'Guardian angel,' community join to give man home

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Posted: Dec 22, 2014 3:06 PM
'Guardian angel,' community join to give man home

LEXINGTON, N.C. (AP) — She'd warned Scotty Reynolds to stay away from people like this, but "Mr. I Don't Listen" ignored her, as usual. Now, here he sat, moaning about how someone he'd taken in had trashed his apartment and stolen his computer.

Gayle Whitehead had been watching out for the mentally disabled man for 30 years — getting him out of scrapes, picking him up at the police station or hospital, washing his feet when he'd gone without shoes. Theirs was an unusual, special friendship — and, yes, sometimes a prickly one. Now, sick with cancer, she decided it was time for a "come-to-Jesus meeting."

"When I die, what are you going to do?" Whitehead asked the man-child before her. "Who's going to bail you out? Who's going to love you unconditionally like I have?"

The argument got so heated that the police were called in to take Reynolds home — "for his protection. And mine, too," Whitehead said.

When he'd had a chance to cool down, Reynolds realized that Whitehead was right.

"Well," he said. "I'm going to buy me a house."

"Yeah, right," Whitehead thought.

___

Swinging his head rhythmically from side to side, Scotty Reynolds sings or talks to himself as he walks the streets of this former textile and furniture manufacturing hub. With his computer bag and bow tie, Reynolds is about as much a fixture in Lexington as barbecue.

"You're going to find very few people in Lexington that say, 'Nah, I've never seen that guy,'" says local contractor Marc Lamoureax. "Everybody knows Scotty."

He grew up here, the product of a troubled home. The family was poor. When Scotty was 10, his mother told her only child there was no money for Christmas presents that year. Scotty poured out his heart in a letter to Santa; the mail carrier read the letter and shared it with Gayle Whitehead.

Scotty awoke Christmas morning to find a trove beneath the tree: A Teddy bear, a drum kit, a set of encyclopedias, a keyboard, some new clothes. When he asked his mother who had brought them, she replied: "Your old guardian angel."

Turns out, Whitehead already knew the family. As a social worker, she had visited the home. Scotty's father was abusive to both his wife and son, and authorities briefly removed the child.

The boy, diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, would mimic his father's behavior — when he was 14, he punched his mother. She left.

"She tried the best she could," Reynolds says, apologetically. "I was too wild."

Once again, Whitehead came to his rescue. She secured a spot for Scotty in a group home 20 miles away.

Whitehead largely ceased to be a daily presence in his life, until one day when he showed up on her doorstep, complaining that he had been physically abused at the home. The day he turned 18, he packed his bags and walked back to Lexington — to the one person he could always count on.

Gayle and Gary Whitehead had their hands full. In addition to their two biological and two adopted children, they have fostered six other kids over the years. But after some soul searching, she agreed to assume power of attorney for Reynolds.

Now 56, Whitehead is executive director of Crisis Ministry of Davidson County, in charge of the county's only homeless shelter, a food and clothing bank, and a program to help the disabled manage their finances, medications and other needs.

There is hardly a day that Reynolds doesn't stop by her office — almost always unannounced. In a lilting voice, he describes a typical visit: "'What do you need Scotty?'" he says, head down, affecting Whitehead's stern tone. "'And make it very, very brief. I got two minutes.' Then she'll look at her watch and say, 'Oh, goodness. Two minutes turned into 15 minutes!'"

It seemed that Reynolds was always getting into trouble. Tender-hearted to a fault, he would often invite homeless people to stay with him in his apartment. Once, it led to his eviction; another time, to the loss of his possessions. And then there are those who target Reynolds because of his disabilities. His left temple bears a prominent scar from a home invasion.

"They almost killed me," Reynolds says, clicking his fingernails nervously. He's spent time at the homeless shelter.

Once, Reynolds was talking with Whitehead's son, Jason. He knew she was having trouble with her knees, and asked Jason how her surgery went.

"He said, 'Scotty. Mama's sicker than people knows,'" Reynolds recalls, his voice breaking with emotion. Doctors had diagnosed Whitehead with a rare form of cervical cancer.

"I had hidden it from people, especially from my clients," she says. "But he knows everything. He doesn't miss anything."

Reynolds went to her.

"If you die, who am I going to have?" he asked her.

