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What Happened to My Father

Thirty years ago, Roosevelt Alexander was a fire-breathing Evanston alderman battling what he called "backdoor honkyism." To his opponents, he was a fighter with a knack for posing "the devastating question at the appropriate moment." To his young daughte



When ShaRita Alexander drives to class at National-Louis University at 7 AM she often sees her father, Roosevelt Alexander, ambling down the sidewalk. He's always alone, moving slowly, his eyes focused straight ahead.

"Dad!" she shouts one morning, stopping her car. Her father, who's 60, looks over, confused. He rarely recognizes her car, which irritates her, but if he asks her for a ride she always takes him.

Sometimes she can't resist scolding him. "You have a 12-year-old son," she says. "You need to get your life together."

"I know, I know," he says.

"Why don't you come to church with me?" she says, softening her tone.

"I will one day," he says. "I gotta work tomorrow. I'll see you. I'll call you."

He never calls. But ShaRita, who's 21, refuses to give up on him, though she knows nearly everyone else has.

Roosevelt never married or even lived with ShaRita's mother, Adlene Walker, and two months after ShaRita was born, in September 1980, he tried cocaine for the first time. He'd always been the pride of his family. He graduated from Northwestern University in 1963, then married and had two boys. In 1970, when he was only 28, he ran as an independent and was elected alderman of Evanston's fifth ward, becoming one of the city's first black aldermen. The Evanston Review reported that after he won, Roosevelt shouted to supporters outside city hall, "All power to the people in the people's building! We are going to have full recognition in this town now."

Early in his career, his fellow aldermen told the Review, Roosevelt earned a reputation for "acute self-awareness," theatrics, and an ability to pose "the devastating question at the appropriate moment." When the Review endorsed his reelection in 1971 it editorialized, "The city council would be operating in a vacuum without him."

That year Roosevelt made headlines after he got in a fight with police who'd arrested his brother. His arm was broken, and later he would stand in front of the city council wearing a sling and accuse one officer of brutality. "What happened to me as a public official happens to all black people," he shouted. "I will not put up with all this bull that is put down on me." He was arrested again in 1973 by officers who mistook him for a suspect in a battery case, though he wasn't charged. Outraged, he led a fight to form a commission to oversee police activity. When the proposal was defeated he said, "Hurrah for backdoor honkyism."

Roosevelt got divorced in 1973. A year later he graduated from Northwestern's law school and opened his own firm. It thrived, largely because of his popularity as an alderman. By the time he started doing cocaine it was going so well that he owned a Jaguar and a house in Skokie where a girlfriend lived with another of his daughters. He lived in a rented town house in Evanston. Rumors circulated that he would leave the council because he was doing so well financially, and in 1982, with a year left in his term, he quit. "I found myself getting stale," he told the Review. Later that year he ran as a Republican for circuit court judge, but the county is largely Democratic and he lost. He ran again in '83 and '84 and lost then too, even though the Chicago Bar Association endorsed him in '84.

He was still doing drugs, and according to later arrest reports, in March 1985 he began freebasing cocaine. He was almost immediately addicted.

ShaRita couldn't see that side of her father, whom she adored. When she was small, he didn't visit her mother's apartment often, but by the time she was in second grade she would leave school each day and hurry to his law office a few blocks away. She saw it as her office too, and would peck at the typewriter and giggle into the telephone. "I'd play like I was his secretary," she says. And she'd tiptoe down the hall to his private suite. "It was the bomb--bathroom, leather couches, dark lighting, real smooth music. Every time I hear a certain song it reminds me of my dad's office."

There were things about him that amused her. "He has a loud mouth," she says. "Every time we went somewhere it drove me nuts." But he also knew people wherever he went. "I thought that was very cool." When he walked in Evanston parades she rode on his shoulders, waving proudly.

