Good teachers not only teach, they inspire their students to push themselves to reach their potential. When the students are juvenile delinquents and the classroom is at the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center, the ripples of influence can be profound, turning lives around and reaching across decades and even generations.
William Alverett Andrews, known to his incarcerated students as “Mr. A,” had that kind of far-reaching influence. Andrews died Jan. 30 at age 76, leaving behind a legacy of hope and changed lives.
“There are very few people in your life you can look back on and say, ‘Wow! He really changed me. He really made a difference,'” said Kathleen Bowers, 41, who was in juvenile detention at age 14 for shoplifting and running away from home.
“Mr. A. never judged anybody for what crime you were in there for,” Bowers said. “He’d shake your hand and say, ‘Welcome to the university.'”
Andrews had nicknames for everyone. He called Bowers “Sunny the Punkette” because she shaved her head in a punk rock fashion. Bowers spent a year at Echo Glen, a state-run detention facility in Issaquah. That’s where she earned her GED and began making better choices.
She credits Mr. A for her transformation into a soccer mom with three kids. When one of her kids was making bad choices, she took him to Mr. A for a visit.
“When I was a teenager and going down the wrong path, he taught me that even if you make some mistakes in your life, you can always turn it around,” Bowers said. “Thanks to him and all his caring and words of wisdom, I did. I was a better person knowing him.”
Influenced by faith
Mr. A’s faith was infused into his life. Andrews, a black man born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., was influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., whom he met as a boy and heard preach many times.
In 1971, Andrews was hired as a teacher under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federally funded program designed to provide integrated educational programs. He taught at Eastridge High School in the recently desegregated Kankakee School District, about 60 miles south of Chicago.
He left Chicago and headed west. He taught at Shumway Junior High and Jason Lee Junior High.
Charles Simmons was one of two black teachers at Jason Lee. Andrews was the other.
“I called him ‘Professor,'” Simmons said. “He inspired me to follow my passion, to stay in education, despite the obstacles.”
Andrews started teaching at the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center in 1982.
Yvonne Broders, 92, was a volunteer foster grandmother at the detention center and worked with Andrews for seven years. Andrews called her Grandma Yvonne.
“It really didn’t matter why the kids were there,” Broders said.
She said Andrews used poetry, music and art to “pull out their true feelings.
He created nicknames for almost everyone: Al Capone, Shotgun Shorty, Sunny the Punkette. But despite his kindness and humor, he ran a tight classroom.
“He’d tell the kids, ‘I’m the driver of this bus. You do what I tell you,'” Broders said.
Legacy of letters
His widow, Nancy Van Hoveln Andrews, collected memories and a stack of letters from her husband’s former students in detention.
In one letter, a girl writes that she never had a family, but she needed one. A boy wrote that he’d been straight for a year but ended up in jail.
“I am sorry for breaking my promise to you that I would never show my face here again,” the boy wrote. “I almost love you like a father.”
Others wrote about detention center: “It was like family” and “the best school I’ve been to.”
Another wrote: “Remember how I was saying I quit drugs? Well, I still stuck to my word. When I got out, people left and right were trying to get me stoned, but no one succeeded. To tell the truth, I’m really proud of myself.”
Some students became doctors and pharmacists, but her husband was more interested in knowing that his students stayed out of trouble and made something of themselves.
“Everywhere we’d go, former students greeted him and told him how he’d changed their lives,” Nancy Andrews said.
Denton Sackett, a detention officer at the juvenile detention center, worked with Andrews for 10 years. Andrews called Sackett “Gunny” because he’s a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. The name stuck.
Sackett sat outside Andrews’ classroom and was called in when a student got out of control and needed to be removed from the class.
“He’d try to keep the kids in class as long as he could, but our kids are who they are,” Sackett said. “As soon as they started dropping f-bombs, they were out of there.”
Andrews retired in 2006. By then, he was battling Alzheimer’s, the disease that eventually killed him.
Bowers kept in touch with her teacher for 26 years.
“I’d get advice from him, from someone who didn’t judge,” she said. “He could pray with you, say, ‘This is your life. You’re choosing what you want to do with it. I’m here no matter what.’ With Mr. A, there was always another chance. Always another day.”