Moments of change

sacramentans describe a transformation in their lives

<b>Glenn Bridges</b>: His brother had a massive coronary.

Glenn Bridges: His brother had a massive coronary.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Reporter and photographer Noel Neuburger’s daughter Phoebe described a transformation she’d recently experienced for this project.

I wandered around town last month asking Sacramentans of all kinds to talk to me about a time when they’d experienced a transformation. I expected people to be suspicious, and a few were. But, happily for me, most seemed pleased to be asked:

Can you describe a moment that changed your life?

I listened attentively, recorded their stories. And for the few minutes when they were talking to me, the world seemed to drop away, and their recollection of an important personal moment was all that mattered. After each story was told, I moved quickly to take a photograph, hoping to capture a glimpse of the memories that still lingered just behind their eyes.

I thanked them and, in many cases, they thanked me. There was something universal in their stories. In each instance, I went away feeling that I had just participated in a very human experience.

A call in the night

Glenn Bridges | retired interviewed on the American River Parkway near Fair Oaks

I got a call in the middle of the night from my sister-in-law, saying that my brother had suffered a massive coronary and that they couldn’t revive him. My younger brother was then 64, four years younger than me. After I got over the shock and the grieving, I thought, “Oh my god, if I want to see my grandchildren graduate from high school, I’ve got to do something.” I weighed 225 pounds, I had just retired, my wife was going to retire. I drank too much beer and ate too much food and I got hardly any exercise. At that point I couldn’t walk around the block without being fatigued and needing to take a nap. I started at that point to walk a little further, and a little further, and within six months I was walking a couple or 3 miles a day. Then I started walking up in the hills, up in Mount Diablo or in Briones Park in the East Bay of San Francisco. And all of a sudden, I started to notice my surroundings and how relaxed I was and how beautiful it was. And it led me to have interactions with other people who were walking, and I met some wonderful people. I now go with a group, and we climbed a couple of 10,000-foot mountains last year. I attempted to climb Mount Whitney and got to 11,000 feet before I turned back.

I now weigh about 185 pounds, and I feel more energy and a lust for life that I didn’t feel before, all because of a tragic loss in my life. I have more peace in myself now. Before it was all about acquiring things, possessions—now they are not so important. The relationships with people and relations with nature are more important.

My friend was killed

<b>Clarence Maples</b>: His friend was shot and killed.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Clarence Maples | student, Sacramento State interviewed on the Sac State campus

One of my friends got killed. We were 13 years old, and we were just walking home from school in Compton, California. We were wearing red, and a rival gang just started shooting. We fell to the ground, and when we got up, my friend was the one hit. He passed away by the time that the ambulance came. It was tough.

A few of us wanted to get revenge, join the gang to get back at certain people. A couple of us decided that we would stick to what we were doing, playing football and listening to our parents. And a few of us actually made it out. … After that incident I decided to get all the opportunities, to go to different schools. I was able to transfer from Locke High School to Narbonne [High School], which was in Harbor City. And from that I was able to learn about going to college, to learn about higher education, instead of just finishing high school and starting work. That incident shocked me into doing something better in my life instead of hanging out on the corner with friends. It put me on the road to get here at Sac State.

A mother’s realization

<b>Brady McKay Williams</b>: She realized her son was different.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Brady McKay Williams | singer/musician interviewed at Lido Bar & Grill in Carmichael

My son Levi was 3, and we were at story time at the library. I was watching a group of 2- to 4-year-olds with their moms; we had a really great storyteller. I was watching all the kids and their reactions and their laughter, and I noticed that my son would look at the other kids laughing, then he would laugh. It was like he was pretending to laugh, not really laughing. At one point, the storyteller said, “If you tickle me, I’ll tickle you,” and she reached out with tickly hands and wiggled her fingers, and every other kid in the room reached out with tickly hands, but they stayed sitting. My son got up and walked across the room and tickled her; it was sort of cute, but it was also disruptive, and he stepped on a couple of kids on the way up. He could read already, so I knew that he was really smart.

