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A Bridge So Close : Neighborhood: Eddie Frey recounts his troubled youth as he tries to steer young people off the streets and toward success.

July 17, 1992|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's only about eight miles from the corner of 55th Street and Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles to Eddie Frey's executive office at the Northrop Corp. plant in El Segundo.

But for a lot of youths in the tough neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, those two places might seem worlds apart.

W. E. (Eddie) Frey III spends a lot of his time teaching those youngsters that it's a journey worth making--and that they can make it. He talks to high school classes, acts as friend and counselor to students going through his company's training program and takes an interest in youths who ask for help.

Frey knows what he's talking about. Because although today he is 47 and makes $65,000 a year as a production administrator at Northrop's F/A-18 fighter assembly plant, 30 years ago he was one of those kids--a gangbanger hanging out on the street, a kid on a collision course with the law, a kid with no apparent future.

"They used to tell me I was bad, just like they tell these kids they're bad," Frey said. "I burglarized houses, I rode around in stolen cars, I was out there in the park drinking wine and just hanging out. But I wasn't really a bad kid. I had just taken the wrong road.

"Fortunately there was a bridge I could cross over again. Now somebody's going to have to get off their butt and do something with these kids, help them cross those bridges, or else we're going to lose an entire generation. That's all I'm trying to do.

"Besides," Frey added, smiling, "what else am I going to do? Watch television?"

Frey's journey from problem child to problem solver at an aircraft factory began in the early 1960s, when he was a teen-ager in the neighborhood around 55th and Vermont. A student at Cathedral High School and then Manual Arts High School, Frey early on started running with a gang--although gang had a different connotation in those days.

"There weren't any Crips and Bloods back then," Frey said. "We were just a bunch of guys who called ourselves the Gladiators. We'd fight, we'd steal, you know, break into a store and steal some bottles of wine, but it wasn't like it is today. If we got into a fight, most of the time it was a fistfight, toe to toe, man to man. Most we'd ever have was a zip gun we made in shop class, one of those one-shot things that would blow up in your face. But even that was rare."

A zip gun, he said, is a homemade gun fashioned from a piece of pipe with a firing pin powered by a rubber band.

Although Frey said he was questioned by police on countless occasions, he avoided arrest and did not acquire a juvenile criminal record--at least partly because, he said, "I was one of the fast ones." Most of the kids he hung out with wound up in prison, or dead or caught in dead ends, he said.

Frey joined the Marines when he was 17, trained as an aircraft mechanic in the military, got his high school equivalency diploma and served two tours of duty in Vietnam. After he got out of the Marines in 1966, he worked for Continental Airlines for a while, then was a professional photographer.

He also got involved with drugs and in 1974 his luck in evading the law ran out. He was arrested for drug smuggling and served three years in federal prison. Released on parole in 1978, he applied for a job on the Navy F/A-18 production line at Northrop.

Northrop officials knew he was an ex-con, he said, "but they gave me a chance anyway." And he has made the best of it.

A few years later he was promoted to management. He and his wife, also a Northrop employee, live in Ladera Heights. He has three children by a previous marriage, two of them college graduates, the third with two years of college--a record that makes Frey, who's about a semester away from a college degree, an extremely proud father.

Frey is also proud of the fact that, despite his prison record, "It's been 15 years and I haven't gotten so much as a jaywalking ticket."

Frey's work with inner-city youths began 10 years ago, when he volunteered as a speaker for the Youth Motivation Task Force, a program that sends people from the business community into schools to talk to students about careers and the importance of staying in school.

And what does he tell those children?

"First thing I tell them," Frey said, "is, 'I'm not going to tell you to don't use drugs and stay in school.' That always gets their attention, because everyone is always telling them, 'Don't use drugs and stay in school.' I don't try to force anything on them. I just tell them a little of my own experiences, show them that it can be done."

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