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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 10, 2003

Life of misery becomes a valuable lesson

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

In 33 years as an educator and school administrator, Joe Rice has had kids come to him with all sorts of problems.

"They say, 'You don't understand.' I say to them any story you tell, I can match it. I can probably beat it by two or three times."

That's not to say he isn't compassionate. On the contrary. Rice knows what true desperation feels like, and he knows that near miracles can be worked by a helping hand.

As president of Mid-Pacific Institute, Rice and his family have lived in the white house on the hill since 1996. The path that brought him here is the stuff of epics.

"People have been telling me for years I should write a book," he says. And he's thinking about it.

Rice was born in 1947 in Tacoma, Wash. His mother was 13 years old when she got pregnant, 14 when she gave birth to him. Rice was still a baby when she married her second husband, a man who gave her 11 more children and a life of misery.

"He wasn't a good guy," says Rice. "Lots of drinking. Lots of carousing. He had a hard time holding a job."

Because of his stepfather's instability, the family became migrants. They picked crops up and down the West Coast, from apples up north all the way down to California. The family mostly lived in a station wagon, all 12 kids piled together to sleep at night.

"Kids complain about a school dress code. I know what it's like to go to school with your brother's pee on your clothes. We'd sleep in whatever we wore to school the day before — we had no pajamas — and in the middle of the night, you'd feel something warm come over you. And you went to school wearing the same clothes the next day. We got teased. We were the poor kids. We were trash."

Once, the family found a bit of stability when Rice's stepfather got a construction job working on the John Day Dam in Oregon. The family was run out of town when the stepfather beat up the school bus driver in a drunken rage.

There was a lot of that in the family: drunken rages, physical brutality and worse.

Migrant workers got paid daily, and much of that money went to buy liquor. The family was often hungry, living on day-old bread with nothing to put on it, or a sack of potatoes that would serve as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"It's not so much what's nutritious, it's what's going to fill you up so you don't have to go to sleep with your stomach empty. Potatoes will do that. Bread will do that," Rice said.

Rice went to school two or three times a week, and picked crops every day. "When you came home, all the adults would go out drinking and you have to sit with the younger kids."

When Rice was a sophomore in high school, the family settled into a rental house near Modesto, Calif. Though they weren't on the move anymore, there wasn't much stability. Rice and his siblings were put in foster care several times.

"People would call the cops and they'd come take us away and put us all in different homes ... But we got returned back to our parents again and again."

There were times when life seemed hopeless; but there were also times when Rice would promise himself that he would find a way out.

"It's the will to do it and the belief that you won't be the way your family is. I made up my mind that I wasn't going to be that way."

When he was 17, Rice made his final stand against his stepfather. "I told myself I'm not going to let him do this anymore." It was a violent confrontation. Rice fled and never came back. He hid in nearby vineyards for two days. He could see his stepfather with a shotgun driving back and forth in his truck, looking for him. He made it to safety and called a friend from a store.

Rice got restraining orders against his entire family and lived in foster care until he finished school.

"At my high-school graduation, no one came. No one was allowed to come."

After graduation, he took the money he saved from working on farms and bought a bus ticket to Washington. He got into a program called Neighborhood Youth Corps, which provided job training and placement for young people who were destitute. Part of the program was a matched savings plan for tuition. With that money, Rice started school at Tacoma Community College. After getting his associate degree, he went on to the University of Washington.

Rice had to work all through school to pay for tuition. He worked part-time at a veterinarian hospital, cleaning pens and bathing animals in exchange for a small room in the back. At the same time, he worked at a service station and held a job on campus at the snack bar. For a time, he lived in a '55 Ford station wagon. He worked at the service station and parked the car inside overnight to sleep. "I took P.E. first period, so that gave me my shower."

In his first year of college, Rice was drafted into the Vietnam War. Since he was in school, he appealed and won a deferral. "I didn't mind going," he said. "I just didn't want to kill anybody. And I wanted to finish school."

Each year after that, he was drafted. Each year, he appealed and won a deferment. Then, when he was in the middle of his senior year of college, he was drafted a fourth time. This time, the local draft board, which had come to know him pretty well, voted 4-1: He had to go.

He was in basic training in eastern Washington when the most amazing thing happened. He was on a bus coming back from maneuvers when a car came up behind the bus. The driver signaled for the bus to pull over. When it did, a woman got out of the car, got on the bus and handed a bunch of papers to the bus driver.

"The bus driver calls my name and says get off the bus. The woman tells me, 'Let's go.' "

The woman was a member of the draft board. She got to know Rice's story over the years and took it upon herself to keep him in school. Without his knowledge, she had appealed his case to Washington, D.C., and she had won. Not only that, she re-enrolled him in college.

"She says to me: You're out. You're not gonna die. Not you."

Rice still gets tears in his eyes at this.

"She saved me. Because of her, I finished school, and I thought, I have to make something of myself."

Rice's story has many more amazing chapters: two tours in the Peace Corps, including two years in Afghanistan and time in Saipan; advanced degrees and innovative work in award-winning public schools; a colorful path that fortuitously led to his tenure at Mid-Pacific Institute.

He's not quite sure what to make of it.

"People say to me, 'You must be an unusual case.' But I don't believe so."

He's slowly writing down stories for a book, but some are still too hard to face. "Maybe somebody will read my story and get strength from it. But for me, everything I write is sorrow."

The horrific things he endured have made him keenly sensitive to others in similar situations. He can read between the lines in a kid's scholarship application essay and know the difference between "need and desperation." "Sometimes, I'm the one on the committee saying, we have to do what we can to help this little girl."

And to those with their own stories of abuse and violence and neglect in the family, he says: "That's not you. You are you. You can be different. You gotta get yourself out of this. Don't use the bad things that happened to you as your excuse. You've got it within you to change."

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.