Geri Clark's Destiny
They met at Western High.
Richard Clark was the big man on campus -- six-foot-two, 250 pounds of big. He was big like that, even in high school. A star linebacker on the lousy Wildcats. Until the fight with his coach. Proud but not arrogant proud. Quiet proud. Distinguished proud. Says he was giving it all to the team. A good student. Likable too. Always had a group of kids hanging around him in the hall. Treated everyone the same. The kind of guy who wore his big well.
Geri Price was nerd incarnate. Honor roll. Brainiac. Shy. Quiet too, but a different kind of quiet. Scared quiet. Churning inside but quiet on the outside quiet. A nice girl. Her mom Puerto Rican. Her dad African-American. A divorce in the Bronx when she was just a toddler. Fine black hair that rippled and twisted down her back. Honey-colored skin. Eyes as dark and shining as gypsum. Felt as if she didn't fit in anywhere. More comfortable burrowed in a book than with people. (Watchers by Dean R. Koontz was a favorite.)
They sure made an unlikely pair.
But when it came time to invite a girl to senior prom, the football star picked the nerd. "I couldn't believe it! Everybody in that school respected him -- teachers and students -- and he asked me to the prom," Geri recalls giddily.
Geri's inwardness and penchant for solitude reminded Richard of his mom. He read Geri's ability to stand apart from the crowd as strength. "I had a lot of respect for her," he explains. He didn't realize until later how scared she was.
They were just kids. That night, neither knew that 14 years later, they would wind up husband and wife with four children of their own. They didn't know they would remain in Davie. Nor could Geri know that something had started to rumble through her life that night -- a big, quiet, caring something that would change her.
Already at age 17, Richard had suffered enough to twist him to bitterness. But he remained strong and kind. Geri would lean on his strength, draw from it, feed off it, learn from it, and then, as she matured, find her own.
In 2000, at age 32, Geri Clark became the first black elected official in the town of Davie. Her election to the Town Council marked a major shift for the West Broward town where hundreds of people turned out when the Ku Klux Klan marched down main street in the 1970s, a place that today is 87 percent white. Geri Clark, who registered to vote eight months before running for office, trounced white incumbent Jim Bush. She won decisively in both black and white precincts throughout the city.
The effect of her victory on Davie's small black community is only part of the story. Her election also marked the metamorphosis of a young, frightened girl into a public figure with a passion for her community. After Richard got into a dispute with the Davie Police Department this past March, Geri vowed to make sure Davie police treat everyone respectfully. She may ask the town to consider creating a civilian review board like the one Miami voters approved earlier this month. "For me, race is number one," says council member Clark.
It all goes back to Western High Prom Night 1984.
The theme was "Puttin' on the Ritz." Richard bought Geri a fluffy pink dress to wear; she couldn't afford to buy one herself. He brought her a pink corsage of carnations to match the dress and drove his brother Isiah's 1983, burgundy-and-white Thunderbird. On Richard's arm that night, Geri felt as if she were with the best-looking and most upstanding guy in all of Western High.
Rain is washing over Davie today, streaming down in great big sheets. A stationary front parked across Florida's middle is guiding moist air churned up in the Gulf of Mexico across Broward County. Commuters inching along Griffin Road are having a tough go of it. The water is at least a foot deep near the north ramp onto the Florida Turnpike. The canal along University Drive has reached the edge of its banks. If it rains any more, it looks as if the canal might overflow and cover the road. It feels as though it wouldn't take much to turn this land back to swamp, for the pools of water to join up and seek out the mother swamp of the Everglades. Nature is pushing it that way, pushing to reclaim this land, drop by drop, inch by inch.
Some places in Florida have erased history. Everything is so brand-spanking new you can't remember what was there before. Nothing there now triggers the old feelings. Disney did that in Orlando. Squint hard while standing in line at Space Mountain and it's hard to imagine acres of orange groves heavy with fruit.
But Davie's past is imbedded in its present. It's in the rich, black muck left behind when the federal government tried to drain the Everglades in 1905. It's in the chronic flooding. It's at Grifs Feed & Pet Center among the bags of hog feed and chicken scratch. It's in the network of canals. It's in the horse and bike trails that wend under giant oaks. It's in the wacky Western theme that was adopted as a design standard for downtown in the 1970s.
And it is in the near invisibility of the town's black community, in the remains of long-outdated codes that keep blacks from the east side from mixing too much into the life of the community.
Baldy, Boocat, and Richard Clark stuck together as kids, growing up in the late 1960s. Marching down the footpaths of the east side playing army. Hunting deer and wild hog with their dad, Isaac Sr., on the edge of the Big Cypress Swamp. Isaac Jr. (called "Baldy" because he had no hair when he was born), Isiah (nicknamed "Boocat" because he fought like a cat), and Richard grew close. "Just push him," Isaac hollered up when Richard froze on the roof of the family home, clutching a black garbage bag for a parachute. (After taking the plunge, Richard returned to the roof to jump again.) Only a couple of years separate the Clarks' three oldest boys. That gave them a natural confederation. Plus, their mother's words were always in their ears: "Y'all stay together."
Richard remembers those days as idyllic. The area around what is now Potter Park, at SW 57th Terrace at SW 42nd Place, was a sleepy, country place, just the way Richard thinks a place should be. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins all lived within tromping distance. One road led in and out -- SW 56th Terrace. Pathways connected the houses. There were a couple of bars -- the Joy Club and the Ace of Spades -- and a pool hall up on Orange Drive. Willie Bell ran a sundry and a beer joint. As long as the kids stayed in the neighborhood, nobody really bothered them. "We was just down here," Richard says. "It was nice.... Months would go by and we wouldn't see a police."
But the boys were educated to understand that their roaming had limits -- if not by the fussing of their mother and grandmother, then through the stories of other kids who crossed the color line. "When I was a kid, you didn't do a whole lot of traveling uptown," Richard explains. "The [police] would take you to the jailhouse and whup ya' if they found you up there." Blacks went to the back door of the post office to buy stamps, to the back door of the pharmacy to buy drugs.
In 1970, the wall that separated blacks and whites cracked. That year, Fort Lauderdale lawyer George Allen filed a lawsuit claiming that Broward County was in violation of federal desegregation orders. At the time, 17 Broward schools were all black, and five were 99 percent black. When Richard entered first grade in 1972, Davie Elementary School had been integrated. And some people didn't like the idea of mixing races.
On the way to school, the Clark brothers cleaved together. "We always walked in a crowd," Richard says. They were mostly safe that way, but not always. "The people that bothered you were the young teenagers," Richard recalls. "They would ride by, throw stuff, yell things, chase you down."
One afternoon when Richard was pedaling home along Orange Drive, a white man knocked him over and threw his bike into the canal. "All because of this," Richard says, tapping his skin. "I've thought about it a lot over the years," he says, "and I still can't figure out to this day what I did to that man."
By the time they were teenagers, Isiah and Richard had grown into popular, athletic young men. Isiah played football at Cooper City High School. Richard lined up for Western High. "My boys could play ball," Mary Clark says. Richard was the only black football player on the Wildcats. He was a gifted athlete.
Colleges noticed. Letters arrived from the University of Florida, the University of Miami, Purdue, and other schools. At Western High, the football coach told Richard that if he worked hard, a football scholarship to college was a real possibility. "Richard was an uplifting, positive kid," remembers his coach, Joe Melita, who is now in charge of investigations for the Broward County School Board. "He had a lot of raw talent. He was big. He was strong."
But near the end of Richard's junior year in 1983, tragedy struck the Clark family. Their home burned to the ground. "I come jogging up there after school about 5:30 or 6 to find out I had nothing," Richard says. "Only the clothes on my back."
Richard missed practice that summer. He worked instead. In the fall, the team took a vote and decided to keep him on the roster. "We all knew what he'd been through," says Steve Galor, a teammate and friend of Richard's since ninth grade. But to Richard, it seemed as if Coach Melita had turned on him. "He kept asking me if I was sure my head was in it, off-the-wall nonsense like that," Richard says.
When the team lost its first game to South Broward, Melita gave a speech, Richard recalls. If everyone was a true part of the team, he said, they would have won the game.
Richard lost it. Words were exchanged on the field, more in the locker room. "We was fixin' to go blow for blow," Richard recalls. Galor and another player separated the two. The next day, Richard was kicked off the team. The scholarship offers disappeared.
It was devastating, Galor says. "I truly believe he wouldn't be here in Davie if that hadn't happened," Galor says. "He would probably be playing football on Sundays."
But that was just the beginning of Richard's travails. The following weekend, Isiah talked Richard into going to the game. He had bet the Wildcats would lose without Richard. The police thought they were there to cause trouble. A Davie police officer ordered the brothers to leave.
As Isiah and Richard walked out of the stadium, Davie cops swarmed them, Richard says. While he lay on the ground, the officers kicked him. "They were trying to put me in as much pain as possible," he says.
The brothers were arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest without violence. The charges were eventually dropped, and the town later settled a lawsuit the brothers had filed demanding compensation for the unnecessary collar. Richard says he and Isiah each got about $5000.
Richard still hoped to play college football, but his NFL dream was dashed the following year. Trying to gain control of a skittish horse, Richard was smashed into a fence, crushing two vertebrae.
Even months after leaving the team, the fight with Melita troubled Richard. When Richard ran into an assistant coach from the school, he felt he got some answers. The coach told Richard that team boosters pressured Melita because the black player received all the attention. Melita says that never happened: "We just had a rule: No matter who you were, if you didn't practice, you didn't play."
But the experience tested Richard. It forced him to hold up his head, to remain true to his values, to keep pushing, drop by drop, inch by inch, to claim his place in the world. "I thank Coach Melita, in a way," Richard says. "He put a fire in me that I didn't have before.
"I decided to stay here and fight these bastards within every inch of my life."
Geri Price moved to Davie in 1979. She was 13 years old. Her mother, Nilda, was divorced. Mrs. Price supported herself and her three children with a secretarial job at Austin Tupler Trucking in Davie. The children had to pitch in to make it work. Geri missed her dad, even though she never really knew him. She built him up as a heroic figure. Cried every birthday when he didn't call. Still does.
And Geri had another pain locked up inside her since childhood. Something horrible had happened. Something she didn't tell her mother about until she was an adult. She declined to discuss it with New Times. "That's private," she says. She was so young when it happened, Geri says, that she doesn't know what kind of person she might have otherwise become. She shaped her personality around it, dealing as best she could. Her sister, Sandra, was outgoing. Her brother, Kenny, was an athlete. She had great empathy for the suffering of others. And she also became an artist at avoiding further trauma.
There was plenty in Davie that she found threatening. Back in the Bronx, people crossed ethnic and racial lines more freely. Or it seemed that way. Davie was Deep South. For someone like Richard, who grew up here, it might seem that the races were mixing. But to her, everyone stayed separate -- blacks with blacks and whites with whites. With her tawny skin, Geri didn't feel she had a natural group. The white kids thought she was too black. The black kids thought she was too white. That's the way it felt to her. Plus, she was poor. She couldn't buy her way to cool. Instead of trying, she withdrew. Studying. Curling up with a book in her bedroom. That's when she felt safe.
Teasing was her biggest fear. In high school, anyone different was a target. "I felt like I had the word victim printed on my forehead," she says. Geri avoided the cafeteria. "You might be sitting there eating lunch and some jerk decides to pick on the table where you're sitting." She bonded with other girls who were outsiders. Among these outcasts, there was no color line. Her best friend, Tracy, was a white girl with bright-red hair. "For some reason, a girl with red hair gets teased," Geri puzzles. Geri, Tracy, and Robin ("my crew") would head to the library during lunch. Geri made good grades, sure enough, and set up a pattern of avoidance she continued until Richard became determined to break it.
When prom time rolled around, Richard had a plan. "I wanted to take a good girl," he explains. "If I take somebody to the prom, it better be one worth spending my money on."
Even after she accepted his invitation, Geri still wasn't sure if Richard liked her or just needed a date. She got an answer a short time later, when he kissed her on the way to class. That kind of sealed it.
The course of their love, though, wasn't about dinner dates or bouquets of flowers. It was about being there, about family. "That was romantic to me," Geri says. Knowing that Geri's mother struggled to make ends meet, Richard pitched in. "He did things without being asked. He did things he really didn't have to.... He would come over with groceries for my whole family. You don't find a lot of young men who would do that," she says. "Nothing is more important to him than family."
Mary Clark says she knew right away that Geri and Richard were serious. "I could tell by the way they were with each other," she says. "He didn't have to say anything."
Richard also began applying pressure. "I noticed that the only thing she did was read a book and stay away from people," he says. "I told her, "Life isn't in your room. You got to come out of that room.'"
After graduating from high school in 1985, Geri took jobs at a jewelry manufacturer, at a pesticide company, and doing housework. Richard thought the work was beneath her. "It really hurted me," he says. "I pushed her to go to college.... She has book smarts. I told her I would pay for it, whatever it took. But I guess I had more confidence in her than she had in herself."
Since Geri didn't know how to drive, Richard chauffeured her to work. One day, he decided she should learn. She was terrified. "That was a big fight," Geri says. "I screamed at him all the way home."
The next hurdle was to get her to go to the grocery store, or anywhere else, by herself. Even after the couple married in 1988 and had their first son, Richard Jr., now 13, she wouldn't go to a store unless a family member accompanied her. "I was a walking chicken," she says. To her family and herself, she explained, "I want to be a homebody. I'd rather just stay home."
