This article originally appeared in our December 2007 issue.
If you were to order hashbrowns with grilled onions for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) and hear your server tell the kitchen to “smother ’em,” you would almost certainly be at Waffle House. And even if you placed this order on Interstate 80 in Hubbard, Ohio, or on Highway 34 in Loveland, Colorado, or overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in Key West, or at some lonely exit off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or at any of the other 1,543 Waffle Houses in twenty-five states, you would be channeling a uniquely enduring and iconic piece of Atlanta.
Waffle House is as Atlanta as Coca-Cola, CNN, or Delta, only more demure. You won’t turn on your television to see the king of all-night diners assaulting you with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, and you won’t get a jingle stuck in your head, because there isn’t one. Waffle House never needed one. Waffle by waffle, egg by egg, the chain has quietly grown to a consistent place in the nation’s top ten family-owned chains, in the company of Denny’s, Shoney’s, and Cracker Barrel.
Avondale Estates, the English-inspired planned city founded in 1924 just east of Decatur, is where it all started. A short-order cook named Joe Rogers Sr. bought a home on Stratford Road from a real estate man named Tom Forkner, a former lawyer who also lived on Stratford and whose father supervised the construction of Avondale Estates. Both in their late thirties, Joe Sr. and Tom decided to partner in the restaurant business. Tom found a location on East College Avenue, a main thoroughfare between Atlanta and eastern Georgia. They opted for waffles as opposed to a white-tablecloth, prime-rib kind of place because waffles felt warmer, friendlier, more family-like, and they cost less to make. Waffle House opened Labor Day weekend, 1955. Years later, when I-20 came in and a bunch of roads got moved, Joe Sr. and Tom had to close “number one.” They sold the building—it became a Chinese restaurant and later a second-hand tire store. But not long ago, Waffle House bought the building back. As you read this, the original Waffle House, at 2719 East College Avenue, is being renovated as the Waffle House museum. (Editor’s Note: The Waffle House museum opened in 2010.) You will never be able to eat so much as a grit there, but the museum will open at certain times for corporate and community events, where visitors will be able to see more than a half-century’s worth of menus, uniforms, photos, and other memorabilia, much of which harks to certain older-timers’ fondest topic of conversation: the era when a cup of coffee set a fella back ten cents and a whole homemade pie cost a dollar.
From the urban strips like Buford Highway to interstate outposts, Waffle House beams right up there with the rest of commercialized America—with the Exxons and Burger Kings and KFCs—but with such a stripped-down unpretentiousness as to almost be invisible. In the sixties, a friend of Tom’s designed the logo of today: the bright yellow blocks with plain black letters, as simple as Scrabble tiles and as pop-culturally ingenious as the smiley face. Meant to convey affordability, cleanliness, and friendliness, the design improved upon the original logo of wavy black letters, which looked less like the intended effect of poured syrup than an ad for a haunted house. The familiar yellow flow draws the shift workers, cops, college kids, brunchers, vacationers, meemaws and papaws, musicians, truckers, and the alcoholically impaired. In the tipsy demographic alone, the chain probably makes a fortune. If Waffle House were to shut its doors, the nation would be awash in hungry drunks. Unless you’ve held at least one after-after-after party at Waffle House, you cannot, in the American South, be considered a legitimate drinker. IHOP doesn’t count. Neither does Denny’s. Or Waffle King, whatever that is.
Forget about the drunks, though. Let’s talk about money. Yours and theirs. You can still eat to the popping point on less than ten bucks. Today’s burgers go for $1.25 to $3.55 (for a double cheeseburger). A double order of hashbrowns: $1.65. A waffle the size of a hubcap: $2.55 (add pecans, 45 cents.) (Note: These prices reflect 2007.) the menu contains ninety-five base items, plus meal deals, plus beverages, plus endless possibilities for gluttonous combinations. Steak and eggs plus a waffle plus country ham plus cheese grits plus maybe just one little slice of Southern pecan pie, for instance. Greasy? Obviously. Deadly? Probably. But nobody’s got a gun to your head. Pick the grilled chicken salad if you want. Or have a wrap. Either way, the cash registers are smokin’. They take credit cards now, too. Waffle House declines to talk about how much money they make—it’s a private company. But industry analysts have put annual sales at $325 million.
Listen to how they do it. “All our food is cooked up front and right in sight,” Tom Forkner said the other day. “There’s no class distinction at Waffle House,” added Joe Rogers Sr. “At Waffle House, everybody talks to everybody. We want it to be your home away from home.”
Yes, that’s right. The founders are still alive, very much so—nearly ninety now but altogether kicking. Joe Sr. is tall and cracks jokes and says he never worries about a daggone thing. (“Today is the tomorrow you were worried about yesterday!”) Tom kind of looks like a wiry Bill Clinton; he plays the straight man, waiting for his opening. They’ve been friends all these years and are still married to their first wives. Joe Sr. refers to his, Ruth, as “the queen mother.” The families were neighbors for decades in Avondale Estates until Joe Sr. and the queen mother moved to the Country Club of the South (“where all the e-lites live,” Tom says) and Tom moved to the Chattahoochee. They have been Waffle House men since Studebaker days, first on East College and now at corporate headquarters on Financial Drive in Norcross, where the language of the $537 billion restaurant industry necessitates the use of words such as “franchise” and “same-store sales.” Joe Sr. and Tom work out of adjoining offices plastered with photographs and trophies and bumper sticker-sized training mantras such as “A company is known by the people it keeps” and “Attitude is contagious—is yours worth catching?” Between waffles, Joe Sr. found time to publish an autobiography—Who’s Looking Out for the Poor Old Cash Customer?—and Tom got so handy with a nine-iron they put him in the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
Employees learn how to flip the burgers and scatter the hashbrowns, but more than anything else, Waffle Housers learn about customer service. This starts with a greeting, and not the slightly predatory kind you get at a place like Blockbuster, where they practically run you down just to say hello. The ideal Waffle House greeting is organic, even if the eggs aren’t. Managers and executives start out on the floor—sweeping it, working it—on the theory that if you’ve never cooked and served the food you can’t possibly run a whole restaurant, much less a region. Managers train for six to eight weeks in the field and attend Waffle House University in Norcross, where for a week they learn about operations and soft skills such as coaching, including a three-hour personality-profiling class on how to bring out the best in people. As they like to say at Waffle House: It’s all about the relationships.
How does a Waffle House get born? How do they decide where to put it? Well, it’s got a little to do with the elaborate studies and talk of paradigm shifts. “That’s a bunch of bull,” Joe Sr. said. “Kemmons Wilson, who started Holiday Inn, said all these computers and everything—all he does is go out and look.”
“Several years ago, one of our competitors looked for locations,” Tom said. “He told me if they found a location they liked, they looked around, and if they didn’t see a Waffle House, they didn’t go there.” According to the most recent company figures, 753 Waffle Houses are company owned and 790 are franchises. (Note: These numbers reflect 2007.)
“We have good locations,” Joe Sr. said. “We look clean, and we don’t look expensive. So when they come in and try us out, if we’re kind to them, we’ve got it made.”
Other chains remake themselves—modernize. Waffle House recently added biscuits to the menu, and butterscotch waffles, and deli turkey. And however improbable, they just made a YouTube video. Otherwise, not much has changed, not even the floor plan, which Joe Sr. and Tom designed for minimum steps between food preparation and delivery and for maximum contact with customers. In every Waffle House, the counter faces the open grill and booths line the windows. If you stripped all the coloring and lettering off a Waffle House, you would still know it’s a Waffle House, the way a Coca-Col a bottle could never be anything but a Coke. “We’re just a shoebox,” Joe Sr. said. “These boys who’ve come in the past few years and built these Taj Mahals and stuff—they’re not around anymore. If you could line up the restaurants we’ve seen come and go, that’s a long list. Waffle House is such an institution, it’s been serenaded (Hootie and the Blowfish), silver-screened (Tin Cup), and celebritized (Reese Witherspoon, Beyoncé Knowles, Pete Sampras, Billy Bob Thorton). Local chef Julia Williams, and ex-Waffle House cook, gave her culinary alma mater a little TV cred during her recent contestantship on the Hell’s Kitchen reality show.
Mark Miklos, Waffle House’s director of training and development, gets paid to say nice things about the company because he works there, but he puts it this way: “Think about the New York Yankees—they’ve worn the pinstripes forever. They’ve never changed their logo. A team like the Padres or the Diamondbacks—every season they’re wearing something different. They’re struggling to find an identity. There are restaurant companies going though the same metamorphosis. They’re chasing the next chic fad because they don’t have an identity. We haven’t had to chase an idenity because we’re confident in who we are, and it works for us.”
A photo posted by Waffle House Official (@wafflehouseofficial) on
Ultimately Waffle House might wind up in all fifty states, but for now most of its locations are in the South, and more than 200 of those are in metropolitan Atlanta. There’s a reason for that. “People stay up all night in the South,” Joe Sr. said. “They go to bed early in the North on account of the weather. I’ve worked in Cleveland, I’ve worked in Buffalo. The snow comes in, the buses stop running, and you don’t do any business. You take Buffalo, New York—sometimes at night you don’t see anything moving, the snow gets so deep and the weather so bad. You got employees not making any tips and standing around doing nothing. One night I realized all we could do was get the rags out and clean.”
“There’ll always be more Waffle Houses in the greater Atlanta area than anywhere else,” Tom said. “It’s like a web that builds out.”
“The night business determines whether we have sales enough to be profitable,” Joe Sr. added.
“One supreme test of whether it’s a good location—take a real rainy, blistery Tuesday or Wednesday night at two o’clock in the morning, park your automobile there and see how many cars pass,” Tom said. “If you don’t have many cars, you don’t have a good spot.”
Search the internet and you won’t get very far without coming across an international outpouring of Waffle House love. On a rabidly visited website called the Waffle House Shrine, customers and employees rhapsodize about their WaHo experiences and memories. “Our tradition is second booth from the bathroom, coffee black, a glass of water, and a Texas Cheese Steak plate w/extra hashbrowns. So here is our dilemma: HOW do you make those Texas Cheese Steaks at home!?!” writes a Melissa. “We know that our [family’s] obsession had gone overboard when our oldest daughter asked if she could be a Waffle House waitress for Halloween,” writes Michele, of Dallas, Georgia. “I have the misfortune of living in Connecticut. There isn’t a WH within 500 miles,” writes Fred. Mike of Miami writes, “Just ate with the wife and kids at Waffle House just outside Atlanta, I think store #638. I loved the chef’s visor hat which was red and had Waffle House spelled out and Grill Master on the brim. If asked her if I could buy a hat like that, she said no way you have to earn this hat after eighteen years of working . . . About two minutes later another waitress came out and gave me her hat. I realized it was used and had waffle batter on the brim, and on the inside headband was crusty old hair gel. I was too proud to give it back, so I have washed it and now wear it to our yacht club.” Tiny, a trucker from Philly, writes, “If I ever won the lottery I’d buy a franchise so I could get that great coffee and see some fine looking women.” A fellow named Chaz says, “I was at Waffle House the other day and I SWEAR TO GOD someone was getting married there.” Lee writes, “Surely there are yellow and black neon signs flashing WAFFLE HOUSE in heaven.”
Eggs lead the category of most-served menu items. Since 1955, Waffle House has dished out more than 1.5 billion of them—more than hashbrowns, more than waffles. “When I got in this business, food was number one—you got all your complaints about your egg not being cooked right,” Joe Sr. said. “All the complaints now are on service. So we’re in the service business more than we’re in the food business. We kill ‘em with kindness and survive ‘em with a little good food.” He leaned in like he was about to confide the combination to a vault. “Why, I’m such a good service man, I can give you a hamburger without any meat in it and you wouldn’t know it until you get down the street.”
Tom said, “I don’t believe I’d bet on that.”
“You never lose a customer who’s satisfied.”
This article originally appeared in our December 2007 issue.
This article originally appeared in our November 2007 issue.
The cars keep coming—sedan, coupe, SUV, SUV, hybrid, van, SUV, truck, station wagon, sedan, truck. It’s midmorning and technically well after the end of rush hour, on a leafy, tree-lined residential street. But this is the ATL, the automotive industry’s bitch, whose car-clogged freeways and surface-street arteries are choking on a diet of pure vehicular cholesterol, and traffic just keeps on coming.
Clark Howard stands by his mailbox. An archetypal nerd, with humidity-curled hair and generic metal glasses, he is instantly recognizable in his wrinkled khaki cargo shorts and clearance rack sneakers. His boyish dimples and unlined face pass for a decade younger than his fifty-two years, though his untucked thrift store golf shirt barely disguises a modest middle-aged paunch. His wife, who calls this outfit the “Clark-iform” says, “If you see him in a suit, someone probably died.”
Atlanta’s most notoriously frugal resident is in TV reporter mode, trying to demonstrate his locking mailbox (no drive-by postal identity theft for him!). His pared-down crew, a producer and videographer, find a line of sight unobstructed by the stream of fenders, but as the drivers relentlessly whiz along, the whoosh of tires, throb of acceleration, and growl of downshifting trucks keeps drowning out the audio. Finally a sanitation truck stops, blocking traffic long enough for Howard to get his twenty seconds of promo in the can.
A black woman in a white coupe rolls down her passenger window to ask what’s going on. Howard steps forward, smiling “Hi, I’m Clark Howard,” and gets no further because the woman starts screaming, “I love you Clark! I love you Clark!” and bouncing in her seat, turning the whole car into a bobbing and swaying thrill-o-meter.
Howard smiles and waves, his golly gosh gee willickers persona radiating cheerfulness, a trait that drives cynics crazy. There’s nothing thin-lipped and sour about him. How can he be so cheap and so happy? Sure, Howard earned his parsimonious image with tales of prying quarters out of the asphalt in front of oncoming traffic, buying seven-dollar secondhand shirts, naming his slightly irregular pugs QuikTrip and Costco, and planning to leave his body to science to eliminate the expense of a funeral (“they pay for everything!”).
But stingy isn’t the whole story.
Howard has not one but five cars in the drive, he’s recently forked out major ducats for an extensive renovation to his (mortgage-free!) two-and-a-half-acre north Atlanta estate, and he coughs up Westminster School tuition for his daughter. So let’s define our terms. Skinflint? No, that suggests a hoarder who’s found dead of starvation on a mattress stuffed with cash—or Howard Hughes and those soup cans.
Tightfisted? Closer, but still reeking of deprivation.
There’s no argument that Howard is thrifty. But he’s not about doing without—he’s about the deal, whatever the price range. It’s all about copping a bargain buzz, the atavistic thrill of the hunt. If it’s a deal, he’s on it. This guy can get a kick out of finding change in the seat cushions and an adrenalin rush from scoring a sweet deal on a used Jaguar. He’s a thrill seeker, not a miser. Yes, he believes in living within his means, but the means he has to live within have expanded exponentially. This self-professed penny-pincher brings home major gelt extolling the virtues of thrift. And he owes nothing. “We have no debt. There’s no house debt, no car debt, no debt debt. None,” Howard points out happily. With an income “solidly in the seven figures,” he saves 80 percent of his income (15 percent pretax and 65 percent after tax) and has enough left over to maintain a six-bedroom estate here and an oceanfront condo in Florida.
