Unsung Heroes 2015: Don Roth

BY SUSAN FADEM, SPECAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

In this technologically advanced world, it’s refreshing to know that one man, with age-old communications savvy, can still make a difference. Don Roth, retired after 40 years in sales, is such a man.

For more than 20 years, he’s met weekly with 8- to-17-year-old males. “I share my life experiences,” he says. “I sort of sense the chemistry that might be between us.”

These alleged law-breakers are in custody at the St. Louis County Detention Center because authorities consider them a threat, either to themselves or the community. Typically, they wait days or months until the Family Court of St. Louis County hears their case, or alternative arrangements can be made.

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Where others might predict dismal outcomes, Roth, a Korean War veteran, sees hope. This despite the fact that he’s a volunteer, and a small part of the county’s program of supervised educational, recreational and social activities for detained youngsters. 

In 60 to 90 minutes each week, Roth does both one-on-ones and interacts with groups of up to 15 boys. A natural-born storyteller and gentle joker, he aims to make each boy feel heard.

Touched by the attention, one youngster wrote: “I like that you told me about your life and then you wanted to know a little about me. I also enjoyed your humor. I know you think not everyone thinks ‘your’ funny, but I do.”

Years ago, Roth was moved by a column by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Greg Freeman. According to the Unsung Hero, Freeman wrote that day that lay people should share their wisdom with residents at the juvenile detention center. “That turned me on,” Roth says. 

Previously, Roth considered himself “pretty lopsided.” He liked bird watching, an avocation he passed along to his two sons. But mostly, he enjoyed selling.

Thus, a chance to share lessons learned on the job, with young men in need of positive role models, particularly appealed.

Roth contacted the county’s detention center and met the director. No program, such as the one columnist Freeman envisioned, then existed. No matter. Roth was invited to tour the facility and to start volunteering.

Like an owl to a coniferous forest, a robin to a nest, Roth found himself unexpectedly at home. To help lower barriers he’d likely encounter as an older and law-abiding white man, his skin dotted by freckles and not tattoos, Roth played table tennis, as he had as a kid, but this time with the detained boys. 

His prowess amazed him. “I really became quite skilled,” he concedes. “They were waiting in line to play with me.” Sometimes, he “let the boys win.”

In the detention center’s gym, Roth — a citizen deputy juvenile officer — and the young men also played basketball. Again, more than scoring was at stake. 

If the boys viewed him as a coach or grandfather figure, he concluded, they’d more readily absorb his life lessons. 

Roth talks to the boys about myriad topics. When necessary, he tweaks his stories to underscore his lessons. One constant, however, is his advice to expect failures but remain focused on lawfully achieving success. 

The boys, in turn, inspire Roth. Pumped up by their admiration for basketball, he researches and makes phone calls. And although it took him a year to finalize, he arranged — as a surprise for the boys — a visit last June by St. Louis University Billiken’s men’s basketball team.

For two hours at the detention center, players demonstrated and shot baskets with the young men and talked with them about the importance of higher education. The team’s visit was “phenomenal,” reports Cheryl Campbell, director of detention with St. Louis County’s family court.

The “hope and faith” brought by the players gave the boys “new opportunities to succeed in life,” she adds.

For Roth, the visit was “a defining moment in my life.” But satisfaction wasn’t enough. Wanting other of the 1,300 National Collegiate Athletic Association teams to influence detained youths elsewhere, he wrote the executive editor of the NCAA Champion Magazine. The upshot was that in the publication’s 2015 winter issue, the Billikens’ trip to St. Louis County’s detention center received a lengthy paragraph of coverage.

A grandfather of two and widowed for 15 years after a 40-year marriage, Roth seems never at a loss for ideas. SLU athletic officials, he says, have assured him the Billikens will return.

Meanwhile, he’s contacted the Harlem Globetrotters and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame to see if detention center visits and shared materials might be possible. 

With his sales background, the Congregation Shaare Emeth member says: “I don’t give up.” Indeed.