If Baltimore native Leland Shelton had bothered to check his email in the hectic day before graduation, he might have avoided a shock during commencement.
There he was, one of 500 men in a black cap and gown this week at Morehouse College in Atlanta, soaking up the words of the speaker — President Barack Obama — when the commander in chief called out his name.
"Where's Leland?" Obama said, and Shelton's mouth went dry. "I was floored, I was momentarily paralyzed," the 21-year-old said.
He respects Obama and identifies with him. They're both African-American men who were raised by their grandparents. Neither had fathers in their lives. And each was accepted into Harvard Law. Obama graduated in 1991, and Shelton will start there in the fall.
But he never expected the president to return his adulation.
"[Shelton] plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don't fall through the cracks," Obama told the crowd, which included Shelton's wife of nearly three years and his grandfather. "He'll understand what they're going through. And he'll be fighting for them. He'll be in their corner. That's leadership. That's a Morehouse man right there."
Sitting in Shelton's email inbox at that moment was a message from one of the president's speechwriters, giving him a heads-up. But perhaps it was better that he didn't know. The genuine mix of pleasure and humility — evident in his expression, which was captured in a photo that appeared on the front page of The New York Times — might not have happened any other way.
"It was really an emotional moment," Shelton said.
That day, he realized a dream he'd had since he was 7 and in the third grade at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in South Baltimore. The class had watched an animated film about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who attended the historically black men's college, and Shelton decided that he too wanted to be a Morehouse man.
More than half of his brief life up until then had been spent trailing after his drug-addicted mother from halfway house to recovery house to shelter, until his grandparents retrieved him when he was 4, like they'd already done with his three older siblings (two younger brothers, not yet born, would follow later).
If he were a Morehouse man like Dr. King, young Shelton thought, he could help kids like him in Baltimore and beyond.
Shelton's mother made bad choices. He blames drugs.
"I only know it was a habit that formed recreationally and started to progress and progress — she has a disease — and at a certain point, it took over and she fell into that trap," Shelton said Tuesday, after driving all night back to Baltimore.
His mother has been convicted of stealing multiple times and is now serving the end of a nine-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup for attempted robbery. Shelton talked to her by phone the morning of graduation.
The woman who raised him, his beloved grandmother, died in 2010.
"She did everything she could for him," said Shelton's 82-year-old grandfather, James Jones. "When he walked over that stage, I can just imagine seeing her [beam]."
Margaret Jones was an ordained minister and a skilled seamstress who made prom dresses and tailored garments to make ends meet. James Jones worked in an ice cream factory, bringing home damaged boxes of decadence every Friday, to his grandchildren's delight.
He remembers Shelton as a typical little boy, friendly, athletic and maybe a little quiet, with his nose in a book. Folks at their family church, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Rosebank, thought he would grow up to be a preacher, Jones said.
Shelton sang in the youth choir and was an active member of the church's NAACP youth council. Church member Cecil Payton, now a retired administrator for Morgan State University, took him under his wing.
"He's like another son to me," Payton said, praising Shelton's "perseverance and resiliency."
"Leland was determined to do well in spite of the odds," Payton said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if Shelton's name one day surfaces as a candidate for political office, even president.
Shelton played football and wrestled while in high school at City College, where he says he earned A's and B's. And he got a taste of political life there, being elected vice president of the junior class and president of the senior class.
"He was one of the most respected and admired students," said classmate J.D. Merrill, who graduated with Shelton in 2009 and was president of the junior class.
He could interact socially with any group and rarely let a teacher down when called on for the right answer after others had failed, said Merrill, who plans to return to City College in the fall as a teacher.
Shelton was accepted early into Morehouse during his senior year, earning enough in scholarships that he didn't have to pay anything out of pocket during his four years there.
Soon after he started, he set his sights on another goal: marrying his high school sweetheart, Dymun. They wed in August 2010, just before his sophomore year, when he was 18.
"Why wait? If I had the idea that this is the person I wanted to be with for life, there's no sense in waiting," Shelton said.
A former history teacher at City College, John Morrow, has kept in touch with Shelton. He said he used to tease the young man about getting married so young, but that it might have been just what Shelton needed.
"Maybe he needed that stability," Morrow said. "He just kind of has a sense of what's right for him and he makes it happen."
Shelton attributes his success so far to his family and self-discipline. He expects to do well at Harvard for those reasons, then he'll come home and do good for the city.
"I love Baltimore, I love the city," he said. "I want to do my community advocacy here."
Obama's remarks about Shelton
"When Leland Shelton was 4 years old — where's Leland? Stand up, Leland. When Leland Shelton was 4 years old, social services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents. ... And today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School. But he's not stopping there. As a member of the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, he plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don't fall through the cracks. And it won't matter whether they're black kids or brown kids or white kids or Native American kids, because he'll understand what they're going through. And he'll be fighting for them. He'll be in their corner. That's leadership. That's a Morehouse Man right there."