Redemption, a lifelong journey

Christmas story cast, from left: Chief Deputy Bill Ferry, Agri-Business Center secretary Tara Murphree, Agri-Business Center Board Chairman Jeff Hallmark, hero of the story Danny White, attorney Greg Reid, Agri-Business Center security chief Jerry Elrod, and Agri-Business Center director Chase Moore, All are heros in one way or another.

Christmas story cast, from left: Chief Deputy Bill Ferry, Agri-Business Center secretary Tara Murphree, Agri-Business Center Board Chairman Jeff Hallmark, hero of the story Danny White, attorney Greg Reid, Agri-Business Center security chief Jerry Elrod, and Agri-Business Center director Chase Moore, All are heros in one way or another.

This is an old-time, fireside kind of story, told without the usual journalistic niceties. It’s a story told by those shown above who told it the old-fashioned way. They know it because they lived it. It’s like a fable, but not a fable. It’s real. Once upon a time

Once upon a time, 41 years ago, a child – Danny White – was born in Arab. His circumstances were not fortunate. His father was absent from birth. His mother, due to – well, circumstances – couldn’t raise Danny. She was absent much of the time. The child’s grandparents adopted and raised him.

He grew up in a self-described rough environment, though his grandparents did the best they could for him and never failed, except perhaps by trying too hard, sparing the rod, and enabling some of his choices that would have been better left un-enabled.

Still, Danny grew up more or less uneventfully. He fell in love with a wonderful girl, had a son, and was due to get married, when his wife-to-be was killed in an automobile accident. That tore the fabric of his mind and his life. God was to blame

He couldn’t accept that a compassionate God would allow such a thing to happen. It got worse. He blamed God for allowing – if not causing – it. Then his life veered off in an out-of control turn for the worse, as he concluded that nothing really mattered.

He used drugs – prescription drugs – and worse. He began stealing, shoplifting. He hung out with the wrong crowd – “friends” who later proved to be no friends at all. He began to think like them, blaming everything and everyone – except himself – for the rough road and pattern of life he himself had chosen to follow – that he had chosen not to remove himself from. That realization finally dawned, but not for years to come.

It was a troubled life, he later said. It rambled fitfully on for another dozen or more years. His son grew up without the guidance of a caring father. He’s now in prison for murder. Danny can’t even talk about that without his voice breaking and accepting the guilt. “I wasn’t any kind of a father to him. It’s my fault,” he now says. Hitting bottom

Then, about three years ago, still feeding his drug habit, he was caught stealing a television from Walmart in Oneonta. He had accomplices, but he took the rap for everyone. He was convicted and sent to the Blount County jail to serve a 33-month sentence.

Then, not immediately, but after awhile, the rarest of human transformations began: when a person trapped in an endless cycle of ruinous behavior and distorted thinking, seemingly spontaneously begins to achieve clarity of thought, intention, and action.

It was a traumatic process grounded in a dawning and honest realization of a rock-solid reality: “Here I am, in jail, no friends, no one who cares what happens to me, my life half over, and what do I have to show for it? What do I have to look forward to? I’ve been here for months and no one has come to visit me…no one has even called me…no spending money, not even a letter in the mail.” His “friends” from the television heist never even made contact.

Then, a short time apart, both of his grandparents died. It added to his depression: “It’s just me…alone. Nobody’s going to help me. Nobody cares. It’s all up to me. If I don’t take hold of my life and try to change it, nobody else is going to. If anything is going to be done, I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to do it. Can’t anybody fix it but me. ” Work as redemption

To stave off despair, he worked. He worked hard at the jail, becoming a trustee. Conscientious work in that job led to his being chosen for the inmate detail to work at the Agri-Business Center, which he threw himself into with a passion of great attitude, versatile ability, and alert initiative. Agri-Business Center workers took notice. Soon he was working there almost daily. He could do anything, they said – painting, carpentry, repairing toilets, running heavy equipment, anything. He worked there steadily for two years, earning a reputation as a work horse, a mainstay with a positive attitude, according to director Chase Moore. Board Chairman Jeff Hallmark noticed and marked it well. Danny worked other jobs as well, such as projects at county schools, under the supervision of Chief Deputy Bill Ferry.