As generous as he is cheap, Howard’s personally bankrolled twenty-three Habitat for Humanity houses, at up to $175,000 a pop, with four more scheduled to start construction next February. At a recent working breakfast at the Comer Cafe in Buckhead, he tipped $9 on a $12 tab. He’ll go to Value City or the Dollar Store to find a deal on umbrellas and buy twenty. “As he’s driving and sees people caught in the rain, he’ll roll down the window and give them an umbrella,” says his wife, Lane Carlock. “It’s like that bumper sticker, ‘Commit Random Acts Of Kindness.'”
“I just hate to see people get soaked,” says Howard.
Another factor that shatters the stereotypical shorthand—Howard’s a risk taker. This is a man who boasts of driving a scooter on the mean streets of Midtown. Who married without a prenup, proof of brass cojones in the divorce-littered landscape of high-stakes millionaire marriages. And he’s a political novice who is seriously considering running for mayor of a city with an overwhelmingly black majority population that hasn’t elected a white candidate since 1969.
Howard’s staff—researchers, producers, an engineer, and interns—convenes in a fittingly no-frills conference room in WSB’s Midtown studios a couple of hours before air time. A water cooler gurgles in the corner between the fridge and sink, and there’s a faint odor of burnt microwave popcorn. The spartan decor consists of some rakishly tilted plaques, a framed Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, and a piggybank.
The staff throws out ideas culled from newspapers, magazines, and the Internet: the resurgence of travel agencies, equity stripping, McDonald’s biofuel trucks, parent coaches. Parent coaches? “It’s $300 for a visit and two phone calls. I think it’s fueled by the ‘nanny’ shows,” explains executive producer Christa DiBiase. “Bah humbug,” Howard scoffs.
A prophet crying in a wilderness of conspicuous consumption, Howard preaches the gospel of fiscal responsibility. Some see him as a garrulous, well-meaning snore who lectures on the value of thrift, brags on his scratch-and-dent appliances, drones on about Roth IRAs, blah blah blah. He’s the last guy you want to get trapped next to at the buffet line. Unless you are caught in the wringer of identity theft, trapped in bad customer service hell, struggling to pay off overwhelming credit card debt, or desperately seeking a flight you can afford. Then you hang on Howard’s every word, even if your mind slams shut at the very mention of percentages and ratios, because Howard knows the way out, and he wants to empower you.
On the way to the WSB News-Talk 750 broadcast booth you pass darkened soundproof rooms freckled with glowing console lights: Kiss 104.4 FM, 95.5 The Beat, 97.1 The River, B98.5. Howard shares studio space with other WSB radio personalities, from rabble-rouser Neal Boortz to crowd-pleasing garden guru Walter Reeves and weatherman Kirk Mellish.
Inside the dimly lit studio, Howard stands in front of his console with one eye on the computer screen that feeds him data on the upcoming calls and access to the Internet, the other eye on the clock that’s ticking down the seconds to air time. The room is crisply air conditioned, really nippy. “Boortz is going through menopause,” someone cracks. Across from Howard a producer, two interns, and a visitor take their seats and tether themselves umbilically to the console with the spiral cords of headphones. Two TV sets are mounted on the studio walls—one tuned to CNBC, the other to CNN—with the audio off and subtitles scrawling across the bottom of the screen.
Producer Kimberly Drobes, checking audio levels on her laptop, slips a scribbled question to the intern, like passing notes in the back of the class. ON AIR lights up, and Howard leans into the intro of his three-hour talkathon. “Welcome to The Clark Howard Show, where I want you to save more, spend less, and not get ripped off.”
Howard opens with an alert on mobile phone “moisture strips” that are supposed to determine whether a phone has been dunked, voiding the warranty. He warns listeners that the strips are inaccurate and tells them how to prove it (“don’t be rrrripped off by your phone company!”). Howard is minimally scripted, just a few bullet points from the staff meeting and a little research support while he’s on air. As he finishes each segment, he floats a paper with the topic’s talking points over the side of a low divider that looks like a sneeze guard. The intern, pen in mouth, types a summary of the show as it happens.
The first caller asks Howard’s opinion of Smart Cars, Euro vehicles so petite that two can fit side by side in a parking space. Howard launches into the pros and cons, using the deliberate, measured cadence of Mr. Rogers. “Can you say en-er-gee-eee-fish-en-cee? I knew you could.” He refers the caller to a website—and that’s typical. He’s quick to point callers to outside resources, including telling them where to buy his books, coauthored with Mark Meltzer, cheaper than they’re sold on clarkhoward.com.
After the caller is off the air, Howard checks his time. He not only takes a consumer pop quiz with every call, he has to wrap it up so each Q&A fits in the packet of minutes allotted between commercials, weather, and news breaks. It’s like playing Beat the Clock while defending a doctoral thesis. He’s deftly fitted this caller’s question and his answer to the allotted time, closing out the call within a fraction of a second. When he’s taping a show, he has wiggle room with recording tricks, like electronically snipping out hesitations, but when it’s going out live, he has to nail it.
In an adjacent room DiBiase is vetting incoming calls, a sometimes emotionally arduous chore she shares with two other producers. The screener has to eliminate callers with questions Howard has recently covered, the weepers, the screamers, the cursers, the ones with heartbreaking difficulties outside the scope of the show. On breaks, DiBiase pops in and briefs Howard on the caller’s plight, summing up the convoluted consumer quandary in a sentence or two. She brings helpful data she’s already pulled from the Internet and says why she thinks he should take the call. As the callers wait on the line, anywhere from two minutes to two hours, she periodically “refreshes” them—industry slang for reminding them for how to behave on air, which in this case means not to give company names, or say where they are calling from, to turn off their radios, and to be ready to go on the air.
By the start of the third hour, the intern is quietly eating Cheez-Its one at a time from a Ziploc. Popcorn makes an appearance. The mics are not as sensitive as TV mics—they don’t pick up the rustle of the bag or the muted crunching. Pitched higher early in the show, Howard’s voice has gotten a shade slower, darker, and raspier as the hours go by. Someone wants to know whether she should do a credit freeze to protect herself from identity theft. Howard methodically gives an explanation an eight-year-old could follow. “I know this sounds complicated and weird, but I’ve got links that’ll explain it. Go to clarkhoward.com, you’ll see my ugly face,” he says merrily. Then he segues to riffing off an ad he sees on CNBC, “Special offer! CALL NOW!!! Combo knife and scissors!!!”
It’s the callers more than Howard and his sound effects who make the show compelling—people beaten down by callous corporate treatment, screwed by misleading salesmen, tempted by shady Internet come-ons. Howard gives straight answers, but he also does a kind of improv, gauging how much levity he can introduce without appearing insensitive—sketch comedy for the fiscally challenged. The next caller asks about buying a timeshare vacation home and Howard gleefully cues up his sirens and exploding bomb sound effects.
Not everyone is laughing.
Howard makes no secret of his dislike of ripoffs, especially corporate contempt for customer service and ethically sketchy business practices, and will call out companies he feels have egregiously misbehaved. His anti-extended warranty stance aggravates electronics store managers, and Realtors seethe as he mocks timeshares. Bankers fume as he rails against equity-indexed annuities that target the elderly, or plugs credit unions. In1992 McFrugal Auto Rental sued over his assertion of bait-and-switch (the case was dismissed). Brokers find his no-load mutual funds advice infuriating. “When Clark got on his no-load kick I thought, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,'” sniffs one financial consultant. “There are clients who are not capable, who need advice, and when I advise them, I am deserving of the fee. I changed my radio station then, and it hasn’t gone back.”
Sometimes Howard touts a deal that turns out to be too good to be true. His raves for SunRocket, a cheapo pay-in-advance Internet phone provider (he was a customer) backfired when the company went bust last July. Even though he warned the faithful when SunRocket started laying off personnel at an alarming rate, there was a lot of disgruntled traffic on the “Clark Stinks!” page of his website’s message board after the company tanked.
In some ways, Howard is like a vice squad cop—witnessing the worst of predatory human behavior and the victims’ pathetic outcomes. One of his producers once asked him how come he was so happy all the time. “I just am. I look at everything with a positive view,” he says. “My abiding principle is the only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world.”
Howard navigates the Cumberland Costco for a book signing, and he’s cheered like a hero. When strangers flag him down in the parking lot, he rolls down the Scion’s window and greets his fans like he’s never done it before and has been looking forward to doing it all his life. He’s escorted to his signing table in the utilitarian big box store he calls his “home away from home.”
The signing is well-managed by WSB staff, who set up a table, stack books handily, and give people cards to fill out letting Howard know how they’d like their books signed. Howard introduces himself to every person with seemingly inexhaustible patience. His quiet coauthor, Mark Meltzer, executive editor of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, is also at the signing, but he’s mostly ignored by the throng of true believers who want not only books and autographs, but also answers. The crowd shuffles along until they can step forward and spring questions about travel, banking, insurance, or investments. Sure enough, Howard dispenses advice along with autographs.
Poll the fans about why they listen to Howard, and they say he’s honest, he’s ethical, he’s genuine, and he’s smart. Surprisingly, no one mentions cheap—until a trim, well-dressed woman you’d see at Phipps or Whole Foods says she heard on Howard’s show that you can keep a razor blade working for a full year by drying it off after each use. She dries hers with a hair dryer and it works. She told her son and he’s doing it, too. She’s thrilled. That’s a hard-core Howard tip.
Alex Shapiro, the WSB event security guard, stands behind Howard and slightly to the left, watching for the weirdos, the wackos, the nutjobs who might go ballistic. “He never takes money to endorse products. That makes our job easier, but he’s gotten punched,” says Shapiro, whose job is not celebrity bouncer, but rather to remove Howard from a threat—take the bullet, if need be. “He speaks the truth,” shrugs Shapiro. “Some people have too much time on their hands and not enough Thorazine.”
Although Howard is undisputed king of his multimedia domain—The Clark Howard Show, clarkhoward.com, WSB TV consumer reports, newspaper columns, books, e-newsletters, speeches ($15,000 a pop!), a cable show, Get Clark Smart, on magrack.com, and the Team Clark Howard Consumer Advice Center—his media career is, by his own account, a fluke.
After his unexpected retirement in 1987 at age thirty-one (more on that shortly), he stumbled into a guest spot on a WGST radio travel show that morphed into an unpaid weekly two-hour radio travel show of his own. Howard parlayed that job into hosting Cover Your Assets, a personal finances show. “I had no producer, no staff nothing. The business white pages and a dial-up modem was my research team,” Howard recalls. He pulled down a pitiful $150 a week for his daily show, plus the Sunday travel show. With Howard at the helm, Cover Your Assets took off in the ratings, soaring from a 1.1share to an unprecedented 4.0.
By May 1990 he’d added two newspaper columns a week to the mix and still didn’t think he was working until WSB came to court him. “They offered me quite a sum of money;” says Howard. “I was like, ‘Wow.'” He hired a lawyer to negotiate his contract and debuted The Clark Howard Show in 1991. The show was syndicated in 1998 and Howard bought it outright from WSB parent company Cox Enterprises in 2001. “That was very risky. In 2002 I lost money, I worked for less than free. 2003 was a little bit better than breakeven, and 2004, 2005, and 2006 were really good years for the show. At this point it’s very profitable.”
Life is good and the dough is rolling in. So why is he thinking about shutting everything down?
The long driveway to Howard’s home makes hairpin turns through the piney woods. Steep ravines on either side pose their own field sobriety test. The newly renovated front of the two-story house is glass and stone, nice but not grand, solid rather than showy, with a broad stone terrace. Light bounces off the pale wood floors of the entry. The new paint and fresh Sheetrock smells optimistic. A central staircase leads to the top-floor bedrooms, and as Lane gives a nickel tour, it becomes clear how their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy works. If she brings home a great GOB (going out of business) piece, like her foyer’s brass chandelier (“forty-five bucks!”), Howard hears about it. The plush Oriental rug in delicate creams and neutrals from Moattar in ADAC? “I’d better not say. I was bad,” she gleefully confesses.
A slender woman with shoulder-length auburn hair and an expressive contralto voice, Lane has leveraged her magna cum laude degree in broadcast news from the University of Georgia into a career as full-time actor, including hosting a number of TV shows. Along with being the mother of eight-year-old Stephanie and two-year-old Grant, she runs her own production company and dotes on Howard—she blushes when the ring tone on her cell phone plays “The Clark Howard Theme,” a song composed as a joke following a Q100-sponsored singing contest in which Howard lost to the Braves’s Jeff Francoeur.
Upstairs beneath the eaves, tucked under a ceiling with angles like origami, is the master bedroom. They share a mission-style Costco bed. Her side: a home decor magazine and sunglasses, His side: an economy-size plastic jar of Kirkland store-brand jelly beans and a pair of noise-reduction Bose headphones. The newly renovated master bath has obvious his and hers elements, too. His: a water-saving toilet with two flush buttons—one for liquid only and the other for more substantial sewage. Hers: a Jacuzzi tub and heated towel rack.
Sometimes it’s not about the economy, stupid, it’s a gender thing. He buys cheapo, fall apart toilet paper, but she gets the Charmin. He hates to pay to park (valet, no way!) and drives and walks blocks for a free space. He’s wearing sneakers, she’s in stilettos. Duh. Drop her at the door before you self-park.
Howard sits down for an interview in the small brick and glass garden room, wearing his standard khaki shorts (nine dollars!) and a navy golf shirt with the WSB logo (free!). The kids are playing nearby, there’s banging and sawing and hammering from the construction crew, the electrician and painter interrupt with inquiries, and Howard is utterly unperturbed. Whether he’s shooting a video promo, broadcasting in the studio, signing books at Costco, or sitting on his porch answering ticklish questions about money and politics, he’s the same good-natured guy.
Howard grew up in the slipstream of his affluent parents and older siblings, in a home on Ridgewood and West Wesley, “I am the baby of four kids—and the accident. My sister is 63, my brother is 60, and my other brother is 58. Then oops! Here comes Clark!” says Howard, who claims family members still call him by his nickname, Baby Clark. He had the standard accoutrements of summer camps and private schools; Lovett, Pace, and Westminster. Raised in Reform Judaism, he remembers encountering far more discrimination then than he sees now. “All Jewish boys had to learn boxing so they could defend themselves in high school, but my daughter Becca has never experienced an iota of overt prejudice.”
His maternal grandparents were well-to-do, but his father’s family was often in financial trouble. Howard’s father came home twice from school to see his belongings outon the street because his family had been evicted.
Bernie Howard prospered working for his in-laws’ Lovable Bra company but was fired by his brothers-in-law in 1973.When Howard came home from college for Thanksgiving break, his father sat him down to tell him he couldn’t pay for college after that year. “My father was very worried about how they were going to live and what they were going to live on,” Howard says. Though his family recovered financially (Joy and Bernie Howard opened a successful home accessories business, Howard Unlimited), this sudden reversal of fortune changed Howard’s attitude about money. “When my dad got fired it forced me to fend for myself. It’s part of the reason that I’m so cheap,” he says.
“I think money is about having choice. In a capitalist society when you owe, you’re weak, and when you have, you’re strong. That’s just fundamental economics. It’s never what you make, it’s what you don’t spend,” Howard says earnestly. “People want possessions more than they want control.”
Howard wanted control. He went to work full time at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, took night classes, and graduated in three years from American University in Washington with a degree in urban government.
