HOLMBERG: Learning to read, play guitar, at 81

RICHMOND, Va. — Roughly  32 million adults in this country can’t read, according to literary studies.

And most Americans can’t play guitar – only about 16 to 20 million can.

An 81-year-old man who grew up in the Northern Neck – a concrete finisher and waterman – is tackling both those skills at the same time.

Say hello to Howard Lee. He’s a character for sure.

“A lot of times people say “I can’t do this and I can’t do that.’” he said.  “Ain’t no such a thing as you can’t. Try anyway.”

Lee told me schooling didn’t fit in with him. His mother told him he’d have leftover jobs – jobs other folks didn’t want – and that suited him just fine. He cut wood, oystered, fished, did just about any kind of laboring work a man can do.

He admits in the past he had a weakness for liquor and the ladies. He was  married three times, and had plenty of girlfriends.

But he had a change of heart.

Since his wife died and his workload slowed, he decided it was time to learn how to read, and how to play guitar.

So he’s been taking lessons from an old friend of mine, Matt Koon, owner of MaKo Music School in Mechanicsville.

Matt says he’s had to come up with new ways of teaching Howard, since his mind works differently. So they’re both learning, from each other.

The video tells the story, so please take a look. (And yes, that’s me playing a guitar upsidedown.)

Matt, by the way is different kind of guy. As a child, he had to overcome a hardcore stutter. He tamed trembling hands to become one of the finest guitarists I’ve known.

But more than that, he’s a guy who has tried to lift up those who haven’t had much of a chance.

He’s a story I wrote about him for the Richmond Times-Dispatch a decade ago. It’s sort of a white version of the movie “To Sir With Love.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch Oct. 3rd 2004

“It took some time, but Fairfield realizes Matt Koon is a winner”  By Mark Holmberg

Matt Koon knows what it feels like to be unwanted. He felt it as a boy, and never forgot.

So he didn’t give an inch when a petition to get rid of him circulated in the Fairfield Court subsidized housing complex nearly three years ago. He had just taken over as the program director of the Boys & Girls Club there, and more than a few people didn’t like it.

The problem wasn’t that he’s 6-foot-4 inches tall with long hair. It didn’t matter that he’s a gifted blues/hard-rock guitar player one of the best in Richmond or that he was also pretty slick with a b-ball.

It also didn’t seem to matter that he had worked for years as a nanny and had started with Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond as a volunteer basketball coach in the tough Gilpin Court housing project.

The problem was, Matt Koon is white. And a pretty uncompromising white guy at that.

“I tried to take Matt too fast,” admitted the Rev. Arthur West, pastor of New Covenant Apostolic Church, located near the East End housing project.

West was the ringleader in the movement to run the new guy out of the ‘hood. “Because he was white, I jumped to the conclusion that he wasn’t concerned,” West recalled. “I didn’t think he’d quite understand the kids.”

Matt Koon had come to that Boys & Girls Club with a simple plan: “To make this the best club” in metro Richmond, he said.

“A lot of people didn’t want me here,” Koon recalled. “It was very frustrating for me. I just wanted to be here for the kids, to make a good club.”

So he put on his game face and let it be known he wasn’t going anywhere. From the start, the children had seemed to accept him, so he built on that.

“The kids are so much more accepting,” Koon said the other day while children fresh from school streamed into the busy center on Phaup Street to start their homework during “Power Hour.”

He called each one of the children by their full names. He slapped fives and shook hands. Some of the children hugged him or tried to climb on his back. All of them respectfully called him “Mr. Matt.”

“I don’t use their nicknames,” he said. “It’s a mentor relationship. I’m not here to be their friend.”

The children know he can be firm. And they know he can forgive.

“I thought he was mean” at first, said 15-year-old Devin Cosby, who is now proud to serve as one of Mr. Matt’s assistants because “he always treats me nice.” Devin says he wants to be a police officer when he grows up. He comes to the club regularly “so I can stay out of trouble.”

Step over the line, the children know, and they’re barred from the club at least for a while. That means no deluxe dinner brought every day by the Central Virginia Foodbank, no special treats, no football games, no tutoring by Shirlene Taylor or high-tech computer lessons taught by Lamar “Mr. Marty” Robinson, who grew up nearby.

