All this time later, Vince Wagner reflects on a decision he made more than three decades ago — a seemingly minor decision that ended up altering and in many ways defining his life, as well as the lives of two children who've grown into men.
"It's a cool story," Tony Slocum told me. He's one of the two men whose lives were changed by Wagner's decision. And he's right; it is a cool story.
It began 35 years ago, in the spring of 1979. It was a long time ago, yes, but many things haven't changed. The city was dealing with the same issues then that it faces today: struggles with violence, drugs and poverty, and too many young people surrounded by it all.
Wagner was a young patent lawyer trying to build a career, just three years out of law school and a recent arrival to the state's capital city. He struggled as we talked the other day to remember exactly why he called the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters to offer his time. But he does remember feeling fortunate to have landed a job with great prospects for the future, and wanting to give a little bit back.
He ended up giving a lot. But, he'll tell you, he got even more in return.
Today, The Star launches its annual Our Children/Our City fund-raising campaign. Your financial donations will be used to help meet the needs of children throughout Central Indiana.
Give to help meet needs of Indy's children
But beyond money, we also want to encourage you to give of your time as a mentor or tutor for children who need positive role models. The way Vince Wagner has done for so long, and so effectively.
"They're like my sons," Wagner, now 63, said of the two "little brothers" the mentoring program brought into his life. "I don't have children but they couldn't be any closer to me. I really got a lifelong family out of this."
As long-lasting as the relationships have been, thriving through all that comes with the passage of time, things could have hardly started out in a simpler or more casual way. It all points to a basic truth: In the end, when it comes to children, few things matter more than just being there for them.
Wagner remembers being told that his little brother would be an 8-year-old boy named Tony Slocum, a second-grader from a rough neighborhood on the Eastside of Indianapolis. Like many others, Tony had no relationship with his father and few opportunities to see what life was like away from 25th Street and Hillside Avenue, his little part of a neighborhood that offered too few success stories and too much daily heartbreak. Tony recalls walking past the juvenile jail that sat like a warning in the middle of his neighborhood and knowing, at far too young of an age, classmates who were already locked up inside.
"A neighborhood like the one we grew up in can eat you up," Slocum says. And, again, he is right.
Wagner picked Tony up on his way home from work late one afternoon in March 1979 and, after a stop at a grocery store, they went to his apartment to hang out and make hamburgers. The skinny little boy ate one, and then another, and after a couple of hours Vince drove him home. That first get-together doesn't sound like it should have been so memorable but you need to understand that to a young boy who hadn't spent much time around positive male role models, who hadn't spent much time in the safer parts of the city, and who hadn't had many people show an interest in him, it meant the world.
The meetings continued. Some were casual; Vince would take his little brother along as he ran errands, for instance, or let him hang out in his 26th-floor office as he worked, smiling occasionally as the elementary school student pointed out the window at the big buildings he'd never seen from up high. Other times they would go to Pacers games or out to dinner. And along the way, if Tony had a basketball, Little League or Pop Warner football game, Wagner would be in the crowd. If he needed a ride home from practice, Wagner was the one who picked him up. And although it's important to note that this next part doesn't always happen, within months Tony's grades improved and a new confidence emerged.
"That had such an impact on me," says Slocum, now a 44-year-old Indiana State Police sergeant. "Now that I'm older I think a lot about the sacrifices he made. I mean, I go to school events for my two kids and I see how much time that takes and how hard it is to juggle your work schedule. But even when he was trying to build his career he still made time for me. It wasn't just once in a while. It was all the time."
Wagner, meantime, learned two things almost immediately. First, while he had signed up to help, he discovered, "Hey, I have a new friend here." Second, it became clear that even seemingly inconsequential experiences could have a profound impact on a boy who, more than anything, needed attention.
The story expanded four years later, after Tony made a new friend. His name was Jimmy Saddler and he was another kid who had trouble identifying his father or a neighborhood role model. The boys quickly became best friends, building a bond around sports and the one-on-one games they played in the empty lots and poorly maintained basketball courts around their low-income apartment complex.
"Where he went, I went," Saddler, now 43, told me recently. "And we kept each other away from all the bad stuff in the neighborhood, from the stuff we were seeing, stuff I wouldn't wish on anyone."
The two middle-school students became almost inseparable, with the exception of those times when Tony would head off with his big brother. Saddler said those were the longest hours; he'd play at the park by himself or wander around the neighborhood waiting for his friend to return. Tony, meantime, would talk almost endlessly to Wagner about his new buddy, telling him with excitement that, "He's just like me."
Tony is white and Jimmy is black, but that didn't matter. They were the same age and from the same neighborhood. They loved the same sports and laughed at the same jokes. And even if they didn't know it at the time, they faced the same challenges and were at risk of stepping on the same landmines that plague neighborhoods like theirs.
Those risks are exactly why programs like Big Brothers exist: To give kids who haven't been given enough in life the opportunities to overcome what surrounds them. Those programs hurt for volunteers in 1979, and still do in 2014.
As the summer of 1983 arrived, Jimmy became an informal member of Wagner's group. And not long after that, he signed up with the Big Brothers program and was officially matched with Wagner. The duo had become a trio.
"The nice part about it," Jimmy Saddler says now, "was that Vince treated me exactly the way he treated Tony. Exactly the same way. I wasn't the third wheel. From the start, you'd think we'd been together for years because he included me in everything they did."
And they did a lot over the next several years. Visits to other cities so the boys could see what college campuses looked and felt like. Games at Wrigley Field and the University of Notre Dame. And all those times when Wagner would be in the stands for their games, or when the boys would be at his house. All three smiled the other day as they remembered the time the boys, then 12, helped lay new sod in Wagner's backyard, the three of them ending up a muddy mess before heading to McDonald's.
