Tony Ray Arrington holds the diploma that his daughter, Yasmine Arrington, earned from Elon University on May 23. He was in jail for much of her life and nearly missed the commencement. (Andrew P. Johnson/For The Washington Post)

Under the oaks, in the sea of caps and gowns and navy blazers and sundresses, Tony Ray Arrington felt totally out of place. And he was the happiest he’d ever been.

“I can’t keep this Kool-Aid smile off my face,” the 45-year-old ex-convict said, as he raised his 6-foot-4 frame on tiptoes to look for his daughter.

Two weeks ago, he didn’t think he’d be here.

And when she heard why, Yasmine Arrington — who grew up in the District, made it to college against the odds and launched her own nonprofit to give scholarships to children whose parents are incarcerated — sighed.

Her father had been in and out of prison for much of her life. I wrote about their reunion three years ago, when Yasmine was a freshman at Elon University and her father, who’d been convicted of burglary and other crimes, was just out of prison and working as a cook not far from her school.

Yasmine Arrington, 22, defied the odds when she graduated from Elon University. She started a scholarship program for children with incarcerated parents. (Andrew P. Johnson/For The Washington Post)

Yasmine, now 22, roared through college — awards, a sorority, a plus-size modeling career, honors from Teen Vogue and BET, all while holding fundraisers for ScholarCHIPS, the nonprofit that has handed out $40,000 in college money to 17 kids just like her. The nonprofit will give out more money next month.

More than 2.7 million American children have a parent who is incarcerated. And studies show that can be more devastating to children than divorce or even death.

For years, Yasmine didn’t talk about her dad. Compounding the deck stacked against her, Yasmine’s mother died in 2007. Her maternal grandmother, a force of nature named Veronica Wright, stepped in to help raise Yasmine and her little brothers.

She hadn’t seen her father for 16 years when they reconnected in 2012. They began talking two or three times a week, slowly developing a bond that both of them treasured.

Then, in December, just as Yasmine was looking forward to her last semester at Elon and graduation, Tony landed back behind bars.

(Andrew P. Johnson/The Washington Post)

His temper. A “borrowed” car, which the court called “vehicle larceny.” A parole violation. After four years of freedom, he was living that eternal loop of the ex-offender.

A heartbroken Yasmine, who plans to attend Howard University School of Divinity in the fall, with a focus on prison ministry, wrote on her Facebook page:

“Unfortunately, my father has gotten in trouble with the law again. This would mean he won’t be at my graduation in May.”

But two weeks ago, Tony got out. And he made sure he could come to Elon on May 23. “The probation officer let him stay out until 10 tonight,” said Yasmine’s grandfather George Hardy, 65. “ ‘Elon!’ they said. ‘You stay out until 10 p.m. for this one, Tony.’ ”

On campus, Tony began to realize the huge impact his daughter has had. Everyone knows Yasmine. One of her mentors from D.C. got into a car at 4:30 a.m. to drive down and see her graduate. Another one flew in just for those two hours. The golf-cart driver fist-bumped her, the professors, the deans, the counselors. Hugs, tears. “Go Yazzie!” everywhere they went. She was draped in sashes and medals.

“What does all that she’s wearing mean?” Tony asked.

One professor asked Yasmine to bring the entire family into her office so she could meet them. As the whole procession walked across verdant quads, Tony marveled at it all.

“Look at all these people who stepped in to support her,” he said. “Look at everything she did.”

He wore a white canvas fedora, with a pastel, tropical-print band, to cover the skull tattoo on the back of his head; a teal polo shirt; and long pants, to cover the monitoring band on his ankle.

Under the oaks, in a storybook setting on the gorgeous campus, he sat in the long row of Yasmine’s fans and family — two grandmas, a grandpa, two brothers, a stepdad who was in her life briefly, two mentors, plus me and a photographer — trying to blend in.

He didn’t take one of the stickers everyone stuck to their chests as they walked in: “I’m a proud Elon parent.” But one grandma went back to the smiling women, got one and slapped it on his shirt.

“She inspires me,” Tony said. “She inspired me every day I didn’t see her. And she’s inspiring me to do better now.”

Just before the ceremony, he sneaked away to smoke a cigarette.

“I’m so nervous,” he said as he returned and the processional music began. “And I’m so happy. So proud. She did it. Yazzie did it all.”

Twitter: @petulad

To learn more about Yasmine Arrington’s nonprofit, go to www.scholarchipsfund.com.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.