“I give unlimited chances,” Koon said. Even the tougher troublemakers can come back for another try at following the rules. “If I’m not going to give them a chance, who’s going to? I honestly feel we’re the last stop between them and the streets.”

He knows how that feels.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Koon was 13, his mother dropped him off on the front steps of an orphanage in Orange County, Calif.

His abusive family, which included a step-father, had spat him out.

He remembers workers at Orangewood Children’s Home trying to figure out what to do with him. Young Matt listened to an intake worker calling his biological father and asking him if he wanted his son.

“Would you take him?” Koon recalled hearing the worker asking his father on the phone.

The boy couldn’t hear the answer. He hoped his father was saying “yes.”

But his father never came.

“I never forgot what it is to be a kid no one cares about.”

That’s the lesson Koon carried in his heart to Fairfield.

“He gained the respect of the community as quickly as anyone could have,” said Jerome Levisy, senior vice president of operations for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond.

That included Pastor West, who wound up honoring Koon with an achievement award during a community event two years ago.

West said he found out pretty quickly that “Matt was sincere all along.”

I got to know Matt several years ago, when we played music together. Back then he was still working as a nanny, a job he fell into while helping some friends with their children. He found that he liked it, that he was good at it.

“I was probably the world’s only 6-foot-4, long-haired dude nanny,” he said, laughing.

It was also a way to make money while pursuing his real dream.

“I was pretty much banking on being a rock and roll star.” (His current band, Highway 10, plays frequently in town. Their next show is Oct. 15 at Potter’s Pub, if you want to see what this guy can do with a guitar.)

He started volunteering in Gilpin Court almost five years ago when his wife’s brother, who worked for the Boys & Girls Club there, suggested he try coaching.

“I just loved it from the first day on,” Koon recalled. He worked his way into a job as phys-ed director for the nonprofit organization.

Levisy said it was “no-brainer” putting Koon in charge of the Fairfield Court club, which is one of 23 in the metro area. (Nine of those are in the area’s subsidized housing communities. Membership is just $3 a year per child.)

“If anyone can handle the adversity in Fairfield Court, Matt Koon could,” Levisy said. “That’s just his personality. He has overcome so much adversity.”

In less than two years, Koon has become “one of our finer unit directors,” Levisy said. “He’s a total asset to the organization.”

It’s clear the children watch him, listen to him. When he points to one of them and says, “Get a book,” they find one.

Thursday afternoon, during a spare minute, he started loading up trash in the club, which is in a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority building.

Within seconds, three boys had jumped up to help.

Quanisha Cosby, 13, wore a contented smile as she set out plastic plates and utensils in preparation for the evening meal. She said she enjoys coming to the club “to do my homework. We get help.”

Does she help with the chores to get a treat or special privileges? No, she said, she does it “just to be helping.”

You might expect mayhem in a couple of large rooms filled with 40 or 50 children coming straight from school. While it’s far from library quiet, it’s surprisingly orderly.

“You have to be quiet,” said 11-year-old Kevin Dickerson.

He prefers it that way while he’s doing his homework.

“Peace and quiet,” he whispered over his school textbook.

Matt credits tutor and Power Hour leader Shirlene Taylor, who has a voice that can drip honey or peel paint. “She’s good at crowd control, which is really the No. 1 thing you need here.”

“Mr. Matt,” Taylor barked, “you’re interfering with my Power Hour!”

The boys who had hunkered down to their homework soon went outside for a flag football game against the boys from the Whitcomb Court club.

“I’m the worst football coach ever,” Koon lamented as the kids geared up. “Last week we got beaten by Dove Court, 56-7.”

But on Thursday, the Fairfield boys prevailed against Whitcomb, 42-28, much the delight of everyone in the club.

Watching the boys and girls who gathered around Mr. Matt on Thursday afternoon, calling his name, asking questions and watching him, it became clear he has found himself another family in Fairfield.

And now, Matt Koon knows how it feels to be wanted.

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