Honorary Chairs Candice and Tony Romo weren’t going to be able to make it. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm Wednesday, April 19, when around 350 people showed up for Just Say Yes‘ Building Bridges celebration dinner at Belo Mansion. The keynote speaker, after all, would be another high-wattage local celeb: former Dallas Police Chief David Brown. And the evening would be raising money for the Just Say Yes (short for Youth Equipped to Succeed) nonprofit, a good cause that aims to equip teens to succeed by educating them through classroom curriculum and inspirational student-assembly speakers.
While guests checked out the silent-auction items—including offerings from Al Biernat’s and Papa John’s Pizza, plus a Dallas Cowboys jersey and football signed by Tony—musician Emilio Mesa blasted out some cool sounds on his saxophone. Then everyone filed into the ballroom, where emcee Anna de Haro welcomed all and gave the podium over to Just Say Yes Development Director Marissa Leach. Marissa explained that “Building Bridges” would be the nonprofit’s theme this year, before presenting Just Say Yes Founder/President Dan Bailey with the “15-year award.”
While attendees like Bill Noble and King Crow looked on, Dan reviewed the organization’s progress, citing its influence on students in 39 states, for example. It’s also reached more than 600,000 students in Dallas-Fort Worth since the early 2000s, he recalled, and is poised for still more growth in the coming months. Dan was followed by presentation of the annual Coach Avery Johnson Impact Award, which went this year to Paula and Darrell McCutcheon (though Darrell was absent due to “a root canal that didn’t go so well”).
Next came Veronica Lee, the nonprofit’s senior mentoring coordinator, who introduced a student “mentee” named Jasmine and Jasmine’s mother, Veronica. They agreed that Jasmine’s life, once troubled and unhappy, had been turned around thanks to the positive influence of Just Say Yes. “I first joined the program to get out of class,” Jasmine confessed to the crowd with a laugh. “But now we’re one big happy family!”
Then came what everyone had been keenly anticipating: the keynote talk by Brown, who’s been working as a contributor lately to ABC News. Bespectacled as usual and dressed this evening in a dark business suit, the former Dallas police chief, who’s 56, said he wanted to focus his talk on the aftermath of the Dallas police shootings last July 7. Among the countless letters containing good wishes—and cash—that poured into the department then, Brown recalled, one letter in particular attracted his attention. It was from a fellow named Lance, whom Brown had befriended back during his days attending The University of Texas at Austin.
Receiving the letter set him to remembering how they’d met, when Brown—a poor African-American kid from Oak Cliff—climbed one day aboard a bus bound for Austin and UT and sat down next to the “white kid” from Missouri named Lance. Lance, Brown soon discovered, was also traveling to school at UT, and had also grown up poor. After learning as they approached Waco that Lance was hungry, Brown pulled out a bag of his great-grandmother’s fried chicken and offered some to his new pal.
In his letter to Brown last year, Lance remembered that bus trip and wrote, “My views of blacks changed because of how you treated me.” (Reading those words, Brown said, “I didn’t start crying, but my allergies started acting up.”) Then Lance wrote, “I always wondered why you sat down next to me.” That question was an interesting one, Brown said to the Just Say Yes crowd, so he would let them know why he’d done it.
It seems that a few years before the Austin trip, when he was just 11, the ex-chief was among the first group of local kids bused to a distant school as part of a court-ordered effort to desegregate Dallas’ schools. “No one wanted me there” at his new school, Brown said. “I didn’t want to be there. No one spoke to me for three months.”
Then, one day, Brown said, “a little white kid [named Mike] invited me home to dinner—at 3 p.m.!” Brown accepted Mike’s offer and walked with him to his home, where Mike’s mother quickly summoned her son into the kitchen and began whispering to him. “I felt like Sidney Poitier in the movie ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ ” Brown said. But then, after a long while, Mike’s mother came out of the kitchen carrying a couple of pot pies. “Mike and I wound up talking until 7 p.m.,” Brown said. “And, eventually, our friendship led Mike to befriend other black kids.”
A little while ago, Brown said, he reconnected with Mike and asked him, “What were you whispering with your mom about in the kitchen that afternoon?” Mike, who’s Jewish, said he’d reminded his mother that day about their family members who’d survived the Holocaust, and how their advice had always been to be kind to strangers—especially those who were “different” from them.
All three pals—Brown, Lance, and Mike—wound up attending UT Austin at the same time. “So you wonder, is the moral of this story that all we need is fried chicken and pot pies to change the world?” Brown said to the Just Say Yes group. “No! But, you can transform lives with the way you interact with young people. The moral of this story is: we all have a responsibility to one another—one life at a time.
“People ask me, what’s the ‘secret’ reason you quit” the Dallas police department? Brown went on. “There wasn’t any secret reason. I was called to the job for a purpose, and I left for a purpose. I grew up poor, in a tough, high-crime neighborhood, and adults invested in me. That’s why I said yes to Just Say Yes. The Lord can call you to do things that you don’t want to do.
“The things you do for these kids’ lives means something,” Brown said, wrapping up his talk. “I’m proud to be in the same room as you all. Now my allergies are acting up again, so I’m going to stop.”
Of course, Dallas’s former top cop got a standing ovation.
* Photos provided by Just Say Yes