After graduation, he invested part of a $17,000 trust fund from his maternal grandfather in an electric-car company that went belly up. The rest of the fund went into a cash investment partnership he started with his father, who had worked on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange as a young man. With his profits from stocks, Howard opened his own Atlanta travel agency in 1981in the wake of airline deregulation. Six years later, in the most profitable year in the history of travel agencies, Howard’s chain of independent travel agencies, Action Travel, was bought out by an investor group for $300,000.
“I got out of the travel agency business by luck. I was not for sale,” Howard says. “These guys came to me.” When the deal was done, he asked what position he’d have and got shown the door. “I was shocked. I had no clue. I didn’t realize they were giving me the heave-ho.” At age thirty-one, Howard found himself unceremoniously unemployed, and decided to retire.
“You know, I live on so little money. Frugal lifestyle is key, but let me tell you what else I had. I had real estate: a home on Peachtree Memorial, another house, and a vacant lot. I had a tiny percent of Lovable. When the company was sold in 1986, after tax it was $180,000. Which is very nice money, but I didn’t inherit vast wealth.”
His ambition, hard work, and (mostly) shrewd business decisions had landed him the prize of early retirement, but looking back he feels he missed the fun of college days, of being twenty: “I wish I hadn’t been so driven and worked so hard.” Howard’s first marriage, to Karen, collapsed three years later. He cites growing apart over time as the reason for the split. The divorce was cordial enough where it counts the most—the welfare of their child. He shared custody of his daughter, Rebecca, who is now a freshman at Georgia College and State University and still has her own room in Howard’s house. Still, “going through the divorce in 1990 was very difficult emotionally and financially. Even in an amicable divorce there’s a lot of pain,” Howard says.
That next year, Howard left WGST for WSB, and his on-air stint ballooned from seven to fifteen hours a week. A thirty-five-year-old divorcee, he discovered the joys of bachelorhood over the next few years.
He remembers the exact day he first talked with Lane: June 17, 1994, when he was pulled off the air because of breaking news about a white Bronco cruising down the L.A. freeways with a former NFL player at the wheel. As a newsman took over his chair to do the play-by-play, Howard wandered into the producer’s lounge and started talking with Lane, who was working on the Gary McKee show.
“And it was like ‘BAM!’ Right away. There was magic there,” Howard says.
He proceeded with caution because he’d been told she had a boyfriend.
“We went out a couple of times but it wasn’t a date. I was prospecting. We were ‘predating.’ I didn’t want to make an investment if she wasn’t available.”
Lane was wary because everyone at the station told her to stay away from him. “I had a reputation as a playboy—undeserved,” Howard says.
“They thought I’d be the next stop on the dating route, but he didn’t seem that way to me at all. In fact, he seemed like the most genuine person I’d ever dated. It’s so hokey,” Lane says. “We were at Outback the second or third time we went out, he touched my hand, and it was, ooh”—she gives a little shiver—”electricity.”
”Aw,” says Howard. It’s his turn to blush.
Their early marriage involved a lot of traveling. “It was like jumping on a moving freight train,” Lane says. She used to keep a weekend bag packed, and Howard would call and tell her their (bargain!) destination as she drove to Hartsfield.
When he finally popped the question, it wasn’t, “Will you sign this prenup’?”
“Uh uh. I’m too romantic for that,” Howard says. “I can’t tell you how many men and women through the years have said, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t do a prenup.’ We’ve been married now twelve years and I’ve probably heard that a hundred times at least. I mean constantly.”
“I want names,” Lane interjects.
“They’ll be asking me who should they go to for their prenup or what should be in their prenup and that’s how it comes out. I’ll say I really don’t know, and they’ll say, well, who did yours, and I’ll say I don’t have one,” Howard pauses. “From a practical financial point you should do one, especially if one person comes in with substantially more assets, but I personally can’t do one.”
What does this high-energy family do to relax? According to Lane, Howard never sits still, never watches TV; he even reads the newspaper while he’s jogging on the elliptical. Exercise is Howard’s extra battery pack. “I work out every day and lift weights three times a week. That does a lot to keep me going.”
Travel is a big part of making family memories. Howard likes to visit national parks—any place with wide open spaces and great views—and pedestrian-friendly cities like San Diego, Manhattan, Charleston, and Washington. “We walk and walk and walk some more,” Howard says. Lane looks in every art gallery, and he joins her in the museums. The whole family likes hanging out at their Florida condo, making sand castles and swimming in the pool. Back home in Atlanta, Stephanie rides her Razor scooter and Howard runs alongside pushing Grant in a stroller. Lane plays cards (Kings’ Corner, Hearts, Rummy) with Stephanie, who beats her mom at Monopoly. Howard takes both of his daughters on special annual father/daughter trips.
“We know a lot of very wealthy people who are miserable, so money is not the wealth that really matters. You have to have a certain amount, at least enough to deal with the basics, but as long as you have that, what makes people happy or unhappy is what’s in their hearts. Not what’s in their wallets,” says Howard. “I think that surprises people about me.”
An idea that first surprised people: the buzz about Howard running for mayor. But it’s not such a stretch. Howard’s hero growing up was Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr. He credits the Nobel Prize winner with being the reason—along with air-conditioning—for the rise of Atlanta to national prominence. Howard also remembers former mayor Sam Massell’s inauguration as an inspiration to him as a young Jewish man. Add to that Howard’s degree in urban government and his decades of consumer advocacy. So when Howard says he’s wanted to be president since he was six years old, running for mayor doesn’t seem so out of the blue.
Lane says she’s always known public office was a possibility. When Howard talked on air about what he’d do if he were mayor back when Bill Campbell was in office, people showed up at WSB with campaign donations. “A political life is something I don’t relish. I value my privacy and wouldn’t want to put my kids through it. But I want Clark to be everything he wants to be,” says Lane.
Howard describes himself as a nonideological “mountain-state Republican”—fiscally conservative and socially progressive. Yet he drives the Democrats crazy by supporting charter schools and vouchers. He’d like poor kids to have a chance to migrate to a better economic status and believes the schools are the greatest gateway in American culture for that. “What’s missing in a public schools monopoly is a sense of urgency—what difference does it make if the school doesn’t get better this year or next year? You’re on the payroll, everybody is still getting their paycheck. It’s the kids that are still passed year to year, without hope and without a chance. That’s why school choice is so important for me.”
But Atlanta’s mayor has no real authority over schools, only a bully pulpit. So what would be at the top of his political agenda? “I’m obsessed with traffic,” Howard says. “Shirley has been the sewer mayor. I’d be the traffic mayor.”
Liberating the city too gridlocked to wait is an ambitious agenda, but Howard’s Achilles’ heel is his lack of political office experience. “When a voter examines Howard’s experience the question will be, ‘What has he ever run?’ Remember that Shirley Franklin emphasized her administrative experience under Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson as well as running the Olympics,” says political insider Michael Jablonski, who has advised former Governor Roy Barnes and Mayor Shirley Franklin, has a law practice concentrating on election law, is general counsel to the Democratic Party of Georgia, and is an instructor in political communication at Georgia State University. “Howard’s intelligence will get in his way because he is a first-time candidate. He will make rookie mistakes. And being smart means that he will probably invent new ones.”
Howard advises listeners who want to buy into a franchise to work there first: “Learn it from the inside out, even if it means emptying trash cans at first.” Yet without running for so much as dogcatcher, he’s applying for Atlanta’s top political job, asserting, “I’d really want to come in clean slate, make my mistakes and then hopefully figure out the best way to do it.”
As the rumors of a Clark Howard candidacy began to swirl last summer, the political blogosphere erupted. Along with a lot of encouraging grassroots support, the discouraging word on the blogs—and behind closed doors with some city bigwigs—is that Howard can’t win because he’s a straight, white male.
Sam Massell, Buckhead Coalition president and former mayor, says, “With the overwhelming majority of Atlanta’s registered voters being African American, it is reasonable to expect the leading black will win in a runoff against the most popular white.”
But Howard believes city demographics are changing and will be split fifty-fifty in terms of actual voters in the next election, due to the population growth fueled by corporate nomads and people moving back into the city to escape heinous commutes. If bigotry drove people out, traffic is driving them right back in.
So will he or won’t he?
Don’t expect for him to decide before 2008. He has a lot to think about. His current schedule permits time with his young children, time he’d lose to campaigning and governing. And he’d have to shut down his media organization, knowing that saying he’s going to run doesn’t mean he’s going to win, and that winning doesn’t mean he’d be effective.
“It’s not like a fork in the road. I’ve got to go pave a whole new road when I’ve already got a superhighway. I’ve got all this going on that I’d have to chop off at the knees. Anybody in my industry thinks I’ve lost my mind to even remotely consider it.”
If Howard does decide to run, the pundits have some suggestions. “There’s a good bit of poverty in the city and a gap between the haves and the have-nots. A mayor needs to address this,” says Dr. William Boone, professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, “A mayor needs to be able to convince the state and surrounding counties to support Grady [Memorial Hospital].”
“I would hope that a Mayor Howard would focus on quality of life issues,” Jablonski says. “He should recognize that Mayor Franklin leaves the next mayor with an excellent foundation upon which a visionary can create an amazing city.”
“He is so popular and successful in his present public role, the only advice I would offer, if he runs, is to maintain his persona and don’t try to out-politic the politicians,” says Massell, Atlanta’s last white mayor.
“Since this started I’ve noticed two things, stark as they can be,” Howard says. “People who are insiders feel no hope and think I am wasting my time. People who are outside the political process think I can go in and change everything in one minute. I have the ability to surprise people who assume I can’t accomplish anything and to disappoint people who think I can fix everything.”
Howard asks all his radio show callers the same thing: “This is Clark Howard, how may I be of service?”
If he wants Atlantans to elect him as the next mayor, he’ll have to answer that question himself.
This story originally appeared in our October 2007 issue. In 2008, it won a National Magazine Award for feature writing.
She got off the plane from Paris with nothing more than a couple of small bags. The bags had been packed for days as she waited for Eddie, a stranger who had approached her out of nowhere to say he knew all about her problems and could help. For $155 Eddie had given her a passport in the name of Marie-Therese Ekwa, age twenty-four, from Verviers, Belgium. This young woman, however, was seventeen, and her journey had not started in Paris, and she had never been to Belgium.
It was just before five in the afternoon. Detroit. September 4, 2001.
The airport agent looked at the passport and asked her to state her business. She spoke very little English and did not understand.
She wore her long hair in braids and had on a T-shirt and pants. She stood five-foot-ten and carried her slender height gracefully, almost gliding. Despite the long flight, she had not slept but rather spent the transatlantic journey in conversation with herself: Where am I going? What am I doing? Have I done the right thing?
In an office, an agent asked questions in English and a translator repeated them in French.
Why are you going to Canada?
For my brother’s wedding, she answered. Her Northwest Airlines ticket showed Montreal as the final destination. The flight would depart at 9:05.
Where are you from? Where do you live?
She gave an address in Brussels, telling the agents she had lived there eleven years and was a Belgian citizen. I was born in Cameroon but went to Belgium to live with my parents, she explained. They are dead now. I live with my boyfriend. He is a student.
Prove you’re Belgian. You don’t have other identification?
I lost my bag in Paris, she said.
What is your brother’s phone number in Montreal? We’ll call him.
I don’t know.
Where is the dress you’ll wear to this wedding?
My brother will buy it for me when I get there. He is a Canadian citizen and has been living in Canada for twelve years.
By now she should have been making her way to gate C26, where her plane would board, but the questioning went on. Finally the translator said: “Look, we’ve tested your passport and we know it’s a fake. You need to tell us now—what is the truth?”
It was late and she had run out of stories. This business about her brother’s wedding, this had come from nowhere. She had not been prepared for an interrogation—she thought she would simply switch from one plane to another and wind up in Canada, where they spoke her language and where Eddie would meet her. Now, the only story that mattered was the one she most hated to tell.
“Tu comprends ce que je t’ai dit?” the agent asked. Do you understand what I’ve said to you?
“Do you have any questions?”
“Are you willing to answer my questions at this time?”
“Do you swear and affirm that all the statements you are about to make are true and complete?”
The time would soon come and go to board Flight 3468.
“What is your full and correct name?”
“What is your date and place of birth?”
“September 29, 1983. Kayanza, Burundi.”
“Are any of your immediate relatives living in the United States? Father? Mother? Brother? Sister?”
“Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime anywhere in the world?”
“Have you ever been in prison in any country in the world?”
“How long were you planning on staying in Canada?”
“I was going to ask for asylum in Canada.”
“Do you have any family in Canada?”
“Where is your mother and father at the moment?”
“They are deceased.”
“Do you have a fear of returning to your home country?”
“Will you be harmed if you are returned to your home country?”
“Do you have anything to add to this statement?”
“I would just like for the United States to take care of me.”
Remove everything, they said.
Cynthia’s wrist felt strange now, bare. She had not taken her bracelets off since the day her brother, Franck, gave them to her. They were made of tiny blue strung beads and she wore them as a pair on her left wrist. She could not remember exactly when or why Franck gave her the bracelets or even whether he gave them to her before or after their parents died. At the time, the bracelets had meant little to her, but they meant quite a bit to her now that she had nothing from home—not a photograph, letter, or keepsake, no evidence that she or her family even existed. As she had grown older and taller, the bracelets tightened on her wrist. It would take a contortionist feat to get them off, and she begged the jailer not to make her do it. But Cynthia was an official U.S. Alien now and those were the rules. One bracelet broke. The other they bagged with the rest of her personal effects. Nearly starving had been hard; running had, too, and seeing so much death. But in some ways this felt even worse, being stripped and searched and locked in a cell.
After three days the door opened and they put her on a plane and flew her south, away from any possibility of Canada and who, or what, might have been waiting for her there. Another contortionist feat and she got her remaining bracelet back on as she moved once again into the unknown.
From Hartsfield International Airport, they drove her down past Fayetteville, past Peachtree City, to the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home in Meansville. A country town, population 192. A home full of other children in her situation—unaccompanied, undocumented—but from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, as well as China, some trafficked to work illegally in the garment industry or as sex slaves. An official in Detroit had wondered whether the fellow Eddie, whom eventually they had learned about, hadn’t been planning something similar for Cynthia. “You’re lucky we got you,” one of the INS people had told her.
Set on 100 acres, the home looked like a college campus or some kind of summer camp and certainly like no refugee camp Cynthia had ever seen: tidy residential cottages, a school, a gymnasium, a chapel, ball fields, ponds. No one spoke her language, but she understood by everyone’s tone and gestures that they meant her no harm. Every morning before class, they gathered to worship and sing. Obviously these were people who believed in God. For the moment, she was safe. The world, increasingly less so. Several days later, as she watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television, Cynthia stared at the falling and burning buildings and the parade of stunned faces, wondering what to make of this nation’s grief.
In her West Peachtree Street law office, Sue Colussy, director of immigration services at Catholic Social Services, got a phone call from an Atlanta-based INS agent named Irene Holth. “I’ve got this kid who’s about to age out,” Holth told Colussy, “and I don’t want her going to detention.”
Colussy quickly understood the girl’s asylum case to be unusual for a couple of reasons. First, she came from Burundi. So few Burundians sought protection in the United States that the nationality hardly even registered on statistical reports and usually wound up lumped into the category of Central Africa. Half of America had never even heard of Burundi. It sounded a little like that fictional country Eddie Murphy came from in Coming to America, his royal path scattered with rose petals. But no paths were scattered with rose petals in Burundi, the most densely populated country in Africa and one of the poorest, tensest places on earth.
About the size of Maryland, with 6 million inhabitants, Burundi lay wedged between Zaire and Lake Tanganyika to the west and southwest, Tanzania to the south and east, and the similarly diminutive Rwanda to the north, in the Great Lakes region. About 250,000 people lived in the capital, Bujumbura, but the second largest town had only 15,000 residents. Others lived not so much in towns or villages as on hills, on family plots where they grew their own food. Churches and schools usually stood alone in the countryside. Commercial districts, if they could be called that, and if there were any, consisted of a few houses used as government buildings or shops. Everyone spoke Kirundi, and the educated also spoke French, but most were not educated; most could not even read.
As in Rwanda, the primary ethnic groups were Hutu, traditionally farmers, and Tutsi, aristocratic cattle herders. The Hutu overwhelmingly outnumbered the Tutsi at 85 percent yet held none of the power. When the Hutu tried to gain power in 1972, the Tutsi-led army put them down with such gruesome violence—a genocide that killed as many as 150,000—that no one would ever forget. When a Hutu finally became president, in 1993, he lasted barely 100 days.
The conditions for conflict had simmered for centuries, but, Sue Colussy knew, this latest civil war had been going on since late 1993, nearly eight years of fighting there in that lush, mountainous nation of coffee plantations and banana groves. When it started, Cynthia Siyomvo would have been a schoolgirl who had just turned ten. Rwanda’s genocidal horrors of April 1994 would have been six months away. Rwanda would eventually draw the world’s attention and regret, while comparatively few knew that a similarly medieval war had been waged in Burundi with barely a western finger lifted in aid. It was all very simple and complicated and interconnected, the situation in Burundi and Rwanda. “If Rwanda sneezes, Burundi gets a cold,” or so the paraphrased saying went. Colussy had worked with refugees from all over the world but amid the massacres of the nineties saw hardly any Burundians and Rwandans, because so few survivors were able to get out.
Catholic Social Services, soon to be renamed Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, had been around for fifty years and offered, among other things, legal aid to the poor. Its immigration division had existed for thirty years. Colussy had been there twenty-two. She and her handful of bi- and trilingual attorneys worked out of basement offices just down from the North Avenue MARTA station. Colussy’s office faced the street, and if she had time to look up from her work she might see passing heads, or daylight. She could have chosen the big money of a private practice but preferred to be here, in the world of Hail Marys and sliding scales. And she wasn’t even Catholic. She wasn’t even particularly—what was the term? Warm and fuzzy. But so what? Just because she wasn’t the type to sit you down and hand you a lollipop didn’t mean Sue Colussy wasn’t your truest ally or your best hope. She had trained half the immigration lawyers in this city. Her staff kept 2,000 or more immigration cases going at a time, at least 10 percent of them asylum cases, such nightmarish stories you’d wish to go back to a time when you never knew about them. People like Colussy made it their business to know about them. Your huddled masses didn’t come to Catholic Social Services for warm and fuzzy. They wanted a better life. They wanted life.
Cops and shelters and hospitals and clients and former clients and INS agents passed Colussy’s name on so quickly—uttered almost as one word, suecolussy—that some misheard and showed up in search of “Sister Lucy.” Hundreds of those who had survived homeland brutalities only to face Atlanta’s particularly tough immigration court would tell people, “I owe Sue Colussy my life.” Even other lawyers revered her. “She should be sainted,” as Charles Kuck once put it. Kuck in 1990 turned his entire private practice to immigration law. He went on to become managing partner of Kuck Casablanca, the largest immigration-only law firm in the Southeast; by 2007, he’d be president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He and Colussy operated at different points on the fee scale but shared reasons for choosing immigration. They enjoyed the increasingly complex puzzle of U.S. immigration law and a role in making a difference in someone’s life. The work allowed them to witness with regularity the resilience of men, women, and children whose lives were desperate and endangered enough to compel them to stow away in ships, or sneak across guarded borders, or risk sharky seas on makeshift rafts, or simply board a plane on faith. “Lazy people don’t walk across the desert,” Kuck liked to say. “This country attracts the best and the brightest. We attract the spirited people from around the world. People don’t come here for welfare benefits—they don’t get any. They come here to change their lives.”
And increasing thousands were coming to Atlanta. The 1996 Olympics anchored the city in the global consciousness and brought international newcomers in ever-larger numbers. As thirteen counties experienced a triple-digit population increase, the metro area was seeing a 49 percent increase in the number of foreign-born residents. Mexicans held the lead with more than 182,000, followed by Indians, Koreans, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Chinese. But the city also had Brazilians, Colombians, Germans, Nigerians, Guatemalans, Australians, Russians, Bosnians, Cubans, Romanians, Ukrainians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Haitians, Iranians, and Cambodians, among many others. More were immigrating from Latin America, Central America, and Asia than anywhere else. Only 30 percent came from Africa. There were Western Africans, including Nigerians, Liberians, and Ghanians, and Eastern Africans (Ethiopians and Kenyans), and about a thousand North Africans, from Egypt, yet few Central Africans.
But now here was this kid from Burundi. Sue Colussy knew that Cynthia’s most pressing problem had been her unlawful arrival, but added to that now was a ticking clock. In two weeks, Cynthia would turn eighteen—adulthood in the eyes of the court. Too old for a group home, too old for foster care. Without a sponsor or asylum, which would take months to secure if it could be secured at all, Cynthia, who by all evidence had never done anything wrong, would be reintroduced—indefinitely—to a necessary ugliness of the immigration flow: adult lockup. Jail.
Grace Uwimfura, a Catholic Social Services caseworker, occasionally translated for Sue Colussy. Soft-spoken, with a brilliant smile that transformed her face into the shape of a heart, Grace wore a gold locket whose contents were between her and the Lord.
Grace enjoyed working for Colussy—she admired her style. Colussy pushed hard but was forthright and fair, always listening closely and peering through her rimless glasses. Sue Colussy seemed to understand that most of her clients came with nothing—no money for lawyers and no country to return to. Grace had come to Atlanta under similar circumstances herself, from Rwanda, with her three youngest children and with every intention of also getting her two war-orphaned nephews out of a refugee camp in Kenya. As a ward of the United Nations, she had come fully documented and rubber-stamped by the U.S. government; in June 1996—two years after the epic genocide that killed 800,000 Rwandans in just 100 days, Grace’s husband included—Grace and the children had stepped off a plane in Atlanta and into the security of completed paperwork and the embrace of Saint Lawrence Catholic Church of Lawrenceville. They had been living amid the filth and starvation of refugee camps, but now the people of Saint Lawrence, with help from World Relief, were settling them into an apartment carefully furnished and stocked, down to the medicine cabinet. “They don’t even know me, they’ve never even seen my face,” Grace thought, “and they’re treating me like a human.” She had lost her husband and country—her very identity, except as a mother and a Christian. Before she boarded the plane to America, she had prayed, “God, wherever you send me, just be there before I arrive.” And there were the people of Saint Lawrence.
They came to her home and taught her English. They drove her to the grocery store and taught her how to shop. They helped her find a job and took turns driving her there. While she worked, they babysat her youngest children in shifts. They taught her to drive. They found her a car. Grace knew some immigrants came to the United States with the dream that life would be perfect, that everything would flower, only to arrive and feel overwhelmed by a language they did not speak, laws and customs they couldn’t understand, and a dizzying abundance of human diversity and commerce. Grace felt like a newborn, but the people of Saint Lawrence spared her some of the loneliness and bewilderment of starting a new life.
And they did not stop there. Saint Lawrence helped get her nephews out of Kenya, and now these boys, her slain brother’s children, were Grace’s children, too. All the school-age kids were enrolled now and thriving. In time, they had moved into a nice two-story home open and full of life. Dinner conversation might start in Kirundi and wind up in French or Swahili or English. Grace never put the topic of their difficult past off limits but chose not to dwell on it. Wars between Hutu and Tutsi—so ridiculous. Were they all not black? Did they not eat the same food and speak the same language? If you are born into a family where a Hutu and a Tutsi married, how can you differentiate? One is your mother, one is your father. You love your mother, you love your father.
And what good would it do to talk about those who had murdered her husband? To be angry all the time? What could she do about it, get a gun and go kill . . . whom? She would not even know where to seek her revenge. And if she did, what then? She would go to jail because she killed somebody who killed somebody who killed somebody. The children did not need to see anger. If mom is angry, they will feel the need to join her in her anger. The children took their cues from her, parroted her. If she prepared them with peace and love, educated them in courage and forgiveness, then the world could use them.
With Americans, the genocide was almost impossible to discuss. If you have not been through war, you cannot understand war. War is like a tornado. One moment you have your life and the next moment everything explodes. When war starts, you cannot sit down at a computer and type something in and say, “Okay the war has started now, let me see where I can go.” You don’t even have time to pack. You just grab your children and run to the next place you think will be safe. You hope to keep your mind. In war, the mind comes and goes. Sometimes you even think, Oh my God, did this happen? Was my husband really killed? And where is he now? In a grave? Eaten by dogs?
What is it like to be in a war?
“It is beyond,” Grace said when she had no words. “It is beyond.”
“I am not a politician, I am just a mother,” she had decided. “The peace comes from me. I have created peace for myself and for the ones who belong to me—that is what I am in charge of. The future of the world, no. My children, yes.”
Cynthia was the same age as Grace’s son Oliver. The girl’s mother would have wanted her to be cared for, protected. It was important to treat Cynthia gently, to build trust.
During their first translation, even when addressing her in Kirundi, Grace could barely get a word out of her. “Oh my God, she is measuring her words,” Grace thought. “She is afraid.”
“She’s just shy,” someone suggested later.
“If you were in her situation, that is the attitude you would have, too,” Grace said. “This girl, she is seventeen. Her life is in danger. She is by herself—no family. She does not know what is going on, what is going to happen.”
As Colussy got to work on Cynthia’s asylum application, Catholic Social Services e-mailed hundreds of contacts, looking for a sponsor. “If they don’t find someone soon,” Grace told herself, “I will talk to my priest and we will save her life before she turns eighteen.” At home in Lawrenceville, she gathered her large family and said, “We have to pray.”
In a borrowed office near Chastain Park, Reid Preston Mizell stared at her computer screen, absorbed in a struggle to come up with a business plan for what one day would be Tula Communications. A marketing veteran, she had headed U.S. operations for Lang Associates, a Canadian firm, and, partly because she earned a year of her Georgia State MBA from École Superior de Commerce de Paris, she had served on the staff of Atlanta’s Olympics bid committee.
After the ’96 Olympics, she had moved with her husband, Robert, an architect, and their three children to Sydney, where she ran Lang’s operations before the 2000 Games. But now they were back in Buckhead, in the Roxboro Drive house that Robert designed, and Reid was figuring out her future. On September 30, 2001, she and Robert would celebrate their twenty-third wedding anniversary. Their kids were doing well: Callie, twenty-two, was finishing a biology degree at Georgia State; Sara, seventeen, had just started her senior year of high school; Jackson, fifteen, was a sophomore at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Now seemed like a good time, and yet the worst time, to be thinking of starting her own firm—Robert had decided to go out on his own, too. Their friends thought they were nuts to make such huge leaps at the same time.
Reid had made bold moves before, though. In the mid-eighties, despite an abundance of private schools, she cofounded Atlanta International School, a 4K–12 International Baccalaureate academy dedicated to bilingual education, whole-child development, and diversity. She was a brand new mother at the time but already knew she wanted her children to grow up open to other cultures and to all the world had to offer.
Reid herself, a native Alabaman, came from such a family. Her father, an IBM executive, moved the family all over the country. No matter where they lived, the Prestons maintained an open-house policy. If business contacts came from overseas, Reid’s parents insisted on putting them up. As a child, Reid would come home to find the house filled with the conversation of Brits, Belgians, Italians. Her father stoked her intellectual curiosity as much as her teachers did. If Reid hadn’t read the daily newspaper, she was not allowed to sit at the dinner table with the grown-ups. If she asked a question about something, her father would supplement his answer by buying Reid a book about it and expecting her to read it. Her father was a man hungry to know the world, a man at home in the world; Reid shared that attitude and wanted her children to have it, too.
A devout member of the Cathedral of Saint Philip in Buckhead, she also believed—strongly—in the Episcopal Church’s tenet that its members had a responsibility to participate in missions of justice, compassion, and reconciliation in the world, that everyone must play a part.
As she sat staring at her computer, an e-mail appeared from a friend at Saint Philip, a man Reid knew volunteered at Catholic Social Services.
“Reid,” the note said, “you speak French, don’t you?”
“Oh my God, she’s Sara’s age,” Reid thought as she read the e-mail about Cynthia.
She picked up the phone and called Donna Dunson, head of upper school at Atlanta International School, and asked, “What can we do?” Dunson went to AIS admissions director Aileen Williams, who offered to bring Cynthia into AIS on full scholarship.
Driving home, Reid thought, “Okay the scholarship is a huge help, but who’s going to sponsor her?” Then, sitting at a red light, she just started laughing. The clarity of the moment struck her.
The Mizells had room in their home. Most of them spoke French. Of all the schools in metro Atlanta, the Mizells had helped start the one that would best serve someone like Cynthia. Sara was her age—they could be classmates. Reid thought, “Obviously, I’m part of somebody’s plan here.”
At home, she called a family meeting with Robert, Sara, and Callie. They rang Jackson in New Hampshire to talk about offering this young woman a home. Could it work? They had the space, but would a teenager from Burundi feel comfortable with a white family in Buckhead? Would she have emotional problems, given all that she had been through? What had she been through? And say she had coped well, as some war survivors miraculously did, wouldn’t she be terribly behind in school? AIS students routinely learned several languages, including English, but Cynthia had been educated in the refugee camps of wartime Africa, and sporadically at that.
“If we do this, the burden will be on you,” Reid told Sara, who was only weeks into her senior year. “You’re her age. You’re going to have to go to school with her every day. This is going to intrude on your life the most on a day-to-day basis.”
“I understand that,” Sara said.
“Let’s go meet her,” Reid said. “If you feel you don’t want to do it, no judgment. We’ll just say no.”
Reid and Sara drove to Meansville on September 28, twenty-four days after Cynthia arrived in the United States and one day before her eighteenth birthday. When the INS agent introduced Cynthia to the Mizells, Cynthia began crying, and then Reid began crying, and then the INS agent began crying, and then Sara rolled her eyes and took Cynthia by the hand.
“Bon alors, on va parler,” she said. Come on, let’s go talk.
Sitting on a garden bench, Sara explained in French all about her family and their house and her school—that many students there were learning to speak English and that Cynthia could, too. Merci, Cynthia kept saying, and je ne le crois pas—I can’t believe it.
When they walked back over to Reid and the agent, Sara whispered to her mother, “Let’s do this.”
Reid looked at the agent and said, “Okay.”
Okay. One word and everything changed.
Let’s do this.
Or was it more than one word?
Look, I’ve got this kid . . .
Reid, you speak French, don’t you?
Let’s do this.
The e-mail from Catholic Social Services had gone out to hundreds who had forwarded it to hundreds, and out of the silence one responded, like an answer to an SOS.
Day after day, Grace had signed onto her e-mail at work, hoping for good news about Cynthia. With one day left on the ticking clock, a colleague stopped by her cubicle and grinned: “Have you opened your e-mail yet?”
The staff and residents of the children’s home celebrated Cynthia’s birthday a day early with a cake and gifts. Cynthia had never had a birthday cake before. The next day, when she arrived in Buckhead, the Mizells were waiting with a birthday cake of their own.
Here is your room, here is your bathroom, here is your closet.
The house was modern, multistoried, airy as a lodge, with a stone fireplace and leather sofas and broad windows overlooking a deeply wooded lot that glowed a thousand shades of green.
Here is the newspaper, the stereo, the television. Here is Baxter the cat. Here is the kitchen—please eat a lot. Here is your house key. This is your home.
Cynthia’s room lay at the top of a short flight of steps. It held a brass bed with fresh linens, and a desk. The picture windows faced the lush, peaceful leafiness of the forested yard. With the blinds open it was like living in a tree house.
They showed her where to put her things and invited her to their table. As she sat quietly and took it all in, they cooked for her and talked to her and went about their gregarious Mizell ways. On this day eighteen years ago Cynthia had been born in Kayanza, Burundi, up in the mountainous north, near Rwanda; born into a family of two parents and an older brother: Paul, Marie, Franck—gone now, all. And here she was in Buckhead, Atlanta, Georgia, United States, North America, 7,700 miles from where she started, with a family called Mizell giving her anything she needed, feeding her birthday cake.
That was Saturday. On Monday, she went to school.
Despite her unusual history, admissions tests showed her to be especially skilled in math and science. Right away, AIS customized a curriculum that allowed Cynthia to take her classes in French and move into the mainstream as she learned English. An unusual approach, but it could work.
And Cynthia was clearly determined to make it work. AIS turned out kids who went on to the Ivies, and from the start Cynthia matched them in determination, always with her face in a book or working with an after-school tutor. In class, she responded respectfully to teachers and classmates alike as if reared by parents who had emphasized the importance of good manners. Beyond that, she said little, as if still in survival mode: watching, waiting. Teachers wondered whether her seriousness was simply her demeanor or rather a manifestation of deep sadness. How overwhelming it must be, Dunson and others thought, to come not just to a new school, which is stressful enough for a teenager, but also to a new family and an entirely new world. Cynthia had left an impoverished country of 6 million for a superpower of 278 million. In Burundi, her life expectancy would have topped out at age forty-seven; by coming to America, she effectively doubled it. She had left a country where only 35 percent of the population could read for one where 97 percent could. Burundians had 440,000 radios; Americans had 575 million. The United States had nearly 15,000 airports; Burundi had four. She had left a country where a conversation with the wrong person could get her killed for a place where absolute strangers were going to all ends to help her.
In ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), Shanta Kalyanasundaram’s students happened to be studying human rights. Kalyanasundaram wondered whether she should change the subject matter for Cynthia’s benefit but decided against it. For days, they discussed child soldiers, Amnesty International, the meaning of life, the concept of man’s inhumanity to man, Cynthia riveted. She also showed a particular interest in natural disasters—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. When Kalyanasundaram commented on the instability of Earth during a discussion on tectonic plates, Cynthia looked up from her textbook as if in alarm and Kalyanasundaram thought, “Oh no, have I said something wrong?” She reminded Kalyanasundaram, who is South African–Indian, of other African students she had known—resilient, determined. The Mozambique children she had known had walked through land mines to save themselves, and lost limbs, yet were the most positive, productive people she knew. “They work and work and work,” Kalyanasundaram thought. Cynthia proved herself no different. She needed none of the usual reminders and constant affirmation. “Her whole aim in life is to get on with it,” Kalyanasundaram thought. “To move on.”
At home, as the weeks passed, Cynthia answered politely when spoken to but volunteered nothing more. She seldom made eye contact. She moved through her budding world as if on untested ice. “She knows what it’s like to have everything taken from her,” Reid thought. If Cynthia had any scars, and surely she must, she kept them to herself. “What she’s been through could freeze a person,” Sara thought. “How is it humanly possible to have been through what she’s been through and not be paralyzed and afraid all the time? How do you ever start to trust people? How do you ever start to relax?” Some of Sara’s friends had been more emotionally damaged by bad breakups, it seemed. “If she’s damaged, she doesn’t let it hold her back,” Sara decided.
Yet when months had passed and Cynthia had barely ventured a smile, Reid asked Grace, “What can I do? What can I do for her?”
“It’s a new family to her, a new culture,” Grace said. “She has to learn. Even though I am basically from her country, I am new to her life, too. She’s in between. Life is not just what you eat.”
If Cynthia opened up, it was with Grace; her questions betrayed her worry. Will I get asylum? How long will it take? If I don’t get asylum, will they send me back to Burundi? Is it improper to watch television with the Mizells after dinner? Cynthia still did not know whether she had been adopted or was living with the Mizells only until she got her papers, or what. She mastered the remote control and the smorgasbord of channels faster than she could figure out even the most basic things. How to greet people, for instance. Burundians kissed three times in greeting, left cheek to right cheek to left. In Atlanta, people said hello with hugs, kisses, handshakes, back slaps, or with no touch at all, but how did one know whom to kiss and whom to hug and with whom to shake hands, and when?
“Day by day, things will be different,” Grace told her whenever she felt discouraged. “Your future is bright. Other refugees come here and have to do things on their own. You have a good lawyer, you have a family who loves you. If you don’t have faith, it’s going to be hard.” Grace and Sue Colussy both had found this to be true. Refugees who came without religious faith had a much harder time and, occasionally, a hard fall into alcoholism and homelessness. “You have to build up faith in your mind,” Grace told Cynthia. “This family did not just come up from air. God was working. People picked up the phone, people made decisions. You have thousands of angels around you.”
The Mizells refused to treat Cynthia as anything other than a Mizell. Jackson called her Cynthia Escargot or Cynthia Croissant, his adolescent way of saying, “Welcome.” Before long, Sara was calling Cynthia her black twin. Robert bought her a computer and showed her how to go online. As her English progressed, he nagged her to keep reading in French. When she had court dates or appointments with Sue Colussy, Robert was usually the one who took her. He talked to her about everything, in English, whether she understood it or not. His animated monologues covered Buckhead, Eminem, Star Trek, the political significance of some ratty leather chair he found on the curb, and whatever other random bits of knowledge he felt she needed to know. The more confused Cynthia looked, the louder Robert talked. Sometimes Sara or Reid translated, but most of the time they let Robert and Cynthia find their way. Reid thought, “Every girl needs a father.”
Cynthia began taping snapshots of the Mizells, even the grandparents, to the door and window frames in her room. If someone cut up a photo for a scrapbook, Cynthia kept the castoffs. If someone gave her a gift, she kept even the box. The Mizells rarely wanted the little LEGO-like toys that came in cereal boxes, but Cynthia wanted them. She assembled the toys and lined them up for display in her room. She kept the “graduation” certificate the children’s home had given her upon her departure, along with a sheet of notebook paper on which she’d penciled a prayer she heard the other children reciting: “Thank you, Lord, for the good things you did for us today. We need your help for our problems . . .”
It was spring before anyone heard her laugh. Only then did Reid think, “She’s going to be okay.”
No one would remember quite when this happened, or why, but Cynthia began calling Sara and Callie her sisters, and Jackson her brother, and introducing Reid and Robert as her mom and dad. Grace she called Auntie.
Only occasionally did anyone try to draw Cynthia out about her past. If Reid asked, “What kind of Burundian food did you eat?” Cynthia would say, “I prefer American food.” Yet at Christmas, as the Mizells put up their North Carolina fir, Cynthia leaned into the fragrant branches and inhaled. “It smells like Burundi in the morning,” she said.
Even Grace had never asked Cynthia about home. And Cynthia never asked Grace about Rwanda. They knew each other’s souls without knowing each other’s stories. The only ones who needed to know Cynthia’s story were Sue Colussy and the government. Colussy hoped Cynthia’s chances for asylum were better than most, given the tens of thousands dead in Burundi, but with the shock of 9/11 giving way to stricter laws and procedures under the newly created Department of Homeland Security, no one’s security was guaranteed. For all her good fortune in finding Sue Colussy and the Mizells, Cynthia had walked into something of a snare by landing in Atlanta.
William Cassidy and Mackenzie Rast, the region’s immigration judges, denied asylum 88 percent of the time, well above the national average of 62 percent. Cassidy was the tougher of the two. From the mid-nineties to 2000, only three judges in the country had denied asylum more often than Cassidy. Rast ranked twenty-first. A former assistant state attorney in Florida, he had been an immigration judge for eleven years. Between 1994 and 1999, he had granted asylum in only fifty-five out of 370 cases. Yet if you wanted a shot at asylum in Atlanta, you hoped for Rast.
Judges base a big part of their decision on instinct. Everyone knew the first rule of immigration law: Clients lie. Sue Colussy always told her clients straight away: You lie to me, I’m gone. And in the extremely rare event that a client did lie, Colussy kept her word and walked right out the door. She trusted her gut the way judges had to trust theirs when applicants came before them with only their word, which made for disparity among the courts and left little room for predicting which way a case would go. It all depended on the story.
October 21, 1993 The president of Burundi went to bed with his cell phone on.
The palace occupied vast grounds surrounded by a high wall at the intersection of two broad avenues in Bujumbura. To the north lay the Hotel Meridien; to the west, a golf course. Army soldiers guarded the palace and lived in military camps a few miles away, across the Muha River. President Melchior Ndadaye, a forty-year-old ex-banker and the first Hutu president in history, had been in office since June. Barely a month after he assumed the presidency, Army officers had attempted a coup that was quickly put down. Now, coup rumors were circulating again. The country was uneasy.
Ndadaye had been elected on a platform of land reform, and on the return of thousands of Hutus exiled after the 1972 genocide, and on allowing Hutus to join the Tutsi-dominated military. His landslide win, by 65 percent, was heralded as “one of the most remarkable transitions to democracy yet seen in Africa” and a promising step forward in the complicated, bloody history between Hutus and Tutsis.
The Hutu, farmers from the Niger-Congo region, settled modern-day Burundi and Rwanda in 200 AD. The Tutsi, cattle-raising nomads, came later, from the upper Nile region in the mid-1500s, and began to rule peacefully, as overlords. From 1885 through the 1950s, the territory known as Ruanda-Urundi was colonized by Germany and later ruled by Belgium. In 1959, the region split into Burundi and Rwanda. In the early sixties, Burundi gained independence from Belgium, with Tutsis in power. Hutus and Tutsis had always lived together peacefully, and some intermarried. But independence triggered political power struggles, coups, and coup attempts that radiated mistrust, fear, hatemongering, and reactionary violence. During the 1972 genocide, hundreds of thousands of Hutu fled as refugees, fearful but furious. In the coming years, the so-called “Hutu commandments,” published first in Rwanda, filtered south to Burundians. “Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, wherever she is, works for the interests of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who marries a Tutsi woman; befriends a Tutsi woman; employs a Tutsi woman,” read commandment number one. Number eight was, “The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi.” A Tutsi variation held that “Hutu kids are spoiled and insouciant: Just get hold of the kid who lost his way, then ask his father, elder brother, or mother to come and fetch him, and then kill them all.”
Ndadaye’s election had brought the nation months of unprecedented harmony and appeared to be the symbol of a new Burundi. Ndadaye was not only Hutu, he had also been a nineteen-year-old refugee during the genocide two decades earlier. As such, he had the heart of the people—the majority of the people, that is.
The coup rumors that had been circulating now appeared true. At one-thirty in the morning, the president’s cell phone rang. The coup has started, a high-ranking official told him. “Il faut sortir,” he said—you must leave. Ndadaye rose and quickly dressed.
Paratroopers from the Second Parachute Battalion had surrounded the palace. Gunfire and cannon blasts could be heard throughout the city. By now, the army had closed the borders, cut the phone lines. By seven in the morning, the president, his wife, and their children had been taken to an army base, where soldiers surrounded the car and forced the Ndadaye family out. “Tell me what you want, we can negotiate,” the president told the soldiers in Kirundi. “But above all, do not spill blood. Think of your country. Think of your families.”
As it became clear that the president was in trouble, Hutus across the country began destroying bridges and felling trees as roadblocks, remembering that in ’72 the Tutsi came in caravans to haul away Hutus for slaughter. News of the president’s detainment spread by radio and by provincial officials on motorcycles. Hutus were urged to take Tutsis hostage. By 10 a.m. the president had been executed, and then the orders were to kill.
Hutus began killing Tutsis. The Tutsi army began killing Hutus. Everybody seemed to be killing everybody, regardless of gender or age. Mothers watched their children be cut down and then were cut down, too. Women were raped. Homes were sacked. Tutsis were gathered in schoolhouses and hospitals and on riverbanks and executed. The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi. The people waged war with stones, spears, clubs, hammers, bayonets, bows and arrows. The soldiers used guns.
North of the capital, in the province of Bubanza, Cynthia Siyomvo sat watching nighttime television with her family. The country had one television station. It broadcast from four in the afternoon to eleven at night, and the Siyomvos watched together. They got the news in Kirundi, the news in French, and old music videos from the United States—Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson. They also got movies and, on Tuesday nights, an NBA game days or weeks old. Cynthia especially loved the basketball games. Her father, Paul, called her “Jordan,” as in Michael. If girls played soccer, she would have joined in. Instead she tailed her brother Franck to his matches, where his friends teased, “Why you always got to bring your little sister?”
They lived better than most Burundians, in a small but nice brick house with three bedrooms and one bath, and a car. Paul Siyomvo worked as a liquor distributor; deliveries kept him on the road a couple of days a week. Like most Burundians, Marie grew their own food in their vast backyard. Their neighbors lived in similar homes within walking distance. Families knew each other. The children walked together to school.
Paul Siyomvo was Hutu. Marie was Tutsi. According to custom, their marriage made Cynthia and Franck Hutu. But the Siyomvos never talked about that. Older people talked about it, as in, “Oh, he is Hutu,” but never once in her life had Cynthia asked another person, “Are you Hutu or Tutsi?” Marie had always told them, “That doesn’t matter. If you are a good person, that is what matters.” Marie had lived here for years among Hutus with no problem.
A knock on the door. Paul opened it. Outside stood a crowd of men: neighbors, friends—people they knew—including Cynthia’s fourth-grade teacher. They held machetes. They called Paul out.
“We’re on a mission,” one said. “We’re going to kill every Tutsi in the country. Your wife is Tutsi, your children are Tutsi. You must kill them.”
“What is going on?” Paul said.
“Haven’t you heard?” the leader said. “We’re going to take over, kill all the cockroaches. We’re actually late. All over the country, they have already started.”
Paul said he needed time. He said he would take care of it. The men were angry and restless, but because they all knew each other, they agreed to give Paul time. “When we come back,” the one said, “we want to see their bodies. We want to see them dead.”
Inside, Paul told Marie and the children, “Right now they’re just upset about what happened. In the morning it will be fine.” But just in case, he said, hide.
