Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

A study in character

Basehor man exemplifies lessons he learned from family

June 3, 2004

Sitting at a table on his back porch, Basehor resident Vernon J. Fields is sifting through a stack of books searching for photos of family members. There are pictures of his namesakes, father, Vernon, a Korean veteran of the Army's Fifth Armored Division, and his grandfather, James, a Buffalo soldier in the 10th Cavalry.

In another, there's a grainy black and white photo of his uncle, Bassie, leading his Roaring Twenties-style jazz band. And although there isn't a photo on the table, thoughts of his mother, a former newspaper editor, aren't far from his mind.

In thinking of the future, sometimes it's necessary to remember the past, he said.

"My family members have made it possible for me to be in a community like this," said Fields while glancing around his Pin Oak neighborhood. "My parents were great parents. We didn't have much but we got by. They preached duty, honor, country and they wanted me to make sure I bring honor to everything I do."

Honor, duty, country and most importantly, character, are words that were steeped in Fields' childhood and reverberate through his life today.

Fields, 47, has been a Basehor resident since 2000. He is a 14-year Army veteran, a college professor and student (he's working on a Ph.D. in criminology), aspiring business owner and current psychiatric neurospecialist with the U.S. Department of Justice.

He is also one of the few African-Americans living in Basehor. According to the 2000 Census, just 0.4 percent of the city's population, or eight residents, are black. For someone with another background, living in a town where most people have a different shade of skin would be difficult.

For most, maybe, but not for Fields. The truth is he's been breaking down barriers and smashing social stereotypes for years now. The 1960's -- the heart of the Civil Rights Movement -- provides the backdrop.

"What I am today is a result of what I learned years ago," Fields said.

While Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other black leaders were rallying for equal rights of all citizens during protests in Birmingham, Ala., and other locations in the Deep South, Fields was fighting his own struggle right here in the Midwest, in Omaha, Neb.

When he was young, Fields and his family lived in the housing projects in north Omaha, not far from where Malcolm X once lived. In that neighborhood, African-Americans comprised the majority and there was a clear line of demarcation for the races.

As a child, Fields didn't know more than segregation. That changed when he turned six years old. An opportunity presented itself for the Fields family to move into a nicer neighborhood, away from the projects, but predominantly white.

Fields said the transition wasn't easy.

He remembers being one of the only African-Americans at his school and racist bullies chasing him home on a routine basis. He remembers more examples of prejudice: narrow-minded neighbors throwing rocks and eggs at his family's house. He remembers an elementary school teacher masking her contempt through the guise of discipline.

Most of all, he remembers a school principal changing his life.

One day in class, the teacher called upon Fields to answer a math question. He responded with an unsure answer. The teacher did not look favorably on Fields and kicked him out of the classroom into the hallway.

"She said this is what we do to ignorant folks," Fields recalled.

Fields, then just a boy, sat in the hallway crying when the school principal walked by and asked what was upsetting him. The words are as clear to this day as they were back then decades ago.

"The principal simply said 'consider the source'," Fields said. "As I got older, I understood some people might push something inside them onto somebody else."

That moment and another from the neighborhood where he and his family lived, helped Fields understand that skin color doesn't matter. That people should be judged from inside-out not vice-versa, he said.

A kind neighbor of the Fields' one day left them a cake on their doorstep. Since the only thing the neighborhood provided the Fields' family up to then were rocks and eggs, they were naturally suspicious.

The cake turned out to be just what it appeared -- a welcome gift.

"Up to then we had seen tactics designed to let us know we were not welcome in the community," Fields said. "To me, that was very strange, for someone to go out on a limb and welcome us.

"All that happened helped develop our character."

The examples of racism Fields experienced as a youth wouldn't be his last brush with hate, nor would it be the last time he witnessed firsthand the disparity between blacks and whites. There was a time when he was a freshmen in high school and bullies gave him such grief that he had no choice but to fight back. When he did, the school expelled him.

At his new school, which featured a more ethnically balanced student population, he was forced to use antiquated textbooks similar to ones he'd used in grammar school.

"It showed me some of the differences and it also showed me how Brown (the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education) was so important," Fields said. "I had laid down all those years and I decided to fight back, but I also got a taste for education. From then on, I did whatever I could to get back (to the other school)."

