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.

I learned the words. I learned the song. And on the day of open auditions, in front of every other hopeful, I stood at the edge of the stage to sing “This Is My Country.” I chose it because it was easy, there were no high parts, it was perfect for my voice range.

And I got out one full phrase – “This is MY country, land that I love…” – before my throat closed, and I couldn’t go on.

Mr. Owens didn’t prolong my embarrassment. He said, “Try again when you’re ready.”

Decades later, when I decided to become a newspaper columnist, it was because I’d finally found my voice, and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I just wasn’t meant to sing the words.

I still love to sing. I didn’t try again until church choir on Sundays and a charity talent show one Friday night, with “My Funny Valentine.” I thought of Mr. Owens and wish I had sent him a video, showing that my becoming a columnist shook off the nerves that had made it hard for me to be on stage.

Now I’m a public speaker and commentator without fear. I appear on television without blinking. I might even make a record.

I’m sorry I didn’t go home and tell him “Thank you for helping me find my voice. I came back when I was ready, just like you told me.”

Tarboro has lost a beautiful, kind man, who nurtured kids and helped us all find our voices, our callings, our joy.

There is no greater legacy than that.

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

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.


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…

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.

Then, I met Mrs. Ella.

She’s why we tell our stories, y’all.

She’s that parent who missed the Board of Education meeting you sat through. She’s the voter unaware of the issues. She’s the one who believes‪#‎AllLivesMatter‬.

Hopefully, in my kindness, I gave her a different view. Maybe the next black man she sees won’t make her flinch.

After spending a week running into Wesley Lowery and Glenn Marshall andDelano Lanny Massey, getting face time with Errin Haines Whack and Nicki Mayo and exposing Sharon Harris to our annual gathering, it was Mrs. Ella who reinforced why we meet.

I can’t wait to get back to work tomorrow. And I cannot wait for New Orleans.


Our lives are lived in moments. Moment-by-moment, we change others’ lives and our own. Yes we can be sick and tired of being sick and tired of racism and discrimination and foolishness. But, as African Americans, we have always been the bigger people. We’ve had to be. I thank Marlon for sharing this moment, which changed my moment and my day.


Marlon A. Walker is a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rochelle Riley’s newspaper column can be found at www.freep.com/rochelleriley. These are her personal reflections about her pursuit of life, liberty and whatever the hell else she wants. Follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.

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.

She moved back to the family home in Tarboro with her three children. She was a loving mother who taught her children to read at an early age and enjoyed taking them on walks on the Town Common. As her health started to decline, she still made sure that her children’s clothes were laid out for school.

But she never stopped being a teacher.

She taught English grammar and math to not only her children, but to the neighborhood children on the front porch or in the living room of the family home. She also helped anyone she encountered to ensure their success in classes, in training or in life. Anyone who visited the Pitt-Riley house was subject to English grammar lessons. “She would correct you in a heartbeat, grown or child,” said her sister, Lorna Dale Pitt Lloyd.

Later, her declining health forced her to move to the Golden Living Center in Tarboro, where “Miss Marva” continued her guidance of young people around her. Center Director Effie Webb fondly recalls Marva’s arrival and saying to her, ‘You used to be a teacher,” and Marva sternly correcting her: “I AM a teacher!”

Mrs. Riley’s three children, all excellent grammarians, took different paths in life: Her oldest, Rochelle, became an award-winning newspaper who occasionally appears on MSNBC and CNN. Her son, Donald rose to the level of sergeant in the N.C. Department of Corrections. Her youngest, Beverley, became a banker and owner of her own jewelry business, BEVMAC.

Her legacy will continue not only through her children, but through all the children, friends, caregivers and others that she continued to teach throughout her life.

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

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.”

That’s good. I’ll continue my mile-long walks each morning, and I’ll soon begin working with a personal trainer.

But my water aerobics class? That’s a time to stretch and laugh and hang with some of the nicest women I’ve met in a long time. If all the future classes are as great as this first one, these workouts are going to be my new Skittles.

ROCHELLE RILEY’s essays on this blog 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.

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.”

“I do write a lot about officials who have to live at a higher standard than other people. I like to do things that make a difference.”