She adopted his favorite foods. "He loved cashews," she says. "I loved cashews. He loved grapefruit juice. I loved grapefruit juice. He loved corned-beef hash. I loved corned-beef hash." And she loved being with him. "Maybe because I got everything I wanted," she says. "I was his brat." He called her his princess, and he had a room for her in his home that had neon moons and stars covering the walls and ceiling. She wished she could have that room forever.

But in 1987 her father stopped paying rent on the town house. According to newspaper reports, a year later he sold his Skokie house and used the $80,000 profit to buy cocaine. He stopped paying the bills for his law office and lost that too, though for a while he worked from a pay phone. That May, according to court records, he was arrested and charged with cocaine possession--the case was later dropped--and soon after that he stopped practicing law.

ShaRita first noticed that her father was in pain in November, when his mother died. ShaRita was only eight and didn't really understand what death meant. "I just knew it was a sad moment," she says.

Roosevelt had been his mother's favorite child, and she and his father had given him the title to their home and money to pay the mortgage. He used the money to buy drugs and lost the house. The day his parents were evicted his mother had a heart attack and died. Roosevelt's brother later told the Tribune she'd died of a "broken heart." Six months later his father was dead.

At his mother's funeral service ShaRita watched tears trickle down her father's face. They were sitting together but apart from the rest of the family. His hand swallowed hers. "Daddy, don't cry," she said. "It's gonna be all right." He looked down at her and she said, "If you cry you're gonna make me cry." That only made him cry harder, and she cried with him. She says she felt privileged to share her father's sorrow, and she wanted to help him however she could.

Six months later Roosevelt, who was living off handouts from friends and relatives, was arrested and charged with escorting an undercover officer on a trip to buy drugs. In December of that year ShaRita's mother gave birth to a second child by Roosevelt, LaVance.

ShaRita remembers that around this time her mother, Adlene, began disappearing into her bedroom for hours. Sometimes she would be gone from the house for days at a time, leaving nine-year-old ShaRita to care for the baby and her three-year-old half sister, Dominique.

Adlene had often told ShaRita stories about what a celebrity her father had been, but she seemed to resent ShaRita's close relationship with him. ShaRita, who still keeps a scrapbook that contains newspaper clippings about Roosevelt, says her mother would tell her, "You act just like your daddy. You love your dad more than me." They often argued, and when ShaRita was ten she went to live with her older half sister Annette, who'd moved out of the house six years earlier. ShaRita says Annette, who was then 24 and had an apartment in Chicago, is the one who taught her to have a strong work ethic and to take a deep interest in church and school.

In March 1990 Roosevelt, then 48, was arrested and charged with selling small amounts of cocaine and heroin. The charges were later dropped, and his lawyer and his ex-wife encouraged him to get help. He entered a 30-day treatment program and lasted a week, though that May he spent a week in another program. In November he was arrested again and charged with felony possession of ten grams of cocaine. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years' probation.

During this time ShaRita's encounters with her father became brief and unpredictable. He would stop by Annette's for five minutes, then leave. Occasionally he slept on her couch. ShaRita says she didn't hold it against him. This was just the way things would be, she thought. She decided that she now had a dad, not a father. A father is always there for his children, she says. A dad comes around sporadically.

Yet she still felt deeply connected to him. She knew he was doing drugs, though she didn't quite understand what that meant. She remembers talking to him on the phone during one of his stints in rehab, when he was just about to leave the program. "Don't you want to get better?" she asked. He replied, "The only way I'm going to get myself better is if I want to. I'm just going because people are making me go."

She wasn't upset by his response. She says that conversation made her feel special, because he was telling her things he didn't tell anyone else. She also felt she was the only one who truly understood him, the only one who knew the key to curing him: he simply had to want to get better.

For a while it seemed that he wanted to. He didn't get arrested again until 1993, and the charges were dropped. In 1994 he completed a treatment program at the Gateway Foundation. But the next year, ShaRita's freshman year at Evanston Township High School, he was arrested and again charged with felony possession of cocaine. According to the arrest report, he was also charged with striking Adlene, though that charge was later dropped.

