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The Faces of '96

A Call to Peace:

Tookie Williams and Barbara Cottman Becnel

December 27, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN

An inmate author does his best to save children from a life of crime.

An actress struggles to regain her life and livelihood after losing both legs in a crash.

The wife of a socially prominent attorney leaves her husband and children to marry a convicted murderer.

A wife-attorney defends her White House advisor-husband after he is photographed in the arms of another woman.

You met these remarkable people on the pages of Life & Style in 1996. Our writers and photographers took you into their worlds for a moment, to ponder their dilemmas and learn about what makes them tick.

And then, because the news is the news, they vanished from our view.

But their stories did not end once you had read about them. Here, we catch up with several of 1996's most memorable people.

*

The literary firestorm, unleashed in September when Stanley "Tookie" Williams co-wrote a series of anti-gang books for children, has continued full force.

Williams, the surviving co-founder of one of this country's most notorious street gangs--the Crips--has resided on San Quentin Prison's death row for more than 15 years since his conviction for three murders committed in the course of two robberies.

With a picture of Williams as a logo on each book cover, the "Tookie Speaks Out" series has been embraced by school districts and youth organizations around the country. Officially, the books are targeted at young readers, ages 6 to 9. But Williams' co-author, Los Angeles journalist Barbara Cottman Becnel, said 10- to 14-year-olds have gravitated toward the series, which exhorts young people to shun violence and turn their backs on gang activities.

The attention that surrounded the publication of the "Tookie" books prompted the nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, an international think tank whose primary sites are in Berkeley and Bethesda, Md., to contact Williams and Becnel.

The upshot of that connection is the imminent establishment of the Institute for the Prevention of Youth Violence, a national project intended to introduce anti-gang and anti-violence curricula to schools throughout the country. The institute will also publish a quarterly journal, Sticks and Stones, addressing issues pertaining to youth violence.

Becnel will edit the journal and Williams will be editor at large. Williams also will serve on the institute's advisory board.

Dr. Allan Cohen, the Pacific Institute's executive director, said the "Tookie" books were what drew him to Williams and Becnel. "I saw the books and I heard the passion in her voice," Cohen said of his first conversation with Becnel. "The themes in the books were entirely congruent with what I think is the best knowledge of the potential of young people to get associated with negative behavior."

A co-founder with Becnel of the Institute for the Prevention of Youth Violence is Lilly Lee, a Los Angeles-based international real estate investor. Lee designed one of the institute's first programs, Club Kids International, in which members will be asked to sign "I Promise Not to Join a Gang" pledge forms inserted in copies of the "Tookie" books. If they adhere to the pledge through high school, they will receive scholarship assistance for college.

Visiting her co-author at San Quentin recently, Becnel said the impact of the "Tookie" books was brought home to her once again when a guard approached the seating area where she and Williams were conferring. By way of introduction, the guard extended her arm to shake hands with Williams, then told him that her elementary-school-age son had a set of the books at home.

"Thank you," the guard told Williams. "Thank you for writing these books."

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