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The Road Less Taken

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 1998

  Style Showcase
    Fox Washington chauffuer and philanthropist Al Fox and friends at Reed Elementary. (Dayna Smith/ The Post)
Al Fox is cruising the narrow side streets of downtown Washington, searching for parking on a gorgeous day at the height of lunchtime. He's steering this land yacht of a black Lincoln Town Car, and you wonder whether he'll squeeze through without a scratch and why doesn't he just pull into a garage. But Fox is a pro. For him, finding a metered parking spot is like locating a Starbucks.

And so it's only minutes before Fox glides into an open space off Connecticut Avenue, a half-block away from Sesto Senso, the stylish Italian restaurant where he has some business. Fox is one of power Washington's precious commodities -- a driver who knows his way around. As chauffeur for the Jefferson Group lobbying firm, he's responsible for ferrying President Bob Thompson and the company's clients to the Hill, to the White House, to receptions and dinners. In the process, he has become something of a lobbyist himself, hitting up Jefferson's well-heeled clients for donations to help poor kids even as he dodges unexpected potholes.

"Sure, that's the only way to do it," explains Fox, who has the boss's blessing. "They'll usually say, 'Send me a letter.' Heck, they can afford it, man."

You could call it Al's altruism.

"I believe that God gives all of us something to do in life," he says. "If you give these kids a stick, they appreciate it. Some of them have nothing."

The city is quietly stocked with these one-person acts of benevolence, people who are not defined by their careers or other popular measures of success. They don't attract notice on K Street, but they do on Benning Road.

Over the past seven years, Fox has supplied sneakers, underwear, deodorant, T-shirts, eyeglasses, even cheese crackers to some 1,500 needy kids in five area schools: Charles Young, Wheatley and Ludlow-Taylor Elementary Schools in Northeast; Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in Adams-Morgan; and Baileys Elementary School in Baileys Crossroads.

Every other month on weekends, he drives four hours to Washington, Pa., where he brings back cut-rate gear from the Gabriel Bros. discount clothing store. Fox sponsors a yearly holiday shopping spree at Sears in Landover Mall, giving dozens of kids (supervised by their parents) the first-time thrill of spending $125 in cash on themselves. Each Christmas he distributes food baskets. Twice he has arranged Florida excursions to Disney World and Cape Canaveral. He has arranged golf outings for kids. To honor youngsters with good grades, he hosts regular pizza luncheons with the principal. Starting in the fall, he plans to donate food for makeshift school pantries -- spaghetti, rice, peanut butter and jelly, whatever he can collect.

"He's more like a big brother than a chauffeur," says Fabio Beggiato, owner of Sesto Senso, one of Fox's supporters. "He's always giving advice, letting you know if you're doing right or wrong. He's always doing something -- but never for himself."

On this afternoon, Fox is at Sesto Senso to pick up a couple of $100 gift-meal certificates Beggiato has promised. The meals will be among the prizes raffled to raise money for Fox's activities. Until last year, Fox would have his benefactors make donations directly to the schools. But that became increasingly complicated because many donors wanted to deal directly with him. So he established his own nonprofit group, Community Youth Connection Inc., which a Thompson secretary helps administer.

At 59, Fox is a burly fellow with jowly cheeks and graying hair and a big belly he pats with satisfaction after a lunch of grilled grouper and sauteed spinach. Beggiato has given him a private table upstairs, where Fox talks fast about his life's progressions and passions.

A native Washingtonian, he grew up with five brothers and a sister in the Parkside housing projects off Kenilworth Avenue in Northeast. His mother was a beautician, his father a painter.

"I ran the streets," he begins. "I wasn't a hoodlum; I was just a little bad boy." So now when he hears that one of the kids he helps has stolen a package of cupcakes, he can relate. "I used to do the same thing," he'll tell the boy, "but it's not the way to go."

Fox, who has nine children of his own, has always been industrious. He drove a cab for 15 years and once had a 7-Eleven franchise in Southeast. In 1971, he was one of the first store owners of a new black-owned supermarket chain, Big-V, that took over abandoned inner-city groceries in the aftermath of the '68 riots. At the time, Big-V was hailed by local politicians as a "major breakthrough" for black entrepreneurship and by 1975 it had made Black Enterprise's list of Top 100 businesses.

But Fox's Big-V store, at 12th and Franklin streets NE, became more headache than joy. He was robbed five times in three months.

"You get tired of it," Fox recalls. "I was working all day, every day. I wasn't getting anywhere, man."

During a 1974 holdup, one of the suspects was killed outside the store, according to a police account published at the time. An episode that still troubles Fox. "I don't like to dwell on it," he says. "Somebody lost their life."

Soon, Fox was out of the supermarket business. He went back to driving a cab, until his friend Eddie White asked if he wanted to work for his limousine service. In 1983, as a limo driver, he met Bob Thompson, who had just left the Reagan White House. Thompson was living in Tulsa and starting out as a lobbyist and consultant. During trips to Washington he would need a car, and he hired White's company. He and Fox struck up a friendship, and Thompson eventually offered Fox a full-time job driving for him.

Some may think it's a big drop in prestige from owning a supermarket to driving a car, but Fox explains: "If the business is not there, what do you do? It was a hard struggle all those years. A job is a job, as long as you make money."

And Fox's job earns him a middle-class living -- plus perks. Like vacations with Thompson on a Jamaican beach.

"I think we're more like family," says Thompson. "I'm not sure who works for whom. He takes care of me, and I take care of him."

They are close enough to have attended each other's family funerals, and close enough that Thompson listened to Fox on a night in 1991 that altered both men's lives.

Fox was waiting for Thompson outside a Capitol Hill fund-raiser at which clips from a "A Dry White Season" -- the film about apartheid starring Donald Sutherland -- were shown. Thompson was shaken by the picture, which included the brutal beating of a black schoolchild. When he returned to the car, he told Fox that he wished he could help some of those kids who were suffering under South Africa's white minority government.

"You don't have to go over there," Fox told him. "We can start something right here."

In his travels through the city, Fox had seen kids trekking through winter with no overcoats. Every night good food is thrown away from dinner tables, while some kids rarely get a nutritious meal.

"All you got to do is look around and see kids hungry, with no clothes," Fox says. "There are so many kids who need help."

Initially, Thompson donated several thousand dollars toward Christmas food baskets and shopping trips for poor children. In the past seven years, he figures, he's contributed somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000 to Fox's programs.

"He has very high expectations and low tolerance for people who buy a sailboat or something with their money," says Thompson. Fox, he says, will borrow against his credit cards and use his bonus money to bring a bunch of kids some joy.

"I just feel like it's my calling," Fox says. "I can't say it no other way. When you see the kids smile, that says it all."

Sometimes, he'll spend hours at home on the floor licking fund-raising envelopes, hoping for big checks from people he has met as a driver. Sometimes, he is disappointed. But the fact is, Fox is not a sophisticated fund-raiser. His organization is not well known. A CEO gets a piece of mail from the Community Youth Connection and it often gets junked or ignored. So Fox does what he can with what he has. Which is Thompson's client list and a skill at social intercourse.

"Almost all the money I raise, I raise from our clients," Fox says.

One of them is Ricardo Richardson, who met Fox two years ago at Thompson's office. Richardson grew up in the Bahamas and Fox has vacationed there. So that's where the conversation began, but that's not where it ended.

"I asked him what else he was involved in," recalls Richardson, executive vice president of RealMed, an Indianapolis-based information technology firm. "And Al said he had seen confrontations between kids but knew they weren't all bad and was trying to work with them. And that's how the dialogue started."

RealMed became a supporter of Fox's efforts, even though it had no ties to the Washington area. "Yes, it's unusual," says Richardson, whose company was inspired to start a program of its own in Indianapolis and flew Fox up to consult, "but in my opinion kids are kids."

The rewards of Fox's goodwill can be seen in small ways.

At Sesto Senso, he is welcomed like a visiting dignitary. And that's fine. You can tell he appreciates the respect. But a few hours later at Reed Community Learning Center in Adams-Morgan, where 100 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, Fox is greeted like Santa Claus.

Small kids run up to tug on his trousers -- they call him "Dr. Fox" -- and school officials can't wait to wrap their arms around him.

"That's my sugar. Come here," says counselor Nathalia Ramsundar, bear-hugging Fox, who tries to slide away from the attention. But they don't let him.

There are 571 students at Reed, pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, 58 percent of whom speak English as their second language, many of whom come to school with family problems that are difficult to address. Fox's efforts help.

"And it's not just at Christmastime, when a lot of people feel generous," says assistant principal Cynthia Poole-Gibson, "but it's all year long."

Robin Mosby, a single mother working part time, is grateful that Fox has helped her three children. Especially when it comes to clothes. "It's very traumatic for them at times and it's traumatic for me to watch them because I know how cruel kids can be," she says. "They notice kids with certain clothes or kids who are going certain places -- like movies -- and we just can't afford that.

"I'm blessed; I'm not complaining. The main problem is keeping my kids knowing that just because they don't have certain things doesn't make them less. People like Dr. Fox make that a lot easier."

Latoya and Latasha Blake are 7-year-old twins who adore Dr. Fox. Latoya was on one of his Sears shopping trips. "When we went shopping my mom bought me some sweat suits and she bought me some dresses, skirts."

That much stuff, huh?

"Yes."

"I was like, 'The school's providing clothes?' " recalls Pam Blake, Latoya's mother. "I figured we'd be going to a secondhand store. And then I heard Sears. I did a thank-you letter for Dr. Fox right away. I didn't even know who Dr. Fox was."

No big deal, says Fox. He wishes he could do more.

"I feel like if you're in this city, you should help. It makes you feel good to help 20 kids. But if you know there's 75 out there, it still hurts."


   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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