That was the moment that I really realized that there was something really different about Levi. I realized that he wasn’t just brilliant. … There was something different about him. He was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and that fact has changed my life for the better in almost every way. I am a much more patient, understanding person. I am much more curious about the way that other people view the world. Other good things came out of this, too. Levi’s younger brother, Dexter, who in some ways started being the big brother at the age of 5, when Levi was 9, was born empathetic. But I think that being Levi’s little brother has made Dexter one of the most socially accepting people I have ever known. I think it is because he knows how cool Levi is, but he has also watched his struggles, and it has made him a nice kid.

When Levi was young … I was pushy and I had help and I was able to fight for him. I was at Del Dayo School recently, and they had a Asperger’s parents education session, and one of the women running the session—she had been Levi’s case worker—came over and put her arm around me and told the group that I was one of the ones who fought for the services that they had. It made me cry.

I met my wife

<b>Jimmy Spero</b>: He met his wife.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Jimmy Spero | musician interviewed at Capitol Park near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Three years ago, I met my current wife, and it has been a life-changing experience. For many years I have been a part-time musician, and I have a professional life outside of that. I had never been comfortable playing professionally because of my concern for the person I left behind when I went out on a gig. It had always been a sore point and an issue in relationships. I have a drive to play jazz music on the guitar. And in the last three years, my understanding wife has allowed me to really be comfortable playing. And as a result, my guitar playing has improved so much, I was picked up by John Cocuzzi to play the Sun Valley [Jazz Jamboree in Idaho] last year, the Sacramento Jazz Festival this last year, and I’ll play there again this year. I am playing with really great players and am getting recognized for being a good player. I think all of that has just opened up because of my relationship. So I think that when I met my wife and married her, from that point on my entire life has been really good. She is just a brilliant woman; she is very capable. [Meeting my wife] was pretty much a life-changing thing.

A mean old teacher

<b>Tony Rodriguez</b>: A teacher made him stay after school.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Tony Rodriguez | railroad conductor interviewed at American River Parkway near Fair Oaks

There was this mean old teacher. It was sixth grade, and you start doing other things like fractions and stuff. I never understood because I was afraid to ask questions; I didn’t want to look dumb in front of the class. So I wasn’t doing good, and one day this teacher made me stay after school and she just showed me how to do it. From that day on, I did great in math. That was forever, you know? Just that one day. That teacher—I guess she saw the problem, and she kept me after school that one day and that was it. That was cool.


A lesson from my mom

<b>Lawrence Dinkins Jr</b>.: His mom taught a lesson about dignity.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Lawrence Dinkins Jr. | poet interviewed at Seventh and K streets, downtown Sacramento

My mom has always been a big influence in my life. She’s Tiny Tim with a megaphone, 5 feet and some change tall, shops in the kiddie section for her shoes, but she has the biggest voice trapped in a small body that gives new meaning to the term digital compression. When I was a kid, we lived in Detroit, Michigan, on some street I don’t remember. Though welfare has a lot of negative connotations, I was thankful for it—some nights if it wasn’t for that we would have starved, even though mom tried her hardest not to get on welfare. But some months were harder than others. Mom tried everything under the sun, laying tile, driving a big 16-wheeler truck and secretarying just to name the strange mix of things she attempted.

’Til this day, my mom is the cleanest person I know. I mean, a British butler don’t have nothin’ on my mom; she is a tornado of Lysol, bleach and borax. She would scrub the dirt out of dirt. And growing up this is all I knew; I didn’t know anyone lived any different. One day I went to my friend’s house, and their house was a mess; it was like God picked it up and shook it like an Etch A Sketch. Mice were running everywhere, and I thought I saw a roach wave at me as I passed by. Disturbed by this, I asked Mom why this was, why his house was so different than ours even though physically it was the same. And Mom simply replied, “Just because you live in the ghetto doesn’t mean that it has to look like one.” This one statement over all the others lives in my mind like a great oak—no matter how bad things get, it shouldn’t take away your dignity. I think there is a way to live poor nobly. I’ve never had a lot of money, but I’ve never felt poor. I believe it’s because of this statement that lives in me. That we don’t need an outside object like money or people to give us pride or self-respect or self-worth, it should live in us because we are human and come from a long line of survivors.