This spring, as his sentence with Blount County drew to a close, Marshall County contacted Blount County to arrange a transfer there for Danny to serve time on prior charges. That set off a flurry of activity involving Danny, Bill Ferry, jail warden Ronnie Mack Kent, attorney Greg Reid, who represented Danny, and the Marshall County Jail and judiciary authorities.

Realizing that Marshall County was a snare for him waiting to be sprung, Danny didn’t want to go back, not because he didn’t want to serve the several additional month’s time, but because all of his old “friends” and haunts would be like a whirlpool sucking him back into his former life and ways. He wanted to avoid that at any cost. An unprecedented request

So, he asked to stay in jail in Blount County, asking if Marshall County would allow him to serve the time he owed them here. (“Never heard of anybody who wanted to stay in jail to keep from getting in trouble,” – an almost universal reaction among acquaintances.) The idea seems simple enough , but the process of bringing it about wasn’t, requiring lots of pro bono time from Reid, some fancy negotiations between jailers, with Kent ably handling the Blount County end, not to mention a number of trips back and forth, which Reid, Ferry, and Tara Murphree provided to transport Danny, who didn’t have a car or a license to drive himself.

In the midst of the schedule of constant work, Danny thought of one last hope to make renew contact with family – his mother. “I’ve never blamed mother for anything. Maybe this time she’ll be there when I really need her, “ he thought. Problem: He hadn’t heard from her in years, and didn’t know where she was. He thought she had been in prison for awhile, but didn’t know for sure, didn’t know if or when she had gotten out, or where she had gone if she had. Mother turns away

Jerry Elrod, security chief at the Agri- Business Center, took on the job of tracking her. He found her, but the news for Danny wasn’t good. She didn’t want to see him, refusing to even talk to Elrod about contacting her son. That’s the message he delivered to Danny, reinforcing his conviction that whatever happened from that point on, was up to him to handle without support from his one remaining tie to his family.

Danny didn’t blame his mother, saying that she had lived a difficult life and that he could forgive her and hoped she could forgive both him and herself.

In mid-September, Danny’s life and outlook took a dramatic turn for the better. He completed his sentence and got out of jail. Then good things began to happen rapidly. He still had nowhere to go, no way to get there if he did, no clothes except what he was wearing, no job other than volunteer work at the Agri-Business Center, no money to start a new life.

But he had a virtual family at the Agri- Business Center who couldn’t imagine life without him, not to mention genuine friends with whom he had come in contact around the county.

Jeff Hallmark, like others over the past months – both named here and not – rose to the occasion in many major ways he probably doesn’t want detailed, but that those who know him will understand. The world in Danny’s words

In Danny’s own words: “It’s unbelievable what’s happened in the last months and years. I’ve got my own place, a vehicle to drive, a driver’s license which I haven’t had since 2004, clothes to wear, two jobs (actually three: Blount County Co-op the Agri-Business Center and one other part-time heavy equipment job he mentioned previously), some money to spend, money in the bank even – and no warrants out against me! And I’ve got sobriety and the greatest friends you’d ever believe.

“I’ve become so different, like a different person really, and it feels so great. You’ve got to move away from everything you knew before and regroup yourself in a different community. Nothing you can do about what happened even a second ago. You’ve got to move on. You can’t change the past, but you can the future.

“All that time I sat in jail, I’d see people get out and come back, get out and come back. It took me 40 years to figure out that there’s ways to do things other than just doing the same things over and over.

“I want to stay busy. I don’t want to have too much time to think right now. I’m getting a house soon – renting to own. Some day, I’d like to open a halfway house for people who don’t have anywhere else to go coming out of jail. You have to have a place to go, other than going back to the same place and people you came from that got you in jail. I’ll need to partner with someone, but that’s what I want to do. If I can help even one person out of the place I was in, it’ll be worth it.

“I’ve had lots of experience, a lot of it the bad kind. I’ve overdosed before. One time I was in a coma for three days. I think God has a reason for keeping me here – it’s to help someone else. There’s nothing wrong with people with problems getting help from counselors and people with degrees. But I’ve had actual experience. I know what it’s like to be where they are. I think I can help them find the way out of where they are. I know. I’ve been there.”

(Editor’s note: Danny White listed a number of people who helped him greatly on his life path over the last three years. Fewer than half are named in this story.)