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Passing on hard-learned lessons on Father's Day

THIS IS Berson Tyner's first Father's Day as a free man in 10 years. Formost of the past decade -- and for several of the years before that -- he wasa prisoner in the Maryland correctional system. If he saw his three sons onFather's Day, it was probably in a guarded visiting room, in Hagerstown orJessup.

His oldest, Tavon, is 21. For the first time in his life, Tavon Tyner'sfather is neither dealing drugs nor living in prison, and he's trying to dothe right thing -- work at a legal job, buy a house and hold his familytogether.

He's also trying to keep Tavon from wasting so much of his life, as he did.

Berson Tyner would like to see his son finish his high school education andget a job, anything to keep him from returning to the trash-littered Baltimorestreets where his son acknowledges selling drugs as recently as two monthsago.

That would be terrible. That would start the cycle all over again. That'sthe last thing the Tyner family wants.

"I made a lot of mistakes and bad choices," Berson Tyner says in the diningroom of his mother's home on a leafy street of rowhouses. "But I am trying totell my sons, to appeal to their hearts and their consciences, to make themthink. They can do better."

Berson Tyner is 39 years old. He grew up in a large family in WestBaltimore. He started getting into trouble when he was 13, when he dropped outof school.

He served close to seven years in prison when he was in his 20s. He wasmarried and had three sons -- Tavon, Dante and Jawan -- but was not much of apresence in their lives. In straight time, he worked for a fast-foodrestaurant and he had a little janitorial service for a while. But, when hewas home, Berson Tyner generally supported his family as a regular player inBaltimore's drug underworld.

His criminal record indicates convictions for the manufacturing anddistribution of cocaine, and one handgun charge. He was a user himself --heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

It was Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Grason Turnbull II who in 1995sentenced Tyner to 15 years in prison for his possession of a kilo of cocaine."That hit me in the heart," Berson Tyner says. "My family was in court thatday."

He knew he was going away for a long time again and wouldn't be around tohelp his wife, Karen, raise their sons through their adolescence.

He was gone for nine years.

By the time he emerged from prison last October, Berson Tyner says, he hadbeen transformed.

And I know what you're thinking: That's what they all say.

But there's some evidence that Berson Tyner has changed.

Twice-weekly group therapy sessions at Hagerstown, prayer and regularvisits from his family are what seemed to have helped him the most. He says heput aside the anger and hate he had been taught by his own father since he wasa boy. "And that criminal mentality left me," he adds. "That's most important,you know. I used to be weak. I used to give in to peer pressure. ... I've beenin [many] prisons in Maryland and a lot of guys know me, and I want them toknow that life doesn't have to stop there. You can come out with a plan."

That's what Berson Tyner appears to have had by the time he left Hagerstown-- a plan. He wanted to find a job, move to Randallstown with his wife and buya home. Another challenge was getting his eldest son, Tavon, on a bettercareer track.

Tavon had been a good student through elementary school. "He was a brightkid," says his mother. "At one time I had received some paperwork from theschool saying he was in the seventh-highest percentile in the country inreading."

But Tavon started having problems as an adolescent. He was expelled frompublic high school as a sophomore, then expelled from an alternative school.He even managed to get expelled from a special job-training school in themountains of Virginia.

His father says that, until two months ago, Tavon was selling drugs on thestreet.

That's when Berson Tyner, belatedly assuming the role of father in Tavon'slife, convened a family meeting. "I gave my sons all an ultimatum -- they haveto find a job or go to school; they can't sit around the house and donothing."

Most of this was directed at the oldest son.

"I ain't like it at first," Tavon says. "But then I thought about it ...and he was right."

So Tavon moved to the home of his paternal grandmother, Shirley Mensah. Hisparents moved to an apartment in Randallstown. They are saving to buy a house.

Tavon says he'd like to learn to cook, perhaps work in a restaurant. Heplans to attend classes toward a high school equivalency diploma.

Karen works for a health insurance provider, as she has for many years, andtakes college classes when she can. Berson found a job with Baltimore City,picking up residential trash. "I messed up a lot of people's families [as adrug dealer]," he says. "But I thank God. God is giving me a chance to cleanup Baltimore -- literally, with my job -- but also by trying to get themessage out that, even though you made bad choices, life doesn't have to stopthere."

"I believed that [Berson] would change," says Karen. "That was my prayer toGod -- that he would become a saved man. And that's what has happened. He'svery determined to stay on the right track."

And get his sons on one, too.

"[Berson] knows he can never make up for the time he lost with the boys astheir father," she adds. "But he can start over. He can help them from here onout."

Companies or agencies interested in hiring people profiled in recentcolumns can contact Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or by e-mail atdan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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