That year ShaRita, who'd turned 14, decided to get a job. She got a special work permit, was hired at a fast-food restaurant in Evanston, and started giving her paychecks to Annette. She resented having to work and would tell her father, "I'm your child. You should take care of me." He was still living on money from friends and family and from occasional odd jobs lawyers would give him, such as going to court to get files or serving eviction notices; he also panhandled. He would tell ShaRita, "I'm supposed to get money at the end of the week. Stop by then." But she had to keep pestering him to come up with $10 or $20.

Under all this pressure she stopped doing well in school. At the beginning of her sophomore year, in 1996, a truancy officer discovered that she lived in Chicago and told her she couldn't return to school until she proved she was an Evanston resident. ShaRita says she'd "seen products of Chicago schools," so she refused to go to one. She watched talk shows and worked for the rest of the semester.

She'd asked her father what to do, and he suggested that she find a legal guardian in Evanston. A friend finally agreed to act as one, and she remembers going to court with her father, who did all the paperwork to get her reenrolled. "That was very cool," she says. In her eyes he was a hero again.

In November, Roosevelt was sentenced to two years' probation for the drug charge and put on electronic home monitoring. A year later he was twice arrested and charged with cocaine possession. In January 1998 he asked the court to release him from electronic monitoring so that he could make more money. He wrote in a motion that he was "not able to earn sufficient funds to provide for himself and four minor children." The motion was denied.

That year he stopped returning ShaRita's phone calls. "I've still got your number," he'd say when she would track him down. "I've just been busy." For the first time he refused to give her money when she asked for it. She was angry and felt abandoned, but she still didn't blame him. She decided that she would simply have to become more independent. She would have to succeed on her own, with her own money.

In July 1998 Roosevelt was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He was given 162 days of credit, including the time he'd spent in jail and in substance-abuse programs, and shipped to Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro. He was paroled that December, in the middle of ShaRita's senior year.

ShaRita made the honor roll for the first time that year. She says she worked hard because she wanted to go to college like her father. More than anything she still wanted him to be proud of her. She invited him to graduation, though she doubted that he would show up. When she couldn't find him in the audience, she thought she might cry. Then she saw him snaking through the crowd to sit with her mother. She says it was one of the best days of her life.

ShaRita now takes a full day of classes twice a week at National-Louis, where she's studying to be an elementary school teacher. She's taken out a $5,000 student loan to pay for it, and she works full-time as a secretary at Evanston Hospital.

She and Annette rent an apartment together in Waukegan, but it's a long drive, and she often stays in Evanston with her mother. That also lets her spend time with Dominique, who's now 15, and LaVance, who's 12. She hopes to have the same influence on them that Annette did on her. She wants them to do well in school, so she attends parent-teacher conferences and helps them with their homework. On Sundays she takes them to the First Church of God Christian Life Center in Evanston. She knows almost everyone there, greeting many with a joyful hug, yet when she sings she's barely audible. One Sunday after church she grilled LaVance and Dominique on what they'd learned, and they mumbled short answers. She asked them again in a slightly raised voice and flashed them a stern look. They tried again.

ShaRita and her mother have grown closer in the past few years, though ShaRita says they still don't always get along. She often tells her mother not to smoke or tells her to lower her voice.

Adlene describes her daughter as "real sensitive, very emotional, and very giving" but says she also can be bossy. "She tries to run too much," she says. "She can't run everybody." She worries that ShaRita will have a heart problem or a nervous breakdown. "She tries to carry the burden of everybody."

ShaRita keeps in touch with her father's other children--one son lives in Arizona, another in Chicago; one daughter lives in Georgia, another in Kentucky. She says none of them will speak to their father unless she's talking to him and hands over the phone, and one daughter refuses to talk to him at all. "How's your dad doing?" she'll ask, which upsets ShaRita. Last summer she arranged a meeting between Roosevelt and his eight-year-old granddaughter, whom he'd never seen.

