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Lou Dantzler, 69; Founder of L.A.'s Challengers Boys & Girls Club

July 09, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Lou Dantzler did not learn the importance of filling the empty places in a kid's life from reading a book.

That was a lesson Dantzler learned as a young child, growing up on a farm in South Carolina without a father and with a future that held few prospects, aside from toiling in cotton fields. An older cousin named Willie set about teaching the young Dantzler and his friends, the way a father would teach a son: lessons in strength and courage and how to strive for something more than "this downtrodden, go-nowhere life."

"He taught us how to be men," Dantzler wrote years later. "And I just soaked it up. I reveled in having an older man tell me things, listen to me and help me out."

For 40 years Dantzler played the same role in the lives of boys -- and later girls -- in South Los Angeles. Through his Challengers Boys & Girls Club on Vermont Avenue, "Papa Lou" or "Mr. Lou," as he was called, became a deeply loved and respected father figure, helping to guide youths into becoming healthy, productive adults.

Dantzler, 69, died Thursday of complications from a stroke he suffered July 1, according to Kathleen Felesina, who co-wrote Dantzler's just-released book, "A Place to Go, A Place to Grow: Simple Things That Make a Difference for At-Risk Kids."

The club Dantzler started with 12 boys in 1968 grew into a nationally acclaimed organization that has served more than 34,000 young people. Former participants include filmmaker John Singleton and onetime Dodger Eric Davis, who was a member from age 7 until high school.

"We're losing a pioneer, in every sense of the word," Davis told The Times. Dantzler took a community "that no one else believed in, and he made believers of everybody. I don't know anybody who could say they had the vision of what Lou saw back then.... He had more confidence in us than we had in ourselves."

Over the years, the club amassed a long and eclectic list of supporters and visitors: Magic Johnson, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Tavis Smiley, former President Bush. During a visit in the days after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Bush praised Dantzler for his work as founder of the club and later welcomed him to the White House.

"You are a genuine Point of Light," and you exemplify what is best about our country serving others," Bush wrote in the precede to Dantzler's book.

Dantzler was born in Cameron, S.C., to Narvis and Arthur Dantzler, the youngest of the sharecropping couple's 22 children. Dantzler was 7 when his father died. In the absence of his father, he learned the meaning of longing and lack. In the presence of his mother, he learned generosity, faith and good character.

"My mother was the kind of person who, when someone was sick, she'd take them food. And I'd think, 'We need that food.' But we always survived," he said in a 1999 interview with The Times. "That taught me a lot about how to live."

To help provide for the family, a teenage Dantzler drove a tractor and picked and chopped cotton. When his cousin Willie returned from a stint in the Army -- his way of escaping the racism of the South and a future picking cotton -- he took Dantzler under his wing, teaching him lessons as varied as how to treat women and how to pitch a baseball and intimidate the batter.

"Not that I didn't get plenty of attention and love from my mother; it's just that it's hard to talk about girls or sports with your mom," Dantzler wrote in his book. "There are some things only another man will understand."

After graduating from high school, Dantzler signed up for the Air Force. There he found freedom "from the pervasive Southern racist attitude."

"I left behind the insecure, inferior sharecropper's son," he wrote. "I could be whoever I wanted to be."

In the Air Force, Dantzler was trained as a communications specialist, with assignments at the Pentagon and in Saudi Arabia. Back in the States, while on a leave, Dantzler went on a blind date with Ruby Talley, who lived in Los Angeles. The two married in 1961 and had two sons, Mark and Corey, both of whom would later join his work at Challengers. Corey Dantzler will now assume the role of president and chief executive, while Mark Dantzler will continue as program director.

In addition to his sons, Dantzler is survived by his wife and three sisters.

In Los Angeles, Dantzler sometimes worked several jobs simultaneously to provide for his family. He was a night-shift custodian for the Los Angeles Unified School District, a stockroom clerk, a photographer, a gardener and an Amway salesman.

But he always made time for youths. On his gardening route, there were boys who looked forward to his cutting their lawn and "shadowed me while I worked, asking loads of questions about my equipment and begging for rides in my truck," which he often provided.

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