: Here is a man who has worked in the military, in pro wrestling, in city and state government, as a fry cook, a farmhand, a car salesman, a bouncer, a bartender--not to mention in countless volunteer roles for over half a century. At various points in his life, he has known Lou Thesz and Fred Blassie, two of wrestling's earliest stars; country singer and former Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis, the writer of "You Are My Sunshine"; Wilma Rudolph and her coach, Ed Temple; former Tennessee Govs. Frank Clement and Buford Ellington; current Gov. Don Sundquist; former Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley; current Mayor Bill Purcell; sportswriter Fred Russell; country singers Mac Wiseman and Red Foley. The list goes on.

This gets at the heart of what makes McGehee such an extraordinary person, and why everyone who knows him somehow benefits from knowing him. Through his remarkable affability and his ceaseless dedication to doing good, he allows us to see the ways that we are all connected on a multitude of levels. It's not just that we're linked by six degrees. We're linked by our common existence, by the fact that our actions often have a ripple effect. Or as McGehee would put it: Every day, we have the opportunity to do a good deed.

But as far as McGehee is concerned, he's just doing what seems right. "I guess it was the way I came up, because I had a good mother. She taught me to respect people and be good to people.

"I've met so many people that have helped me, to give me a helping hand, people that reached down when I was nothing and still am nothing. I've had so many helping hands, I've got to do something to pay people back, pay society back. And this is a way that I can."

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