Putting 'service over self'

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2011 - 10:41 PM

Theresa Neal works hard to reach troubled youths after her husband, Howard Porter, was murdered.

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Theresa Neal talked with a student resident at Boys Totem Town, the St. Paul schools’ juvenile detention center, while she visited a math class there. Neal, who runs the center, was married to Howard Porter, a Ramsey County probation officer and Villanova basketball star murdered five years ago.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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The question Theresa Neal had for one of the men who brutally beat her husband to death wasn't accusatory but self-reflective.

"How do I resolve that I be a good Christian, a good person and a productive citizen in the community?" she asked then-30-year-old Rashad Raleigh three years ago.

Raleigh was about to be sentenced for beating Howard Porter unconscious with a pipe during a botched robbery and then dumping him in an alley. Porter, a Ramsey County probation officer and former Villanova basketball star, died a few days later.

In the years since, Neal has emphatically and distinctly answered her question by helping teens and adults who are in danger of heading down the wrong path.

Neal, 56, runs the St. Paul schools' juvenile detention center -- Boys Totem Town -- and has worked with 15 other social service programs throughout the district.

She describes her students, mostly poor and minority, as "dissed" -- "disenfranchised, discouraged and dismissed."

Administrators say Neal has changed the district's culture and conversation about how to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. She has lowered the recidivism rate and brought innovative programs to the district.

"What if my husband's killers were one of my students?" she asked recently. "Would I have been able to change their path?

"If I can save one soul and instill the sense of self and belonging in one of these students to deter them from harming the community or someone else, then I've done my job," she said. "It's not been an easy journey, but I've had to place service over self."

Raleigh, meantime, is serving a life prison sentence for his part in Porter's death. He also recently was convicted and awaits sentencing in a St. Paul triple homicide that was committed before Porter was killed but that took years to solve.

Death of a spouse

The details of Porter's murder in May 2007 ricocheted across the country because of the sheer brutality of the crime and the renown of Porter, who had a cataclysmic rise as a basketball star at Villanova University and spent seven years in the 1970s playing professional basketball after being drafted by the Chicago Bulls.

After his pro career, which didn't live up to what many expected, he turned to drugs. He underwent treatment in 1989 at Hazelden, however, and began to turn his life around. He became a Ramsey County probation officer in 1995 and also mentored St. Paul youths.

Neal and Porter met in late 1989 while she worked at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation for a foster care program and he was a frequent visitor to the center. They remained together until his death.

More than 2,500 people attended his funeral services held in three states.

After Porter was murdered, Neal took a one-month sabbatical before returning to work.

She went back, she said, because "I felt like I couldn't be held hostage by the people who have devastated my life and prevent me from affecting the future of other kids. Howard would have expected me to do it."

A child of Rondo

Neal grew up in the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, where her parents owned and ran a corner grocery store.

She learned at a young age that she had a passion for caring for others, she said. After graduating from college, she moved to Los Angeles, where she counseled heroin addicts.

"I saw people at their most vulnerable points, and I had an opportunity to affirm who they were and help them convert their weakness into strengths," she said.

She moved back to St. Paul and started working with the school district in 1979 at Highland Park Senior High School as a youth advocate helping troubled teens transition back into school.

In 2000, Neal moved into leadership positions, including a stint as the assistant principal of Como Park Senior High School. She is in her fifth year as the director of several of the district's social work programs.

"I think people sit back in amazement at her personal and professional commitment to these students," said Mary Kelly, the interim director of special education and Neal's supervisor. "She is calm, very reflective and she has the ability to have us all think about the students as human beings and their entitlement to a good education."

All this despite a draining mourning process that made Neal question her faith in God as well as the effectiveness of a criminal justice system she had served more than 30 years.

"I don't want anyone to experience what I had to go through," she said.

Social work takes strength, said Lynda Bennett, executive director of a social program at the Wilder Foundation. Bennett has worked with Neal for more than 30 years.

"The challenges are pretty daunting," Bennett said. "There's the combination of dealing with people whose lives are in stress, chaos and needing help. There are the challenges of the system that is stressed, in chaos and needing help. And there's the issue of trying not to take on the pain and stress of your clients and manage your own complicated life.

"This is a field of relatively high burnout."

Totem Town challenges

Boys Totem Town, where her office is based, provides a host of challenges. The students all qualify for free or reduced lunch, and almost half already receive special education services.

Students who commit crimes are sent to live at the campus. Their time there can range from a week to a year.

About 100 boys walk the halls of the century-old facility, which is tucked into the forest on the eastern edge of the city. It is a few yards from Pig's Eye Lake.

Next year, the center will be a pilot site for the district's new literature curriculum. Neal brought the district's high school principals to the facility for a discussion on ways to better help boys transition back into mainstream society.

Outside of work, Neal serves on several community task forces and has served as a moderator in fixing problems or squashing disputes.

A photo of Porter hangs on Neal's office wall. In it, the 6-foot-8 basketball player is towering over three Boston Celtics players, grabbing a rebound.

Paintings of two of her former students who had been through the detention center before launching successful art careers are also on the wall.

"I'm a realist," Neal said. "Every system has its cracks and flaws. But at the other end of the continuum, the impact is different.

"Howard's murder made me more intentional in the work that I do. I'm more conscious of my ability to make or break a child's spirit. If I break it, [it] could be devastating, if not fatal."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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