Willie Earl Lloyd Jr. walked through an empty house in north Minneapolis and cleared a spot on a bench for a visitor. Construction workers carried lumber and hammered nails and an electric sander whined loudly nearby. It was cold, it was loud, it was dirty and for Lloyd, it was beautiful.

"Where do I start?" he said.

Lloyd could start at the four-paragraph story that appeared in this newspaper on Nov. 19, 1988, under the headline, "Minneapolis man, 18, convicted of murder."

But it actually began long before that, back in Chicago where Lloyd's father, Willie Lloyd Sr., was an infamous leader of the Unknown Vice Lords gang. Lloyd Jr. grew up largely without his father, who had spent years in prison for killing a state trooper. Authorities suspected Lloyd Sr. of orchestrating crimes from prison.

Lloyd Jr.'s mother was shot by a cop, recovered, and later moved the family to Minneapolis.

But it was too late for Lloyd Jr., whose only frame of reference was the streets.

"Even though my father wasn't there, he created and shaped the whole environment I lived in," said Lloyd Jr. Many of his extended family were gang members -- local authorities even kept a family tree, complete with mug shots.

So no one was terribly surprised when, still a kid, Lloyd Jr. shot and killed a man during a fight. He has spent the rest of his life in prison, until now.

Released in June after 23 years in prison, today Lloyd is an instructor for Summit Academy OIC and a quiet leader on this construction site. Summit trains low-income and minority men and women in the construction trades so they can learn certified skills and get jobs that start at $17 an hour.

A new partnership between Summit and Hennepin County is helping ex-offenders become positive influences in their communities. The program provides individuals living in Hennepin County with the ability to earn a pre-apprentice carpentry certification. The partners recruit, train and help find jobs for clients who are supervised by people such as Lloyd. He took the course while in prison and saw a shot at a future for the first time. He applied for a job at Summit when he was released.

"Some people said, 'Oh no, we can't take Willie Lloyd,'" said De'Vonna Pittman, a coordinator of the reentry program. "Eventually, he grew on us."

That's because Lloyd applied three times and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Louis King, president and CEO of Summit, said continuing violence on the North Side can only be curbed by training and access to good jobs, "not just to take care of their families, but set a good example for the children who are watching you.

"If Willie decides to change his life, what's the value system to build him up?" asked King, a former Army officer who doesn't tolerate sloth. Because Lloyd has been in prison since he was a teen, "He's not reentering the mainstream, he's entering it. How does that happen? We can't charity our way out of this."

"Like every other kid, I had dreams, hopes and aspirations," said Lloyd. But those evaporated when he pulled the trigger in 1988.

Soft-spoken and disarmingly thoughtful, Lloyd, 42, said he at first maintained those gang ties in prison. Things began to change when he was moved to Delaware, away from cohorts. A high school dropout, he began to read voraciously and became the head of the local chapter of the NAACP.

When Lloyd's mother died at age 40, "I started to look at my father's life, my uncle's life, how we all ended up in prison," he said.

"I didn't want to the pain of seeing my sons in prison for 20 years. I made a personal commitment that I would honor [his mother] by being the best I could be."

As for those who think murderers should never be released, Lloyd understands. "No one is perfect, so I believe everyone should get a second chance," he said. "Everybody is better than the worst they've ever done. Once I realized I was better than my worst mistake, I was able to transcend it."

He knows this is his shot, and he's grateful.

"How do you place a value on being able to get your dignity back?"

"To whom much is given, much is required," Lloyd said. "I am blessed to have a legitimate platform for giving back. We first tore [the neighborhood] down, now we are building it back.

"C'mon, man. It doesn't get any better than that."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702