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Mother's way

By all measures, Ruth Hodges demanded in herself a life of excellence.Why would it be any different for the young boy she scooped up?

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published May 13, 2007


Tampa resident Ruth Hodges' life's work involves setting the bar high, from son Keto to youngster Jamari Johnson, 9.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
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[Photo courtesy of Keto Hodges]
Keto Hodges (center) poses with family members in Haiti in 2002. He was adopted after he burned his face as a child.

TAMPA - The world has two kinds of people: those who iron their clothes and never misplace socks, and those who always look rumpled and lose their socks.

Ruth Hodges and her son, Keto, iron their clothes. Their socks are a perfect match. What's hard about ironing? What's difficult about keeping socks in pairs? Ruth Hodges makes sure to enunciate properly when she says: "NOTH-ING-A!"

Eighty years old, mentally and physically vigorous, she values discipline in every aspect of life, from pairing socks to scholarship.

When she met Keto more than two decades ago, he was near death, having been horribly burned in a campfire accident in Haiti. Ruth, a missionary, took the little boy to the United States for treatment. She adopted him when he was 9 and taught him to read and to write and to excel in everything he tried, even ironing.

* * *

Everybody in Tampa's Belmont Heights community calls her Mother Hodges. She is barely 5 feet tall but somehow seems taller.

Part Mother Teresa and part Vince Lombardi, she is loving but she is strict. A devout Pentecostal, she is known to speak in tongues. She has two college degrees and the confidence to correct faulty grammar when she hears it.

At a time when many American parents are overwhelmed with doubt about how to do their jobs - who seem as inclined to spoil their kids as prepare them for life in the real world - Mother Hodges is an old-fashioned parent. She doesn't listen to Dr. Laura, doesn't tune in to Dr. Phil. She is the queen mother of high expectations.

Mother Hodges being Mother Hodges, she remembers the time her son disappointed her with a "C" in a finance course at the University of South Florida.

"You're going to take that class AGAIN!" she declared.

On second try, Keto earned an A. Graduating from USF with honors, he later earned a master's in business administration. Now 27, he is an analyst for Claris Law, the online publisher of legal information in Tampa. He also has a part-time Internet business, The List by Keto, which networks young adults interested in culture and nightlife (groups.yahoo.com; search "the list by keto").

He lifts weights, jogs, mentors young people, plays the piano and performs charity work through his church. When he finishes reading the Bible, he starts over at the beginning. Every month he sends money to his relatives in Haiti.

Ruth Hodges is pleased when people praise her son. But she grimaces when he talks even modestly about himself.

"God DESERVES the credit," she says. "Keto, PLEASE don't BRAG!"

If Keto is five minutes late, she will call him on his cell phone. If he is 10 minutes late, she might phone him a second time and ask "Where are you?"

Dawdlers sometimes arrive to find her waiting outside her apartment, seated next to her tomato plants, feet tapping with impatience.

* * *

Black men are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white males, according to the National Urban League's annual report. Young black men are more likely to be killed by firearms or AIDs. More black men sit in prison cells than in college classrooms, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

Mother Hodges, employing her tough-love and high-expectations philosophy, long has done her part to reverse those trends.

Keto has been only one of her sterling pupils. She tutors mostly children, but adults too, in subjects that include English, history, science, math - and life skills.

"What are you DOING?" she asks an impudent boy she catches walking on her lawn.

"Nuttin'," he answers.

"No such word," she says. "It's N-O-T-H-I-N-G. NOTH-ING-A!"

A moment later, Jamari Johnson, 9, arrives for a lesson.

"Where are YOUR supplies?" she asks. The solemn boy looks stricken.

Listening from the couch, Keto tries to hide his empathy. After all, he has been there.

"I expect you to BRING your OWN supplies," she scolds. "I will SELL you a pencil and I will SELL you some paper if you haven't thought to bring your OWN."

Years ago, Mother Hodges tutored Jamari's uncle, Garrett Johnson. He was exactly like Jamari at that age, smart but scattered. She could see the talent deep within him and was determined to help drag it out. Garrett graduated magna cum laude from Florida State.

Now he's at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

Like Keto, like so many others, Johnson has a Mother Hodges story. One day years ago, proud of the way he had mastered Middle English pronunciations, he announced he would treat her to a reading from a tome written just before the turn of the 15th century, The Canterbury Tales. He turned to his favorite chapter, "The Wife of Bath's Tale," and cleared his throat.

