- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Reggie McKinney is a black man with a story to tell, and it is an important story that is often cast aside in the celebrity-obsessed, rabble-rousing culture of America.

He is not a professional athlete or an entertainer. He has no political agenda to push, no racially spun sound bite to dispense. He is just another family man who lives in the Washington suburbs, the father of three, married 23 years, who has reached this point in his life with no outside help, no favoritism, no nothing, really, except his character, hard work and sweat.

This is not to suggest it was easy.

The 44-year-old Mr. McKinney grew up on the bleak streets of East St. Louis, Ill., in a quintessentially urban environment, in a family of three boys and four girls, an absentee father and a mother who worked nights.

It could have gone down a lot of different ways back then, and it did for those who succumbed to the temptation lurking on every street corner.

Mr. McKinney sees the despair on his visits back home with family and friends. He sees what might have been.

It is hard to quantify the events that led from what was to what is, both unremarkable and remarkable.

There was the dutiful mother and influential grandmother who emphasized education and made the monetary sacrifice to send the children to Catholic schools.

It was not just one thing. It was all of it: the Catholic school education, a love of sports and the strength of the mother and grandmother who implored the next generation to look beyond the grim streets of East St. Louis.

Whenever the tale of East St. Louis is told, it is usually the tale of the one-in-a-zillion shot who escaped its unforgiving clutches: ex-Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and NBA players LaPhonso Ellis and Darius Miles. It is almost a fairy tale.

Mr. McKinney escaped the hopelessness of East St. Louis, too, only in a more attainable way.

“There was no magic to it,” he says.

There was just this innate capacity in him to show up each day, to build the foundation of a better life piece by piece.

He dropped out of junior college and joined the Army in 1978. There was order in the military. There was discipline. There was a future. He liked the life, the sense of adventure. He served in Germany, Hawaii, Georgia, Italy and Washington, D.C., 20 years in all.

In that time, he got married, started to have children and went back to school part-time.

School was an arduous process in itself, which elicits a laugh from Mr. McKinney. He was the career student, the eternal student, seemingly sentenced to be a student all his life.

That was all right with him. There was a larger point, a message, a principle to clutch around his two daughters and his son. He did not have to return to school. He was doing well financially, chasing the American dream. He quit on school as a youth, but he was no quitter.

You want to be somebody? he would say. You wake up each day and you work at it. You do not whine. You do not look for absolution. You take responsibility.

Do things always work out as planned? Of course not. But if you stick to something and you are patient and disciplined, good things are bound to happen.

Mr. McKinney consigned himself to night school, taking one course here, two courses there, however he could fit the pursuit between a full-time job and family.

He finally received last year his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Park University in Parkville, Mo. How many years did it take? You had to ask. What was it, 10 years, 12 years, something like that? He did it. That is all he knows.

“Anybody can do what I did,” he says. “You just go and do it.”

Mr. McKinney, a computer network security analyst with the Knowledge Consulting Group, lives these days in a hopelessly middle-class neighborhood of $400,000 homes in Ashburn, Va.

Two of his children are out on their own now, the youngest in high school, as he and his wife, Andrea, await the empty-nest syndrome and the next turn in their lives.

Mr. McKinney does not come with highly complex truths, only simple ones.

You show up each day, the years pass, and then one day, you take a peek back and see how far you have come.

Hmm. So that is how it works.

“I’m a long way from home now, I know that,” Mr. McKinney says.

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