R.I.P Mr. Owens. Thanks for helping me find my voice.

One of the sad truths about living far from where you grew up is that you sometimes miss things: bits of news, classmates’ birthdays, passages – and tragedies. 

I missed a big one, and want to thank an old friend for sharing through Facebook the death of someone who changed my life.

His name was Lloyd Owens. I didn’t know until after I’d graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that he had any other name by Lloyd.

No matter. He was just Mr. Owens to those of us in chorus.

He was Mr. Owens to those of us who worked on the stage plays at Tarboro Senior High: Lil’ Abner, Guys and Dolls.

He was Mr. Owens to those of us whose lives he touched, whose spirits he lifted and whose personas were molded by his generous spirit, his huge love of life and his constant nurturing.

He was one of those teachers, coaches, mentors who took seriously the job of nurturing children. It wasn’t just a job. We could tell that he loved it, and he loved us.

As for me, he helped give me my voice.

It was my greatest challenge, my dual personalities: I was secretly shy. No one knew it because I participated in everything: student government, athletics, cheerleading (Yes, I know some consider it a sport.), drama club, French club, band and – gloriously – the chorus.

And since most of the singers who auditioned for roles in the annual spring play were from the chorus, I got to watch up close something I’d wanted to do forever.

One year, we were doing “Guys and Dolls,” my favorite musical for years. “The Color Purple” and “Hamilton” have since stolen my heart. But back then, Guys was everything. I didn’t want a starring role. I just wanted to sing on stage.

The first auditions were in Mr. Owens’ office – and I was so nervous. He listened for a just a few seconds, stopped me and said. “Come back when you’re ready. Know the words. Feel them. Make them yours.” And with a flick of his hand, I was dismissed. Continue Reading

Live with Time; don’t watch it pass by

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I learned last night that I lost a friend, another friend, a dear friend, a man larger than life with a personality and conviction for truth unparalleled among my friends.

We do not control Time.

It treats us like the peons we are. We can either sit by and watch as it parades or we can swim in it, march with it, dance through it – because it does not stop.

People – friends, colleagues, acquaintances – ask me why I’m traveling so much and doing so much and living so much: visiting two or three countries and several states a year, attending tennis tournaments and concerts, seeing “Hamilton” twice and finding my way to big events such as inaugurals and small ones like PeeWee football games 1,200 miles away from my home.

As I’ve struggled this year with the loss of my mother and surgery that put me on my a– for weeks, I did hear friends tell me to slow down, take my time. But you can’t take Time. It is controlled by no one, save God.

I can occasionally operate at 33 and a third rather than 78. (Google records to understand that). But I don’t have to stop the adventures. I will still rip and run all I want. I plan to live every single day with gusto, frivolity and, occasionally, foolishness.

Why?

Because each sunrise is a revelation. Each day is a gift. Don’t spend your life planning to live. Live!

I lost a friend and didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. I plan to frolic in Time, play with it, laugh with it. Every day.

Because each day is what we have. Each time. And Time is not waiting for you – or me.

Rochelle Riley is a columnist at the Detroit Free Press. Read her columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley. Read her personal reflections here, where she pursues life, liberty and whatever the hell else she wants. Follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.

A young man, without words, teaches an older generation about humanity, patience & Lawd, when…

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Former Washington Post crew Rochelle Riley, Athelia Knight, Shirley Carswell and Gwen Ifill join current staffer Dudley Brooks at NABJ/NAHJ.

I just returned from the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, which was held jointly this year with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

I had planned to write about the joy of seeing old friends, of sharing memories from 33 years in this organization.

I had planned to share wisdom gleaned from the fantastic seminars I attended and the successful forum I planned.

I thought I might mention again how much I miss working with the young journalists I helped train as a mentor in the student newspaper project for 22 years and the ones I’ve helped train in high school journalism workshops since 1984.

But all of that took a back seat when I read this Facebook post from one of my “babies.”  That is because what NABJ provides most is a place for all of us to help – and to share how we help – make each other better, even in the face of horrible discrimination, racism and bias in our newsrooms, our towns, our lives.

So rather than read a long post from me, read this from my friend and newspaper son, Marlon A. Walker.

In a few words, he explains why we must write our own stories, no matter how many times people complain about it. We must be the better people because we have always had to be. And as my Twitter feed begins:

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Here’s Marlon: 
________________________

I planned to gush tonight about attending ‪#‎NABJNAHJ16‬ and my first year on the board, then I met Mrs. Ella.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 8.04.51 AMI was heading into a restaurant in Greenville, S.C., for breakfast when the older woman in front of me, maybe in her 70s, stumbled. Reacting, I put out my forearm to catch her from the back. She said thanks, turned to see my face and recoiled.

Seeing the disappointment on my face in that moment, she later came to me before I left to apologize. “I never met a nice colored before, so thank you.”

I’d just spent the week with my family, celebrating Mama Rochelle Riley and having conversations with the likes of Sheila Brooks, Paula Madison andMizell Stewart III about storytelling, my role in the process, and why our beloved organization MUST be great. Continue Reading

When politics should take a back seat to reality…

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 10.39.01 PMHow can we pretend that what is going on isn’t going on?