He hadn't uttered a syllable before Mother Hodges, sitting on the couch, began reciting from memory:

In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,

Of which that Britons speken greet honour,

All was this land fulfild of fayerye.

The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,

Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.

Garrett Johnson wasn't the only hotshot who knew Chaucer.

"My mother," Keto likes to tell people, often with a sigh, "is an unusual person."

* * *

She was born in New York City in 1926. She had five brothers and sisters. Her father, John Thomas, an apartment supervisor by day and a jazz musician at night, died when Ruth was 3.

Ruth's mother, Mary, fell into a deep depression. When Ruth was 6, her mother took the children on a walk. They marched to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her mother said, "Children, daddy is calling me." She stuffed her purse under Ruth's arm, climbed onto the railing and leaped to her death.

Ruth ended up with grandparents in Virginia. She remembers being hungry all the time. She remembers being a good student who could trade her tutoring services for an apple or a sandwich in the school cafeteria.

Ruth moved to the District of Columbia when she was a teen. She graduated from high school, got married at 19, and had a daughter, Lanie.

Ruth's husband disapproved of women who wanted to go to college, putting a strain on a marriage already rocky from his drinking and philandering. After the marriage failed, Ruth drank poison, but not enough to do serious harm. She took out razor blades and looked at them and then put the razor blades away.

She supported herself and her child by cleaning houses, washing clothes and tutoring children, all the while taking college night classes. She passed a civil service test and toiled as a file clerk on a naval base.

She developed cancer of the uterus in 1958. She tells people, "God healed me."

She performed missionary work throughout the country, making ends meet by tutoring. She married again in 1963. She says James Hodges was a good man who quit gambling when he found God. Ruth remembers standing in a church in Connecticut in 1969 and announcing her desire to do missionary work in Haiti. Her husband told her, "I won't be here when you get back," but he was. He started going to Haiti with her.

Ruth loved the traditions and the food. She especially loved the children, who were poor though joyful and curious. They considered the crayons and coloring books she handed out a kind of miracle. Bitten by a mosquito, she developed dangerous dengue fever, but survived. She continued going back to Haiti even after her husband died of cancer in 1974.

She moved to Arkansas to work in a church. In 1984, she finished her college work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and got a degree in liberal arts. She tells people: "It took me 40 years but I graduated."

* * *

Keto Nord was born in Cerca-Carvajal in northern Haiti in 1980. Following a Caribbean tradition, his grandparents were raising him.

On his weekly visit to his mother in 1985, Keto dropped a toy next to the fire where his mother was boiling rice. He lost his balance and fell against the pot. The red-hot cast iron cooked the left side of his face, destroying flesh and nerve endings.

For two months Keto barely hung on. His Aunt Carona carried him by horseback to a little clinic five hours away. Keto's nostrils had melted; his lips were nearly welded shut. Nurses fed the boy by poking tiny pieces of pineapple through the little opening.

Aunt Carona understood no English.

But the American missionary working at the clinic spoke Creole and explained what the doctors recommended. The doctors asked the missionary if she would take the little boy to America for treatment that might save his life.

Ruth Hodges, of course, booked a flight.

* * *

They flew to the Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati for the first of 14 surgeries to salvage his face.

She taught the little boy to say "nurse" in English. She taught him to say "I brushed my teeth."

At home, she taught him reading and writing. He was ready for third grade within 18 months. Ruth then sent him to a real school, though other children taunted him about his appearance. Ruth volunteered at the school so Keto would have someone to sit with at lunch.

"You are burned but you are a good person," she told him. "Work hard, behave, stay neat and people will accept you."

She brought Keto along on missionary trips to Haiti. Keto's birth mother, who had eight other hungry children, agreed to let Ruth adopt her boy.

Ruth officially became Keto's mother on Dec. 13, 1989.

* * *

As Keto grew, he studied the Bible along with his mother and sometimes Ruth's daughter, Lanie, a social worker. As Keto thrilled to Robinson Crusoe, Ruth read Thoreau and Martin Luther. She took Keto to museums and to the symphony.

She taught herself how to play the piano so she could teach Keto. A natural, soon he was performing hymns at church and Beethoven at home.

