I got to know Rick Marsh nearly eight years ago when our paths crossed at Curt’s Cafe.
Rick was one of the original members of a group of men that provided support and mentorship to our students at Curt’s. Over the years, I have sat on the Curt’s Board, on which Rick is currently president, and have gotten to know him as an upbeat, glass-half-full leader and cheerleader for all things related to Evanston youth.
I finally had the opportunity to have a long conversation with Rick about his personal journey, and all the ways he has embraced mentorship as a pathway to connection and success for all those with whom he comes in contact.
LD: Rick, tell me about your background.
RM: I was born and raised in New York City. Born in the Bronx and spent my formative years in Queens. A typical suburban childhood. Little league baseball, community centers, mentors and then, the bug of basketball, shaped my early years.
High School basketball defined my future as I grew as a player and was awarded NYC -All City & All-American honors. I accepted a full basketball scholarship to the University of Nebraska. I spent two years there but homesickness led me back to NYC and to Manhattan College. MC was a haven for New York City former high school players that left for greener pastures but wanted to come home. My teammates were old-school NYC players and Madison Square Garden was our proving ground against some of the top teams in the country.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA.
LD: Have you ever failed at something and had to pick yourself up?
RM: I had a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA. I was fortunate enough to reach that dream when I played for the Golden State Warriors. I played in the NBA for a season with them and started in over 50 games. The next season, the NBA reduced the team rosters to 11 from 12 players, due to the gas crisis, and I was cut. First time I was ever cut in my life. First time someone ever told me, 'we have to let you go." I had to pick myself up from that. This was a lifelong dream, and I attained it. Then you sit down in the office with the coach and he says “We have to let you go. You proved that you can play in the NBA but the numbers are the numbers.”
Many a player has had a hard time with the end of a dream.
I had to make some decisions on the next stage of my life.
I had to come back home from California, so I said, "I'm just gonna drive back home by myself and take my time and get my mindset back."
So I drove my 280Z from the Bay Area to New York City and it took me five days. By the time I got back home, I knew that I needed to give my basketball career another shot. I didn’t want to look myself in the mirror in 10 years and say, "you could have tried again."
And so, I did. I played in the Eastern League, which was a far cry from the NBA, but a semi-pro type league. I was a substitute teacher by day at a high school in New Jersey and I was staying in shape. My agent set me up with the Boston Celtics. I played for them throughout the summer, pre-season camp and through the exhibition season. I even played a few games during the regular season and then I was cut again.
I remember being on the bus when we were coming from a game in which I didn’t play at all and I saw the handwriting on the wall. I thought about going overseas to play, and then I said, "let me just start a business career now while alumni folks still know me and can support my next life phase."
So, I had to work my way through that scenario of ending a lifelong dream that I actually attained but then lost, and had to figure out how to move forward.
LD: How did your professional life evolve?
RM: After basketball, I began my corporate sales career with Champion International, a forest products company. I was assigned to a plant in Waukegan. I sold corrugated containers, boxes. From the NBA, to the Eastern League and to a short stint with the Boston Celtics, to then, selling boxes, was humbling.
I was good, though. It was time to move on with my life. In that same year, I married my wife Holly and we settled in the Midwest. Holly is from NYC but grew up in Bermuda. We purchased a house and settled in Evanston with our 3 month old son, Ryan. That was 36 years ago.
My career grew and for the next 32 years, I worked for the DuPont Company, Packaging Graphics Division. After a variety of DuPont sales and management roles, I retired in 2016. My last job responsibility was managing a global corporate accounts sales team.
LD: Do you have a mantra or guiding life principles?
RM: One of the benefits I had growing up was, I always had mentors who looked out for me and gave me the right words, the right thoughts, and were helpful in a sincere way. I know these guys until this day and I’m still connected to them.
My mantra is all about youth development, giving back, and being a mentor. I’ve been a member of FAAM, the Fellowship of Afro-American Men Youth Basketball Organization, as a coach, mentor, and as president over the past 36 years. FAAM was a big part of keeping my family here in Evanston. The relationships that have been built over my 36 years of coaching and mentoring are invaluable. I’m still called “Coach” by many of my junior high school former players. Some of them are well into their 40’s. Pretty special.
With FAAM you’ve got 6th, 7th and 8th graders at a time in their lives where they need community, they need mentors, they need people that can give them the right words, the right counsel. So here I am in retirement, and my focus and mission is fully around youth development. Hence, my involvement with Curt’s Cafe, FAAM, the Evanston Recreation Board, and now also, the Citizen Police Review Commission. With the Commission, I’d like to define how our young people can better interact with the police.
LD: Talk about your involvement with Curt’s Cafe.
