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The two men sitting side by side couldn't be more different.
One is a dignified former college professor who quit his university job so he could teach people how to read. The other is an animated ex-con fresh out of jail who visits the teacher every day just to be in his presence, as if some of his eloquence will rub off.
"I needed something like him in my life for quite some time," says Scott Hudgins, the 44-year-old unofficial student of Mike Walker, the man he's made his mentor. His eyes fill with admiration when he looks at Walker, his body language is deferential.
"He gives me a lot of good insight." Hudgins served 18 years for operating an auto chop shop while on parole for armed robbery.
The two sit in a cramped little store owned by the former teacher, who's known as "Doctor" around here by those who know of his academic past. The place is regally named the Snack and Gift Shop of the Michigan Academy of Reading Improvement. It's in a little cove of a brick basement in the Detroit Boulevard Hotel at Second and Temple, which rents cheap rooms in the Cass Corridor's south end.
Walker, 67, is a tenant here. He gave up university life and moved to this area to teach the less fortunate, one at a time.
"I serve everyone," he says. "Adults, kids in elementary school, everybody. I've had people as old as in their 90s who want to improve their reading."
His gift shop provides for the hotel's residents and those from the neighborhood who have no fixed address. He sells the essentials, the items that he has learned, over time, that they need — toilet paper, snack foods, candy, salt and pepper, soap.
You can see his customers outside through the narrow basement window, sitting on the steps of the Masonic Temple across the street. They're the ones who line up at the soup kitchen at dinner time. The ones buying and selling drugs and sex on the corners.
"They really aren't any different than other people," Walker says, looking outside. "We think that we're different when we get education or get money, but we're not any different. You go out in the nice neighborhoods, they can camouflage what they're doing, and have parties behind closed doors where they use dope and there's prostitution and everything else. Here, they don't have the sophistication or the money to camouflage what they're doing, so it's just in the open."
Some of them, like Hudgins, have made themselves Walker's informal students. Sometimes they come in just to hang out and talk awhile with the man they all look up to.
Walker was born in Ohio, one of 10 kids. In the early '50s his mother ran off to Detroit with some man. His dad was too poor to care for all their children and handed them to the New Orphanage Asylum for Colored Children in Cincinnati. Walker ran away from there soon after and headed north to find his mom. He was 14.
His brother Philippe followed him to Detroit, and the two formed a gospel group, the Walker Singers, which lasted until his brother adopted his mother's surname, Wynne, and found fame as the lead singer of the Spinners. Walker embarked on a solo career, recording 11 gospel albums over the years. He went to college, earned several degrees and taught reading education at various colleges to future teachers.
But academia became stifling for him, so 15 years ago he founded his Michigan Academy of Reading Improvement in Oak Park, teaching study skills, test prep work and reading for those with developmental disabilities.
"It's more fun dealing with the public than it is teaching at the college level," Walker says. "The bureaucratic stuff on the college level is just unbelievable. And meetings where you sit there doing nothing, drinking bad coffee and eating donuts while people drone on and on, and you end up doing what the chair of the department suggested in the first place. I was really tired of college teaching the moment I got into it."
He opened the snack shop four years ago, in the same basement where, a year before, he brought his academy from the suburbs. "I moved it down here because I noticed all my clients were coming from Detroit."
His shop is closed if there's a student in the academy or Walker's playing organ or directing the choir at Detroit's New Missionary Baptist Church. Otherwise he's in his snack shop, sometimes 14 hours a day. It opens at 6:20 a.m. just about every morning, when he gets donuts and rolls delivered. As many as 50 customers come by some days.
The store's few dozen products line a couple small shelves against a back wall. Among the most popular are children's books, spread out on a little round table. Adults usually buy them. "Their reading is not that good, so they buy books that they can really understand," Walker says. "In fact I've got to order some more. This table was piled high with these children's books and they've sold down pretty far now."
The little money the shop earns supplements his income from the academy. The rest comes from royalty checks he gets from BMI Publishing for gospel songs he wrote decades ago. "I turns out I'm one of the oldest writers at BMI that's still alive, 'cause I started doing stuff a long time ago." Walker's first record came out 50 years ago.
An older man ducks his head in the doorway. "I'll be out front waitin' on you," he says, and then he paces outside. His feet cast shadows as he walks back and forth by the basement window.
It turns out Walker gives rides to folks in the neighborhood if they have appointments with doctors or at the methadone clinic. Few people here own cars. Some can't even afford the bus. So he drives them. "Detroit has given me so much; people were so nice when I came here, so I'm just sort of giving back what was given to me." The gesture further cements his role as the caregiver of the block.
"Learning should be fun, don't you think?" Walker says. He's in his windowless basement academy, down the hall from his store. It's black as night until he flips a light switch.
There's a long table for tutoring sessions, an old desk for the professor, and shelves full of books. Colorful wood mobiles dangle from the ceiling. Framed certificates of Walker's academic achievements are nailed to a plain wall.
Hudgins, who's here with Walker, looks at them with awe. "This is the first time I've seen his diplomas," he says of the master's degrees and doctorate certificates. They're official confirmation of the exalted status he bestows on Walker, who has nothing to gain by giving advice to Hudgins, who has everything to gain by listening to his adopted teacher.
Walker's remedial reading course meets here twice weekly for 12 weeks. The cost is based on what the student can afford. In this part of the city, in this economy, it isn't much.
"With the recession going I basically charge whatever they can pay; otherwise I wouldn't get any clients at all." Some students pay $100. Some pay three times that. Regardless, it's usually far below what he could get paid if he'd go back to work for a school district, which he won't do.
Walker embodies several contradictions: He's a teacher with a distaste for schools, a church choir leader who says he isn't religious, a well-bred man who lives among the illiterate and the poor, who teaches some of them and helps them fill out forms, giving advice when he can. It's just as he does with the ex-con who keeps coming around in an effort to improve himself.
"He just deserves a nod for his outreach to people," Hudgins says. "You know, this area is not prominent, but the services he offers people — he takes them in his own vehicle, he doesn't charge them no gas, he knows they're on a fixed income and they can come down here to the store, then on the first they can come pay him. It's really cool the things that he does."
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.