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Sean Kirst: Raised amid struggle, sheer joy on graduation day

The picture seemed to explode into life on Facebook. It appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch, and it showed "Mr. Utica College" front and center on the stage, on graduation day. His arms were in the air, thrown up with spontaneous passion, cap in one hand while the young man’s face was eclipsed by utter joy.

If you wanted the definition of education as triumph, there it was.

I couldn’t help it. I called Mr. Utica College. I had to ask about that photo.

“At that moment,” he explained, “I knew I’d done something I never thought could be done.”

His real name is Alfonzo Whitehurst. I knew him when he played Little League baseball in Syracuse. He was a kid who taught himself the sport, who always showed up early, who’d do anything to help. He caused a neighborhood celebration 10 years ago this spring, when he homered in one of his last games. But he also faced many struggles in his life, and he moved away from our community just as he started high school.

I'd heard he was doing well. Still, the enormity of what he’s accomplished seemed to burst from the screen like a sunrise, after graduation day.

It made me think of every child who faces overwhelming obstacles in the heart of our big upstate cities. I wondered if Whitehurst had a philosophy, a road map, for the way he'd made it through.

Alfonzo Whitehurst: Listening as life strategy. (Image courtesy Amy Summerville)

Sure, he told me: He would talk about the journey. He was up against grief and hardship from the beginning. His mother was killed in Syracuse when he was a little boy. He never met his father. With his younger siblings, Marcel and Oliesha, much of his childhood turned into moving from place to place, or staying with different relatives or family friends.

It was  sheer turbulence.

“I used to wonder if I’d ever have a place of my own,” Whitehurst said. The greatest moment in his life, he said, is not what you’d expect – not a high school football championship, not even the monumental day of his college graduation.

The greatest moment, he said, occurred when he was assigned to be a summer camp counselor at a city park in Syracuse, and he found himself talking to children who grew up in a way all too similar to what Whitehurst remembers: Their families were moving all the time. People they counted on were wounded by addiction or violence. These children had no real notion of hope about the future.

Except the hope of finding a way to get to the next day.

Whitehurst made sure they knew how glad he was to see them. People have no clue, he said, how much difference that makes: Children sense pity, condescension,  irritation from adults. The boys and girls settled in to get ready for the camp, and Whitehurst realized – when he spoke – these kids weren't simply hearing what he said.

They were valuing it.

That affirmation, without question, was the moment he'll never forget.

“I feel like I can help them,” Whitehurst said. “One thing I learned, no matter how bad it is or could be, you’ve got to always have a smile. Because (the children) will see you’re happy and feed off it. If that kid knows they make you feel sympathy or sadness, that’s what they’ll feel about themselves.”

It is a code he will depend upon, once he becomes a teacher.

When Whitehurst was small, barely 4 years old, his mother – Carla Whitehurst – was found dead in Syracuse. Her killer has never been captured. The tragedy propelled Whitehurst into a cycle that defines why so many children raised in chaos speak of where they “stay,” instead of where they live. He moved constantly. He was never sure of where he’d be from night to night.

“At school, I had to cover it up,” Whitehurst said. He'd force down the fear, the anxiety, he felt in his gut. Sometimes, the parents of friends would give him a ride home, and Whitehurst would tell them to drop him near whatever apartment where he’d lived before. He'd walk, however long the distance, to the newest place so they didn’t realize he had moved yet again. What so many children take for granted – stability, safety, a sense of home – became the dreams, the central goals, in his life.

“I knew what I wanted,” Whitehurst said.

Now, he is on a roll. This spring, by vote of his peers, he was indeed named Mr. Utica College, a measure based on a contest with such categories as “best dressed” – but a measure really of respect and affection. Last week, he took part in his college graduation ceremony, becoming the first person from his family to ever walk the stage.

He will return to college in the autumn to play one last semester of football, to pick up the handful of undergraduate credits he still needs to complete the diploma. He is on track to become a physical education teacher, and he is going straight into graduate work. When he leaves Utica, he will have a master’s degree in education. He intends to "pay forward" every kindness he has ever received, all the people who were there for him along the way, and he looks forward to working with children whose burdens he understands.

Sometimes at night, before he sleeps, he still marvels at it all.

He figures he moved at least 15 times when he was a little boy, in Syracuse. His older sister, Daisha, made great sacrifices for her family. He and his younger siblings often stayed with relatives or friends. But sometimes there might not be enough space, or the rent might be too much. Whitehurst would find himself frantically pulling together his belongings on some weekday evening, and later that night sleeping on a couch or on the floor.

The great pivot in his life occurred when he was a high school freshman, a student who was barely staying afloat with a 68 average, a guy who says he took great satisfaction from being a class clown – and who wasn't even sure he'd make it through high school. He felt no expectations, no belief in possibility, from the circle he was a part of at school. But some friends from church offered to give him and his siblings a place to stay in Baldwinsville, a suburban village west of Syracuse.

He made the move. He grew close to staff and students whose perspectives changed his own sense of potential. Oliesha and Marcel, like their brother, are now in college. When Whitehurst isn’t at school, he has lived for the past six years with the family of Dan Krawiec, whom he met when they were teammates on Baldwinsville's football team. Whitehurst was again living from couch to couch when Dan asked his mother, Amy Summerville, if Alfonzo could stay with them for a few days.

Summerville knew his situation. She called a family meeting. She said she would not bring him in if it meant turning him out. “If he’s staying,” she said, “he’s really staying.” Whitehurst became part of the household, a young man she describes as “one of the most understanding and empathetic people I’ve ever met.” Every child develops coping strategies, Summerville said, and Whitehurst’s way of confronting life was not through anger or defiance, as self-protection.

Instead, it became this kind of bottomless compassion.

Graduation day: For Alfonzo Whitehurst, clear reason to celebrate. (Courtesy Amy Summerville)

Whitehurst speaks of all the adults who’ve been there for him, the teachers who gave him extra time, the coaches who taught him discipline, the counselors who helped him find a way to college. At Utica, some of his closest friends are young men who navigated the same dangers and pitfalls of their city neighborhoods.

If there is one thing he’s learned, he said, it’s that listening is everything.

“I hear what everyone in my life has to say,” Whitehurst said. “They’ve all been through different journeys – rich or poor or homeless. Not everyone has the same view, whether you like it or dislike it, but I learned this: You can always learn from it.”

He offers particular appreciation to Brandy Dixon, a Baldwinsville guidance counselor who drove to Utica for his graduation. She met him when he was a teenager, helped him deal with the transition from the city to a new community. Her take on her role is exactly the opposite of how Whitehurst sees it: Any gift from that connection came to her.

“He touched so many lives while he was in Baldwinsville, and he continues to do so,” she said.

Dixon is not surprised that Whitehurst became "Mr. Utica College." She's seen the way he's embraced everywhere he goes. Something about Whitehurst – about his warmth, about his empathy, about the way he truly listens – creates a kind of kinship that lasts for life.

“I was lucky to be his school counselor,” Dixon said.

If you want one truth, his core motivation, Whitehurst said it is the memory of his mother. It is within his power, he said, to make sure that she is more than a statistic, not just another casualty lost to random violence on the streets. It is up to him and his siblings, he said, to keep her alive – in the sense that the value of her life will be measured by the lives of her children.

“What I’m trying to do,” Whitehurst said, “is prove she was a great person.”

The answer poured from him, like sunlight, on graduation day.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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