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Celebrating Success: Star turn, a generation later

A father's hard lessons school his son toward academic success.

KEVIN Beaford Sr. made a name for himself as a basketball star at Bok Technical High School during the late 1970s, but his early promise faded, and he never wanted his namesake son to go that route. Over and over, Beaford urged young Kevin to be about the books, as they say.

Now Dad's sideline admonitions have paid off.

Not only is Kevin valedictorian of the class of 2013 at Mastery Charter School's Thomas Campus in South Philly, but he's also a winner of a prestigious Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will underwrite his college tuition.

Talk about a slam dunk.

And it so easily might have gone another way. The way it did for Beaford Sr., who dropped out of college and into a life of bad choices. Things are better for him now, and he's schooling his son on the hard-luck lessons he's learned.

"I made enough mistakes for him that he don't have to make any mistakes," Beaford said. "I always try to tell him that one wrong turn can mess your whole life up."

Eight other local minority students also will receive the award established in 1999 with a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Each year, an estimated 20,000 apply but only 1,000 are selected. Depending on what they major in, Gates scholars also can go to grad school for free. They can even get a PhD.

Today at 1 p.m., Kevin's spectacular achievement will be recognized at Mastery Charter Schools' first-ever college-signing-day rally at Temple's Liacouras Center. In an event similar to those typically reserved for student athletes, more than 450 students will wave royal-blue rally towels as an announcer reads off graduating students' names and the universities that they will attend. Kevin is the only Mastery student who'll be attending the University of Pennsylvania this fall.

"I'm going to take full advantage," Kevin said of the Gates scholarship, which lasts for 10 years. "It's been my goal to at least get my MBA. I might also get my JD [law degree]."

A tough start

Kevin's backstory is a familiar one. His parents never married. D. Tina Smith struggled to raise Kevin and his older sister from another relationship in Point Breeze.

When Kevin was in the second grade, Smith pulled him out of St. Thomas Aquinas Mission School, in South Philly, because she couldn't afford the tuition.

Money and the threat of random street violence were constant worries. Relatives around Kevin got pregnant and dropped out of high school.

As Smith talked about the difficulties in being a single mother, I was impressed by her resolve to keep Kevin's father involved. Too many mothers use the father's romantic relationships or nonpayment of child support as an excuse to block access to the children.

Not Smith.

"There were times in his addiction when he didn't even want Kevin to see him, but I thought it was important that they still had a relationship," she explained. "What I elected to do was ensure that they continue a relationship, because I think that's crucial for young black males. There are certain things that need to be provided that only a man can provide."

Beaford now lives in Harrisburg, which means that he and Kevin don't see each other regularly. They keep in touch by phone.

When I asked him how his parents' experiences impacted the choices he's made, Kevin told me, "I didn't want to struggle. I didn't want to have to go through what my parents did. I never wanted to live that life, especially not the path my dad took."

Kevin, captain of Mastery's basketball team, hopes to be a walk-on at Penn. Either way, his dad's there to coach him and keep him reminded that education comes first.

That's advice that Beaford Sr. wishes he had heard during his heady days playing for Fairmont University, in West Virginia. Beaford's team won three major tournaments during his tenure. He was named 1981 player of the year.

But Beaford got caught up, as they say, and dropped out before graduating. He went on to hold a series of low-paid jobs and dabble in illegal drug activity.

That was then. Today, Beaford is clean. He doesn't even smoke. He works as a receiving clerk at a Suzuki Motor of America warehouse. One of his biggest goals is to see Kevin continue doing better than he did.

"I just try to share some things with him, like not to get caught up in street life," Beaford told me. "I always told him to stay in his books and stay in school. That's something nobody can take from him."