But her avoidance backfired when Geri was around 25 years old. She began having horrible nightmares. She feared falling asleep. She felt as if Richard were judging her. "I cried a lot," she says. When they argued, she would just shut down. Geri had never spoken to her mother about the trauma she had suffered as a child, and she had never told Richard either. "And he's my husband," she says.
Finally, one day Richard couldn't take it anymore. He got out a telephone book, found a counseling center at Nova Southeastern University, and insisted Geri call. "I thought he was being really hard on me at the time," she says. "Too hard." But she went and began a struggle, drop by drop, inch by inch, to claim her place in the world. For that, she thanks Richard. "He saw so much more in me than I did," she says. "He saw how I was crippling my life. I was living in a box, and I didn't want to get out of it."
When she finally emerged, Geri was ready to fight.
Geri saw a lot wrong in east Davie. The way the town shoehorned heavy industry next door to residential homes. That was wrong. The way longtime homeowners were pushed out when the town built affordable houses along SW 43rd Street in 1996. That was wrong too. The potholes. The illegal dump sites. They were wrong. And Potter Park. It was criminal the way the town neglected it. For the west side, the town built the Pine Island Community Center, a multimillion-dollar complex with a swimming pool, fitness room, and football field. In Potter Park, the baseball field had no grass, just weeds. The concession stand was boarded up. Playground equipment had been purchased but never installed. The picnic pavilion had no grills. Boxing classes were held outdoors.
The Clarks were very involved in Potter, which today the Police Athletic League uses as its recreational facility. Isiah and Richard have coached softball, football, and boxing at the PAL as volunteers since high school. The work healed Richard, gave him a feeling of purpose. "I've done a lot of good with kids," Richard says. "That's what life's all about, really." One of their boxers, Terry Moore, won the Florida Golden Gloves competition as a middleweight in 1995.
After several newspaper articles described the dismal conditions at Potter Park, the Davie PAL enclosed the pavilion and made other improvements in 1997 with private help. The town contributed netting behind home plate but spent no other money on the park. Today, the facility is more functional, if still spartan.
When town officials proposed buying land for a new east-side park, residents questioned when the administration would get around to fixing Potter Park. Richard turned to Geri. "I told her, "Geri, we need your help on this.'"
At a Town Council meeting on November 17, 1999, Richard, Isiah, Geri, and other east-side residents spoke. They supported creating more parks but stated emphatically that the town needed to spend money on Potter. Several residents attributed the conditions at the park to racism. Council member Kathy Cox took offense at the criticism, claiming that "there are some real good things going on out there for y'all."
Her comments stung. Then, on November 19, the Sun-Sentinel quoted Cox sounding as though she didn't consider east-side residents true citizens of the town: "We have been making improvements all along for those people without their participation or support, and it's never been good enough for them," Cox reportedly said.
At the December 1 Town Council meeting, east-side residents turned out to complain. Geri wrote a speech for Richard to read. He refused. "You need to read it yourself," he told her. When it came time to speak, Geri laid it on, responding to the Cox quote in the Sentinel: "This statement has motivated me, to no end, to review the evidence of all those improvements that, we the people, are so unappreciative of. When I find that evidence, which I'm sure is public record, I will compare it to the extent of the improvements done at all of the other parks in Davie. I cannot wait to share this information with everyone who will listen, and I will share it with everyone who will listen."
Ellen Christopher heard Geri speak. She was impressed. "I had never seen her at any of the other meetings. I was like, "You go, girl,'" says Christopher, who is white. As a detective in the sex crimes division of the Miami-Dade Police Department, Christopher knows all about information-gathering. She put together a three-ring binder about Potter Park and delivered it to Geri and Richard's house.
Dan Barr was impressed too. He and Bruce Megee, who are both white, had been hoping to find a candidate to unseat District 1 incumbent James Bush, an attorney who had served on the Town Council for nine years. They wanted to break up the voting bloc of Cox, Bush, and Terry Santini. "Geri seemed like a good recruit," says Barr, who is chairman of the citizens group United Neighbors of Davie. "I liked her right off the bat."
Megee says Geri understood the cost of the neglect, and she saw the problems in broad focus. "She could understand our needs, and we could understand hers," Megee comments. "She has a common-sense approach to issues. She can see to the core quickly. She just had natural ability."
Once Megee, Barr, and others persuaded Geri to run, she went full-tilt. She pored over documents to familiarize herself with the issues. Bush sent out mailings. One, which pictured Geri's visage on a milk carton, like a missing-children advertisement, asked, "Have you seen me?" On it, Megee says, Geri's face was doctored so that her nose appeared wider, more stereotypically African.