Although she was of retirement age, she taught him how to hit a baseball. She would race him across the park until her legs hurt too much to continue.

They moved from Arkansas to Tampa because Ruth knew people in Tampa, including folks in the thriving Haitian community. She wanted Keto to stay in touch with his culture.

Returning to Tampa from Haiti after one missionary trip, Ruth learned that her landlord had sold the apartment building. During that bad patch, she and Keto spent a month in a homeless shelter, followed by a stint in a crack neighborhood apartment with a bullet hole in the window. When Ruth is out for a drive in Tampa, she likes to point out her old homes to visitors. "I know what it's like to be poor," she says.

Ruth existed on Social Security, her late husband's VA benefits, and the modest fees she charged for tutoring and piano lessons.

After 10th grade, Keto passed the high school equivalency exam. His mother paid for his first semester at Hillsborough Community College with rent money. They somehow got by.

After Keto's first high-achieving semester, he always had academic scholarships.

At USF, he majored in business but took many electives. One classmate in his Haitian culture class was a diminutive woman who wore a neatly pressed blouse and skirt and sat in back.

"Keto," Mother Hodges promised, "I'll pretend I don't even know you."

* * *

Keto and Ruth continue to spend a lot of time together. They attend events at USF and work out at the same YMCA. They often take meals together at tiny West Indies Cuisine on Floribraska in Tampa.

Mother Hodges leans her head through the small server window and orders in Creole. Mother Hodges being Mother Hodges, she peppers walk-in customers with questions in English, and if they don't respond, tries Creole.

"Where are you from? What do you do?"

A Haitian man in his 20s says he is attending Jefferson High School. She beams. "So many people do not take ADVANTAGE of the OPPORTUNITIES in this country," she says.

Keto attends Brown Memorial Church of God in Christ. It's more modern than Ruth's Pentecostal place of worship, Gospel Kingdom Haitian Church, where services sometimes last all day. She wishes Keto would worship with her, but he wants to be with younger people like himself.

Recently his friends threw a birthday party for him. Mother Hodges didn't go. As much as he loves his mother, Keto tries to have boundaries. If he has a girlfriend, he hasn't introduced her to Mother Hodges yet.

"We are both extremely focused," he says with a smile. "She's more Type A person and I'm more Type B. That's a diplomatic way to put it, I think."

Like every mother in the history of the world, she says her son doesn't sleep enough. Says he does too much socializing, especially after dark. His card, the one that advertises his young adult networking business, prominently displays the word "nightlife." To Mother Hodges, "nightlife" conjures images of half-naked women dancing provocatively. Dancing in front of her innocent son!

"I don't approve of nightlife, this entertainment thing of his," she says in his presence. "It does not bring glory to God."

Keto doesn't react.

Brought up to honor his elders, he doesn't even say "Aw, Ma!"

He hopes to attend a party tonight.

* * *

He has slowly been moving his belongings - his ball caps and crisply ironed shirts and perfectly matched socks - out of their apartment. Later this summer, he will move in with a friend.

Mother Hodges will miss him.

She will try to keep busy.

Perhaps she will have time to finish writing her book. She is 20 chapters into her autobiography.

On Aug. 1, she will make her 52nd missionary trip to Haiti. She has been collecting clothes to give to the Haitian poor. Naturally, she washes and irons all the donated clothing before packing.

In September, when she turns 81, she expects to be the oldest person in an advanced French class at USF.

But she knows her apartment will feel empty at night. She will remember taking her fragile little boy to museums and to symphonies - remember reading to him, traveling on buses with him, pointing out the sights to him. Being needed.

She knows a mother raises her child to be loving and self-reliant. But how does she stop being a mother when she has accomplished her task?

Mother Hodges relaxes on the big easy chair by the window and thinks about that.

"It's the hardest thing to let your child grow up, to experiment with life, to make mistakes," she says. "But you have to cut those apron strings."

She knows she has raised Keto well. She knows about that church adage about handing over your anxiety to God.

"The problem is I want to help God," she says in a small voice.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS:

Thinking of others

Ruth Hodges ships clean, wearable clothing to needy Haitians twice a month. She accepts donated clothes. For details on making a donation, call (813) 248-5993.

[Last modified May 15, 2007, 17:52:35]


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