Not so long ago, the commander of Morgan State's ROTC program deemed Willie Rodney the person least likely to address his graduating class last Sunday. Willie's fellow cadets felt the same way. So did Willie's mother.
So did Willie.
As recently as 18 months ago, many people doubted Willie would even be among the graduates, let alone a commencement speaker. Not because of lack of ability. Everyone knew he had the brains to excel at Morgan. No, with Willie, the problem was all attitude, most of it bad.
"I wanted to leave," he said last week, a few hours after receiving his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army at 22 years old. "I hated the program. I hated Baltimore. I wanted to go back home."
He would have headed back to Prince George's County, too, if only there had been a way out of his four-year ROTC scholarship. But if he had quit, he would have been on the hook for all that money.
Sometimes, he thought he'd walk away anyway. Or he would throw himself down a flight of stairs. They'd have to excuse him if he were injured, wouldn't they?
Behavior defies explanation
He didn't go through with it. Instead, by his own reckoning, for two years he set about being the most miserable cadet he could be, surly, irresponsible, flippant. "I was disrespectful, always making jokes, talking back to senior officers," he said.
It was hard to explain his behavior, even to himself. Sure, there was plenty in his background to crush any spirit. His father had spent most of Willie's life in prison on drug convictions. His mother, Marcella Rodney Barnes, had succumbed to drugs for a time, too, but had then straightened herself out. Money was always tight, and the family lived in some of P.G. County's more treacherous neighborhoods. But Marcella was fiercely protective of the six kids she raised, including some who weren't even her own. She worked her way up from garbage collection in the Washington public works department and holds a supervisory job today. She hopes to land a chief's job soon.
Always a sharp kid, Rodney found school easy and did well until the end of middle school when he started acting up, fighting with others and mouthing off to teachers. In high school his grades tumbled, and he was suspended seven times. But he dreamed of playing quarterback in college, and that alone motivated him to raise his grade-point average during his last two years.
Unfortunately, as a senior, he tore up his knee in the second game and missed the rest of the season. He all but gave up the idea of college, which, aside from football, hadn't held much interest for him anyway. He thought he'd probably just enlist in the Army, just as his grandfather, four uncles, an aunt and his older sister had done. But on a lark, he applied to Morgan State on a friend's say-so, and applied for a ROTC scholarship. To his surprise, both came through.
None of that meant Willie was ready for college or the demanding requirements of ROTC. He reverted to his delinquent behavior and was always being hauled in front of the commander of the program, Lt. Col. Joseph Bozeman Jr. "I had many cadre members who wanted him to go," Bozeman said. But the colonel refused to give up on the kid. He kept lecturing Willie on responsibility, on opportunity, on duty. At the end of his sophomore year, Willie still wanted to call it quits, and he told his mother so. She wouldn't hear of it. One thing she couldn't stand was a weak man. "You can't give up," she'd tell them. "If I'd given up, I'd be dead by now."
Willie stuck it out, mainly because he didn't see any other way out. "When I came back the fall of my junior year, I decided if I was going to have to be here, I might as well make the most of it."
The kid who had spent most of his sophomore year alone in his room playing video games suddenly became a champion joiner. He signed up with the NAACP. He became a mentor to troubled schoolchildren, eventually becoming coordinator of the program. He pledged with a fraternity and was appointed president of the Morgan State chapter of the Scabbard and Blade, a military honor society.
He started applying himself to the books and raised his GPA above 3.0. His fellow cadets began treating him not just as a peer but as a leader. And the former friendless loner was elected vice president of his senior class, a position that ultimately led to his speech at Sunday's commencement. Now, he is the first member of his family to graduate from college and the first to become an officer.
"The more I became involved, the more I started enjoying myself," said Willie, who in the fall will begin a three-year tour of duty in Germany, where he will likely command a platoon. "These last two years, they've been the best."
Bozeman happily acknowledges that Willie's commissioning is the proudest accomplishment of his five-year term as commander of the program. He offers the highest praise one military officer can bestow on another: "I would take Rodney into combat with me in a minute."
Even more meaningful to Willie might have been his mother's tearful words on the eve of his graduation.
"I look at Willie. He could have had a whole lot of excuses for not being where he is today. He had a lot of obstacles in his way. His father incarcerated. Me on drugs. But he never let anything stand in his way. He kept on going."