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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 07:02 am

The long road

Deidre Lockhart, now a professional with a master’s degree, reflects on her colorful past

Deidre Lockhart.

Ask Deidre Lockhart how tall she is, and she will tell you she’s just under 5-foot-10. You don’t even have to verbalize the follow-up question. With a tone that says “I get this all the time,” Lockhart will answer your look of disbelief: “I know — I’m not as tall as I appear,” she says. “I think it’s my personality.”

Indeed, it is her personality, though the trick doesn’t work the way you’d think. She’s not menacing or boisterous or the type of person whose craving for attention sucks all the air out of a room. Quite the opposite; it’s more like her depth somehow creates the optical illusion of height.

“Dede,” as she’s known to her friends, has a history that includes drug addiction, crime, several stints in prison, and parenting seven children, now ranging in age from 8 to 27 years old. She doesn’t tell everyone about her past, but its weight has endowed her with a profound gravity.

“I could tell that she came from a place that’s very different from where’s she’s at now,” says Mark Blagen, an assistant professor of human services at University of Illinois at Springfield. Blagen, who knew none of the facts of Lockhart’s background, met her only a year ago, when he began supervising her research on drug treatment counselors’ knowledge of hepatitis C. See, Lockhart — at age 48, a former felon, former junkie, formerly unfit mother — is on the verge of receiving her master’s degree.

Obviously, Lockhart didn’t arrive at this juncture by the usual route, but she was born into a family that seemed to be headed in the right direction. Her father, Charles C. Lockhart, was a policeman, and his father, Charles S. Lockhart, was one of Springfield’s first black firefighters. Deidre grew up on a remote, bucolic block on the North End, playing with dolls and frogs and snakes, and attending a “school without walls” established by her father and his friends at what was then Sangamon State University. “I had a nice childhood,” she says. When she was 21, her father was sent to prison for income tax evasion, and Lockhart learned that her family wasn’t perfect.

That same year, 1985, she had her first child, and joined her son’s father in his criminal enterprise — shoplifting, or “boosting.” Under the tutelage of another woman in the group, a retired prostitute, Lockhart became so proficient that she could enter a store and steal up to $10,000 worth of clothes, jewelry and even appliances. She doesn’t want the details of her technique published, but it involved wearing a skirt and girdle, and netted Lockhart enough money to pay her bills and feed her children.

Her second child, a daughter born in 1988, was taken away from Lockhart by child welfare authorities due to the presence of cocaine her system. She lost custody of her second son, born in 1989, after testing positive for drugs, even though she wasn’t actively using. Instead, the drug had seeped into her while she stood over the stove cooking cocaine to make crack for her then-boyfriend to sell. And besides all that, she says, he was beating her: “He would blacken my eyes, crack my ribs, break my nose, tie me up,” she says.

Getting arrested in Kohl’s department store in Bloomington, shoplifting “three or four pairs of jeans and jackets to match,” was the beginning of her road to recovery. With each subsequent arrest — in Jacksonville, Tuscola and Champaign — she got more residential drug treatment and more time away from her abusive boyfriend. Eventually, she says, she began to see changes she needed to make in her life.

“All the smoke cleared,” she says.

She got a job at a fast food restaurant and worked her way up to manager. She backslid with a new boyfriend, who had criminal associates, and spent another stint in prison. But this time, she felt sure, was her final incarceration. How did she know?

“Because I’m done,” she says. And that went for drugs as well as crime. “I believe I actually just grew out of it. I just got tired. It was like overnight: I just stopped.”

Instead, she turned her energy toward school, earning an associates degree in network administration, then a bachelor’s degree in social work at UIS, and now her master’s in human services. All the while, she’s been working virtually full-time at The Springfield Project, then the Illinois Department of Public Health, and, for the past three years, at Gateway Foundation, where she has risen from technician to counselor to supervisor.

“I know that I was meant to serve. I feel it in myself,” she says. Even though she recognizes that the detours she has taken have delayed her from this mission, she can’t deny their value.

“I’m not going to call them exactly bad choices; I’m going to call them learning experiences,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to understand some people if I hadn’t experienced what they’ve experienced.”

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