article by Rich Schapiro via nydailynews.com
After 67 years, two prison stints and so many arrests he’s lost count, David Norman, a former Harlem drug dealer, graduated from Columbia University as the oldest member of his class.
Norman shed his dark past for a cap and gown Wednesday after earning his long-awaited bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “It’s always possible to pursue your dreams,” Norman told the Daily News.
Norman’s extraordinary journey from the gritty streets of Harlem to the gleaming lawns at Columbia was studded with obstacles. His decades-old battle with substance abuse began early. Norman was drinking by age 11 and using heroin before his 15th birthday. His high school education lasted all of one day. Norman turned into a street hustler, slinging dope to satisfy his drug cravings. “I had a 35-year run with addiction,” he said.
Norman racked up a mile-long rap sheet filled with arrests for robbery and drug trafficking. His first stint upstate came in 1967. Nearly three decades later, he was charged with manslaughter after fatally stabbing a man in a street fight. The six years he spent in Mohawk Correctional Facility in upstate Rome proved life-changing.
He found joy in books. He started learning Hebrew. And he helped run a program that taught life skills to inmates preparing to return to society. “I had a moment of clarity in which I was able to recognize everything I had done at that point was fairly counter-productive and I needed to engage in some new activities and some new behaviors,” Norman said.
He walked out of prison in 2000 a changed man, eager to devote the second half of his life to raising up the most vulnerable.
“I did a little inventory of myself to try to unearth what it was that led me astray in the beginning and what I need to do when I get home not to fall victim to this activity again,” he said.
He secured a job as an outreach worker at Mount Vernon Hospital, helping substance abusers access the services designed to help them. That led to work at Columbia University where he helped track subjects in a community health program. He was accepted into Columbia’s School of General Studies 10 years ago.
As a full-time staffer, he was permitted to take no more than seven credits per semester. Norman was 40 years older than the vast majority of his classmates — but he still connected with many of them. “I had a good rapport with the young people because they always amazed me,” said Norman, who has a son and daughter in their 30s.
At his graduation, he sat at the front of his class and cried tears of joy. “It was a great feeling,” said Norman, who has been sober for 21 years. “I’m just now starting to come down from my little high. I had to wash my clothes yesterday. That brought me back down.”
He now works as a research assistant at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. In his spare time, he volunteers with the Coming Home Program at Riverside Church, where he mentors ex-cons who have been recently released from prison.
Norman is planning to write a book chronicling how he turned his life around. He hasn’t started writing yet, but he already has an idea for a title: “You Don’t Have to Wait as Long as I Did.”