She assured him that her successor at Crisis Ministry would take care of him, but Reynolds couldn't help thinking the worst. "I'm going to end up back in a home," he told her.

That's when he hatched the idea of finding a home of his own.

She tried to impress upon him what a huge responsibility homeownership was. "You're going to have less money than you've ever had," she warned him.

But his mind was made up.

___

His first find was a trailer. Whitehead saw immediately that it was rotten.

"I said, 'No. Absolutely not,'" she recalls.

After a few more false starts, they found a 1,145-square-foot bungalow. Built around 1900, it was just a couple of blocks off Main Street — less than a mile from Whitehead's office. It needed a lot of work, but Whitehead agreed with Reynolds that it had "good bones."

The house was valued at $27,000, the land another $14,000. Whitehead crunched the numbers and, given the amount of work the house needed, decided the most Reynolds could reasonably afford to pay was $8,000. To his amazement, the owners accepted his offer.

Now, they had to secure financing.

Reynolds made the rounds of every bank in town, but even the one where he'd done his business for 20 years turned him down. Too risky, they told him.

Then someone suggested he go see Kent Beck at Industrial Federal.

The assistant vice president and loan officer had known Gayle and Gary Whitehead for a quarter century. When Gayle Whitehead agreed to co-sign the loan, Beck agreed to help Reynolds become a homeowner. It would not be easy.

"Poor Kent," says Whitehead. "He has been a saint."

His new customer would come to the bank at least once a day. Beck would emerge from a meeting to find him sitting in the lobby, typing on his laptop, reading a magazine, or enjoying some coffee and cookies.

Reynolds was unfailingly polite, but "persistent," Beck says.

"Keeping his feet on the ground was probably the hardest thing to do," Beck says.

Finally, in late August, everything was in order. When Beck told Reynolds that they were ready to close, he "jumped up and down and waved his hands," Beck says, relishing the memory. "He was just probably the most, the happiest borrower I've ever seen. I mean, it seemed so small. But to him, it was everything."

Beck, whose bank is now known as HomeTrust Bancshares, confesses that in all the years he'd seen Scotty walking the streets, he'd never thought of him as a potential homeowner.

"And that's where I think we underestimate, sometimes, people's ability, people's goals, people's dreams," he says. "And their determination."

Reynolds has gotten used to other people's low expectations. It will take him two or three more years, but he is steadily working his way toward an associate's degree in criminal justice at Davidson Community College.

"People judge me, because I have a mental disability," he says. "They don't see past that. ... Sometimes I play dumb, but I'm actually smarter than people give me credit for."

___

Like most things with Scotty, the house was a bit more of a project than Whitehead had anticipated.

Thieves had stripped the house of its copper plumbing and wiring, and the heating system was gone. Vandals had broken out nearly every window.

Lamoureaux, the contractor, was a year ahead of Scotty at Lexington High School. When he learned of the situation, he volunteered himself and his crew.

"You know, life obviously hasn't dealt him the greatest deck of cards," he says. "Everybody who knows Scotty knows he's got a good heart — probably a heart bigger than this house. And so we're going to help him out."

As word spread, others stepped forward to pitch in.

Bank employees and others contributed money and household items. On a recent rainy Saturday, about a dozen students and staff members from the community college scraped, painted, ripped up carpet and hauled away debris. "He's a really nice guy," says nursing student Maritza Villa, secretary of the school's student government association. "And he totally deserves this."

The kitchen will be yellow. Scotty's bedroom: Carolina blue.

He has already decided to leave the house to Crisis Ministry in his will. It's his way of paying Whitehead back.

"If it wasn't for her, I'd probably be in prison or dead," says Reynolds, who turns 40 in December. "I might give her a lot of grief and stuff, but I am grateful to her. ... God knows I've had my share of troubles, and she's always been there. When Scotty needs it and I get in trouble, who's there? Gayle is."

She may call Reynolds a "knot head." But Whitehead is clearly very fond of him.

"He gets on my nerves sometimes," she says, rolling her eyes. "But I do love him ... And I want to know that he's going to be OK, always, if I'm not around."

But Whitehead, now in remission, tells him he's not shed of her just yet.

"I have a key to the house," she reminds him. "I will check on him when he LEAST expects it."

Reynolds rocks gently, and nods.

___

Online:

http://crisisministryofdavidsoncounty.com/

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Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed.