BILL TAITT: An American Portrait

By Frank Santarpia

Idea and Photomontage by Ilya Galak

“I may never have managed a corporation, but I managed this tribe of seven children, and when I look around, when I look at our family, everywhere I look I see success” – Bill Taitt

When a man is surrounded by poverty, he can become a prisoner in a cell without bars, in a penitentiary without walls, and many individuals simply do not possess the strength to fight their way out. Bill Taitt found the strength to fight.

With Frank Santarpia during the interview. Photo by Ilya Galak

With Frank Santarpia during the interview. Photo by Ilya Galak

Many young men in under-served and underprivileged communities, lost and often ignored, lack the will to resist the relentless peer pressure that herds them into the dead-end hopelessness of drugs, gang violence and crime. Bill Taitt found the will to resist.

And in too many urban schools, uncaring educators allow undisciplined young predators to roam the halls unchecked, turning what should be secure and nurturing learning centers into dangerous mazes – thereby condemning generations of students to the misery of a life without literacy or culture and sentencing bright young children to an almost inevitable cycle of courtrooms and incarceration. Bill Taitt dodged such a fate.

“When I was a kid, guns, knives, bats and stomping feet were part of the landscape,” remembers the New York native. “Police and fire sirens were the background music for the projects.”

The “projects” were the Patterson Houses in the South Bronx, where William Leonard Taitt, born in 1947, lived until he was 14 years old.

In that poor and often dangerous neighborhood – it’s known as Mott Haven – over half the population lives below the poverty line in New York City Housing Authority stock; most receiving some form of public assistance. For many decades, it has been one of the poorest communities in America – and poverty’s natural bedmate is desperation. Together, they breed danger.

“Most of my friends from the projects are dead, victims of street violence or drugs, or they’re in jail,” he reflects. “Twenty-five year sentences were not uncommon among my peers.”

Part 1

The oldest of three, Bill is the son of Alice, a registered nurse, and the late Henry Hilton Taitt, a seaman whose career forced his absence from the family, often for months at a time.

“Dad’s merchant seaman job kept us close to poverty but not in it,” Bill recalls, “and I had surrogate responsibilities for my brothers.” The siblings, each two years apart in age, were close. “I tried my best to shield them from rigors of the street, but in the end, we all ended up navigating our own way.”

To be sure, navigating the mean streets of the South Bronx was a tough and dangerous proposition, especially for a young black male coming of age in the 1950’s and 60’s. Street gangs were everywhere, and not choosing sides was not an option.

“In order to be able to move safely through the projects, you had to have some sort of affiliation,” explains Taitt, “or you’d be easy pickings for your lunch money.” To safeguard himself from the internecine conflict with the Patterson Houses he joined a gang called The Bishops, but he learned that nothing could protect him if he wandered too far from his home turf. “Things really got dangerous if you found yourself in another housing project.”

He recalls a road trip he took with his b-ball buddies to play a team in Brooklyn. “The worst thing that could happen was to win the basketball game and lose the track meet – that was the race back to the subway station to get home.”

Tension in the projects was a constant companion, as drugs tightened their grip on the community and “quality-of-life” became just a meaningless phrase, there was a natural buildup of pressures that cried out for release. That release was often violent.

With younger brother Selwyn who I later visited in Vietnam when he was wounded in Marines

With younger brother Selwyn who I later visited in Vietnam when he was wounded in Marines

“It was a constant struggle to fit in and not be a target, but even then, if you were from 143rd Street and crossed over to 145th Street, you were gonna get chased back over to where you belonged. Luckily, handguns were not as prevalent as they are now – we used to make zip guns out of car antennas – but it was mainly fists, feet and blunt objects.”

Part 2

The path we take in life is often directed by small and subtle things, things of which one may not be aware as they happen, but which forever alter the person we are destined to become and the things we are destined to do. In the case of William Taitt, however, the course corrections that changed his future forever were neither small nor subtle – starting with the school he was made to attend.

“I found out at St. Rita’s that the nuns hit harder than the gang bangers.” He laughs as he says it, but his eyes tell a different story, betraying a fear of what might have been – had it not been for the religious school’s intolerance of misbehavior and the security that strict authority and order provided.

