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. For most of the past decade -- and for several of the years before that -- he was a prisoner in the Maryland correctional system. If he saw his three sons on Father's Day, it was probably in a guarded visiting room, in Hagerstown or Jessup.

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

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 and get a job, anything to keep him from returning to the trash-littered Baltimore streets where his son acknowledges selling drugs as recently as two months ago.

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

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

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

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

His criminal record indicates convictions for the manufacturing and distribution 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 1995 sentenced 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 that day."

He knew he was going away for a long time again and wouldn't be around to help 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 had been 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 regular visits from his family are what seemed to have helped him the most. He says he put aside the anger and hate he had been taught by his own father since he was a 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 been in [many] prisons in Maryland and a lot of guys know me, and I want them to know 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 buy a home. Another challenge was getting his eldest son, Tavon, on a better career track.

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

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

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

That's when Berson Tyner, belatedly assuming the role of father in Tavon's life, convened a family meeting. "I gave my sons all an ultimatum -- they have to find a job or go to school; they can't sit around the house and do nothing."

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. His parents 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. He plans to attend classes toward a high school equivalency diploma.

Karen works for a health insurance provider, as she has for many years, and takes 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 a drug dealer]," he says. "But I thank God. God is giving me a chance to clean up Baltimore -- literally, with my job -- but also by trying to get the message out that, even though you made bad choices, life doesn't have to stop there."

"I believed that [Berson] would change," says Karen. "That was my prayer to God -- that he would become a saved man. And that's what has happened. He's very 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 as their father," she adds. "But he can start over. He can help them from here on out."

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