My Mentor


February 12, 2015 by multiracialsky

Natasha_Sky_Otis1I first met Otis Woodard when I was 12. It was November before Thanksgiving, and I was in 7th grade. It was a bad year for me in school. I was about 65 pounds, looked like I was maybe 10. And I was in junior high. I obviously wasn’t ‘dating’ anyone. I was years away from real puberty. But that all has nothing to do with Otis.

My mom and I watched a TV movie one night about a young mom, and how her life falls apart. It ended with her leaving her daughter in a park after calling Otis to let him know that the child would be there. Otis arrives and picks the child up while the mom hides and watches. After the movie was over, someone interviewed the real Otis. I decided I wanted to meet him.

The first time we met, I told him I wanted to help a child in need. A woman walked by as we were talking, and then Otis walked us to her house where there was her family with six children (four girls, two boys), the oldest just a year or two younger than me. Their electricity was off, and the older children were doing their homework by candlelight; they warmed themselves from a fireplace. This was the late 1980s. I had $75 of babysitting money I planned to spend to help a single child, money that suddenly seemed like nothing for this family of eight who clearly needed much much more.

My parents talked that night and came to me the next day to tell me they wanted to spend the money they set aside for charitable donations at the end of each year to help this family, alongside me. This was the start of my relationship with Otis, nearly three-quarters of my life ago.

Otis lives in a very rough neighborhood. He has been there, living and serving his community, as far as I can gather, for more than 50 years. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and joined the civil rights movement when MLK came through his hometown. When MLK moved on, Otis and his young family went with him.

He has something like 27 children. I know at least the youngest 7 personally. I have a permanent picture in my mind of one of his sons cradling my infant daughter on his shoulder. His hair was in long, thick golden cornrows and he was wearing his basketball uniform. He was maybe ten years old. Like all of Otis’ children, his name is Otis. If you ask about this tradition, he says it’s so there will always be an Otis Woodard there to run the Outreach after he is gone.

After battling cancer for many years, I am sad that time may be closing in on us, the time when we will have to accept a ‘new’ Otis (or Oteese, as his beautiful youngest daughter is known) into our hearts as the head of the Outreach where the original Otis has long held a place.

Otis and I do not agree on everything. He is a very religious person, and I am not. But this has not stopped him from continuously loving on me during our semi-annual visits and helping me see and accept that my life’s work with children is my mission. Many of us who have known him over the years have been inspired by his smile, his colorful tunics and beads, his laugh, his stories, and his ever outreaching arms. He is love personified, and wherever he is off to for the next phase of his existence, our love will go with him.

I can only hope he knows how many lives he continues to touch, and what a hard-working, real-life, service legacy, and what an amazing family, he will leave here on this earth to continue his always needed work.

We love you Otis.


2 thoughts on “My Mentor

  1. Gina Dunn says:

    Thank you for your memories. I to met Otis in grade school. He would visit our small Lutheran school in Affton. His clothing, beads, hair,singing, guitar……
    Still fresh in my mind after 30+ years.
    What an incredible loss. Otis loved a long full life but it seems too soon.
    My mind wonders and my heart aches.

  2. Martha says:

    Thank you for your memories. My sister was married to him in the 70’s until her passing in 82. He has stayed in our family all these years. #RIPOTIS

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