The discipline and regimentation provided by his Catholic school education were no doubt factors in Taitt’s metamorphosis – from a street kid in danger of being infected by the urban blight that plagued so many American inner cities, to a young man with goals and the skills to achieve them, with aspirations and the desire to pursue them, and with a vision and the focus to see it clearly. But perhaps even more important than where he did go, was where he didn’t go: he escaped from a public school system that was failing urban youth year-after-year, and rather than preventing problems, was serving as a launching pad into lives of drugs and crime.

Grandson WT III

Grandson WT III

“There is no doubt,” he says, “that parochial school helped get me out of the gangs and spared me from the fate of many of my friends.”

The next big influence on his development occurred in 1962, when his parents were able to afford a small house in South Jamaica, Queens. Young Taitt’s prospects got brighter immediately.

“It was a big thing to get out of the projects,” he recalls. “That was a migration that was made by many African-American families, and it meant we were moving from a lower class to middle class.” And unlike the fate that befell so many of his peers, Bill’s nuclear family remained together. “When we moved, not only did my grandmother come with us – my great grandmother, who was alive at that time, came with us, too. That gave us a great matriarchal line.”

So by the time Bill was 15, the family was out of the projects and the stage was set for future success – but Bill was not yet out of the woods. Fate would make one more attempt to prevent William Taitt from defying the odds, would try once again to keep him from breaking the bonds of urban decay. And this time it was not strength that allowed him to prevail, and it was not will power – it was things over which he had no control: pure luck and the grace of God. As he talks about it, his tone softens and his look turns contemplative. By the time the story ends, his eyes are moist and his voice betrays the depth of emotion brought on by the memory.

The School

The School

He begins: “We played hooky one day. I guess there were about ten of us, and somebody brought a gun…”

After the shot rang out there was silence, followed by the cries of the boy who had been struck by the bullet. Though it was not Bill who had been hit, here was a moment; here was a tiny point on the infinite timeline of the universe within which the fate of William Leonard Taitt would be determined. The gun clattered to the ground. Young men scattered; Bill Taitt stayed behind. He had made a decision, the kind of decision a young man should never be forced to make.

“I knew I couldn’t leave that boy there, and I knew that if we went to the hospital there would be in big trouble – police trouble – so there had to be a different plan,” he remembers, the pain of the experience evident in the lines of his face and the softness of his voice. “First of all, we were lucky on a few counts. Most importantly, it was a shoulder wound and didn’t look to be life-threatening – my wife Pam always says that God was sitting on my shoulder that day.” The decision was made to take the victim to the mother of a friend who lived nearby.

“She was a nurse, and she sized up the situation immediately. I knew my fate rested with her willingness to treat the gunshot injury, and to then not alert the authorities.” Bill remembers that she looked at him coolly and asked “You know what kind of thing you’re asking me to do, don’t you?”

He nodded. Then she took the boy inside.

Bill had had the presence of mind to recover the bullet at the scene. It was whole and intact and that made things easier, because it meant that no particles were left behind that might lead to infection.

“The fact that it was a flesh wound I took as a sign from God, because had it been anything else my life would have been…different. It would have been very different. It was simply too much good fortune for me to ignore.”

Too much good fortune, indeed; a trip, a playful shove, a random shift of a foot to the right or a foot to the left, and a young boy would have been dead, another victim of the urban gauntlet. Taitt had been given another chance; he would make the most of it. He never played hooky again.

Part 3

Bill had parlayed his education at St. Rita’s, and later at St. Jerome’s Junior High School, into enrollment at LaSalle Academy in Manhattan, a prestigious school run by the Christian Brothers. He had some tough decisions to make when he graduated, and benefited greatly from his relationship with his father – who provided him with a real-world education and an opportunity to glimpse a life beyond the South Bronx.

“He wasn’t always with us, and though his impact was always felt in our home – physically he was traveling the world. I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to go to sea with my father, which was a great experience.” After high school, Bill’s father arranged for him to join the merchant marines.

“This way I got to work and spend time with him, as well as experience new lands and cultures. It also gave us the opportunity to be off of the streets.”

They sailed together for several months, traveling throughout Europe on the luxury liner SS United States.

“Seeing how people lived outside of my familiar environment was eye-opening. So many different languages, foods, customs, landscapes, and yet, in so many ways the same. We cruised to Great Britain, France, Germany – it was a great trip for a kid, and it was even better to come back to New York and brag about it.”

Wanderlust had infected Taitt’s soul, and college wouldn’t calm his desire to see more of the world. He searched for a way to satisfy his restlessness, and found the perfect solution in the United States military.

“I thought by joining the Air Force I could travel worldwide, and serve my country at the same time.” It proved to be a good decision.

“Military service provided me with good discipline and encouraged responsibility. In addition, I gained the opportunity for expanded travel and experience during many domestic and international assignments.”

While was doing his stint in the Air Force, his younger brother Selwyn, called Chuckie, joined the Marines. It was not surprising for servicemen in the mid-to-late sixties to find themselves somewhere in Southeast Asia, and the Taitt boys were no different: Bill was stationed in Thailand, while Chuckie was sent to Viet Nam.

There must be a special pain that mothers feel when they are forced to watch their sons go to war, and we can only guess at the intensity of the fear experienced by Alice, soldiering on as she was back in Queens, when two of her three boys were in battle zones at the same time. Perhaps she took some cold comfort knowing that because they were in the same part of the world, they might in some way look out for one another.

And worse, Chuckie was in the thick of combat, and had a nasty habit of getting in the way of flying bullets. He was wounded – and decorated – on multiple occasions, and finally, when Alice learned that he had been medivac’d to a hospital in Da Nang, she did the only thing she could do. She called on her oldest son, Bill.

“She told me ‘I know you’re somewhere close – now go find your brother,'” laughs Bill. “I had no choice, I had to get there and report back to her – so I went.”

It was 1967, and among Bill’s duties in Thailand had been support of SAC pilots, with whom he naturally became very friendly. “They needed to get a photo that we had developed taken from Thailand over to Viet Nam – so when I heard about Chuckie, I volunteered to be the courier,” explains Taitt, his eyes sparkling with amusement, belying the anxiety he must have felt at the time. “I caught a ride to Da Nang, and I was at my brother’s side when he woke up. That was a great thing.”

With five grand children: Billie Christine, William L. Taitt III, Arianna,Issa and Linh

With five grand children: Billie Christine, William L. Taitt III, Arianna,Issa and Linh

Chuckie fully recovered from his wounds – and added another Purple Heart to his distinguished collection of combat decorations. “I got to spend a week with him in country, then a week of R&R in Bangkok. It was a great time.”

While in-country Bill taught himself the language, and to this day speaks Thai fluently. “I lived up in the mountains where nobody knew any English, so I became very proficient in the native language and I learned to write it and speak it to a very high degree. I still go to a Thai restaurant every once in a while and blow their minds,” he chuckles.

He was so adept that after his honorable discharge, he went back to Thailand as a civilian employee working for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, known as PX’s and BX’s. He wouldn’t get back to the States for good until 1971.

On the basketball court

On the basketball court

While Bill and Chuckie were doing well, the pressures of the drug culture in America’s inner cities tragically entrapped his youngest brother Henry, affectionately known as “Rico.” Family members had been doing all they could to help him, and by 1970 Rico had migrated to the West Coast and was staying with relatives in L.A.

Bill explains: “Heroin was flooding the streets, and it was not uncommon to walk out of your building and step over more than one body. Things were so bad that eventually statutes were instituted in New York that became known as the ‘Rockefeller Drug Laws,’ the toughest drug laws in the country.”

But the laws were not fully implemented until 1973, and were of no help to young Henry Taitt.

“The call came from my niece,” Bill recalls with sadness. Rico had been found dead of an overdose, on the rooftop of an L.A. tenement

With wife Pamela

With wife Pamela

“It has always stuck in my mind that he was found with his pockets turned out; he had been robbed by his so-called friends, the people he had been with when he died. That picture is something I can never get out of my mind”

Part 4

Back in New York, Bill’s first real job was reflective not only of his demeanor and personality, it also set the tone for his future: he went into public service.

“I was an administrative specialist, so basically that was the type of work I looked for. I got a job with the Narcotics Addiction Control Commission.”

At that time, Bill worked out of Manhattan, but the NACC also ran a 650-bed drug rehabilitation facility at Arthur Kill; it would later become the medium security prison it is today: The Arthur Kill Correctional Facility. The stage was set for a move – a big move in the life of the Taitt family.

“I was not going back to the South Bronx, that was number one. Children were coming, and there was no way I was going to raise a family there.”

Luck would intervene in the form of as chance meeting with an old service buddy. Bill remembers, “He told me I should take a look at Staten Island. Staten Island? Who ever heard of Staten Island?” he laughs.

But take a look he did. “At the time the Park Hill houses were first marketed, they advertised green trees and water. The apartments were big, bright and airy – and at one time teachers and professionals lived in those units.” Bill and his family took the plunge, and have been Staten Islanders ever since.

His next big move was from the NACC to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a project under the aegis of the Kennedy family. “It cleaned up Bed-Stuy, and was responsible for making many professionals out of people right from the streets.”

But back home in Park Hill, things started to deteriorate. “I don’t really know what came first,” he says, “the deterioration of the quality of the tenants or the deterioration of the maintenance on the projects themselves – but things definitely began to change.”

With son Wayne, wife Thuy, and daughter Lihn

With son Wayne, wife Thuy, and daughter Lihn

Bill found himself getting involved; calling on city agencies for help with the exploding number of problems in the development he called home. He began to attend various meetings, and not surprisingly his profile within the community began to rise.

“I was a personable guy; I made friends easily, was a family man…I became pretty well respected,” he recalls, “and I had the skills in navigating city agencies and housing that I learned in Bed-Stuy Restoration. Then I found out about the Staten Island Community Corporation, and I knew I could apply those skills there.”

“SICC was an Ed Koch program put in place to engender skills in the unskilled, and in doing so taught people about the inner workings of business, government and politics,” remembers Bill. It was a natural fit for him and his talents – and he was good at it.

With sons Winston, Jahmel, Mom and granddaughter

With sons Winston, Jahmel, Mom and granddaughter

“I could write, and I had a knack for taking a document and figuring out what the government was allocating resources for.” Bill excelled at doing the research necessary to show why a given community was entitled to a given opportunity, and helped his neighbors attract the help that was offered – and that they deserved.

“The SICC made me a different person – much like parochial school did,” he says proudly. “I used my first position there to reach back to the Park Hill people. I told them ‘Hey, now there’s a way that we can help ourselves,’ for example, there was HUD – we could write to them and they had a responsibility to respond to us.”

With daughter Sheryn and Mom

With daughter Sheryn and Mom

In connecting with the tenants, he found that his clout increased considerably. “Now when I spoke to somebody, I had three hundred people standing behind me in the form of a tenant association. That was a big step – politicians started to listen; results started to happen.”

Then he was assigned to the Northfield Local Development Corporation. “I’m very proud of that – it’s been around for 35 years now – and I was among the starters. They’re still doing great things. The things that I learned in Brooklyn I was able to bring to Staten Island.”

With grandson Dalen

With grandson Dalen

“The city was the center,” he explains, “and I had learned how to tap into that.”

Bill bounced around the “non-profits” for over a decade, and learned the political landscape of the North Shore under the tutelage of the man he calls his mentor, Ron Burroughs, who introduced him to politics.

“I met and recruited Ron Burroughs in the late 1970’s while working for the SICC. Our agency had received a NYC grant to formulate and implement plans for the community and economic revitalization of the Port Richmond area of Staten Island. The program called for organizing the banks, merchants, homeowners, residents and other key stakeholders in the neighborhood into a Local Development Corporation.

Ron was a well respected, long time business owner in the Port Richmond area and he agreed to become a primary mover of the project.

Ron taught me valuable lessons about how to advocate for community service, and how to encourage citizen involvement in neighborhood improvement. He also schooled me in the art of politics and community development.

Proclamation from Councilman Michael McMahon on my 60th birthday

Proclamation from Councilman Michael McMahon on my 60th birthday

Through Ron’s leadership we were able to establish the Northfield Local Development Corporation (LDC), which today, after over three decades, is still delivering valuable services to the Port Richmond Community. It is amazing to look back so far and see that a seed you help plant is still growing. Ron made that experience possible.”

Part 5

By 1985 Bill was a community liaison for then-Borough President Ralph Lamberti.

