Every weekday, in rain, snow, sleet or hail, Wade Jefferson rushed home from work for a very special mission. No time to stop for a drink with friends. No time to catch an early movie. Three hungry boys were waiting at home for him to fix them dinner.
"He would come home from work and sometimes before he even took off his tie, he started cooking," his son Kevin recalled. "He loved to fry okra with green peppers or fix okra with liver. We hated it."
Kevin, 22, and Philip, 20, two of Jefferson's three sons, gathered at his tidy brick row house in Kingman Park in Northeast recently to remember life with father when Jefferson, divorced from their mother, Joan Coates, took on most of the responsibility of caring for his then-elementary-school-aged sons. Today, Kevin, Philip and Michael Jefferson are attending college, armed with their father's example of the value of an education, hard work, and self-confidence.
Michael, 24, the oldest, is in his second year at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. Kevin is one course away from a bachelor's degree in journalism at Bowie State College, where he has served as editor-in-chief of the student paper. He's headed for Boston later this summer, where he'll be a master of ceremonies at the NAACP National Convention.
And Philip, home for a brief visit after spending a year in Europe at the London School of Economics, will study economics at Yale this summer before returning to his full-time studies at Vassar.
When Wade and his wife divorced 16 years ago, they agreed that Wade would care for their three sons during the week, and she would care for them on weekends.
In most cases, it was Jefferson who coped with his sons' bouts with mumps, measles and colds, years of taking them to Boy Scout meetings and visiting their classes unexpectedly to see how well the boys were doing.
"I used to worry about Wade's social life," Philip admitted. "Although we were with our mother on weekends, we all still did things together. He had very little time to himself. I used to wonder if he was happy being a single parent. Of course, now he thinks he's a bachelor."
At 55, Jefferson, a caseworker for the District's Department of Human Resources, now can come home whenever he pleases. He looks younger than his years, perhaps because he's slim or because the few gray hairs he has are barely visible among his strands of coal-black hair.
"I've got a lot of energy left," he said, teasing his sons.
"He's mellowed some in his old age," said Philip.
According to Jefferson, caring for three boys was never difficult. The Jefferson household was run by the book of rules that Jefferson wrote himself: Homework had to be completed before playtime, rooms had to be cleaned each day.
"Everything was done in an orderly manner, like a military operation," said Jefferson.
Breakfast started at 6 a.m. "All four of us had to eat together," recalled Philip. "You couldn't be late. The problem was, we only have one bathroom."
While the boys were upstairs jockeying for a position in the bathroom, their father would be in the kitchen slapping bacon in a frying pan or pouring grits into a pot.
"We always had a good, full breakfast," said Kevin. "We would have something like waffles . . . sunny-side up eggs, bacon or hot dogs, and juice or milk. It was pretty amazing."
It was nothing at all, Jefferson said. He patched pants and ironed Boy Scout uniforms. He left the baking to their mother. He says his household skills came from his Southern upbringing.
Jefferson was raised in Columbia, S.C., one of nine children born to a schoolteacher named Mae and her husband, Isaac Jefferson, a Pullman porter.
"Like most Southern boys, I was taught to do everything. It was never a stigma for Southern boys to wash dishes and clothes, or to sew or cook," Jefferson said. "Besides, I've worked in restaurants. . . . It was nothing for me to throw on some grits, scramble some eggs and do something else at the same time."
After breakfast, they all went their separate ways. The next time they would meet was about 5 p.m., when Jefferson came home from work--getting off the bus carrying a briefcase in one hand and a newspaper in the other, his sons remembered.
At 6 p.m., he would step outside and shout their names to summon them to the living room to watch the evening news. While their friends watched Batman, they watched Walter Cronkite.
"We even had to read the credits," said Kevin, the journalism major.
"I remember hearing Walter Cronkite talk about the OPEC nations . . . and economics. The word 'economics' became very important to me," said Philip, who hopes to earn a doctorate in that field.
After the television news, dinner and a check of homework, Wade Jefferson let the boys play outside "until the streetlights came on."
They knew that "Wade," as they called their father, didn't believe in sparing the rod. He was known to "pop you in the mouth," according to Philip.
Their performance in school was so important to Jefferson that one of his common practices was to visit their classrooms, slipping in without the unsuspecting son seeing him.
"Can you imagine," said Kevin, "I'd be sitting in a reading group with my head down in a book and look up and see my father sitting right there."
In 1969, Jefferson got a leave of absence from his job and went to school himself. In three years he earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Federal City College. He also won a scholarship to study in Africa, Egypt and Europe for three years. He returned with a collection of art and souvenirs.
"The next thing I knew, I looked up one day and he was over at my school, my principal was introducing him and he was setting up a display about the trip," Kevin recalled, laughing.
Today, Jefferson has a single hand-carved wooden statue to remind him of his travels. The rest he gave away.
"It was the experience I wanted," he explained.
Wade Jefferson said experiences always have been important to him. One of his favorite stories is about the time his mother brought him and some of his sisters and brothers to Washington for a visit. She was downtown running some errands when she saw some women with a lot of children.
"She found out they were going to the White House for an Easter egg hunt," Jefferson said. "She stopped what she was doing and hurried home to us. She boiled some eggs, not stopping to color them, grabbed us, and took us to the White House."
That was the kind of experience Jefferson wanted for his children. He helped his sons make Halloween costumes from "paper bags, sheets, glue and glitter," and he walked with them from door to door on their trick-or-treat rounds. Every Christmas they made a big project of decorating the house, inside and out.
"Exposure and experiences. That's what I've tried to give the boys," he said.
He taught them how to use libraries for research, and took them to art galleries and theater performances and on a tour of the White House. Michael played oboe in the D.C. Youth Orchestra and Philip, who still performs, has received several awards for acting.
Michael thinks the greatest gift his father passed along to his sons is "boldness" and "confidence."
"I remember I wanted to transfer from a school in Kentucky to George Washington University for undergrad," he said in a telephone conversation from Philadelphia. "George Washington sent me a letter saying because my need for financial aid was so great, they couldn't help me. I was coming out of finals exams and feeling pretty down.
"I called my father and he said, 'Come on home and we'll work it out.' He went with me over to George Washington and by the time we left . . . well, I went there two years without paying anything."
"I think we have his go-get-it attitude," Kevin said. "We're a lot like him. It's in all of us not to be the dominant figure, but to be outgoing."
"In this family we put the emphasis on education," said Wade Jefferson. "Of course, a good education doesn't guarantee they'll make it. As long as they can survive in their world, I'll be satisfied."
Then with a devilish look in his eyes, he glanced at Kevin and Philip, smiled, and said: "I've built my retirement and I don't want nobody coming back asking for handouts."