Riley, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got her first job  as a reporter at the newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. She also worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Washington Post.  In her debut column in 1996 at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky, she took the city to task for not having  a museum honoring native Muhammad Ali. The next day, the mayor called her to say she was right, and the column helped spur the community to get behind an $80-million campaign to build the Muhammad Ali Center, which opened in 2005.

She has written about politics and popular culture, race, education and adult literacy. Her columns on the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption scandal were a part of the entry that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.  But her greatest focus has been education. She has written about Detroit high schools graduating students who could not read and the saga of an Education Achievement Authority district principal who confessed to Riley that she took bribes and evaded taxes in a kickback scheme that is part of a widespread federal corruption probe. But she also wrote about a former DPS student who graduated from Harvard and returned home to Detroit only to not be able to get a job. Her column about him led to 16 job offers for the rising star.

“All the things that were a big deal for me … shed a light so people would understand a bigger issue. The columns I’ve written about race, I’m very proud of those. My main theme is that the children are always watching us. … When we say the schools are in shambles and we don’t do anything about that, the children are watching.”

Huschka called Riley “the conscience of our community here in Detroit and across our state.

“Our readers have turned to her analysis to get the real story — as she’s demanded accountability from public officials and public schools,” Huschka said. “She’s written with authority on nearly every major issue in Michigan — from corruption to the city’s bankruptcy, from education to the state’s brain drain.”

Gonzalez said he is honored to be chosen, “because I kind of backed into the profession. I’ve always felt proud to be in the profession and this is icing on the cake.”

Gonzalez was in the Marine Corps when he took a photography class while stationed in Japan. The Topeka, Kan., native had never owned a camera. After more than three years in the U.S. Marines, a friend talked him into going to college.

He’d spent more than three years studying engineering when he decided he disliked the subject and wasn’t going to be a good engineer. He mentioned his interest in photography to an academic counselor at the University of Kansas, who sent him to meet with a journalism professor.

At the end of an hour, the professor turned to Gonzalez and asked: “What are you waiting for?”

“I tried it and I realized what it meant. I was enthused by it.”

He got a part-time job at the newspaper in Lawrence, Kan, while at the University of Kansas and went full time after graduation.

He said it was like being the town doctor. “I knew everyone and everyone knew me. That grew on me. I’ve always been curious about people,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve always loved talking to people about what they did.”

He joined the Free Press in 1990 as a sports photographer and retired in December. He covered every sport — professional, college and high school. Baseball was his favorite.

Shooting sports was a challenge, he said.

“I’ve always felt very proud of being a newspaper person for 30-some years.”

Huschka said Gonzalez is “one of the world’s greatest sports photographers. You always knew Julian would come back with the Moment from the Big Game. He created indelible images that are forever connected to the sports lore of this city.”


This article reprinted from the Detroit Free Press. For information about the Hall of Fame Banquet, visit here.

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 for updates on the #FlintWaterCrisis and the Detroit Public Schools.


Rochelle Riley: Ex Principal Confesses Her Crimes

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.”

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.

Federal authorities are examining relationships between school officials and vendors who appear to have been paid for work not done or work billed at rates much higher than contracted. Investigators have spent more than a year sifting through thousands of documents that portray a “family business” with employees helping vendors, vendors helping employees and everyone helping themselves.

Snapp was indicted along with Glynis Thornton, whose company, Making a Difference Everyday, was paid to provide after-school tutoring services for students at Denby and Mumford, where Snapp became principal in 2013, and Paulette Horton, an independent contractor connected to Thornton’s company.

The three women were each charged with conspiracy to commit federal program bribery, federal program bribery, aiding and abetting and conspiracy to launder money. Snapp, in addition, was charged with federal tax evasion and Horton was charged with failure to file a federal income tax return.

When Snapp told the Free Press that she had funneled public school funds to nearly 1,000 consultants, local businesses, parents, family and friends, those muffled wails you heard across the city were the sounds of hope dying.

“Let me be honest, I benefited,” she said. “I couldn’t have $2,000 in my pocket from a vendor … and not buy gas for the car.”

That would be the red Maserati, a gift from a school vendor that became a red flag for federal investigators. After FBI agents raided her Detroit home a year ago, Snapp got rid of the car.

To read more, go  HERE.