When James Spearman’s neighbors caught a young David Barnett attempting to steal Spearman’s Corvette from the garage of his Oak Park home, Spearman, 68, refused to press charges.
Instead, he disciplined Barnett by making him write book reports.
“What did he do? He stole the books,” Spearman said, the recollection prompting a fit of laughter from the man Barnett now calls his uncle or grandfather.
Barnett said his bond with Spearman grew through cleaning up and landscaping the latter’s tax and accounting business in Austin. More than a boss, Spearman would evolve into Barnett’s mentor and surrogate father.
“He didn’t turn me in, he didn’t punish me for my stupidity,” said Barnett, who noted the incident happened so long ago he could barely recall what he stole.
The two men reminisced during a recent National Night Out event held in Moore Park, 5085 W. Adams St., on Tue. August 4. Barnett, now 20 years old, is an aspiring rapper whose stage name is Lil Prada. Spearman had come to the park both to promote his nonprofit organization, Because I Care, and to support the young man he now calls his son — one among the many surrogate children the successful businessman has helped mentor through his sheer unmerited support.
The day after watching Lil Prada’s performance, Spearman rented a bus and loaded it with roughly 50 children from the city’s West Side for a field trip to Brookfield Zoo.
“We’re going to have like 60 people — 10 adults and just one father,” Spearman said. “Every kid who comes to our program has that one common denominator, which is that their fathers are in jail.”
Spearman’s mother and father migrated to the West Side from the South. They had 11 children and Spearman was the youngest. They were illiterate and poor and couldn’t teach their children much about the American Dream, their youngest child said.
“My parents were loving parents,” he said. “I got my Christmas toys at the Salvation Army. We got on a bus and went down to Grand and I loved every minute of it. I had the best childhood ever. I had the best summers ever.”
When he was 8 or 9 years old, Spearman went to work. He’d set up shoe shine boxes at busy points throughout the West Side.
“I was shining shoes from 16th and Lawndale to 16th and Kedzie, and from Kedzie to Roosevelt Road,” he said. “I’d shine in front of a bucket of blood. I would get robbed. Grown men would kick my box and break it. I would go home and make another one and keep shining.”
After shining shoes, Spearman’s first foray into formal employment was at a car wash, where he would work alongside grown men — Puerto Ricans and Poles. He was 13 years old. While recalling his childhood, he never mentioned elementary or high school. He did, however, recall his love affair with the real estate section of the newspaper and the popular board game Monopoly.
“My dreams started with my love for playing Monopoly. I would kick grownups’ butts and I took that into real life,” he said.
When he was 19 years old, he discovered a property in the newspaper that required a $500 down payment. At the time, he was holding down a series of jobs. At any given moment, he would be working different odds and ends. If he made $60 a week, he said, he would save $10.
“I had the down payment and I had good credit, but you had to be 21. So, I lied and bought my first piece of property — 5351 W. Adams,” Spearman said.
Eventually, Spearman would work himself through a marriage, through mortgages, through school. He started at Triton before enrolling at Concordia University, both in the western suburbs. He acquired degrees in accounting, business administration and finance in less than four years.
“I would study out of my van in between working to pay the mortgage,” he said.
Eventually he would acquire more properties, including a half-million dollar home in Oak Park, the village where he’s lived for 45 years. He said he owns “probably 13 properties” and claims they’re all paid for.
At the park in Austin, as Lil Prada performed his minor breakout hit, “Put the Guns Down,” Spearman manned a table covered with literature promoting a new project called the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, set to launch Aug. 13 with a giant opportunity fair and youth forum.
Some of the largest companies in the world, including Starbucks, Hyatt, Nordstrom and Target, are partnering with nonprofit organizations and foundations to “clear pathways to help connect the 5.6 million young Americans who are not working or in school to meaningful employment,” according to the Initiative’s website.
“This Initiative creates opportunities for young people to build skills, gain credentials, and reclaim the American Dream,” the website states.
Spearman’s nonprofit is offering resume writing and interviewing skills to young people in the Austin community so they can have a fighting chance to be placed in some of those jobs and on a path to that increasingly elusive American Dream. But the secret to success, Spearman said, isn’t mysterious.
“I encourage kids who I mentor that success is not difficult,” Spearman said. “Don’t take your limitations as a downfall, as something you can’t overcome. Do something you enjoy doing. Do it out of love, not because you want to get rich doing it. I love something that made me rich.”
Deborah Williams, a nonprofit consultant who has worked with Spearman for roughly three years, said she was prompted to action after learning that state funding for summer jobs had been severely diminished due to state budget cuts.
She said since he founded it five years ago, Spearman has funded the nonprofit largely out of his pocket. According to the businessman’s estimate, he’s spent upwards of $100,000 on the organization.
“At his Christmas parties, food giveaways and summer camps, he impacts over 50 to 100 kids each time. We just need a lot more effort and funding behind it,” Williams said. “He doesn’t have grants or anything, so I’m going to use my grant-writing skills to try to get him some funding.”
In the meantime, Spearman said, he simply enjoys life with Margaret, his wife of 45 years and the one who suggested they start a nonprofit for neighborhood children in the first place. He has none of the ever-present anxiety that you’d expect from a successful businessman (“I feel good. I get in my Corvette, take the top down and I’m cool”), or a caretaker.
“Marge was the one who wanted me to start Because I Care. … She has dementia. She doesn’t know what day of the week it is or what the year is or whether its summer or spring or fall,” he said.
“I love her. I’m her mentor. I take care of her. You know that saying? Till death do us part? I’m with her and she knows that.”