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Inspiring daytime TV? 'Judge Mathis' is proof

[an error occurred while processing this directive] By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

I often view daytime television with an apocalyptic perspective.

Teenage girls unsure who fathered their children. Shows centered on guessing whether a stripper is a man or a woman. The unending number of twisted relationships: "My boyfriend got my daughter pregnant."

It makes you think the world is coming to an end.

I discovered Saturday that there is a positive byproduct being generated by at least one daytime show. Greg Mathis, television's Judge Mathis, held a book signing at Felicia Wintons' Books For Thought store in Temple Terrace, and it was abundantly clear that Mathis is inspiring people.

"He taught me to have tough love for my kids, and it's working," said Verna Cromartie, mother of a 25-year-old daughter and 30-year-old son. "They like to cling to me, but Judge Mathis has taught me I can't let them do that when they're not doing the right thing."

Cromartie was part of a steady stream of people who purchased autographed copies of Mathis' new book, Inner City Miracle, during a two-hour signing. The judge's show appears weekdays at noon on WTTA-Ch. 38.

"It's the result of thousands of requests and e-mails from mothers who are having trouble dealing with their youth, and prisoners and young people who are looking to overcome obstacles as I have," said Mathis, who rose from a crime-filled youth to become one of Michigan's youngest judges in 1995.

"At times, (writing the book) was heart-wrenching. It was hard to detail some of the things I did and some of the people I hurt."

Many of the book's buyers were women, which didn't surprise me since my wife and two sisters have mentioned Mathis' good looks more than once. Most posed for pictures and a few even brought out videocameras to get a taped message from Mathis, who was neatly dressed in a black suit and gold mock turtleneck.

But these fans were even more interested in words of wisdom. Mathis' improbable story is well-known, chronicled in his biographical musical, Been There, Done That, which toured the nation, including a three-week run at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater.

Mathis, the son of a single mother who moved her family from Tallahassee to Detroit the year before he was born, was a member of Detroit's notorious 1970s Erroll Flynn gang. He spent three months in the Wayne County Jail before redirecting his life, a change he credits to his mother Alice and the intervention of a judge who required him to pass a GED test and get his diploma.

"I wanted to get the book for my sister who saw his play in Birmingham," said Margo Johnson, who conceded she also wanted to see the handsome judge in person. "Yeah, that too. He's intelligent, smart, attractive. He's the complete package."

Van and Lisa Holmes came with their kids, John, 6, and Lauren, 4. "He's a great role model for children in that he came up from the inner city and made a success of his life," Van Holmes said.

Rhonne Sanderson, a Tampa marriage and family therapist, gave Mathis a copy of his book, Why Blacks Don't Support One Another, and explained that the judge's no-nonsense courtroom demeanor is a fixture in his home.

"We tape his show every day and then on Fridays we have a family ritual of reviewing all the episodes," Sanderson said. "He's kind of my hero judge."

Although Mathis is from Michigan, he wasn't as far from home as you might think. He owns a house in Pinellas Point and has about "20 cousins" living in the area.

* * *

Mark your calendars for next month's third annual Black Heritage Festival (Jan. 16-20). It will include a keynote speech at the University of South Florida by Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers; a performance by instrumentalist Najee and a seminar by Kenneth Blackwell, secretary of state for Ohio.

That's all I'm saying.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com .

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