As Told By A.C. Mills
Augie Escamilla saved my life. Above all, he taught me, “Don’t let people’s perception of you be your realization.” I have followed that philosophy my entire life.
I was born in Brawley, a segregated town near El Centro where white people lived on one side and people of color – mostly African-Americans and Mexican-Americans but also people from China and India – lived much more poorly on the other side. The only work my parents could get in Brawley was domestic, so in search of better opportunities, we moved to the San Diego area. My mother got a good-paying job as an electrical assembler helping to build B2 airplanes at Convair.
My father could not find decent work, so he left. Ultimately, they got divorced and she re-married and had seven more children. At first, my father was in and out of my life, but when I was nine, he absconded and I didn’t see him again until I was 20.
My step-father paid little attention to me. My mother was very busy at Convair, where it seemed she always had to work late. In second grade, I started fighting and being mean to kids. My mom sent me to a couple different schools hoping I’d improve, but when I marked up a desk with a knife, she sent me to Brawley to live with my grandparents, who were busy raising their own family so again, I didn’t get much attention. Finally, an auntie suggested I attend a Seventh Day Adventist school back in San Diego, where I did behave but kept my problems inside myself. I became very withdrawn.
When I was ten and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I happened to walk by the Boys Club. A guy came up to me and said in a friendly voice, “Hi son! How’re you doing?” It was Athletic Director Augie Escamilla. He was forming a softball team. I was disappointed to learn all the spots were taken, but he told me not to give up, so I didn’t. Since there were so many kids wanting to play, he created another team and I was on it!
To play, I needed a glove. My mother couldn’t afford the gloves in most of the sports shops. Finally we found a cheap, first-base glove. So Augie made me first baseman.
Every day after school, I couldn’t wait to get to the Club and see Augie. He was five-foot-two, but a giant of a man. He’d always say, in a pleasant voice, “Hi, boys!” and everyone’s heart would go a little higher. I saw him as a father figure; a special gift to me from God. He taught me values; that was the start of my healing process. He taught me respect for other people, to be humble, to be honest and that I could be anything I wanted to be.
I took his advice to heart and became a productive adult. After turning down a football scholarship at Arizona State because I had a job and was helping to support my mother, I served four honorable years in the U.S. Air Force. Then I worked for Rohr Industries for 31 years, including 20 in the Purchasing Department as a Contracts Administrator. I was Administrator for the Solid Rocket Fuel Boosters for the Space Shuttle and Titan Missiles programs.
When I look back, I realize that as a youngster, there were times I could have gone down the wrong path, but I didn’t let the guys in gangs influence me because I didn’t want to disappoint Augie or my mom.
Logan Heights was a melting pot. What united us is that we all were considered marginalized. “Uneducable throw-aways. Boys who won’t amount to anything.” That’s the way many teachers viewed and treated us.
In the outside world, African-Americans such as I faced prejudice (like jobs that were posted but mysteriously “filled” when I asked for an application). Inside the Club, we had sports, movie nights, crazy things like four-man blindfolded boxing matches, and pickup basketball games. Most of all, inside the Club were people who cared. Memorial Principal Oakes would come by after school to see us enjoying ourselves.
When we were in the Club, all the issues we faced outside were gone. The Club became our incubator. We grew.
One of my favorite quotes is, “It’s better to mold a boy than mend a man.” That’s exactly what the Club did for thousands of kids.
Life throws so many monkey wrenches at you. You have to keep trying to do things the right way, no matter what. That’s what Augie taught me and I still live by that today.
Augie developed Alzheimer’s. He died in 2013. At the end, he did not remember much about anyone or anything. I visited him in the facility where he spent his last weeks. As soon as I walked in the door, Augie looked up and said, “Hi, A.C.!”
His recognition of me made me feel uplifted. Just like the very first day I walked into the Club.
Excerpt From The Book "Against The Grain" By Marilyn Campbell