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Frank Gray

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Courtesy photo
A congratulatory banner from neighbors hangs outside the East Lewis Street home of Debra Butler.

Plenty of good can come from any street

E. Butler

Last week, an article appeared on Sunday’s front page about a 12-year-old boy who had gunned down a man on the street one night and killed him. That boy is now 26 and has been released from prison.

As a boy, he lived on East Lewis Street, the story noted, a place at the time known mostly for its drug activity. So it came as little surprise, some said, that the boy turned out the way he did.

That comment prompted a call from one woman, Debra Butler, who lived across the street from the man we wrote about. She still lives in the same place.

Over the course of a couple of conversations, she acknowledged that East Lewis Street wasn’t a garden spot. She talked about when she was younger and lived nearby and how she would see prostitutes and heroin addicts in the area.

And yes, in the early 1990s, crack arrived, delivered by gangs. There were drugs and killers on East Lewis Street – young killers, in some cases, dared to or bullied into committing violent crimes, and yes, they ended up in prison.

Butler had a point to make, though. Just three months before that story on the 12-year-old killer appeared in the paper, neighborhood residents had pitched in and bought a banner to put in Butler’s yard. It was a congratulatory banner, marking the day that Butler’s daughter, Emmary, 27, just a year older than the killer we wrote about, had graduated from medical school at Indiana University.

Her point was this: Just because you live in a place like East Lewis Street doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance, that you are destined for disaster.

I talked to Butler about her family. She had five children. Her marriage was a disaster, she said, and she had raised her children by herself.

But she used what she called hard love with her children. It was simple. You know right from wrong, she told her kids.

“If you do something you know is wrong, don’t call me asking to be rescued,” she said.

Butler says there are families that have bankrupted themselves hiring lawyers after their children got into serious trouble.

She had worked hard to become a licensed practical nurse, though; too hard to sacrifice what she had achieved, she said. If you go to jail, she told her kids, she’d accept one call from them, so she’d know where they were, but she wouldn’t spend a dime to get them out.

“I had to put the fear of God into them,” Butler said.

In a way, Butler had some help.

“I had more security than the mayor,” she said, referring to the fact that police kept a close eye on what went on.

Neighborhood kids used her house as a hangout when she was at work, including some kids that she forbade to come to her house, she said.

But the kids, she said, knew she was serious, and when she arrived home, they would “scatter like roaches when the light comes on.”

Did her method work? Well, her kids weren’t saints, she said. Adolescent males are never saints. But they didn’t end up in prison.

Then there was Emmary, her youngest. At the start of ninth grade at North Side High School, she asked her mother what the difference was between the salutatorian and valedictorian.

Well, Butler told her daughter, valedictorian is first in the class and salutatorian is second.

She was going to be valedictorian, Emmary told her mother.

Indeed, Emmary did graduate as North Side’s first black valedictorian. She went to Xavier University in New Orleans and then got a scholarship to Indiana University Medical School.

Now she has graduated.

East Lewis Street is somewhat different than it was 14 years ago, when Emmary was 13 and neighbors her age were killing people.

Today, some houses have been torn down. The yards of the remaining homes are kept neat. Some houses are empty, but they aren’t abandoned.

There is no reason for an apology or clarification of the original story that prompted Butler’s call.

But it did give Butler a chance to make her point: “Everyone talks about the bad, but not the good,” a lot of kids have a lot of talent, and no one is destined to fail, not even on East Lewis Street.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.