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DEATH NOTICE - Russell Yancey

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DEATH NOTICE - Russell Yancey

Posted: 1299547543000
Classification: Obituary
Surnames: Yancey
[RUSSELL YANCEY] Newark man who beat drug addiction awarded posthumous degree from Rutgers University

Published: Thursday, May 21, 2009,
By Brian Whitley/The Star-Ledger

extracted from:

NEWARK - Without a pause, the narrator at a Rutgers University graduation ceremony in Newark read Russell Yancey's name today to a packed but puzzled theater, but he was not on stage.

He was emblazoned on the T-shirt of his aunt, Priscilla Haskins, who hesitated briefly before striding to pick up the degree and embracing Chancellor Steven Diner. The university awarded a posthumous bachelor's degree in political science to a man who beat homelessness and heroin, and whose booming voice reached every corner of the city in search of social justice.

When the crowd heard the short version of Yancey's story, all six levels gathered inside the New Jersey Performing Arts Center offered a standing ovation.

Yancey had reached the cusp of law school after earning an associate's degree from Essex County College and then charming Rutgers-Newark into letting him enroll late in the spring semester about two and a half years ago.

"I felt proud of him, how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps," Haskins said. "I miss my nephew. I hope someone will pick up the mantle, pick up his cause."

Yancey's comeback was cut short on Springfield Avenue, where he died after a traffic accident the afternoon of Jan. 18 -- several weeks after delivering the luxury car he bought his mother for Christmas and just months shy of his 50th birthday.

A crowd that included members of city council and representatives from both of his colleges packed Abyssinian Baptist Church in February for his memorial service. There, members of the political science department at Rutgers in Newark announced they would create a scholarship in Yancey's name for students who battled adversity, the first of which was presented Wednesday night.

Rutger honors graduate posthumously

As a boy of about 6, Yancey and his sister Marian hunted for the end of rainbows in the woods near their grandparents' farm in Buffalo Junction, Va. They moved to Newark in 1971, Marian said, and brought their rural sensibilities with them.

"We didn't know about the ghetto, drugs, things like that," she said. "We just knew we were going to the big city."

Yancey's friends called him Country. The lumbering boy who stuck out among his peers fell into a pattern of drug use, perhaps, his sister said, so he wouldn't be stuck with the nickname forever. He dropped out of Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, though he would later earn an equivalency degree.

In 1985, Marian says, his mother abruptly took him back to Virginia, this time to Arlington. He worked in the information technology division of George Washington University Hospital before the lifestyle he tasted in the big city caught up with him.

"He started to fall and he couldn't catch himself," Haskins said.

For eight years, Phyllis Yancey said, her son lived on the streets among the homeless in Baltimore. His sister says she doesn't know why he chose the city, just that he lingered there.

Photo courtesy of Marian Yancey.A 2008 photo of Russell Yancey, who was awaredFamily members helped convince him to "rebuild" his life, Haskins said, before a friend picked him up and brought him back to Newark.

Over the course of about a year, Russell Yancey lived a renaissance. He started attending St. James AME Church every week. He gained weight. He quit smoking. A face at times "sunken in" was replaced by "a glow," his sister said, as he threw himself into social activism.

Lawrence Hamm, state chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, said Yancey's causes were many: rights for the homeless, conditions for prisoners, an end to the Iraq war. He would announce rallies at church services where he worshipped -- both at his church and others -- and criss-cross Newark to attend them.

Several times, he called Hamm's cell phone late at night to urge the organization's members to come to the scene of a shooting, so they could offer condolences and organize follow-up actions.

"It's still so hard for me to accept today that he's gone," Hamm said this week. "Obviously his last years were well spent. He lived so powerfully and so positively that his spirit is still alive with the people who care about him."

Yancey was especially proud, Hamm said, of attending college. He bonded with Linda McDonald Carter, a professor in the paralegal studies program at Essex County, who said Yancey loved research and was already a sharp litigant in his own cases.

But he remained grounded, she said, making a point to apologize publicly if he made an error at the board of trustees meetings where he often voiced complaints.

"Whenever Russell felt there was something wrong, that people had been treated unfairly, he always spoke up," she said. "No matter who it was, he always had the courage to speak up."

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