That's one of the times they remember most. It's also one of so many times when the two boys did nothing more with Wagner than what other children get to do any weekend with their own dads. The strong memories evoked by that day of working in the dirt say a lot about what vulnerable children in our city want and need.
"My life got more exciting when I started hanging out with Tony and Vince, that's for sure," Saddler said. "We'd do things I couldn't have dreamed of doing. It was like a whole new world had been opened up to me. But to be honest, what you can't put a price on is all the times we just were there sitting around and talking."
In the mid-1980s, as crack cocaine ripped new holes through already violent neighborhoods such as the one the two teenagers lived in, Wagner helped them earn admission and scholarships to Cathedral High School. As many of their childhood acquaintances were lost to the streets, these two played varsity sports and earned good grades at one of the state's best private schools. As far too many students in the city were dropping out, Wagner was teaching the two boys how to open a checking account, how to apply for college, and how to succeed in life. As so many young men made decisions that cost them their futures, these two were accepted to St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer.
"The X-factor in all of that was Vince," Slocum said. "I remember him not saying a lot but showing by example. Showing us that if you're going to get ahead in life you have to go the extra mile. We saw him showing people respect and reaching out to help people, and putting in extra time at work, not taking shortcuts. Looking back on it, he was setting an example for us of what a man should be."
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that it didn't end when Slocum and Saddler, as 18-year-old men, left for college. The trio's relationship endured and strengthened as Wagner drove the young men back and forth to campus, and during phone calls in which he encouraged them to work hard. It endured after Saddler dropped out of college to help take care of his younger sisters after his mother's death, and as the decades passed and brought life's ups and downs.
Sound like a family?
"It's funny," Wagner said. "Big Brothers is supposed to be a mentoring program. But the truth is, the big brother can get as much out of the experience as the little brother. We got friends for life. We got a family for life."
As he sat at his kitchen table recently showing me old pictures, Wagner talked about going to both of his little brothers' weddings, about the countless football and basketball games they've attended together over the years, and about the phone calls and texts shared almost daily. Slocum now lives 90 minutes away in Fulton County and they're all busy, but that hasn't been an obstacle.
The group got together for a whirlwind of football last weekend, traveling to South Bend for a Notre Dame game on Saturday and then meeting in Indianapolis for Sunday night's Colts game. They laughed about the old times as we talked in Wagner's backyard Sunday afternoon. Saddler said members of his extended family still ask, "Hey, how's your big brother doing?" They ask, he said, "Because they know Vince is such a part of my life."
Tony Slocum and Jimmy Saddler consider each other brothers, bonded by a lifetime of shared experiences and by the knowledge that they helped each other dodge the troubles that claimed so many other kids from their old neighborhood. They told me that the streets still have a powerful pull that is hard for a young person to fight against without a strong counterweight, and without someone like Wagner — someone whose disappointed look you never want to see.
"It's hard to think this way, but I know I could have ended up on the wrong side of the tracks," Saddler said. "Just having Vince spending time with me made all the difference in the world. I probably wouldn't be where I am today without him."
Thirty-five years after this story began, Slocum is a college graduate, a state trooper, and the father of two. He coaches high school football because he wants to give back like Wagner did.
Saddler, meantime, has a daughter and a good job at Citizens Energy. He told me he is still being pushed by Wagner's gentle influence, and that's part of the reason he recently completed his associate's degree through the University of Phoenix's online program. The degree helped him earn a higher position at work.
And to celebrate the life achievement, he marched in a commencement ceremony at the Convention Center in Downtown. "It was a really nice event," he said.
His big brother, of course, was there.
You can reach me at email@example.com or at Twitter.com/matthewltully.
Our children need your help
Here in Central Indiana thousands of children don't have enough food to eat, struggle to learn to read or lack positive role models. You can help change that.
Through the Our Children/Our City campaign (now merged with Season for Sharing), readers of the Indy Star have donated more than $1 million in recent years to help improve kids' lives. But the needs are still great, and now, as we enter the holiday season, we're asking you to give both your time and money to make life better for the children in our community.
To donate, go here: http://www.indystar.com/ococdonate
And to serve as a mentor or tutor, contact these agencies:
Big Brothers Big Sisters
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana provides children ages 8 to 18 with 1-to-1 mentoring relationships. There are 532 Marion County youth waiting for mentors, and 66 percent are boys, most of whom reside on the Eastside of Indianapolis. Being a "Big" requires a one-year commitment. Volunteers can expect to be enrolled, trained, and matched within 90 days. Contact Big Brothers Big Sisters at www.bebigforkids.orgor at 317-921-2201
Many students in Indianapolis hope to become the first members of their families to attend college. You can help ensure they're ready for the rigors of college work. The Starfish Initiative pairs college-educated mentors with academically promising students from low-income families. The Starfish Initiative works with more than 350 volunteers. There is an immediate need for 15 mentors and an additional 125 volunteers are needed by June. Starfish is accepting applications and training mentors now. Contact the Starfish Initiative at 317-955-7912 or at www.starfishinitiative.org.
Students who struggle with reading are at high risk of failing in school, and, without intervention, may drop out. Through ReadUP, a partnership between United Way and Indianapolis Public Schools, volunteers spend one hour a week working with IPS fourth-graders. United Way has 831 ReadUP volunteers; 500 more are needed this semester, and 2,500 more can be put to work in the fall semester. Expect to wait about two weeks after contacting ReadUP to be assigned to a student. Contact ReadUP at (317) 925-7323 or at www.uwci.org.