“That lasted until the Molinari onslaught,” he says, “but they thought enough of me to pass me on to Howard Golden in Brooklyn. I met a lot of people there, including eventual Mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, who was a Deputy Borough President at the time. If he ever becomes Mayor, I can say I knew him when.” It was “tough politics” in Brooklyn, and eventually Taitt took a break and went into substance abuse counseling.

“I’ve always loved my work,” he says, reflecting. “I loved getting up in the morning to face the day. That’s been my good fortune, to be steadily employed at jobs that I loved.”

Campaigning with Bloomberg

Campaigning with Bloomberg

Bill’s innovative techniques and passion for his work caught the eyes of many in government, and when Mike McMahon was elected to the City Council one of the first letters he received was from William Taitt.

“I wrote that I heard he was interested in building bridges to all communities,” he says, “including the North Shore African-American community.” Bill explained how well he knew the lay of that land – politically and demographically.

“I’d already worked for two Borough Presidents – Ralph Lamberti and Howard Golden – so I was pretty comfortable in that arena.”

“That arena” was community liaison – Bill was always more about the helping people than holding a title. “I never wanted to be a politician – I just loved being the guy at his shoulder supplying him with the information he needed about the community.”

Not surprisingly, McMahon was impressed with Bill’s by-now growing resume and superior credentials. “It wasn’t really a hard sell; it was exactly what we both were looking for. It was part-time, so I was able to continue with my counseling and rep the Councilman to community groups and at tenant meetings.”

Bill took the responsibility very seriously: “I’ve always considered it an honor that someone in an elected position gave me this authority, and I felt very privileged to represent him.”

The responsibility entrusted to Bill Taitt only grew as Mike McMahon’s career progressed. Tapped by Democrats in Washington to run for the seat being vacated by Vito Fossella in 2008, McMahon appointed Taitt to captain his North Shore campaign office. Due an incredible show of efficiency by Bill Taitt, McMahon received 900 more votes in those election districts than Barack Obama. When the race was over, McMahon had won the right to go to Washington as the representative of the 13th C.D., and Bill was hired to be a constituent services representative in the newly-elected Congressman’s district office.

“I considered it a precious thing, and I was really proud that I was entrusted to take care of problems without oversight; to have the Congressman sign his name to letters and correspondence that I initiated,” he recalls proudly.

But what Bill really loved was helping people cut through the stifling red tape of local and federal government agencies. “There’s something about bureaucracies that’s crazy – they just seem to take on a life of their own and ignore the human side of the problems they’re trying to deal with. That was like fighting a gang to me – I was fighting as gang on behalf of the constituents.”

“It was all a high, working to help people – but some highs were greater than others; good cases, important cases, they came to fruition because of our hard work. It was so easy for the bureaucrats to say ‘No, I can’t’ and it was my job to say ‘C’mon man, you can.'”

When asked if he himself had ever considered a run for elected office, Bill demurred. “I do enjoy standing next to the elected person – that’s a comfortable zone, but I don’t have the temperament to run for office myself.”

Any advice to the new congressman? “Politics stops and the end of the election and governance takes over, and that should be non-partisan; govern all the people, make sure you represent all the people in the district.”

Part 6

William Taitt has reflected upon his past; the experiences, the incidents, the people, the happenstance and coincidence that shaped his life and his destiny – and he has much to be proud of. If the tale were to end here, at this moment in time, it would qualify as a true inspiration – but there is so much more of his legacy yet to be written.

“The greatest achievement of my life is my children; teaching them to always be productive in life – and to always be learning” he says decisively, remembering the role education played in his life.

“I, myself, finally got my college degree – two years ago. And for a guy from the Patterson projects to be able to boast of seven children with educations from Harvard, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Hunter, Florida State – all on scholarships by virtue of their own hard work – and with one who spent eleven years in the military, I think that my contribution to my country has been as great as it could be.

“My children are great assets to this nation, and I consider them to be my ultimate legacy. God shone a light upon me when I had the enormous good fortune to meet Pam, and together we responded.

“Pam told me that our youngest, who is now 23, told her that his siblings could fight all they want over Dad’s stuff when he dies, but all he wanted was my books. That makes me very proud.”

William Leonard Taitt’s voice grows quiet, distant.

“I may never have managed a corporation, but I managed this tribe of seven children, and when I look around, when I look at our family, everywhere I look I see success.”

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