Geri went door to door. After finishing her day job in the scheduling department of Austin Tupler Trucking (where her mother still works) and on weekends, Geri talked to voters at area shopping centers. She stood on street corners holding signs and waving. She telephoned voters. Christopher, her sister Jean Mesler, and the others manned phone banks and put in ten-hour days on Saturdays and Sundays to get out Geri's name. "I've never gotten so involved in anything like that before," Christopher recalls. "It was incredible."
But early in the campaign, the group hit a wall.
One Saturday, a Clark for Council contingent descended on Oak Hill, a Davie neighborhood of tall, graceful trees, one-acre lots, horses, and spacious homes built in the 1960s. Geri brought along Richard Jr. It didn't go well. "We seemed to be getting cut off short in conversation," Megee says. "People seemed uncomfortable."
After the campaigning, several compared notes. Megee, president of the Davie firefighters union Jim Spence, and others agreed that Richard Jr.'s presence might make some people nervous. Richard sports an Afro that he picks into a giant black cloud around his head. "We didn't know how this race thing was going to play," Megee says. "But we thought maybe she shouldn't be bringing Richard around with her." Megee was nominated to discuss the issue with Geri.
After the discussion, Geri called her husband crying uncontrollably. When she got home and told Richard of the concern over their son's presence, Richard suggested she drop out of the race. "They just don't know from a person how that hurted her," he says. "I wanted her to stop so I could tell them what I think of them."
Richard asked Geri if she really wanted to serve in a city that would look down on her child? Tears turned to anger. "I said, "Hell yeah!'" she shouts, remembering the discussion. "That attitude is the reason why we're in the position we're in. That was proof there was a problem, if even the decent people who thought they were my friends thought it was a problem. That just showed me."
Comments Megee: "That's why I just admire the woman to death. She knew if she won this thing, there was the opportunity to make real changes."
On Election Day, Geri carried 62 percent of the vote in precincts throughout Davie. Both black and white residents supported her. They celebrated at the Oar House. Dozens of jubilant people showed up.
Since winning office, Geri has won council consensus for: speed bumps around Potter Park, $1.8 million to build a gym that the PAL will operate next to Potter Park, and the creation of a Community Relations Advisory Board to deal with race and other issues. Last year, Davie even adopted Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as an official holiday.
Life as a council member has put a lot of stress on Geri's family. In addition to Richard Jr., nine-year-old Lorenzo, and three-year-old Sarah, Geri and Richard in July had a fourth child, Christopher. Richard and his brother Isiah were hired as full-time program directors at the PAL last year, a job Richard says means he works seven days a week. Geri works a 40-hour week at Austin Tupler, then takes care of constituents. "They think of me as their watchdog now," she says. "They say, "Geri, you take care of it -- they won't listen to us.'"
One of her goals is to change the east side's resignation to activism. "I tell people to come down to the Town Council," she says. "In this town, the squeaky wheel gets greased."
Her first "race incident" happened October 18 of last year in a testy exchange with the woman who inspired her vault into politics -- council member Kathy Cox. At issue was the purchase of a second fire truck for the town's fire department. Clark was for it. Cox spoke against it. Cox was offended when Clark referred to her as "she" instead of as "council member Cox." After correcting her several times, Cox told the town's first black council member to "kindly take your little insults back to the 'hood."
At the next meeting, Geri said she was sorry for "baiting" Cox. "I apologized because, in my opinion, she is a racist, and you can't get a racist to apologize to someone they think is beneath them," Geri says.
Cox supporters lined up to criticize Geri. Knowing that Geri might lose her cool, Richard was in the audience. "He told me to just keep my eyes on him and I was going to be OK," she says. "He knows I am a sensitive, emotional person. I get angry quick. He didn't want me to lose sight." She kept her focus, and the fire department got a second truck. Cox has since left the council and moved from Davie to Southwest Ranches. She declined to comment on the dispute when contacted by New Times.
The Clark family faces more trials. In July, Isiah was charged with sexual battery and indecent assault stemming from allegations made by his two stepdaughters. The case has not gone to trial. Richard contends it's the result of a vendetta against the Clarks.
Although life might be easier somewhere else, Richard says Geri and he plan to remain in Davie, raising their children and pushing for change, at least until the four children are grown. Then, says Richard, he might consider moving -- to somewhere more country, the way Davie was when he grew up, "with woods nearby."
When her term ends in 2003, Geri will run again, she says. And at least four of the people who worked on her campaign say they'll eagerly help. "She's my hero," Christopher says. "Her heart and her head are in the right place."
Richard will be there for Geri too. "I think she's found her calling," he says.
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