ShaRita says she understands her siblings' anger toward him. She says LaVance sees him several times a week while walking to school. The slim, small boy says hi, but his father doesn't seem to recognize him and doesn't reply.

One evening in early February ShaRita stopped her car when she saw her father talking to another man around the corner from her mother's house. Roosevelt walked over to her and said, "I was just giving that man legal advice."

She rolled her eyes and asked him to come to her mother's house. He said he would. She knew he was squatting in a nearby abandoned house, though he would soon be kicked out and become homeless. He was clean shaven and neat, but she was worried about his health. He has emphysema and often gets severe chest pains.

Sitting on Adlene's couch, he told ShaRita that he'd spent two days that week investigating accidents for an attorney who's also an Evanston alderman and two days working for a real estate firm. That pleased her. She knows that since he was paroled in 1999 he's been arrested twice on misdemeanor charges, for stealing a Sun-Times and for hitting a woman, though both charges were dropped. But she doesn't discuss this with him, just as she never asks about his drug use.

"I am a drug user," he suddenly said. "In fact, I just used five minutes ago." He said he wasn't proud of his addiction and had entered treatment centers almost a dozen times, though within a day of leaving he was always using again.

ShaRita, he said, "is the only one who's been there for me. Couldn't have gotten through my mother's funeral without her." He paused, then said, "Now, who's going to give me the $20 I lost because I came over here?"

ShaRita said she wouldn't, because she didn't have any money to spare.

"I understand that," he said. "But the man you saw was going to give me $20, and someone needs to give me the money I lost because I came here."

"Dad, dad, we heard you the first time," she said.

"I understand that, but--"

"I hate having childish conversations with adults," she said. "I am not stupid. Do I look like Booboo the fool to you?"

A few minutes later he left, and ShaRita followed him onto the porch. She pulled a $5 bill from her purse and gave it to him. "Just to get him off my back," she says later.

On Valentine's Day ShaRita was at her mother's house getting ready to go to the funeral of one of her father's cousins. She tried to persuade LaVance to go with her, but he said he wouldn't because he didn't want to see his father.

ShaRita picked up two other relatives, then picked up Roosevelt. "I left my case early," he told her. "Can I get some money?" She handed him $2.

Before they entered the church he turned to her and said, "Please don't make me go to my cousin's house after the funeral."

Later she says he's long been ashamed to attend family events. "I think he hates himself." She says he shouldn't, because he has things to be proud of. People still approach her on the street to tell her how he inspired or helped them.

They were sitting in the church when ShaRita saw her father's eyes light up. "I'll be darned," he said. "Here comes Annie Mae Booser." He explained that Annie Mae, a distant relative in her 70s, was the only member of the Booser family left. He wanted to talk to her, then decided against it. "She probably won't remember me." But as she walked past him he called out, "Annie Mae, do you remember me?"

"Of course I do," she said. "You used to call me Froggy."

He smiled at ShaRita.

Soon after the service began he started crying. She knew he would. She cried too, but not at the same time. And she didn't tell him not to cry.

She says later that images from her grandmother's funeral kept playing through her mind as she sat next to him. And she wondered what she would say if she had to speak at his funeral. What do you say about a man who hasn't lived right? she asks. She can't honestly say he'll go to heaven. She believes his accomplishments are impressive, but she doesn't think they're enough to get him through the gates. And who would pay for his funeral? "His family," she says, "is drugs and his drug friends." She suspects she'd have to pay because no one else would, though she insists it wouldn't be out of obligation, but out of love and respect. "He's my dad," she says. "I'm his princess."

She says she's always thought it would take something tragic to turn her father around, though she admits that his mother's funeral only seemed to make him sink deeper into his own world. Yet she believes he'll come around, and she prays for that every day. And she prays that he'll realize he has LaVance to look after, that LaVance needs him.

She looked over at her father, thinking that she should see about life insurance for him. He put his hand on her leg, then gripped her hand. His hand still swallowed hers. She smiled. She says she felt as close to him as she had at his mother's funeral.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, Jasper Chen.

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