Robert Sanchez first met Fred Davie in 1998, in a small, windowless room at Sing Sing Prison. Sanchez was there serving 15 years on a drug conviction; Davie was a Presbyterian minister, who was teaching there in a theology master's program.
It "didn't look like much of an educational setting," Sanchez laughs. He was studying toward his master's in theology, sitting there with 16 men, most of whom were serving sentences of 15 to 20 years. "But that room created magic."
On a visit to StoryCorps with Sanchez, Davie recalls those days nearly two decades ago — and remembers just how impressed he was with how well-read his students were. But Sanchez says Davie shouldn't have been surprised.
"Fred, we didn't have much else to do," Sanchez laughs.
It wasn't the only thing that surprised Davie.
"I remember that you said that you had no arrests prior, nothing in your system, and nothing on you, and you got 15 years to life for a nonviolent drug charge. But I thought, he's making that up," Davie says. "It can't be possible."
Still, Sanchez says he got through the sentence by holding fast to hope: "What is life without hope? Even an iota of light can go a long way."
Davie struck Sanchez as an embodiment of that hope — kindness and beauty, represented in the form of this Presbyterian minister.
And Sanchez got through it. He was released 16 years ago, he says, but when he returned home all that greeted him was fear. Nevertheless, one thing remained certain: Davie's phone number, and his open ears.
"I knew that I can pick up the phone and tell you, 'Fred, I don't get this s***,' " he laughs. "I could just ask the dumbest questions ever, but you never told me they were dumb."
For Davie, it's a matter of how he was raised.
"I had people in my corner every step of the way. My dad wasn't there, but if things messed up, no matter where I was, I could always go to my mother's front porch, and know that I was welcome."
And Sanchez says he knew he always had that support in Davie, even if nowhere else. Sanchez didn't grow up with a father either — his own dad died from an overdose. "If I had a dad," he tells Davie, "if I had somebody that was going to guide me, that was you."
These days, Sanchez works as a social worker, helping people who are coming out of prison — people going through the very same transition he did 16 years ago. Dark patches remain, of course, times when he feels bitter or angry or lonely, "and if I'm not careful I can fall into these doldrums," he says.
"But," he tells his mentor, "just you being there to be able to listen to me and say, 'You know what, you're going to be OK,' it's a tremendous gift. And I'm a lucky man."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And it's Friday morning. Time again for StoryCorps. And today, we hear from a social worker who helps people coming out of prison. Robert Sanchez knows what they're going through because he's been there himself. He's served 15 years on a drug charge at Sing Sing in New York. At StoryCorps, Sanchez has been thanking people who helped him after his release, including Fred Davie, a Presbyterian minister he met in a theology class.
ROBERT SANCHEZ: We met at Sing Sing in this small, windowless room...
FRED DAVIE: Yeah, exactly.
SANCHEZ: ...Which didn't look like much of a educational setting.
DAVIE: (Laughter) I know.
SANCHEZ: But that room created magic. I think it was 16 men. Most of us were there for about 15-20 years.
DAVIE: I remember being impressed at how well-read you guys were.
SANCHEZ: Fred, we didn't have much else to do.
DAVIE: I remember that you said you had no arrests prior, nothing in your system and nothing on you. And you got 15 years to life for a nonviolent drug charge. But I thought he's making that up.
SANCHEZ: It can't be possible.
DAVIE: (Laughter) It can't be possible, right.
SANCHEZ: I think I survived it by always having hope. What is life without hope? Even an iota of light can go a long way. And my first impression of you was here's this beautiful, kind man who, for whatever reason, just represents hope to me.
DAVIE: All these years, I never knew this had that much impact on you.
SANCHEZ: Oh, it did, Fred, it did. I've been home for 16 years now. When I came home, I was so afraid. But I knew that I can pick up the phone and tell you, Fred, I don't get this [expletive].
DAVIE: (Laughter) Right.
SANCHEZ: I could just ask the dumbest questions ever, but you never told me they were dumb.
DAVIE: For me, I had people in my corner every step of the way. My dad wasn't there. But if things messed up, no matter where I was, I could always go to my mother's front porch and know that I was welcome.
SANCHEZ: I have that from you, but I didn't have that from anywhere else. So, you know, it's weird because I'm not your son.
DAVIE: Right (laughter).
SANCHEZ: But, you know, I didn't grow up with a father neither. My father died from an overdose. So I saw you as - like, if I had a dad, if I had somebody that was going to guide me, that was you.
DAVIE: Wow. Thank you. Most folks who've been through what you've been through don't get this far.
SANCHEZ: Yeah. I got to be reminded every now and then. There are times when I get bitter and angry at my situation. I live a pretty lonely life, and if I'm not careful, I can fall into these doldrums. But just you being there to be able to listen to me and say, you know what, you're going to be OK, it's a tremendous gift, and I'm a lucky man.
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INSKEEP: Robert Sanchez and Fred Davie at StoryCorps in New York. Their interview is archived at the Library of Congress and is featured on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.