By the time he reached 37, Freddie Sherrill had sunk to the bottom of Charlotte's street life.
He guzzled Wild Irish Rose wine at $1.25 a pint, snorted cocaine and shot up heroin. He slept in vacant houses and in cardboard boxes under railroad bridges, on the coldest nights flinging bricks through store windows so police would take him to a warm jail. He did four stretches in truancy school, starting at age 8, five in prison and five more at treatment centers. Sherrill even failed at suicide.
All of which prepared him, oddly enough, for Saturday. At 65, a once-broken man who could barely read will graduate from Queens University of Charlotte.
Sherrill had plenty of help on his unlikely path to a college degree, among them a forgiving wife, a minister who gambled on a stranger and members of Myers Park Presbyterian Church, where he's been sexton, charged with building maintenance, for 15 years.
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But in the end, as he learned to read and master the life skills most of us get in grade school, his supporters say Sherrill alone pulled himself up.
"I probably admire him more than any man I know," said former Myers Park Presbyterian minister Steve Eason, who will travel from Knoxville, Tenn., for Saturday's commencement.
"At points where some people would have turned back, he went deeper. And because of his humility and openness, he had so many people want to help him. They saw Freddie as a sound investment."
Sherrill never knew his biological father. Crammed into a shotgun house in Charlotte's Brooklyn area, a black community long since demolished, he and his two sisters and two brothers all slept in the same bed. Neighborhood kids taunted him because of his stutter, while older boys recruited him to snatch purses and steal from stores. He sold the Charlotte News on street corners but made off with the money he collected.
"I was afraid to be my own person," he said. "There could be a crowd of people and I'd still feel alone."
He went to prison for the first time at 16, when police found him passed out drunk in a stolen car. That marked the beginning of more than 20 years of drugs and hard drinking. In lucid moments, he nursed a dream of somehow becoming a schoolteacher and starting his own family.
Sherrill remembers Dec. 16, 1988, as vividly as you would your own child's birth.
He had been released from a halfway house, he says, with nowhere to go. He spent the $2 in his pocket on a bottle of wine but dropped it. On his knees, he tried to lick alcohol from the shards of broken glass and began to weep.
Sherrill says he walked to a railroad track, pulled the .25-caliber pistol he always carried, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun didn't fire. He threw the pistol to the ground and it went off, pop-pop-pop.
Sent to a detoxification center after three days in a hospital, "I couldn't stop crying. I said the only prayer I knew: 'God, please help me.' I was just tired of living. I wanted to die and couldn't even do that."
A counselor, Sherrill said, told him "happiness had to come from within."
After a few months of sobriety, Sherrill landed at a rehabilitation center in Morganton, where he got a job sanding chairs at a furniture plant. He also did yard work and was befriended by a local couple who introduced him to their minister, Eason, who at the time was pastor at First Presbyterian in Morganton.
The church needed a sexton.
"He asked me, what did I know how to do?" Sherrill said. "I said, 'All I know is to lie, cheat and steal, use drugs and drink.' "
"I said, 'Well, I can try you on that job, but let me tell you something,' " Eason recalled. " 'I will fire you on the spot in the hallway if I smell alcohol or mouthwash with alcohol in it. There won't be three strikes.' "
Cries for help
Sherrill soon found himself in a test he'd never faced — entrusted with the keys to the sprawling church. At night, while cleaning, he sometimes sat in Eason's office chair and pretended he was a businessman. He took pride in baby steps, like walking into the local Ingles grocery store and paying for cigarettes instead of stealing them.
And in Morganton, his real education began.
With the help of the Burke County Literacy Council and the newspaper sports pages he jammed into his back pocket, Sherrill began to learn to read. He started classes at Western Piedmont Community College to earn his high school equivalency degree, passing by a single point on his sixth try.
Sherrill found that he liked the classroom. It took 13 years, until 2002, but he eventually earned an associate's degree in human services with a concentration in substance abuse counseling at Western Piedmont.
He also started speaking before Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups and was eventually invited to talk with teens imprisoned at the nearby Western Correctional Center. Years of leading Wednesday night AA meetings there led to a job in 1995 as a substance abuse counselor at the Morganton center and at a facility in nearby Marion.
Sherrill kept in touch with Eason after the minister left Morganton. In 2002, Myers Park Presbyterian called Eason as its new pastor. Sherrill soon took a job there, too, as sextant.
It's to Eason that, each Christmas Eve, Sherrill presents the AA chips that mark another year of sobriety. Eason has a box full of them now.
"It's the most incredible life story in my life, and I've been pastoring 39 years," Eason said. "He's got so much street sense, and he's so unconditional in his love and acceptance for people because he's been on the dark side. He doesn't judge people; he sees the good in folks. 'Don’t throw him away,' I've heard him tell me that."
In Charlotte, Sherrill worked with poor children in the Grier Heights community and as a volunteer with Right Moves for Youth, a nonprofit groups that works to prevent students from dropping out of school. Sherrill sees his younger self in those kids, many of them adrift, often hungry and acting out in class — all cries for help, he says.
Along the way, Sherrill got the family he'd yearned for. A friend introduced him to his future wife, Lula, after he returned to Charlotte after another trip to rehab. He says she's the real hero of his story.
"I wanted her because she went to church," he said, unlike his previous girlfriends. "I thought I needed responsibility. But I got worse."
For seven years after their 1981 marriage, Sherrill said, his old ways continued unabated. While Lula worked two and three jobs at a time, Sherrill stole TVs, clothes and food from their home to buy alcohol and drugs, sometimes not coming home for a week at a time.
"Her life was hell."
The couple had two daughters, Charlene and Roshannon, and a son. Sherrill, who had been sober for a couple of years when Freddie Jr. was born, read aloud to his son while he was still in the womb.
"The first thing I buy my kids is a book," he said. "I associate not being able to read and write to being blind and not being able to see."
Freddie Jr., with the help of Myers Park church members — Sherrill himself attends Second Calvary Baptist Church — was able to attend high school at Charlotte Latin on an academic scholarship. He went on to graduate from N.C. A&T University with an engineering degree and, at 26, is now a financial adviser with Merrill Lynch in Houston.
Out of the abyss
Sherrill had turned to church members for help in 2009, when he and his son were trying to navigate college admissions. Former Bank of America executive Bill Vandiver, a life trustee at Queens who had coached Sherrill on financial matters, nudged him toward taking classes himself.
"Here's a guy who pulled himself out of the abyss largely on his own," Vandiver said. "He said, 'I want to do this myself.' I did not help him. He's done it. It’s a great story of goal setting, perseverance and determination."
Brian Ralph, Queens' former vice president of enrollment management, believes Sherrill wanted to be a role model for his son.
"I believe he clearly saw that higher education is substantially valuable, no matter what stage of life you're in," said Ralph, who's now president of William Peace University in Raleigh. "As he looked at his pathway, going to college was in some ways just a natural next challenge for him. He's just one of those people who overcomes and overcomes and overcomes."
Sherrill plunged into college with a philosophy class. "I couldn't keep up," he said. Next came computer and psychology classes. Scholarships and student loans financed his classes, which he took at night or in the afternoons. Queens professors and learning centers helped him improve his writing and study skills as he progressed.
Sherrill made a practice of sitting up front in class, always with two questions to ask. He bought and began reading textbooks in advance of upcoming classes. Myers Park members Shep Robinson and his wife served as proofreaders of his class papers.
His seven years of classwork at Queens were not without stumbles. He failed a statistics course twice before taking a semester off and enrolling in basic math classes at Central Piedmont Community College, returning to Queens to earn a B-minus in the course on his third try.
He'll graduate Saturday with a bachelor's degree in human service studies, and still grows teary when he recounts his journey.
"I just wouldn't quit," he said. "That's the story of my life: Don't quit."