Updated: May 29, 2013 6:12AM
The city of Gary has become stereotyped, pigeonholed and, too often, unfairly judged by its most “newsworthy” attributes — crime, poverty, and abandonment.
But the tarnished steel city brims with productive, good-hearted, God-fearing people who strive for a better life, just like most everyone else in Northwest Indiana.
Today’s column offers a brief snapshot of those unheralded or unnoticed residents who we would otherwise never know — from daycare to adult care — in a three-act play that never takes center stage.
The weathered and withered home on the west side of the city looks like just another forgotten weed in a long-neglected garden. It’s on a street littered with potholes, urban decay, and abandoned homes.
But inside, the minds and manners of a dozen preschool children are blossoming beautifully, thanks to Ollette Washington, owner of Concrete Beginnings daycare center.
“These children have great social skills, even at their young ages,” explained Washington, who uses the home as a daycare center from early morning to late at night for dozens of children. “Let me show you how they learn to behave here from the jump.”
Washington called all the young children into a single room as she fed a baby with a bottle. The children quickly obeyed her, quietly sitting on the floor with their hands politely folded. Then they broke into a familiar singsong welcome to each other.
“Hello everybody yes indeed, yes indeed, yes indeed my darling,” the kids sang, clapping their hands in between lyrics for exclamation. (You can watch a video clip of this at post-trib.com.)
Washington asked them, “I feel?”
“Great!” they replied excitedly.
“I am?” she asked.
“Smart!” they yelled back.
“I can do?” she asked.
“Anything!” they beamed. “If I put my mind to it.”
These preschoolers were by far the most polite and disciplined group of tots I’ve ever met. By age 3, most kids here can write their first and last name, identify letters and numbers, and know right from wrong, Washington proudly noted.
As the kids returned to their work or play, depending on their ages, she said something to me that spoke volumes for the city and its future: “This is where it all starts.”
Michele Walker walked with a limp and a cane into Hudson Campbell Sports and Fitness Center, located downtown across from City Hall.
The 58-year-old Gary woman is recovering from knee replacement surgery on both knees and she needs to be more active for her rehabilitation. She tried a workout gym in Griffith, but she just didn’t feel “welcome” there, she told me.
She returned to Hudson Campbell, a massive but troubled workout facility that reflects the city’s woes.
Here, at the front desk, Walker talked with its new director, Nate George, who started in January.
George, one of the city’s finest, explained to Walker what the revamped center offers her, its cost, and other details. It has roughly 300 members these days, he figures.
He also explained to me that Hudson Campbell is more than simply a gym operated by the Gary Park Department. It’s a community center, a gathering site, ground zero for its members to connect with others.
Older members typically show up early for walks, workouts, or to mingle with each other. Like clockwork, most are as dependable as the sunrise. Younger members show up in the afternoon, many of them to play full-court basketball, complete with requisite trash talking, routine swishers, and buckets of sweaty hustle.
“Other gyms may have better equipment or more things to offer, but this place means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” George told me.
It’s a place for people seeking camaraderie, or a brief respite from their troubled lives, or to get away from their spouse for a while. Or as one member told George, “If I wasn’t here, I may be doing something stupid out on the streets.”
Outside the facility, Walker told me, “This place got bad many years ago. That’s why I left. But it’s looking better now. Hopefully, it’s back for good, like the city.”
Hugh Few sat alone at a table, quietly reading the holy bible while sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
The 84-year-old enigma sported a handcrafted cardboard hat made with a newspaper comic strip, a colorful necklace, and a large purple earring made from a paperclip. He stood out like an original painting in a forgotten closet of gray suits.
Hugh has a warm smile, a gentle handshake, and he resides in a room with two other beds but no roommates inside the South Shore Health & Rehabilitation Center.
The nearly block-long property is home to an eclectic collection of residents, roughly 80 these days. Some are here for short-term rehab, others for long-term care. Some scream out for attention, others silently melt into the furnishings
One older man strolled past me in the hallway, dressed dapper in a suit and fedora hat, which he tipped to say hello. One woman at the front door just stared at me.
Hugh is a Chicago native who arrived here in 1974 from the now-closed Norman Beatty Mental Hospital in Westville. (It’s now the Westville Correctional Facility.)
Hugh has lived here since the Nixon administration, these days in room 302, at the end of a hallway. His room overlooks an outdoor courtyard. He rarely leaves, even for day-time field trips. He once tried to join the U.S. Navy while living here, but it didn’t take.
He told me that he never married, has no kids, and he used to work as a busboy in Chicago restaurants. His favorite thing to do is create artwork, including his hats, earrings, and necklaces.
“I like it here. It’s home, my home,” he said while showing off his latest cardboard hat creation.
Hugh reads the bible every day, probably more than most preachers.
On this day, he’s reading the book of Luke, pressing his old eyes almost right next to the page of old gospel.
“To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.