RM: I've been in involved with Curt’s Café, initially as a mentor, then a Board member, and for the past three-and-a-half years, as Board President. Through restaurant and life-skills training, our mission is to improve outcomes for young adults living in at-risk situations. During my tenure as Board President, our goals have included diversifying our board team and having an Evanston police officer as a member. Meeting those particular goals were important to better defining the needs of our students.
LD: Tell me about a kid you connected with through FAAM?
RM: I had this young man, Tray Martin, on our FAAM team. He’s developed into our son and has been a part of our family since he was 11 years old. In FAAM, you coach and mentor a lot of kids through the years. Some just stick to you, and he was one. He had some family issues and we became a surrogate family for him. I would invite him over as a youngster and he would hang out with us during family gatherings, holidays, and after FAAM games. He played basketball at ETHS and on senior night, my wife and I were there filling in as his parents. Tray is 47 now and he’s been family all these years. Heck, we are godparents to his 21-year-old daughter.
I’ll tell you another one. This young man, Alando “Spud” Massie, was 13 years old when he was on my FAAM team and I saw pure talent in him as a future leader. He was a talker and you could see how his teammates gravitated to him.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t as confident in himself as he portrayed. We would have some in-depth conversations during his FAAM tenure and we've continued our relationship through the years. I always felt like a mentor to him.
When he was in college at Xavier University in New Orleans, he was home for the summer and didn’t want to return. My counsel to him was, you need to go back and finish your degree.
Well, he didn’t go back and over time, he realized the importance of getting his degree. He finished his undergraduate degree, and just last year, he completed his Masters Degree from Northwestern University. He invited me to his graduation and said that he remembered my words when he was 13 years old and when he didn’t return to Xavier.
I was as proud as a mentor could be.
LD: What about the students at Curt's?
RM: Yes! I’ve have Curt’s stories, too. There is this one young man named Craig. He was from the west side and would come all the way up here on the train. He had a strong personality and he was an athlete and had a scholarship to play football at Western Michigan University. But in his last year he let it fall apart because of drugs and just being that age, and the coach kicked him off the team.
He recognized he had to change his life. He had all kinds of problems at home, he had a bout with homelessness, but I loved his drive. I developed a relationship with him and saw him progress, saw him go back to school, become a member of a group focused around teenage homeless, and went to Washington and lobbied in front of Congress.
He gained confidence in who he was becoming and it was a joy to see his development. That is the joy of mentoring.
Mentoring is sometimes timely words, other times listening, and most times, letting folks know that you really care. With our young, they are astute. They know if you are real, or not. When they trust you, the magic happens. Growth and development for the mentee and mentor.
LD: What's different about the way Evanston youth are growing up today from how you grew up?
RM: Back in New York when I was coming up in high school, drugs were really rampant, and it was heroin. This was even before cocaine, and lots of people fell wayside to that. What always helped and benefited me so I didn’t become a statistic like so many of my friends and others is that I always had sports and mentors, coaches, community center folks. I always had them around.
Most of the kids at Curt’s didn’t play sports. They may have started playing sports, but when the going got tough, they quit. Lots of reasons why they quit. Lacking in mentors, not the best home situations that were suitable for good positive reinforcement, and not having a future plan all contributed to mis-direction in their lives. But sports is really what kept me on the straight and narrow.
LD: Tell me about your parents.
RM: My mom was an executive secretary, my dad was out of the picture from an early age, but I had a very active step-dad, and he was supportive. My mom though, set the stage for my life. She gave me the love of reading. She was the best storyteller, and always had me and my sister in the library. We always had two or three books ready to read. I learned to be inquisitive and had a desire to travel and see how others lived.
LD: How have you felt the racial divide in Evanston over the years?
RM: I really haven’t felt it, personally. Although I see it and understand it. I moved here from New York via San Francisco, Nebraska, and Minneapolis, and I already understood the dynamics of racial division. I know there is an economic divide and I know a bit about the history of Evanston and how it has impacted Black folks. I clearly get it. The question is, how do we change it or gain better equity?
LD: Why do you think you haven’t felt the racial divide?
RM: Throughout my 36 years that I’ve lived in Evanston, for 30 of those years, 42 weeks a year I was on an airplane going to work. I’d come home from sales travel, managing teams, visiting customers and then spending family time and coaching my FAAM team.
I’m just now getting into the trenches of Evanston leadership in my retirement. In essence, I wasn’t connected to Evanston as I am now. I wasn’t fully paying attention as I was raising my family and coaching and mentoring kids. Although, I did have a six-year stint on the Evanston Recreation Board.
LD: You participated in Leadership Evanston recently. How did that affect how you see Evanston?
