Seattle — It took more than 30 years and an accidental drug overdose to return high school dropout Alfred White to the classroom after decades of working on the street as a pimp and drug dealer.
On Saturday, he will graduate with honors from Seattle Central Community College with a degree in human services.
"I'm just a major poster child for change," White told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as he donned his both his graduation gown and a deceased friend's hats, which he wears in memory of the friend who died of a drug overdose.
White, 52, should also be dead. Two years ago, after an arrest for drug possession, he swallowed the rock cocaine in his pockets, trying to hide it from Seattle police (though they later found baggies of heroin in his shoes), and his heart seized. He recalls a glowing, white light that filled his consciousness. It's finally over, White thought. I have died.
He awoke tied to a bed at Harborview Medical Center, paralyzed and barely able to speak.
Bob Groeschell, coordinator of the college's social and human services program, observed that the qualities serving White so well in his old hustle-and-addiction days — canny observation skills, a laser-instinct for peoples' weaknesses, voracious determination — now fuel his straight life.
White is enrolled to begin a bachelor's program at the Evergreen State College this fall and hopes, ultimately, to get a master's degree in social work from the University of Washington.
Few would have predicted such a turnaround.
Frederick Robinson, former director of Seattle's Union Gospel Mission New Visions program, remembers the day that White dragged himself through the front door, after his release from Harborview.
"I thought, here's an old hustler, an old guy, a pimp, and he's all broken up, but he still wanted to talk slick — I honestly didn't think he was going to make it," Robinson said. "But he stayed clean. He's made it farther than I thought he would."
New Visions recovery program demanded nine months of total submission, not only consistently clean drug tests, but also humility, housework, counseling and prayer, none of which White had ever found much use for. He passed with flying colors, then stayed for another half-year.
"They stripped me of everything," he said. "And I am so happy. I'm doing more now — with no money — than I ever did before."
Everything he owns now, from the color television to the brown bedspread, comes through donations and thrift stores. Most of the clothes are from a deceased friend. His $350 monthly rent is covered through a program at King County drug court. Government grants paid for his school.
White completed his court-ordered rehab in 13 months — and avoided up to 18 months in prison — but he continues to come to King County's Drug Diversion Court every week to counsel other addicts.
Last week's offenders included a young man who had failed several urine tests and another just nine days out of jail. There was a woman, Lynette Todd, who used to buy her drugs from White, and an aging methadone addict he had known for years.
He seated himself across from them, peered through grandfatherly, half-frame glasses, and listened to the excuses. Almost immediately, he asked about loneliness, and the man before him was nodding yes — relieved that someone finally understood — before White had even finished his question.
From memory, he reeled off a list of Narcotics Anonymous meetings around the city, reciting the exact times and dates for each. He offered a series of phone numbers, also from memory, for sober houses to stay. He cheered one man to keep fighting for sobriety — "you'll be growing, and you can see the growth." He told another there was no shame in being without a car.
After an hour, as the addicts prepared to leave, White's one-time customer turned to make a playful jab.
"Alfred," she said, "I didn't know you were such an eloquent speaker."
"I been going to school, Lynette," he answered, "going to school."
Outside the courtroom, Todd shook her head, flabbergasted.
"Alfred was a career addict, a callous person," she said. "He was one of the worst people I've ever seen in my life. To watch him go from Mr. First-and-Pike to the dean's list, I just can't believe it's the same guy."
White didn't stick around to hear more. He had a 6 p.m. math class to catch.
— The Associated Press