He did make it back and finished high school where he started. He finished with a high grade-point average, good enough to rank him in the top 10 percent of his graduating class.

After high school, Fields became the first African-American shootist on the Creighton University marksmanship team. In his two years at Creighton, Fields became an award-winning marksman.

He left Creighton to join the Army. It was the tail-end of the Vietnam War and Fields, who earned high scores on his entrance exams, was given the opportunity to work as a treatment specialist, counseling veterans with drug and alcohol dependencies. He would see the ills of dependency in the Army, and did his best to help veterans battle through problems with drugs.

He also saw firsthand the atrocities of war.

"Vietnam was over but we still had issues from Cambodia and Laos," he said. "I saw a lot of issues with marijuana, heroin and post-traumatic stress."

It was also in the Army that Fields was served a reminder that people shouldn't judge books by their covers. During a live-fire exercise in boot camp, Fields and a white soldier were dug into a foxhole.

"This kid got really scared and he looked at me and said 'Sgt. Fields, I need you to help me get out of this," Fields said. "I had never heard a white person ask me for help or say 'I need you'. Right then, my world view began to enlarge. I realized what I thought the world was wasn't really the way the world is.

"I had to ask myself what do I really know? I had a great opportunity to find out who I am and that real people have to be judged by their character and not by race and creed."

With his military career behind him, Fields joined the Department of Justice, which had been recruiting him for employment throughout the 1980s. In his time with the department, he's seen and counseled some of America's most nefarious, hardened criminals, a subject he's restricted to speak of publicly.

He came to Basehor four years ago, without paying heed to a kind heads-up from a real estate broker. When he and his wife found out they were being transferred from Colorado to Kansas, he learned of the "little country near Kansas City," town.

"When I knew I was being transferred to the Kansas City area some friends told me 'you must stay in this town called Basehor,'" Fields said. "I told them if you say Basehor is where I need to live, that's where I'm going to live."

After just one visit to the city, Fields knew he'd found home. A broker told him about the city's lack of ethnic diversity but Fields said it didn't deter him one bit.

"My response was I want to live here," he said. "I don't want to live in Missouri. I want to live in Kansas and specifically Basehor."

In Kansas and from Basehor, Fields continues to work for the Department of Justice, where he helps treat prisoners in a 12-state region, and teach criminology to students at the University of Phoenix in Kansas City, Kan. Fields was recently named professor of the quarter at the college.

Basehor, Fields said, has been great to him and his family. There has been only one incident of note, he said, which may have been a misunderstanding or someone pulling a prank.

One night, a caller reported gunshots had been fired from the Fields' home in Pin Oak and an officer from the Basehor Police Department questioned him at 4:30 a.m. about the alleged incident. They questioned no other homeowners, Fields said, which he found odd.

"I said to him 'if you're as concerned as you say you are you need to check everyone else's home as well," Fields said. "Don't just single one person out.

"That was really the only negative thing we've had. Everyone else has been really great. I didn't find stuff in Colorado that I find here. People help here. They care about their neighbors."

While the community has embraced the Fields family, the family likewise has bonded with it.

They are members of Basehor Community Methodist Church and Vernon serves on the pastor-parish committee among other church activities he participates in. He also plans to become a member of the Basehor Veterans of Foreign Wars organization in coming months.

While he's involved in the community now, he hopes to become more so in the future.

"That kind of all goes back to duty -- you have to give back, you have to give something back to the community."

On Memorial Day, Fields was sitting on his back porch reflecting on pieces of his life. He's just returned from Nebraska where he visited the gravesites of his grandfather and father, who died only a year ago.

While he's looking forward to the future (Fields is on pace to graduate with his advanced degree in criminology in 2006 and is considering beginning a criminology firm in Basehor), he's mindful of the past. The past may be prologue but it helps to look back before writing the next chapter, he said.

It's been a strange journey, he said, and sometimes he can't help but wonder what may lie next. In those moments, Fields knows he can lean on the lessons of his and his family's past for wisdom to make the right decision. It's a practice he's relied upon all his life.

"I get these pictures out to remember where I come from," he said, before shifting gears. "I don't look for minority peace. I look for character. That's really the only thing we can look at. If you look at anything else, you just don't know."

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