RM: During my corporate business career, I traveled extensively and when I returned home, my time was with my family and FAAM. This was my life for 25 years. I was limited in my full knowledge of Evanston, so after retiring, I participated in this 10 month Evanston experience to better know Evanston and to learn it’s history. Although, I already knew Evanston from the stories of my friends during my 36 years living here.
One of the projects I had to present during Leadership Evanston was to interview a couple of folks to understand their sense of “Belonging” in Evanston. One guy who I play golf with now, I interviewed him, and he had a completely different perspective than another friend who grew up in Evanston but moved to Atlanta. Two Black men, both in their 60s.
The one guy, he moved here when he was 10 and his father worked for IBM, so he had a professional career and they moved up by Central Street. on the other side of the canal. He grew up with white kids and had that experience and went to the high school and had that experience.
The other guy grew up in the 5th ward on the other side of the canal but got bused from Foster School (Evanston's on Black school that closed after desegregation) to--I’m not sure what school he got bused to--but he hated it. He hated being bused, he hated how he felt he was being treated. He absolutely loved the Black YMCA, but when they integrated and moved to the other YMCA, he hated it.
The guy who lived on the other side of the canal just loved Evanston, he thought it was the best place in the world. The other guy thought it was just horrible the way Black folks were treated. It was just an interesting perspective for me because, here I am, coming from New York, even though I’ve been here for 36 years, I’m still not Evanstonian...to Evanstonians. I felt both of their experiences.
LD: Do you think your son felt a racial divide?
RM: I would say no. He went to camp every year, he traveled all around with us, going here and going there. He lived in a nice house. I don’t think he really felt it. But let’s keep that in perspective. I’ve been around long enough, and been in corporate America long enough, to recognize the issues Black folks feel. I haven’t felt it here in Evanston. I don’t feel I’ve been discriminated against here in Evanston. Maybe it’s because of my personality and working my way through 36 years of corporate America. You learn how to play the role, I guess.
LD: You are starting to get involved in the Citizen Police Review Commission. Why?
RM: I'd been asked to apply for the Commission in the past by community folks. In this troubling time, the time was right to apply, and I was accepted. I’d like to go in with an open mind, but I do have my views. As a Black man, how could I not?
I feel that there is a system in place that criminalizes the poor and the most marginalized communities in our society, instead of dealing with the real problems. There has to be a rethinking of the relationship of our police and communities. Citizens, community organizers, and experts should be the ones allowed to implement constructive, restorative measures to address local issues. I’m looking forward to the experience and I hope that I can be additive.
We all see what’s going on with the disconnect with the police, the disconnect between African American citizens and the police. It’s clear, no disputing it. Personally, I’ve never had any interactions, but I’ve certainly counseled my son on how he had to handle himself while he’s out on the street: when you're driving, you have your license, have your registration. Don’t get caught up arguing with the police. The typical conversations you have with a Black child I’ve had that with him, and he hasn’t had any interactions with the police, at least that I know of. He’s 36 years old now and lives in Atlanta.
Now that that I am retired I have the time to be a change agent in some sort of way. It seems like the right time now to step up my game and be a part of something that can have an impact on this community. I’m doing what I think is right, and the time is right. When I working, I didn’t have the time. Now, my son is grown, my wife and I have a good life, and I don’t want to just sit back and play golf. I want to be an influence and I want to be able to help where I can. And I think I can. I think with all my experience from of all these years of FAAM and Curt’s Cafe I've been connecting with young people the whole time.
I also became a core member of the Community Alliance for Better Government last year in support of Evanston’s Youth & Young Adults Division that was seemingly a potential budget cut. We clearly understood the great work that this team has offered in our community and our alliance was helpful in giving voice to their importance at the city leadership level. My goal as a member of this group is to build a relationship with city leadership in a collaborative way.
LD: How have the recent murders impacted the students and staff at Curt’s?
RM: The murders here in Evanston were a shock after it being relatively quiet from any shootings this year. It hurts deeply to lose a young person so senselessly. We’ve lost a few young men over the years that had worked at Curt’s Cafe and we know how it hurts to the bone for the family. It does though intensify our efforts to reach more young folks through mentoring.
You're not from Evanston, but you've lived here for more than three decades. What keeps you here?
RM: The reason we stayed here all these years is because my wife and I wanted to live in a community where we would walk down the street and someone would say, “Hey coach," "Hey Mr. and Mrs. Marsh," "Aren’t you Ryan’s mom and dad?" And by the way, it’s "Hey coach Marsh” to both of us. My wife coached cheerleading at FAAM and founded the cheerleading program.
Those kinds of things were important to us, and why we stayed here even when my company wanted us to move. At DuPont, if you move up a corporate ladder you had to move to Wilmington Delaware. We all know how that goes. But we just always said we weren’t moving!