Right away, Marie took Franck and Cynthia to the banana grove at the far, dark edge of the yard. There they waited all night. In the morning, they went back to the house and found Paul dead in the living room, the men’s dark promise having been carried out for his failure to kill his family.
“Stop crying,” Marie told Cynthia. They needed to move fast because the men would be back. Marie and the children gathered whatever clothing and food they could carry and went back to the banana grove to wait, to think about what to do. Soon the men returned. Cynthia could see their shadows moving about the house, see them step out with their machetes, into the backyard. Then the house began to burn. It burned with Paul in it and with everything they owned. When morning came, Marie and the children ran.
Cynthia felt caught in a very bad dream. “Tomorrow is just going to be normal again,” she kept thinking. She cried for her stuffed animals and for school and for the homemade french fries they used to eat at supper and for her favorite clothes. Marie slapped her right across the face.
“Stop crying,” she said.
They made it to a refugee camp, thinking safety in numbers. Outside the camp, the killing continued. Schoolteachers killed their pupils. Pupils killed each other. Tutsis were locked inside an abandoned gas station and burned alive. The army randomly hunted down Hutus and shot them on sight. The Nyabarongo River flowed with bodies. Even most of the nation’s cattle were killed. Ten, twenty, fifty thousand people lay dead in the early days, and more than 200,000 would be gone by the end. Some of the bodies would remain where they fell, going to bone, for many years to come. As one official put it, “Everybody has hands full of blood.”
By the end of just the first week, 400,000 Burundians had fled to Rwanda and other neighboring countries. By the end of the month, 600,000. By Christmas Eve, one and a half million. “The situation is very complex,” as Burundi’s minister of communications, a Tutsi, explained it to The New York Times. “It is not a western. You don’t have cowboys on one side and Indians on the other. It is not a moral problem, it is a political one. This will not be resolved in one week or two months.”
In the camps, 180 people were dying each day, many of them children. They starved, or died of cholera, dysentery, malaria. In Cynthia’s camp they had powdered milk and little else to eat. At first Cynthia refused it. She said, “No, I don’t eat that.” Soon, she was happy to eat anything at all. “If I could just get a handful of beans,” she would think.
As a lifelong Catholic, she knew how to pray. She prayed for survival. But as she began to understand that her life would never be the same—that their home was gone, her father was gone, bread was gone—she prayed to die.
But she didn’t die. For nearly a year, Marie, Franck, and Cynthia lived crowded into one small tent in a camp with little water and no place to wash and people pissing and shitting right on the earth.
Still, someone set up a school. First-graders attended with fifth-graders. No one took it very seriously because no one was sure they would survive to care about mathematics.
From time to time Marie cried for no reason. Franck grieved in dry silence. Cynthia thought, “This is my life now. I just need to get to tomorrow.”
She learned to sleep through nighttime gunfire and grenades. “This will come to an end,” she heard women in the camp say. “People cannot keep fighting forever.” But the fighting continued. When soldiers attacked the camp, Marie took the children and fled to the forest, where they walked and walked and walked—for days, they walked. Sometimes they could see distant figures moving off among the trees, groups of people passing like ghost ships. Whenever Marie got a bad feeling, she and the children stopped to hide. They slept in the forest and scavenged for food. But mostly they just walked, in silence. There was nothing to discuss.
On the other side of the forest, they found a two-room cottage to rent behind a Hutu family’s house. The arrangement violated the Hutu commandments about showing mercy to Tutsi women, but for all the killing, Hutus everywhere were hiding Tutsis at great risk to their own lives, and vice versa. For the next year, as the war continued, Marie worked for the landlords and in the fields. Cynthia studied with the landlords’ tutored children.
One night, they heard arguing and screaming in the main house. Marie helped Franck and Cynthia scramble up into their crawl space of an attic but had no way or time to get up there herself. Hutu men broke down the door, found Marie hiding in a corner, and killed her on sight. Finding no others, they left.
For hours, Franck and Cynthia waited. Then they came down. The long night with their mother’s body passed as they thought about what to do. At daybreak the landlady came and said the men had also killed her husband, for letting Tutsis live in his house. She gave Franck and Cynthia bus fare and told them to hurry away before the killers returned; she would take care of Marie.
The bus took them to Cibitoke, near the border of Zaire, where they rented a one-room cottage with a dirt floor and no kitchen or bath. Cynthia was twelve now, Franck sixteen. Cynthia enrolled in a school for orphans. The orphanage had no bed space but allowed Cynthia a uniform and a place in class. Franck took work and buried their savings in the floor. For three years they lived in the room—through another coup, more slaughters, through the genocide and its aftermath up north in Rwanda. Like the other families, they cooked outside and shared the communal bath. They concentrated simply on making it from one day to the next.
Behind their cottage stood the charred husk of an abandoned house. Weeds grew through the foundation. In duller moments Franck and Cynthia went to the house and played pretend, rebuilding it in their minds: Here is the living room, here is the kitchen; this could be your room, that could be mine.
One night, noise in the street. Men yelled, “Come here!” and “Who are you?” and “Where are you going?” Peeking out the door, they saw houses burning, women running, children standing stunned and screaming in the road. As Franck began gathering up their things he told Cynthia to run out the back, to the abandoned house; he would be close behind.
Cynthia slipped out the back and hid in an overgrown corner of the old house. A girl she knew ran past, holding her infant brother. Cynthia called the girl over and they huddled there together through the gunfire, trying to keep the baby quiet. All night they hid. Franck never came. At daybreak, Cynthia returned to the cottage and found him face down in the dirt.
The living began to tend to the dead. Some boys carried Franck down to the open field where they were burying people. They put him in the ground among the homemade crosses. Cynthia unearthed their money from the cottage floor, collected her school uniform, and got a bus to Bujumbura.
Her father’s brother lived there as a successful businessman. Despite the intermittent killing, life in many ways went on. Schools convened. Buses ran. Bean fields were plowed. Businessmen conducted business. Cynthia had visited the uncle and his family in the capital in happier times. Yet she and Franck had come to believe the uncle was to blame for their mother’s death because the uncle blamed Marie for Paul’s death. Had Paul never married a Tutsi, he might still be alive.
“My brother is dead now, too,” Cynthia said when the uncle came to the door. She thought, “How strange to look at this man and know he is the enemy.”
“You can’t stay here,” the uncle said. “It’s dangerous for me.” He gave her money and told her to never come back.
Cynthia rented a room in a Tutsi neighborhood, found a job in a small market, and used her income for rent. Every day possible, she put on her uniform and took the bus to school. A year passed, maybe more. Peace talks progressed but the killing continued. No one ever really felt safe, especially people like Cynthia. Among Hutus, it was dangerous to be the child of a Tutsi; among Tutsi, it was dangerous to be the child of a Hutu. She had no one and belonged nowhere.
One day, a man named Eddie showed up at Cynthia’s home and said he knew all about her problems, said he could help her get out. “Soon they will find out that your dad was a Hutu and that you’re here to spy,” he said. “You will never find peace.”
He offered to take her to Europe. Cynthia knew about Europe. People were happy there. Kids went to school. She had no real future in Burundi.
Together they traveled from Bujumbura to Paris, Cynthia as Eddie’s “daughter.” In Paris, he put her on a westbound plane alone.
Judge Rast granted Cynthia asylum on December 16, 2002, one year and three months after her arrival in the United States—one year and three months that she might have been in adult lockup, waiting. Sue Colussy was with her when she told her story. Grace testified on her behalf. Robert Mizell sat in the courtroom, just as he had sat in almost every other courtroom with Cynthia in the past fifteen months.
By then she had graduated from Atlanta International School and scored 1100 on her SAT. Without the proper papers, she couldn’t enroll in college, or work, so as she waited for Rast to rule on her future, she had been volunteering at a center for refugee women.
With asylum, she applied for a green card, the hardest of all documents to procure, and there began more waiting. Once she got the work permit, she found a job—no, several. Working at Zaxby’s. Conducting inventory at Abercrombie. Selling clothes to wealthy women at a boutique in Lenox Square, whose space and beauty mesmerized Cynthia; Lenox Square seemed like one big happy party.
She took driving lessons and got a license. She bought a cell phone that rang all the time. Her circle of friends now included not only Americans and Rwandans but also Somalis, Nigerians, Sudanese. Reid watched Cynthia move deftly between her American life with the Mizells and her African life with Grace’s family in Lawrenceville.
One morning in early January 2004, Cynthia called Grace, crying.
“Cynthia, what happened?” Grace said.
Cynthia could barely talk.
“Please, tell me,” Grace said.
“No, Auntie, I cannot say it.”
“He died,” Cynthia said.
And it was just beyond. Robert Mizell, such a good man. For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me. Yet on just another Saturday morning at the gym, a massive heart attack took him, at age fifty-two.
Two by two, the Mizells followed the casket into the Cathedral of Saint Philip: Reid with Callie, Jackson with Robert’s sister, and Sara hand in hand with Cynthia.
“Why?” Cynthia asked. “I was happy that I had a second father, and now he is gone.”
Grace told her, “But you still have a mother.”
Two years after Robert’s death, Cynthia opened her mail in Buckhead to find her green card. Grace could have heard her screaming all the way in Lawrenceville.
They drank champagne in the Mizell house that night. Cynthia wrote Sue Colussy a letter, telling her the news. She enrolled at Georgia Perimeter College and began earning the credits to get into a four-year college. In 2011, Cynthia will be eligible to apply to become a U.S. citizen. Citizenship will make everything complete. “Atlanta is my home now,” she says.
The first person to save Cynthia’s life was Paul Siyomvo, her father. The second person to save Cynthia was Marie Siyomvo, her mother. The third: Franck Siyomvo, her brother. The fourth person to save Cynthia was her uncle, through rejection and cash. The fifth: the mysterious Eddie, with a plane ticket and passport. The sixth? Irene Holth, of the INS, who made that critical phone call. The seventh was Sister Lucy—Sue Colussy. The eighth person to save Cynthia was Reid Mizell, by paying attention to what could have been just another e-mail. The ninth: Grace, by giving Cynthia another kind of home.
The tenth and perhaps most important person who saved Cynthia was Cynthia herself, by running when she needed to run, hiding when she had to hide, and by trusting when her instincts told her to trust.
After six years, she has known the Mizells almost as long as she knew her own family. She still lives in the room with photos taped to her wall and with framed pictures of an American boyfriend on her nightstand. She thinks in English now. But the bracelet Franck gave her still hugs her left wrist. She speaks as seldom of her past as she ever did. Sometimes when people ask about Burundi, Cynthia will say she does not remember. To those who know her this often means, I don’t want to talk about it. The unabridged version is personal, and tightly contained, like the contents of Grace’s gold locket.
In August, Cynthia enrolled at Georgia State University. A biology major with a year and a half to go, she plans to apply to medical school at Emory. She hopes to become a cardiac surgeon, a healer of broken hearts.
This story is based upon interviews and source material including U.S. Department of Homeland Security intake documents; statistics from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which analyzes data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the justice department agency responsible for overseeing the nation’s fifty-four immigration courts and 220 judges; A Problem from Hell, by Samantha Power; Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, by René Lemarchand; We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch; From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi, by Ambassador Robert Krueger and Kathleen Tobin Krueger; and the 1996 International Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Burundi report, conducted by members of seven nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch of New York and Washington, D.C. The story’s dialogue was either found in transcripts or reconstructed from memory by participants and witnesses.
This article was originally published in our September 2007 issue.
The fans run a gauntlet of slot machine-filled rooms illuminated by lights blinking in seizure-inducing, strobe-flashing rhythms. Electronic blurps and shrill lunatic crescendos wail, rising sirens—whoopwhoopWHOOP—overlaid with multiple-song bleed-over, as if every cell phone in every pocket in Atlantic City went off at once. When they reach the doors of the Trump Plaza Theater, the audience lines up in stretch jeans and cargo shorts, carefully trimmed white beards and mustaches, cowboy boots, beer guts, and bifocals. The casino smells like car deodorizer, fried grease, kegger dregs, and stale ashtrays. Smoke-free signs be damned—its in the fibers’ DNA here.
Kenny Rogers strides through specially formulated fog into the spotlight as the faithful roar their approval. When the eighties country-pop icon steps forward, folksy and powerful, unpretentious and celebrated, the restless casino crowd is enrapt. T-shirts printed with images of Rogers from a decade ago strain across more than a few bellies.
Rogers’s familiar voice is as relaxed as a man greeting his oldest friends at a backyard barbecue. His followers ignore the fumbled plastic surgery that caused a commotion in the blogosphere after Rogers’s 2006 stint on American Idol. (“Have you seen that Kenny Rogers lately? He had plastic surgery and now he looks like an Olsen twin” or “Kenny Rogers blinked the other day and pulled a groin muscle.”)
Rogers’s banter is scripted, canned, and predictable, honed over countless performances. His distinctive voice is still the distilled essence of the brand—an intimate, husky, dirt-poor-Texan drawl—and it still smolders with burning ambition like an underground coal-mine fire, a gift for self-promotion that was seemingly his from the git-go.
He teases the audience, chides their off-key singing, tosses ten-spots to a chump in the front row for every hit recognized. “And what kills me is he’s going to leave loving country music and buy a Garth Brooks record with my money.” The show is part stand-up, part croaky renditions of his best known songs: “Ruby,” “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Lady,” “Islands in the Stream.” He sings a few numbers from his last release, but not many. His casino set lists are short—management wants the audience back at the poker and blackjack tables, jingling the money out of their pockets and into the house coffers.
In the grand Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tradition, Kenny Rogers is a self-made man. And self-made includes his identity as America’s quintessential country crooner. Rogers didn’t ride in off a farm in a pickup truck. Going country was a business decision, the brand he created after the fitful successes of earlier musical incarnations fizzled.
The high-profile Atlanta resident is a businessman with a knack for managing his public image and an eye for profitable real estate investments. He is a dedicated professional entertainer with a truly enviable work ethic, still touring and recording after six decades in the business. He retains remnants of his international celebrity with an aging fan base and has lost none of his unmistakable personal charisma. But authentic—the trademark crack of sincerity in his raspy vibrato notwithstanding—turns out to be the one thing he isn’t.
When Kenny Rogers came wailing into the world August 21, 1938, he landed in a Houston federal housing project, not a hay field. He was the fourth child and second son of Floyd, an alcoholic sharecropper from East Texas who worked in Houston’s WWII-fueled shipyards, and Lucille, a practical nurse who helped make ends meet in between the births of her eight children. Rogers was the first child in his family to graduate from high school. But music was his ticket out, from the teen band The Scholars, which led to a solo appearance on American Bandstand before they crapped out, to a stint playing upright bass in the jazzy Bobby Doyle Trio.
Time with pseudo-folkie-machine The New Christy Minstrels segued into Rogers’s reinvention as lead singer in The First Edition. Staring down thirty, he grew long hair, added an earring and pink sunglasses, and rode the pop-psychedelic tune “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” to the top of the charts. His 1969 nod to the war protest genre, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” closed the Huntley-Brinkley Report over news footage of Vietnam and kept the renamed Kenny Rogers and the First Edition group going (along with boosts from “Something’s Burning” and “Tell It All Brother”) until the group folded in 1974 with Rogers $64,000 in debt.
“When the First Edition broke up, I went to Nashville, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” Rogers said in a 1998 interview. “I went to this Fan Fair thing, and there were 8,000 people in this auditorium, and they said, ‘Here’s Freddy Davis, who had a hit in 1956,’ and everybody went crazy. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is where I need to be.’ It’s not like pop music, where you have a hit and you disappear and no one cares.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to discern life’s major turning point, but Rogers’s insight was along the lines of the revelation that knocked Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. He resurrected his Texas twang and released the eponymous album Kenny Rogers in September 1976. Three months later, the single “Lucille” spent two weeks at number one on the country chart, reached number five on the pop chart, earned a gold single, and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.
A template for the songs that minted money for Rogers in the years to come, “Lucille” is about a rube whose wife has left him “with four hungry children and a crop in the field.” It has a simple story line, perennial country themes of drinking, cheating, and abandonment, a tinge of regret—and a hook as tenacious as a seed tick.
That song’s popularity was the beginning of an avalanche of wealth and supercelebrity. With his ear for the marketable megahit and his nonthreatening teddy bear persona, Rogers became the wet dream of millions of record-buying women who melted at the sound of his throbbing baritone. During his heyday in the late seventies to early eighties, Kenny Rogers sold more than one million records every month for twenty-six straight months.
Country was very, very good to Rogers.
“Like Ray Charles, Kenny can take the right song and countrify it so successfully you’d swear he’d been working roadhouses his entire life. Most musicians stay in one genre or another—Bill Anderson of the Opry winks and calls himself a ‘country stylist’—but Ray and Kenny transcend that. They are superstars because of it,” says Paul Hemphill, author of Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams and The Nashville Sound.
He wasn’t one of the bad boys—he was no Johnny Cash, the Man in Black who sang of shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” He was no “don’t boss him, don’t cross him” Red Headed Stranger like Willie Nelson, who sang he “shot her so quick there was no time to warn her.” He didn’t do hard time in the slammer like Merle Haggard. Rogers was the man who begged his woman not to leave, the sensitive guy who promised eternal fidelity, the loser out of aces.
And he was catnip to the ladies.
The numbers do not like. Rogers had twenty number-one country singles and made the pop top-ten list six times. There were five straight number-one country singles (“Love or Something Like It,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” and “Coward of the Country”). He struck gold time and again with duets, singing harmony with old-school country gal Dottie West on “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” raspy-voiced Kim Carnes on “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” Scottish songbird Sheena Easton on “We’ve Got Tonight,” and pink-rhinestone cowgirl Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream”—all top ten hits.
But he became the undisputed king of crossover when his schmaltzy chartbuster “Lady” rang all the cash register bells, topping the country, pop, and R&B charts during the same week in 1980.
“You might consider the huge country-pop acts of the nineties, like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, to be descendants of Kenny—sort of,” says Meredith Ochs, NPR commentator and host of Steven Van Zandt’s Outlaw Country on Sirius Satellite Radio. “He’s smoother and longer-lasting—I realize I’m making him sound like lipstick—but they had similar crossover appeal. He’s got a great voice, he’s a master of country-pop, and he sang songs that touched people on a large scale. I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said pop music is popular because folks like it. Critics may denigrate big-selling artists, but making music people love and relate to is a talent in itself.”
Rogers’s stadium concerts routinely sold out, and he showed up on TV not only where you’d expect—as a guest star on Hee Haw and Dolly Parton & Friends—but also schmoozing with everyone from Johnny Carson to the Muppets. His signature song, “The Gambler,” spawned a TV movie and four sequels, all starring Rogers. Another song, “Coward of the Country,” got the TV movie treatment, and in 1982 he made a feature film, Six Pack. With fame came fortune. He bought a 25,000-square-foot house called “The Knoll” in Beverly Hills and later sold it for $20 million in 1984, a record sum for a private residence at the time. He traded his seat on a tour bus for a private Learjet.
And there were accolades—three Grammy Awards, five Country Music Association Awards, eight Academy of Country Music Awards, eleven People’s Choice Awards, and eighteen American Music Awards.
But the American dream had a nightmare side. Rogers burned through three marriages by age thirty-nine. His father died in 1975, before he could witness his son’s most glittering achievements. Stung by media comments about his weight, Rogers had so much plastic surgery that Dolly Parton joked publicly about Kenny going to the “jiffy suck.” His fashion choices were wince-inducing, from the aqua and rhinestone zip-up two-piece that showed off his graying chest hair to the iridescent jackets with the sleeves pushed up his forearms. The critics were brutal. Rolling Stone’s Ken Tucker savaged Rogers’s 1981 release Share Your Love as “quasi-country music from an overweight lightweight.”
Then his fortunes changed, as fortunes do. The slump was like a slow leak in a tire, and for a while his momentum disguised his dwindling success. He still worked constantly, touring, appearing on TV shows, cranking out The Gambler sequels, participating in high-profile philanthropic efforts such as We Are the World and Hands Across America. He even launched an ultimately ill-fated rotisserie chicken franchise and published two books of photography.
But Rogers’s foolproof formulae, ballads that told women what they wanted to hear and songs about men down on their luck, began to sound interchangeable and chart ever lower—or not at all. His 1987 photography book, Your Friends and Mine, offered cheesy B-list celeb portraits (Morgan Fairchild in a glass bathtub filled with balloons) along with static shots of aging politicos and entertainers (Ronald Reagan, George Burns). The exceptions were the black-and-white portraits of African American performers such as Ray Charles and Miles Davis, who managed to transcend Rogers’s Glamour Shot aesthetic. But it’s Rogers’s preface, crediting Michael Jackson (who wanted a portrait with Rogers’s four-year-old son, who was visiting Neverland) with sparking the idea for the book, that really raises the hair on your neck.
The bottom may have been 1993, when Kenny Rogers Roasters was smacked with a $10 million copyright lawsuit from a Florida restaurant chain and three Dallas women sued him for sexual harassment over phone-sex games. If that wasn’t tawdry enough, recordings of Rogers’s calls were aired on TV’s A Current Affair, and Rogers went on Larry King Live to defend himself. Shortly afterward, his fourth wife, Hee Haw honey Marianne Gordon, called it quits and left with a reported settlement of $60 million, allegedly the seventh most expensive divorce in U.S. history. Rogers’s annus horribilis came to a close, but his star had fallen so low that before the decade was over, comedian Will Sasso was regularly parodying Rogers as a fat, dimwitted drunk on MadTV.
Dark times indeed.
Like a boomerang you can’t throw away, Rogers came back. He created his own record label, Dreamcatcher, released She Rides Wild Horses, and watched his single “The Greatest” climb to the top twenty and “Buy Me a Rose” to number one on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks, making him the oldest artist to reach number one in the history of the country charts.
Because Rogers seldom penned songs himself, songwriters loved him. “He made careers. Songwriters were running over themselves to get songs like ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Coward of the County’ to him,” says Bruce Burch, director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business program. Athens-based Mike Dekle, who wrote for Rogers’s publishing company, Lionsmate, says Rogers’s strength is knowing what material works for him. “He’s not gonna do drinkin’ or cheatin’ songs,” Dekle says. “He told me, ‘When I’m singing and I see a man reach out and touch his wife’s hand, then you’ve written me a hit.’”
A benefactor as well as a businessman, Rogers has accrued credit on his karma ledger. He opens his wallet for the Special Olympics, Alzheimer’s Association, Moms on Call, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Kenny Rogers Children’s Center. Closer to home, he established the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, gave a substantial bequest to UGA’s tennis center, and donated his top-of-the-line large-format photography equipment to the Savannah College of Art & Design.
He met this fifth and current Mrs. Rogers, Sandy Springs-bred Wanda Miller, at a restaurant where the college student worked as a hostess. The singer was taken by her smile but worried about the public perception of their twenty-eight-year age difference. “I was so afraid someone was going to say, ‘Your granddaughter is lovely,’” said Rogers in a 2006 Insider interview. “So I said, ‘Let’s make a deal. You dress a little older and I’ll dress a little younger and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.’”
Hope triumphed over experience, and five years later the May/December couple had a June wedding. The nuptials took place in the barn of Beaver Dam Farms, Rogers’s 360-acre estate outside of Athens. Rogers sang his vows, promising his young bride, “I’ll give you the future if you’ll forgive me my past.”
They traveled together on his tour circuit: the fairgrounds, casinos, and festival venues where performances whose careers have crested find their public. Going on the road together was a smart idea, since Rogers blamed his continual absences for the demise of his first four marriages.
While his marriages soured, he managed to keep long-term relationships going with his band members. “Some people are loyal and some people aren’t,” says Steve Glassmeyer, who’s played keyboard and mandolin and sung harmony with Rogers for thirty-one years. Keyboardist Gene Sisk, a ten-year veteran with the band, ticks off examples. “He pays us well. It’s steady. We don’t have to be gone for three months at a time. He doesn’t double the band up in a Motel 6. We have health insurance. He’s one of the few artists I know who does that. In Nashville the attitude is, we can find five people right now to do your job, and the mind-set is to pay as little as possible. Kenny is the gig to have.” There are also acts of pure, unvarnished friendship by a generous man. Sisk’s wife had a stroke, and when he was on the road with Rogers, the expense of his wife’s caregiver cost him more than he was making. “I didn’t say anything to Kenny, but the band knew it and somebody must’ve gone to him. He took me aside and sat me down and said, ‘When you’re on the road, I’ll pay for her care.’ That’s the man in a microcosm. That’s why I thank my lucky stars I know Kenny Rogers.”
Tired of the hike from Athens to the ATL, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers made Buckhead their neighborhood. In 2002, he bought a six-bedroom, 27,000-square-foot mansion on Garmon Road. The property had been repossessed by a bank that initially asked $12 million and got no takers. The price had dropped to $4 million when Rogers snapped it up for $2.75 million. He turned the property into a high-concept “French castle” with Asian-, Safari-, and Mediterranean-themed suites and a Grecian-style pool, but the forty-foot-high ceiling of the entry hall had him stumped. Interior designer Jim Weinberg, introduced to Rogers by Home Depot’s now ex-CEO Bob Nardelli, proposed a Moroccan motif complete with floor cushions and fabric-swathed columns.
Rogers and Weinberg hit it off and founded Kenji Design Studios to cater to other upscale residential clients. “We bounce off each other in a melodic way,” Weinberg says. “My role is to help him to his next level of accomplishment.” Weinberg calls himself the director, Rogers the corrector. In practice that means Weinberg, who has thirty-five years of experience creating swanky interiors in Aspen, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami, creates the design concept, does the preliminary drawings, sources the goods, and puts it all together. Rogers makes some initial suggestions, moves things around, and adds or deletes some opulent element. “I’ve done twenty houses of my own, so I come to this from a totally emotional standpoint,” Rogers said in a March 2007 interview. “Jim does all the work. He brings me in as a second set of eyes.”
Rogers’s faux chateau had plenty of room for a nursery, but safety was another issue. Garmon Road was put on the market for a cool $10 million (furnished) after the pregnancy test came back positive, and petite, curvaceous Wanda (whose identical twin sister Tanya, in a coincidence not believable in fiction, is married to a Mr. Kenny) discovered she was carrying twins. Life was about to get very, very busy.
The silver-haired crooner and the mother-to-be hunted for three acres in Dunwoody, where they could build a smaller house on one floor. In the fall of 2005, they found a wooded parcel on Long Island Drive, in Sandy Springs. The plans called for an Italiante Mediterranean villa with a terra-cotta tile roof and a cupola, built around an open courtyard with a sparkling blue pool. But the dimensions kept bloating. The wooded property was deemed unsuitably sloped. Bulldozers cleared the trees, and the dynamite blasting for an 8,500-square-foot basement began. Alan and Cathy Gottlieb, who lived on the street behind the property, watched as their forested backyard view turned into a rubble-strewn moonscape.
“I stood on my deck and begged them to stop. Every day I called my husband at work and said, ‘You’re going to be ill,’ and the next day I’d say ‘It’s gotten worse,’ and the next day I’d say, ‘You won’t believe it,’” recalls Cathy Gottlieb. The family was assured by Rogers’s employees that the singer loved trees, just not these trees. Not to worry, he’d plant two trees for every one he took down. They thought there was no reason not to believe them. Then one day Rogers abruptly pulled the plug. The singer told the press he decided to abandon the project because the house would be too big for Wanda and the twins if something happened to him.
The Gottliebs were stunned. Rogers seeded the dirty mound with grass and planted a few trees, but time has not healed all wounds. “I don’t know if he regrets it or not. I think for him it’s a business, for us it’s quality of life,” Cathy Gottlieb points out. Asked what Rogers could do to make amends, Gottlieb says, “You can’t change what’s happened, and you can’t replant 150 trees. Well, you could, but I guess he didn’t want to do that. He planted twelve. If he wanted to come in and plant some more trees it would certainly be nice. And put in a retaining wall.” For many of us, the relationships that we have with our siblings are the longest, and most influential, relationships of our lives. And while you’re probably familiar with all the birth order stereotypes—oldest kids are hyper-responsible overachievers, youngest sibs are risk-takers and free spirits, and middle children are, well, a bit lost in the middle—it’s actually the distance between your kids that can play a bigger role in their development.
He may have alienated his Sandy Springs neighbors, but his design firm was attracting high-end clientele. Kenji designed the model unit at the Mansion, a posh fifty-story hotel/condo on Peachtree. Kenji risked a speculative renovation on a 22,000-square-foot house on 1080 West Paces Ferry Road. Rogers’s idea of installing a ten-car underground garage with access to a cul-de-sac instead of to traffic-choked West Paces Ferry paid off when the property sold to Arthur Blank last December.
“I’m really trying to make myself the guy in Atlanta,” Rogers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We think there’s a market that’s untouched, which is CEO territory, and everybody’s afraid of it. But we’re not afraid to play there because we know how to make it work.”
Here’s how: They stack, embellish, and gild. Extravagant and eclectic, they’re champions of cultural fusion, freely mixing imitation elephant tusks and zebra-hide rugs with sword-wielding samurai statues and kimonos. These are the go-to guys for more is more. A recent visitor to the Kenji showroom off Huff Road likened it to being on the set of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s a lavish, layered, larger-than-life look. But is it good? We asked leading Atlanta interior designer Stan Topol to comment on the Kenji aesthetic. “Design in Atlanta is an open market, and many people are doing it,” Topol said. “I think it’s great that Kenny Rogers is putting his financial backing behind this. I personally don’t feel the need to be a singer.”
But the fact is, the old standards of what’s tasteful and desirable are irrelevant. Kenji will do very well appealing to Atlanta’s parvenu, the nouveau riche who are after a little contact celebrity and equate success with market dominance. Of course, just because McDonald’s sold 100 billion hamburgers doesn’t mean its cuisine is the best in the world; it means they are the best at hustling hamburgers. Having a talent for selling something is different from having a talent for design.
Enter Donald Trump.
The Manhattan mogul announced his plan to build Trump Tower Atlanta, a $300 million residential project with luxury condos and penthouses starting at $400,000 and soaring up to $1.3 million. The site was the ne plus ultra of culture chic: Fifteenth and West Peachtree streets, behind the High Museum. Alas, it was not alluring enough for the winner of the 2007 season of The Apprentice, who picked building a Trump luxury resort project in the Dominican Republic over managing the construction of Trump Towers Atlanta.
