Like a Rock
07/20/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
A TRAGEDY IN ITSELF, THE SENSELESS murder of Al Wooten Jr. in January 1989 was also a grim portent of worse to follow in Los Angeles. He died in a drive-by shooting, a way of death that has become all too familiar in the city's gang-plagued South Central district. Police never found the killer of the 35-year-old security-guard trainee, but Wooten's mother, Myrtle Faye Rumph, believes the shooting was random, perhaps committed by a gang member required to shoot someone as an initiation rite. But unlike some in her family who wanted to strike back at the murderer, Rumph rejected more bloodshed—and vowed that her son will not have died in vain. "Al despised gangs," she says. "I decided I wasn't going to accept his death and do nothing. I wanted to keep children out of gangs, and the best way to do that was to keep them busy."
True to her word, Faye Rumph, 61, has since channeled her grief into the Al Woolen Jr. Heritage Center, an after-school learning refuge for about two dozen kids, ages 7 to 18, who might have drifted into trouble had they not met Rumph and her volunteer teachers. Located in the heart of riot-scarred South Central, the small, storefront center shines as one of the brightest beacons in a neighborhood torn by decades of poverty and despair. "If the center wasn't here," says Rumph, calmly surveying her young charges inside the dim 20-by-50-foot building, "they'd be out in the streets."
Although it is not an accredited school, the center—operating on a scant $18,000 a year from grants, fund-raisers and donations—offers supplemental courses six days a week for children enrolled in a school system burdened with high dropout rates, overcrowded classrooms and funding cutbacks. About 10 mostly black college students and professionals give up a day or an evening a week to teach a lively mix of classes, from black history and spelling to entrepreneurship and "learning to learn." The center's aim, explains volunteer Lewrence Gutierrez, a 34-year-old UCLA graduate, is to "get the children to understand that life is worth living in a proper way. They need to know someone cares. And Faye cares." (Indeed, Rumph sold her own two-bedroom Inglewood home to help fund the center.) Says Kraiguar Smith, 37, who teaches several of the kids martial arts: "Many parents in South Central have lost children. They get despondent. Faye lost a son, but from her tragedy she gained many sons and daughters."
A sign of the respect students have for her came on April 29, the day the rioting broke out. Kids came to the center agitated over the acquittal verdict in the Rodney King beating case, yet Rumph got them to promise not to loot. "I told them," she says, " 'The way to change future verdicts is to get an education, to vote.' " They kept their pledge and in the next days helped clean up debris outside burned and looted stores, including a nearby emptied Korean grocery.
Slight and soft-spoken, Rumph says she once dreamed of being a teacher. But as the eighth of nine children born to a minister father and a homemaker mother in Chisholm, Tex., she had to drop out of school in the ninth grade because she didn't have the bus fare to get to a segregated black high school. Instead, she washed glasses in a restaurant and in 1950 married gas-station attendant Al Wooten. Six years later they moved to Los Angeles with their three small children—Barbara, Al Jr. and Arthur.
Faye worked as a salad chef and at night took sewing lessons and completed high school. After her divorce from Al in 1959, she opened a dress shop in Watts. Three months after the 1965 summer riots, she married Harris Rumph, now 64 and a furniture mover. They put Barbara and Arthur through college, and though Al spent years involved with drugs and alcohol, his life was turning around at the time he was killed. Al Woolen Jr.'s legacy may soon grow, now that the center has received $22,000 in donations—elicited after a story on Faye appealed in The Wall Street Journal in May. Beyond that, Faye Rumph remains deeply proud of her students. Recently she went to McDonald's with a group wearing Wooten Center T-shirts. When a teenager asked, "What's that all about?" Faye looked up and beamed. "It's about children," she said.
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles