Steven Easley remembers vividly the moment his life turned around. It was the day he arrived by bus at Valley Forge Military College in rural Wayne, Pa., expecting to take a tour but discovering it was actually check-in day.
He had nothing with him–no bags, no papers, no parents. Not even a toothbrush. School officials were astonished. But because he had registered by mail in their ROTC program, they were able to process him through.
And that night, as he lay in bed, the 18-year-old boy heard the sweetest sound he could imagine–silence. No sirens, no gunshots, no swearing, no partying. Just silence. It was a stark contrast to the life he knew in the inner-city neighborhoods of Buffalo, N.Y.
“When I went to military school was the first time I realized everyone didn’t live like that,” he says. “I always thought everyone had raggedy cars and lived in gang neighborhoods with vacant lots.”
Though Easley lived like that from the age of 8, it wasn’t always so. His aunt, the most important person in his life, raised him from infancy through his first eight years. She provided him a stable family life on Cincinnati’s west side, taking him to church, and constantly pushing his remarkable academic ability.
“I got a real sense of confidence from her,” Easley says of his aunt, Brenda Williams, whom he still calls Ma. “She always pushed me to get good grades. For me it was no B’s. She said I could always do better and it stuck.”
Williams says it was tough raising her own three children by herself and taking in Steven and a cousin. But she was determined. “Mine wasn’t a very good childhood and it taught me the importance of family and love and to always try to achieve,” she says. “I would tell Steven all the time, you can be anything you want. I just didn’t want him to be nothing.”
That solid home life fell apart, though, when Steven’s father, whom he’d never met, suddenly appeared, taking the boy to Buffalo when he was 8. The dominoes then fell in rapid succession. His father, a drug user, moved out after one year, leaving Steven in the care of a stepmother who hardly knew him. His own mother lived nearby but had little to do with him. He regularly saw drug dealing in his neighborhood and once saw a man shot in the head outside his stepmother’s house. He died in the driveway. Of the 18 boys he hung out with in the neighborhood, only three, including himself, aren’t dead or in jail.
By the time he was 14, an angry and rebellious Steven moved out of the house and in with his 16-year-old sister, whose home was a crack house. He would tire of the noisy all-night parties and drug-dealing and go up to his attic room, throwing the covers over his head to shut out the noise and, if possible, the reality of the life that surrounded him.
Still, he was able to graduate from an exclusive public high school for high-achieving students, even though, with no parent around, he often skipped school.
By the end of his junior year, Easley was realizing he didn’t want to live this life and began thinking of military service as a way out. He joined the Army after graduation but scored so well on the entrance tests that he was steered to a session on military schools, where he learned about Valley Forge. He applied and was accepted on a full scholarship for the two-year associate degree program.
Easley distinguished himself at Valley Forge with a 3.93 grade point average, finishing at the top of his graduating class and becoming the school’s first black valedictorian. He started a black student group, played football, and participated in ROTC. Aunt Brenda came to his graduation and through tears pinned his medal to his uniform.
Then he was accepted to Xavier where he completed bachelor degrees in information systems and marketing with the class of 2000. Now he’s a technology and information systems coordinator for Xavier and, at age 23, has started his own data-processing business as well.
Now married to his high school sweetheart, who was 13 when they met, Easley is looking forward to a family of his own. He’s begun by offering to pay for his 15-year-old brother, Grant, to attend Valley Forge, and by writing to his father, who’s serving time in Michigan for robbery and rarely writes back.
“The thing I wanted most was somebody’s time, and that’s what I want to give my family,’’ he says.