ST. PETERSBURG — On Christmas Eve, while his friends lounged around their rooms texting, playing video games or dreaming of the presents under Christmas trees, 14-year-old Germaine Thompson walked with a 74-year-old man through Campbell Park.
There was nowhere else he would rather be in the world, Thompson said. And James Oliver, a retired middle school teacher, felt the same way.
Though he formally retired from teaching in 2008, Oliver has dedicated his life to mentoring boys struggling to find their purpose in life. They are boys whose home situations are unimaginable to many, bouncing from shelters to hotel rooms, friends' couches to family members, and tutors to mentors.
Oliver's job is about more than making sure the countless children he has mentored don't become yet another statistic in a school district that for years has been plagued with one of the lowest black male graduation rates in the nation. His job is to help them “live up to their full potential” and “give their gifts,” he said.
“I've learned that we all have a gift, and when you can give your gift to the rest of the world and fully appreciate yourself, wonderful things can happen,” he tells his boys.
Thompson met Oliver in a tutoring group at Johns Hopkins Middle School, but his relationship with the soft-spoken, smiling man evolved even more when he realized that all of his friends knew “Mr. O,” too. He was the guy who played basketball and football with them, who would help them work out problems at school and give them pep talks when they felt down.
“He's mad cool, and he's different because he listens and he actually takes time out of his day to talk to us,” Thompson said. “Most adults say that they're too busy or stuff like that, but Mr. Oliver's never too busy, and if you're in trouble he finds a way to come through.”
Oliver taught in Pinellas County schools for 33 years, mainly at Johns Hopkins, where he attended as a child.
In 2008, he began working with children with incarcerated parents through the Eckerd Youth Alternatives program. When the organization ran out of federal funding a few years later, he continued mentoring students on his own.
He since has recruited hundreds of mentors, particularly professional black males, to mentor struggling black students in Pinellas schools. More importantly, he teaches the children to become mentors themselves, school board member Rene Flower said.
Since Oct. 1, he has recruited 23 more mentors to work with struggling students, but only if they promised to go beyond “throwing a ball at a kid,” Oliver said.
It's the things he does outside of his classrooms at Melrose Elementary, Johns Hopkins, Gibbs High, Lakewood High and Campbell Park Elementary beginning in January, that the boys notice.
He buys them school supplies or clothes, if they need them. He takes them to movies or on a historical, cultural tour of St. Petersburg if they need to take their minds off their home situations. He takes them to CiCi's Pizza, Golden Corral, or Piccadilly Cafeteria for dinner while discussing such topics as Martin Luther King Jr.'s six principles of nonviolence.
“He teaches you the right way instead of the wrong way,” said 12-year-old Antonio Crockett. “He's taught me to stay out of the streets and not to fail or fight.”
As Oliver walked at Campbell Park, laughing, joking and listening to the handful of boys with whom he planned to spend Christmas Eve, more of them materialized on bicycles or in their pajamas to join the entourage.
It's a scene that has played out for decades in the park, tracing back to Oliver's father, James F. Oliver Sr., a professional baseball player widely regarded as one of the best in the former “Negro Leagues” and the namesake of the baseball field that sits in the shadow of Tropicana Field.
His father was one of the first children's recreation leaders and mentors in south St. Petersburg, and he recruited son James, his brother Nate Oliver, who went on to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their six other siblings to help organize games with the neighborhood children.
“These kids now are facing such incredible struggles, but they're learning to appreciate who they can be so they can grow, just like my father helped me grow,” Oliver said. “We've got to find a lot more people that would be willing to spend time with these kids and realize that it's not just the time you put in, but the depth of the relationship you build. That's why I can't just walk away.”
The way Oliver beams with pride when he talks about his dad is the same way his students, many without a strong male presence in their lives, talk about him.
With Oliver's help, Teddy West went from a child with a “troubled life” to a junior at the University of Oklahoma, where he plays football and studies mathematics and kinesiology. West also is a mentor, parroting Oliver's conversation starters and advice not only with the kids from his St. Petersburg neighborhood, but also with a few he has met in Oklahoma who are “looking for guidance.” When he's home from school, West can be found at Oliver's side, talking to the neighborhood kids.
“When you really care, it's amazing to see how you can really work in someone's life,” West said. “He showed me there is more to life than I ever knew and you don't have to be 'that dude' with that background to have the same effect he had on the world.”
Oliver has compiled a book of motivational sayings, “If things aren't going right, stay to your left,” which he will be available to sign from 2-5 p.m. today at Reader's Choice Book and Gift, 3951 34th St. S.