My best decision

<b>Phoebe Neuburger</b>: She decided to change schools to break away from a bully.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Phoebe Neuburger | high-school student interviewed at her home in Carmichael

I made the decision to transfer to a different high school because I was being picked on and bullied by this girl who had bullied me in elementary and middle school. It got really bad at high school. It became a big problem. I told the school about it, and it felt like nobody was doing anything. I complained [to school officials]. … They didn’t really seem to care. Nothing was getting better and it was affecting my life there. I couldn’t concentrate and I didn’t feel safe. I felt like I was always looking over my shoulder because I felt that she was going to be there.

So I decided to change schools my junior year and try a new experience. My new school is a lot better; I am happier there and feel a lot safer. I’ve made new friends and my grades are getting better. The kids are nicer there, not as thuggy, and they are a lot more respectful to each other. It’s just so nice to be treated like any ordinary student at school. It is a better learning environment for me. I’ve made a few friends that I feel comfortable with. It’s not a lot of friends but I don’t need a lot of friends to be happy.

At first, my parents were against my changing to my new school. They were afraid that I might not fit in. But I proved my parents wrong. … They realized that I chose to move to the right school. It is the best decision I have made so far. I wish I could have gone there my freshman and sophomore year, but you can’t really change the past, you can just learn from it. I am happier where I am now, and I am really glad I made that decision. It made me a stronger person in the long run. It was a hard, long journey, but in the end, it turned out to be fulfilling and successful.

Jerry’s opening class

<b>Benjamin Lawrence O’Brien</b>: His high school experience was transformational.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Benjamin Lawrence O’Brien | retired, 95 years old interviewed at his home at Eskaton Village in Carmichael

It wasn’t a moment, it was four years. It was my four years at the Voorhis Preparatory High School for Boys in San Dimas, California. You know, I did not come from a very wealthy background. My father took off and never came back. I grew up in poverty. My mother had four little boys to take care of, so we went to live at my grandfather’s dairy farm. There was an announcement that Jerry Voorhis was inheriting millions and millions of dollars that he didn’t want, and that he was going to start a school to be of assistance to boys from the lower economic scale. My mother applied, and me and my younger brother were selected to be in the opening class.

The school was on 400 acres on an isolated mesa there, with deep canyons and a stream that ran through it. We were in a heaven of our own there. Jerry Voorhis was a graduate of Yale and had a reputation at that time as the greatest orator and debater in the history of Yale University. He had dedicated himself to further Christian principles, mainly love your neighbor as yourself and take care of each other as best you can. Anything you needed to give you a well-rounded education was taught there. … Norman Thomas, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, visited the campus and spoke to us many times. The author Upton Sinclair was a friend of Jerry’s and came to speak, as did Toyohiko Kagawa, a prominent Japanese Christian leader and humanitarian. Jerry spoke often of Mahatma Gandhi. We had our own council, and one of the boys suggested that we give up our Sunday breakfast and calculate how much money that would save, and we could send that money over to Mahatma Gandhi. Jerry thought that was a wonderful idea.

Jerry was the only father I ever had. Eventually, I went to Pomona College and graduated with a degree in American history and political science, [then] I attended Georgetown University Law [Center]. I was a pacifist and still am, even though I am a retired Army colonel, because I kept thinking about Hitler and joined the service thinking of [World War II] as a necessary war. After the war, I finished my last semester of law school. After graduation, I practiced law in the San Fernando Valley for 17 years specializing in workman’s compensation and personal injury. I was then appointed as California workman’s compensation judge and retired at age 60. I then became a United States administrative law judge and retired from that position. I have been among the founders of nine banks in California. The last bank I helped found was the Bank of Sacramento. I can honestly say that with Jerry’s guidance and the faculty, too, all this happened. Jerry was the inspiration. The world is certainly no worse off that I was here, and maybe a bit better off than had I not gone to that Voorhis School for Boys.

