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.