Terrorist attacks every week – more than 950 since New Year’s Day.

Rampant hatred.

Madness so severe that it would lead a man to drive a truck down a crowded street, murdering 84 people as they celebrated Bastille Day in Nice, France.

The United States is at DEFCON 3, and we aren’t paying attention. The world is at DEFCON 2, and we’re doing other things.

You know what DEFCON means. You’ve heard of the U.S. military’s defense readiness condition that ranks alert levels based on how much danger we face. It ranges from DEFCON 5 at its lowest to DEFCON 1 at its highest. I first heard it while watching “War Games” with a young Matthew Broderick saving the world from a playful computer.

But this isn’t a movie.

And we’re not paying attention to the reality unfolding before our eyes.

Has World War III already begun while we conduct business as usual?

As politicians in countries around the world, including here, fight for power, hatred is rising rapidly. Rather than pay attention, we are making our way as if the globe were not in crisis.

If there ever was a time that politics should take a back seat to our need to fight for our world – together – it is now.

ROCHELLE RILEY’s essays on this blog are personal. No reprints without permission. You can read her columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.

A Lifelong Teacher 
Leaves a Lasting Legacy

Marva Jeanne Pitt Riley grew up in east Tarboro on a street where the neighborhood village raised all the children and helped teach all the children.

When she came of age, Mrs. Riley did the same thing: She became a teacher.

She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education from North Carolina Central University and taught elementary school. When illness took her from the classroom, she continued to teach. She gave grammar lessons on the front porch of the family home on East Church Street. She helped friends and family, and Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 12.13.07 AMlater some staff members at the Golden Living Center, where she spent the last years of her life, to ensure that their work was well done.

Marva Riley died on Sunday, June 5. She was 78 years old. But her legacy of teaching, that tradition borne on East Church Street in Tarboro, will continue.

The Marva Jeanne Pitt Riley Endowed Scholarship Fund has been established at North Carolina Central University to honor her and to train future teachers. Donations are being accepted at https://24282.thankyou4caring.org/vlb-donation (Please designate that the donation is for the Marva Jeanne Pitt Riley Scholarship/ Account E01466.) Checks (with Marva Riley Scholarship/Account E01466 on the memo line) may be mailed to:

NCCU Foundation, Inc.,
P.O. Box 19363
1801 Fayetteville St.
Durham, NC 27705

The scholarship will ensure that future young students can follow in the footsteps of a woman who persevered.

Marva Jeanne Pitt Riley was born on October 13, 1937 to Lowney and Bennie Pitt of Tarboro. She attended the Perry School and later W.A. Pattillo School, where she was active in the band, was an outstanding majorette and was the scorekeeper of the basketball teams.

She joined St. Paul AME Zion Church at an early age and later served as secretary of the Sunday School. Her first job was as a cashier at Garrett’s Drug Store in the neighborhood.

After graduating with honors from Pattillo High and North Carolina Central University, where she became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., she and her husband, Joseph Gilbert Riley, moved to New York, where Marva became a mother a third time and taught at Morningside Elementary School. She was devoted to her students until her career was derailed by multiple sclerosis. Continue Reading

Surprise moment in dress store yields joy

I had just finished co-hosting the annual Bookstock Best Award presentation – honoring fourth-grade essay winners and their teachers – and I was feeling really good.IMG_5452

Since I had a TV appearance the next day, and I needed something to wear, I dropped by Von Maur for a dress.

As I headed into the section I used to live in, a very nice sales clerk rushed up to greet me and said: “Oh, honey this isn’t your section. These are too big. Your dresses are over there.”

And she pointed me toward the section I hadn’t set foot in in 10 years, the section of single-and lower- double-digit-sized dresses. It was as far from Plus Size as it was possible to be and remain on the same floor.

The woman turned away, but even had she been looking, she wouldn’t have seen my internal Happy Dance.

I am not turning this blog into a weight-loss journal. But I had to share that story.

Since losing 62 pounds, my entire outlook and lookout have changed. I am feeling healthier and happier than I have in years.

So besides getting rid of every medication I had been taking and walking Desi in half the time each morning, I can now buy a single suit – not a separate top and bottom in whatever size is close, but a single suit. In a single size.

And I bought dresses that actually fit.

This new journey is still all about the health, but it is becoming more and more about the look. And soon, I’ll be OK with that.

(I’ll be updating with photos as I wear the dresses and suits!)

ROCHELLE RILEY is a writer whose essays here are about her personal adventures. No reprints without permission. You can read her columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.

Dipping my toe back into exercise begins in the pool

It was a promise I had to keep.

Nearly one year after beginning my heartfelt – and so far successful – effort to lose weight, I promised I’d begin doing some serious working out. The goal? Getting back on the tennis court, perhaps running a 5K.

So yesterday morning, I put on the swimsuit that is now too big, threw on my favorite sweats and drove a mile to the YMCA. Yes, I was that lazy. But I also was that late.

I arrived just in time for my first water aerobics class.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 11.28.00 PMThe first thing I noticed was the joy on the faces of my classmates, all beautiful, friendly women who appeared to be 20 to 25 years my senior. The second thing I noticed was this: Unlike the upstairs burn room, where my peers were running on treadmills, balancing on big balls and using a series of machines that I’ve used – and hated – a hundred times, this tranquil space in cool water was slower, joyful and fun.

The lesson began with balancing – standing-on-one-foot-while-holding-weights balancing. I silently began calling our instructor Mrs. Miyagi. (Google “The Karate Kid.)

We moved from that action to full-on jumping jacks and stretches, all while moving the weights, which got heavier and heavier, under water.

I should have done this sooner.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 11.27.50 PMAs we continued stretching the fronts and backs of our arms and the inside and outside of our thighs, we were joined by our lone male classmate, a white-haired, self-assured Mac Daddy who made himself right at home, as he moved from one lady to another, chatting and smiling. It was fun to watch.

But I couldn’t watch for long because I had to really pay attention to instructions on doing things my body didn’t necessarily want to do first thing in the morning.

By the time the class was over, I realized that I’d made some great friends, even if they’re friends I might see only in a swimming pool with health on our minds.

As I left, I asked Mrs. Miyagi how long the classes would continue.

“Forever,” she said, “except for holidays.” Continue Reading

Two Free Press staffers enter MI Journalism Hall of Fame

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley realized she could turn her love of writing into a living when she took a news writing class in high school.

An hour with a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, after three years of studying engineering, was enough to convince Julian H. Gonzalez to switch majors and become a newspaper photographer. It was a career that included 25 years at the Free Press.

Next month, their contributions to the profession will be recognized when they are inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame during ceremonies at Michigan State University.

“We are truly honored that half of this year’s inductees come from the Free Press’ ranks,” said Executive Editor Robert Huschka. “I’d like to thank the judges for recognizing the epic contributions of these two journalists.”

Author Dixie Franklin and Lou Mleczko, a reporter with the Detroit News for 24 years, president of the Detroit Newspaper Guild for 38 years and the guild’s administrative officer for 18 years, will also be honored during the April 17 ceremony at 5 p.m. at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing. The Hall of Fame is housed at Michigan State University.

“I couldn’t be more humbled and more proud,” said Riley, a columnist for the past 20 years, 15 at the Free Press. A native of Tarboro, N.C., Riley said the grandparents who raised her — Lowney and Bennie Pitt — made sure “I could not only go to the college of my choice but the journalism school of my choice.”

Today, she says, “I’m doing the job I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 years old.” As a child, she loved writing — stories, poetry — and “I kept trying to figure out how could I make a living doing this. A news writing class in my junior year of high school answered the question for me.”

She  said she sees herself as a crusader and feels most passionately when she writes about children and “how we prepare them — how we educate them, how we train them, how we get them ready to be adults.” She said she also uses her column to hold people accountable when they “step up to be in charge.” Continue Reading

Rochelle Riley: Ex Principal Confesses Her Crimes

EX-PRINCIPAL CONFESSES CRIMES TO COLUMNIST
By Rochelle Riley
Detroit Free Press Metro columnist

The first time Kenyetta (K.C.) Wilbourn Snapp broke the law, she had been in a new job for less than a week.

It was 2009. She was in her first stint as a principal, and she was to run Denby High School, the city’s worst-performing school that year. The Detroit native was eager to achieve — and eager to please.

“I was the first person to make it in my family, so everybody started coming around,” she said. “My grandmother showed up and Food Services hired her.  … Then comes my uncle tagging along and, I’m like, ‘Do I have to give him a job?’ ”

She had no job available, so she asked her football coach to hire her uncle as an assistant. She paid him using funds from a DPS vendor. That vendor paid Snapp $750 every time she gave him the names of 20 students for a tutoring program. She said she doesn’t know whether the program actually existed.

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The second time she broke the law, she buried a student’s mother. With school funds.

She knew it was illegal. But after the first few times, stealing became easy. Then it became routine. And Snapp, a beloved high school principal by day, became a savvy, well-connected crook around the clock.

“If you needed money, you could get money,” Snapp, 40, told the Free Press in a series of exclusive interviews.

She accepted my call because I wrote the story six years ago of how she turned Denby around in 2009. She said she wanted to try to explain why she did what she did.

“There’s a network,” she said. “It’s so deep.”

“There’s a network. It’s so deep.”

If Kwame Kilpatrick is Detroit’s greatest example of a municipal leader who forfeited a brilliant career to be a player,  Snapp, may become the poster child for a home-grown educator who squandered her career for money.

Snapp — who was indicted Thursday and recently told the Free Press that she agreed to plead guilty to charges of bribery and tax evasion in exchange for leniency — is at the heart of a federal corruption investigation into the Education Achievement Authority, the state reform district for the lowest-performing schools. The EAA oversees 15 schools in Detroit. Continue Reading