Think things through

<b>Monica Smith</b>: A DUI taught her about choices.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Monica Smith | student, Sacramento City College interviewed in Land Park

I got a DUI in 2006, and I have never been the kind of person to put anybody else’s life in jeopardy. I always felt like I was a do-gooder. And what was revealed to me was that every choice you make has repercussions, and you never know what those repercussions are going to be. And always think things through to the worst possible outcome is what I learned. I was 26, and it was my first and only DUI. If I had just thought that through, I would have never gotten in that car.


My little partner

<b>Eli Barry</b>: His friend was killed in a street-racing accident.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Eli Barry | student, Sacramento City College interviewed on the Sacramento City College campus

It was 2007, right? And I was hanging out with my little partner; he was a lot like my brother. We used to always just get drunk and bullshit around, mess around, um, not really about too much, you know? Well, he got killed in a street-racing accident. There were some street racers, and he just happened to be walking by, and one of them street racers came up and hit him off the curb and killed him.

After that, it changed my whole perception of life, my goals in life. I started working towards becoming a better person and making something out of myself instead of just bullshitting and drinking all the time. I stopped drinking and I started going to school. I started doing better and appreciating life a little bit better. I realized how precious life is and how you can’t take life for granted. You got to make the best out of life and enjoy the time you got with your loved ones, too.

What’s most important?

<b>Zac Diebels</b>: A manager/friend of his issued a challenge.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Zac Diebels | musician interviewed at Rock Inc. on Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights

When I was about 24, I got off the road after being on tour with a band. We had gotten a huge record deal with a major label, and we had toured around the world several times and we sold a bunch of records, etc. But we got some bad news: Our representative at the label was going to Warner Brothers. And so we didn’t have a cheerleader at the label anymore. The label was not sure if they are going to release our next album. We (the band) had a big talk, and we decided that we wanted to be released from the label. It was a scary moment, because we had worked our whole lives to get there, and now we were asking to be let go. I remember talking to a manager, a friend of mine in the music business, and he said, “You need to figure out what was most important to you—is it the music, or is it getting to the mountaintop?”

That was a big moment for me because I had never thought of it that way. It is easy when you are going up the mountain—you know what the goal is, you know where you are going, you keep looking up, you keep trying to get to the top. I think that was the moment when I realized why I played music. And it wasn’t because of the deal, it was because I just wanted to play music. To sing, to write songs, to be an artist. … It changed the way I felt about music. When I was young, it was all about getting to some certain goal, and now I just wanted to do it. I went on to get other deals and do other things. I now think that the climb was the whole point. And I actually went on to have more success than I had before. It just kind of works out.

Bringing Isabelle home

<b>Mary Burroughs</b>: She brought Isabelle home.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Mary Burroughs | real-estate investor interviewed at her Land Park home

When I finally realized that the best way for me to have kids was to pursue adoption—that was just the beginning of the journey. Bringing Isabelle home and having the reality of this little baby and feeling just so strongly that it was meant to be—that this was exactly the way things were supposed to happen—was for me the most profound feeling I’ve ever had.

There were all kinds of difficulties through the adoption process. … I had thought that I had all the paperwork completed and had sent it off to India, and they sent it back and said, “Oh we need some more signatures.” It was about that time that I thought that this was not going to happen. I was sure that it was never going to work. It was about that time that one of the adoption workers said to me, “I know this is really hard; all I can tell you is that your baby hasn’t been born yet.” That just rang so false for me at the time. I was just so frustrated with the length of time it took and not getting any updates, any information about where we really were in the process and not understanding why things take as long as they do. But when I brought Isabelle home and had that feeling that she was always meant to be my baby—then I wasn’t nearly so angry, and then I completely understood the cliché, “All I can tell you is that your baby hasn’t been born yet!”

This baby needed me in a way that I have never felt needed before. She gave me the confidence to feel like I can do anything else that I want to do. … I can do anything else that I set my mind to. Having Isabelle made me think that, now I have a family, and now she needs a sibling, and so I adopted Mary Grace. Now we are a family of three.