Kenji snagged the contract to design the public spaces, model units, graphics, and employee garb, which raised the firm’s profile, oh, about forty-seven stories overnight. And think of the synergetic symmetry—singing in Trump’s casinos by night, designing Trump’s residential lobby by day.
Weinberg’s concept for the lobby involves travertine stone, Murano glass, and “romantic lighting.” His 3-D model of the project has already gotten a “correction” from Rogers. “He thought there were too many water features in the drop-off area,” says Weinberg. “I come from the artistic approach. Polish every parking meter. Make it shine. That’s my motto.”
As the design business took off, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers and their identical twin infant sons, Justin Charles and Jordan Edward, settled into a pinkish stucco 10,000-square-foot mansion on a hill on Buckhead’s ritzy Valley Road. The renovation crews shifted to that house, and Rogers’s dream home plans went into a drawer at Kenji.
“It’s typically garish Buckhead baroque, a McMansion on steroids,” says Atlanta architect James H. Smith of the Valley Road home. “It lacks proportion, it lacks scale. It’s trying so hard to grab your attention that it succeeds—in all the wrong ways.”
A stepped waterfall curves down the driveway. That’s the kind of distinguishing feature that, when you describe it, people interrupt and say, Oh that house.
“There’s nothing wrong with being bold,” Smith points out. “The Taj Mahal is an amazing structure, but it’s beautiful.”
Given the Graceland-without-the-grace exterior, getting a tour inside, you hope for some glitz, some celebrity fizz, but no. The rooms are filled with Brobdingnagian furniture, and the drab earth-tone color palette demands a thesaurus’s worth of synonyms for brown. From the African-themed guest room’s giant zebra-head painting in a sandblasted Lucite frame and pair of hefty brass elephant-head door ornaments to the dining room’s Confucius sculpture in front of the elaborate carved panel in front of the antiqued mirror tiles and pair of chandeliers, it’s the “we gotta wow ‘em” aesthetic of Red Baron’s auction house. The Hee Haw Hearst castle.
The toilet paper in the bathrooms has a folded point, just like in hotels, a visitor is told earnestly. Yet underneath the odd proportions and accessory overkill, it’s authentic, one man’s idea of beauty and ease, designed for his pleasure and comfort, from the plush and padded chairs to the chenille upholstery and strokable suedes.
The twins’ room is refreshingly real. The boys’ closet is packed with neatly hung and compulsively organized designer togs, but the bedroom has a sturdy pair of white twin beds and a flat-screen TV in front of a toddler-sized sofa. There’s an assortment of DVD cartoons, family photographs everywhere you look, plus the usual Disneyalia, primary-colored Fisher Price and Little Tikes toys, and stuffed animals. There’s a motherly rocker with blue cushions, a brown recliner rocker that practically shouts “Daddy’s chair,” and a pillow with the needlepoint motto, “A father is someone you look up to no matter how tall you get.”
Downstairs in the family room, the fake trees are dusty from ongoing construction. The custom stone fireplace, rubbed down with oils and waxes for instant patina, has imitation gas logs. You have to wonder. The guy’s a zillionaire. He’s got household staff that could bring in the wood and haul out the ashes. How inconvenient could it be, how much trouble, to get real kindling and actual, honest-to-God logs? Why not real trees?
Swarms of workers in vans and SUVs buzz around the Atlanta Symphony Show House. Honorary chair of the Show House and carpool dad Kenny Rogers arrives a few minutes late. It’s the twins’ day for preschool.
Short cotton-white hair and a neat goatee frame his face. A flowing gray shirt falls untucked over his jeans, and his skin has a faintly orange, airbrushed spray ‘n’ tan glow. He’s got a hitch to his stride, somewhere between John Wayne and a limp. There’s an impression of broad shoulders. He sticks out his hand and introduces himself: “I’m Kenny Rogers.” The voice is the same gritty, Texas twang you’ve heard a million times, but his face is oddly off-kilter. An onlooker might wonder if he’s a celebrity impersonator or if his blurred expression is the result of a minor stroke.
“I went in and got my eyes done, and I’m not happy about it. [The surgeon] is going to go in and fix that for me. They’re too tight around the eyelids for me. It drives me crazy,” Rogers admitted in a People magazine interview. “If we can fix that, then I’ll be glad I did it. If we can’t fix it, I’ll regret it or get used to it.” In person you quickly become used to the bungled surgery. Rogers looks no worse than the other surgically stretched faces around him. But the thing is, he doesn’t look like Kenny Rogers. He wiped out the image he promoted in a thousand concerts and TV appearances, miniseries and movies, the iconic appearance so recognizable and widely copied that it spawned a website—menwholooklikekennyrogers.com. It’s mostly his popped and slanted eyes that used to be good-natured commas softened with crows-feet. He no longer looks like his own brand.
The former legend hitches his way through the house to the Kenji-decorated music/family room, hikes his butt up on a stool like a ranch hand bellying up to the bar, and sets to work with the glee of a true enthusiast. He’s like a kid with the biggest box of LEGOs on the block. When a hanging iron and glass light fixture isn’t working, an electrician is summoned. Rogers introduces himself and shakes his hand, saying, “Kick it when in doubt. That’s always my solution.”
A massive hand-carved teak Balinese teahouse dominates the center of the room. Floor cushions surround a low table, lush luxury fabrics sweep across the doorways and puddle on the floor. They’ve flipped the doors of a Japanese temple storage cabinet so that the carved and painted sides show when the doors are open. Oriental prints, more chests, and a life-sized Chinese goddess statue are en route. Asked how he educated himself about interior design, Rogers says he tore out pages in Architectural Digest he liked and found that the common denominator was earth tones, layering, and textures. “Stack things,” he advises. “It’s very effective.”
Rogers adds several plants to the cabinet shelves behind a reclining Buddha statue, then has Weinberg take some down. “Don’t overdo it,” he cautions. “You need spaces, room for the mind to breathe.”
“Let’s do a copper finish on the details to bring them out,” he says, gesturing to the carving on the front of the fireplace with a sweeping motion of his hand. “Brush it on the highlights.”
“I think I’d like to see a plant behind there,” he says, pointing to a custom-made folding screen behind the baby grand piano. A worker stacked up boxes and crates, trying to boost the plant to the height Rogers requires. “You don’t mind standing there for a while?” he says to a grunting helper who’s hoisting up the tree in his arms.
Rogers shakes his head over the ASO Show House imitation plant ban. He doesn’t get it. “I love silk plants. I’ve got an eighteen-foot silk ficus at home. I haven’t had real plants in ten years.” He decides to use a cluster of bamboo, and the workers ask what to do with the surplus live trees that are lined up in the hall. “Take them over to Long Island,” Rogers gibes. “I don’t want them.”
“You have to be willing to be wrong,” he says as he has many times before, on a variety of topics. “Taste is equivalent to your exposure. I thought my mama’s cooking was the best”—he pauses for a practiced beat, then delivers the punch line—“until I ate breakfast at the Holiday Inn.”
Roger’s 2006 release and sixty-third album, Water and Bridges, combines his signature love-and-loss ballads with gentle social commentary. The melancholy tone of defeat, regret, and acceptance has the authority only age can bestow and may be the best work he’s ever done. The Chicago Tribune called it “one artistically mature CD. At sixty-nine, Rogers’s understated soulfulness colors this collection with a patina of sorrow.” Critic Thom Jurek wrote, “In the now thinning grain of Rogers’s awesome voice, all the emptiness and sorrow and confusion in the world comes to call.”
Queried about the odds of another hit for Rogers, Meredith Ochs said, “There’s always a chance, although his last record sounds like a swan song. But it did well on the charts and nabbed him a Grammy nod, which might inspire him to keep recording. And when you’ve sold as many records as he has, your fans don’t just disappear.”
Yet he’s almost disappeared from radio. Ironically, the crossover sound that made him an international icon isn’t considered “country” enough to make the classic country stations playlist, and Rogers is not on the radar of the current crop of mallrats who worship at the shrine of slick pop-country acts like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.
The tenacious senior headliner still tours, giving more than 100 performances a year. His fame and celebrity were of a magnitude and duration bestowed to few in our disposable culture. He knows that he put in the hours, paid his dues, showed up for the work, good times and bad, fat years and lean. He knows that he has a gift for choosing commercially viable songs that will fit his voice and delivery. He knows that he’s hard-working, world-famous, and a very wealthy man. But he listened to his mama, who told him to always be happy but never be satisfied.
“At every stage I’ve been happy,” Rogers said, “but I’ve never been content to be there.”
So where do we leave him? At the Atlanta Symphony Show House, where the champagne and candelabra crowd swells and surges toward the front entrance as Rogers materializes on the white-columned veranda? Symphony patrons in ivory and ebony spill across the flagstone path and onto the wet green lawn like an overturned crate of piano keys. Guests who paid $150 a pop keep sailing up the steep driveway of the plantation-style house. Older women are sequined and beaded, swathed in stately, shapeless, mother-of-the-bride regalia. Younger women dart through the crowd in stilettos and flirty wide-skirted frocks with fitted bodices. The men are trussed up in tuxedos, with a couple of iconoclasts in colorful hand-tied bow ties. They mingle, disperse, and re-form in new configurations, creating their own spontaneous soundtrack: the syncopated wind-chime tinkle of ice cubes, the soprano call-and-response of greetings, and the sotto voce murmur of gossip.
Rogers listens to a quarter hour of obligatory committee speeches, waiting for his cue with the self-possessed calm of five decades of familiarity with the spotlight. He stands with impeccable posture; no fidgeting, no elderly stoop. Looking born to the tux, he holds the mic like an extension of his arm. He jokes about his last performance with the ASO: “We’ve got a sayin’, if it don’t rain, it’s not Chastain.” Rogers adds that his two-year-old twins are going to a performance of Peter and the Wolf, waits a beat, and throws out the line, “You think you’re shocked?” and the crowd chuckles on cue. He owns them. He’s made them listen. He’s made them laugh.
Then Rogers invites Atlanta’s elite movers and shakers to join him. As the crowd is ushered in to tour Whitehall’s decorated rooms, he’s cut from the herd for a photo op with the ASO Show House honchos, then spends a half hour greeting patrons until he’s whisked away for a cruise on a friend’s yacht. “Never let it be said I don’t know how to take advantage of a friend,” he remarks as he’s hustled into a car and zipped down the winding driveway.
Let’s not leave him there. No, let’s say goodbye to The Gambler in the casino at his sold-out concert.
His show isn’t fancy; smoke, colored lights, screened clips from The Gambler and “The Greatest” video are about it, but Rogers delivers the goods. He uses his raspy, gritty voice as though he’s driving a forklift, an indestructible vehicle of songs and patter as artificial as the venue: 100 percent additives, no natural ingredients. “The show has a flow, and he’s fine-tuned it and he’s worked on it and tweaked it,” explains singer Linda Davis, his opening act that night. “He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he audience is still breathing, they’ll laugh here, and hearts will melt there.” Sure enough, the audience laughs here, and sighs there, as do their middle-aged kids and grandkids and great-grandchildren who have been raised on his music. He dedicates a song to his wife Wanda and their two-year-old twins, pauses, and says, “You think you’re shocked?” and the crowd laughs.
He wins them over. He’s been winning people over for sixty-nine years. It’s what he does best.
This article was originally published in our September 2007 issue.
Wishful thinking goes a long way toward explaining why too many Atlantans, some of them respected colleagues of mine, speak of JCT Kitchen & Bar as if it were a dyed-in-the-wool Southern restaurant, the deluxe meat-and-three of their dreams.
Come on, now. Where are the biscuits, the pimento cheese, the rich taste of pork fat? There is fried chicken on the menu as well as mac and cheese, but the way they are prepared in this upscale new dining room is more slick than rustic. As much as I love Chef Ford Fry’s chicken and dumplings, his version tastes exactly like a French-country coq au vin over soft, pillowy Italian potato gnocchi.
Perhaps the disconnect can be explained by William “Ford” Fry’s origins; he is after all a native of Houston, and as we all know, Texas may be geographically in the South, but its cuisine and culture are not truly Southern. That said, Fry’s JCT Kitchen & Bar is a classic contemporary bistro with a clever but light Southern spin.
The budding owner was so afraid of the ill-fated location at the very back of the Urban Westside Market that he persuaded the landlord to let him build a silo that could be used as a landmark in the parking lot. I feel about the silo the way I feel about the restaurant: It isn’t fake (a small group of Mennonite workers came to erect it on site), but it isn’t quite the real deal, either.
Fry’s concept is impeccably clever. He worked for nine years as the executive chef of Eatzi’s, the now-closed upscale grocery and takeout shop, and he knows exactly how the local upper middle class lives—and what it likes to eat. Beautiful ingredients, none of them particularly rare, rich buttery flavors, and lots of fresh vegetables strike just the right note in an airy dining room that resembles a wine country inn or one of those fabulous Alpharetta home kitchens meant for entertaining.
Many of the dishes could be served at a tony dinner party. The crispy oysters Rockefeller, without the shell and with plenty of leafy spinach and bacon under (rather than atop) the oysters, show a sense of humor. The thin, nearly liquid shrimp-and-crab cocktail, formerly and more truthfully known as a “Bloody Mary,” exemplifies Fry’s modern ways. His white bean bruschetta with Georgia green garlic comes as a delightfully unexpected dip, served with thin rusks of country bread.
If you don’t count your calories, there are plenty of dishes, such as overwhelming truffle-Parmesan fries, listed as an appetizer, and slow-cooked beef short ribs with “pot roast vegetables,” that will fill you up. But it would be a pity to go all meat-and-potatoes. A crisp chopped vegetable salad with Green Goddess dressing and blue cheese “snow” (very fine shavings), followed by a grilled, farm-raised Georgia trout with al dente tiny garlicky green beans, constitute a lighter meal.
There are two dishes that make me want to hug the chef. One, served as a generous side, is a bowl of glossy, amazingly lively collard greens bathed in potlikker and doctored with hot pepper vinegar. The other is a dark square of gingerbread pudding as light as a custard and served with a perfectly tart and sweet lemon cream.
Evidence of clear thinking can be found in everything from the restaurant’s design to its wine program. The wines are food-friendly, and many selections can be ordered by the half-glass. The formerly dark dining room (some described it as “a dungeon” in its former incarnations) is now flooded with natural light thanks to five new windows cut right into the thick brick walls. At night, enormous ecru lampshades mounted on the ceiling bathe the dining room in creamy light. The servers beam with good humor. They’ll even help you fill your pockets with Lemonheads (made in Chicago rather than Dixie!) disbursed by a gigantic, somewhat temperamental gum ball machine near the door.
If you’re wondering what to wear, think Southern prepster and you’ll fit right in. The restaurant is every bit as good for lunch as it is for dinner and is less noisy then. A cute upstairs bar with a secluded terrace serves raw oysters and light bites. The only access, up a steep outdoor staircase, is a bit dodgy, even with the handrail, but the view of Midtown is breathtaking enough for you to make the climb.
JCT Kitchen & Bar gets almost everything right. Its name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (Junction—“JCT” in railroad speak—may have had a better ring, since the place does overlook active tracks), but so what? Ford Fry has a runaway success on his hands. Better get on board! —Christiane Lauterbach
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.