Rubin: The Detroit childhood that shaped Ben Carson
Benny already knew he wanted to be a doctor. His friend Tim only knew he didn’t want to pound rivets in a factory.
It was 1969. It was Detroit. For the 300 new graduates of Southwestern High School, the future offered adventure if that’s what you wanted, or a familiar routine if your preference was an assembly line.
No one could have suspected that slender, soft-spoken Ben Carson might someday run for leader of the free world, or that nearly half a century after “Pomp and Circumstance,” a president-elect would appoint him to his cabinet. But if you truly knew him, says attorney Timothy McDaniel, the career path makes sense.
Before Carson became a shining star in medicine and a shooting star in politics — and before Donald Trump chose him to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development — he lived in a 733-square-foot house on South Deacon Street, a brisk walk from the Marathon oil refinery and two auto plants.
He was a typical kid, said McDaniel and others, in that he, his household and his neighborhood were modest but stable.
He was atypical in that he was smarter than most people, and at the same time more driven.
He went to Yale University, then to medical school at the University of Michigan. He became a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon. He became wealthy and conservative and —
No, wait, McDaniel said. Carson was already conservative, even if he wasn’t political. He was committed, too, and curious.
“He knew his course,” McDaniel said, “and he stayed on it.”
McDaniel, 65, last saw Carson on Sunday, after he spent the night at the HUD nominee’s new mansion in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It’s not that they’re in touch, he said, but rather that they’ve never been out of touch.
Gregory Vartanian of Dearborn, a retired U.S. Marshal, hasn’t seen Carson since high school, but his recollections aren’t much different from McDaniel’s.
“Everything he did was precise. It was accurate,” said Vartanian, 66. “It was almost like it was a slow movement. Even the way he carried himself ... When you found out later he was a surgeon, it fit.”
Vartanian and Carson were both high-ranking officers in Southwestern’s Junior ROTC. Though the war was raging in Vietnam and the fight against it was raging at home, “It’s not that we were war-hungry. In all honesty, we liked the uniforms,” he says.
But Carson also liked the discipline, McDaniel said. The order. The drills, twirling disabled rifles.
“I used to tease him. I’d call him General Carson,” said McDaniel, who lives in Ann Arbor and keeps offices there and in Livonia.
Carson would laugh — he does that often, his friend said, even if the cameras don’t catch it — but then he would offer the same correction, that there are no generals in ROTC.
“He’s always ready to let you know he knows something,” McDaniel said.
Sometimes that can be befuddling, like when he insists the Pyramids of Giza were grain silos. Sometimes it can be obvious. When George Romney’s name came up over the weekend, Carson started to tell his Michigan-born, three-degreed companion that Romney had been president of American Motors before he became governor.
McDaniel called him on it, and “we both chuckled about that.” But here’s something not everyone knows, McDaniel said: Carson turned down the role of surgeon general in a previous administration because he considers it ceremonial.
“He wants to make a difference in people’s lives,” McDaniel said, and at his HUD confirmation hearings, he’ll outline how.
‘Everybody made do’
Carson, 65, has pointed to his boyhood surroundings as part of his credentials for his new job.
“I grew up in the inner city,” he told Fox News, “and have dealt with a lot of patients from that area and recognize that we cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities.”
At the same time, he has said that government assistance invites dependency, and he has dismissed fair-housing programs as “social engineering.” The Washington Post called his selection “beyond baffling.”
In a video produced for his presidential campaign, he stood in front of the carcass of an abandoned house in Detroit and said, “Poverty and the mean streets of Detroit could have defined my life.” Some viewers might logically have assumed the house and the streets were his, but if so, they were misdirected.
“It’s always been a very nice neighborhood,” Marie Choice said. “It was a good childhood.”
Choice was raised next door to Carson, his mother Sonya and his older brother, Curtis. Choice and her brother still live in the same house, east of Fort Street and south of Schaefer, inherited from their parents.
Two years younger than Carson, Choice remembers a grocery store, shoe shine parlor, physician’s office and dry cleaner that seemed like a few steps away. They’re gone, but the block remains solid. Across the street and a few doors down, there’s a peeling orange bungalow with a fallen tree blocking the front door — and it looks out of place, not commonplace.
Most of the families in the working-class neighborhood were similar to hers, she said, with a dad who built cars and a mom who took dictation in an office. The kids did kid things: swimming at Kemeny Recreation Center, riding bikes, racing home when the streetlights came on, playing board games.
“Everybody made do,” said Choice, a retired licensed practical nurse. If your family didn’t have a car, someone would drop you at your church on Sunday, then drive on to their own.
As Seventh-Day Adventists, the Carsons attended on Saturday. Theirs was a single-parent home, which also made them stand out.
According to Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” his parents divorced when he was 8 after his mother discovered that Robert Carson was a bigamist. An investigation of public records by the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail turned up no marriage license for Robert and Sonya, which would mean he was not technically a bigamist, but the net effect was the same: one woman working multiple housekeeping jobs to support two boys.
The Carsons left their home for several years after the split but returned when Ben was in junior high school. Vartanian recalled picking him up there for a before-school ROTC drill and finding Curtis, who’s now an engineer in Georgia, reading a book at the dining room table.
Vartanian made a joke about last-minute homework. It’s not that, Curtis told him: “We have to read two books a week and give reports to our mother.”
Sonya would hold the books as they spoke, pretending to follow along. It was only later they learned she was illiterate.
Times of change
The neighborhood has produced other doctors, Choice said, and at least one other Yalie. But in 1969, thoughts of higher education were not typically deep.
McDaniel was a wisp at the time, 5-foot-6 and 112 pounds, with emblems for cross country and track on his letter sweater.
“I’m not big enough to do manual labor,” he told Carson, but the only lawyer he’d heard of was Perry Mason and he didn’t know Harvard from Eastern Michigan. His choice of Michigan State for college was almost random, and he came to his eventual career in his 30s.
Carson was focused on the Ivy League because his mother was.
Choice said Sonya was well-spoken, whatever her educational limitations, and McDaniel said she was intense.
“She believed in overachieving at whatever you did,” he said, “and there was never a better candidate for that than Ben. He loved it.”
His high school interests were varied: chess club, ski club, ROTC, human relations club, National Honor Society. He wouldn’t initiate conversations, but if someone else did, he would engage. He was competitive, be it at chess, checkers or racking up the best grade in chemistry class.
Vartanian, the son of a letter carrier, said disposable income was a foreign concept. Movies and milkshakes were rare treats. Much of the time he and Carson were together, they simply wandered. Walking was free.
“Chit-chat,” McDaniel says. Talking was as cheap as walking, be it on the sidewalk or in a casual party in someone’s basement.
Oddly, given the times, he doesn’t remember the conversations being particularly substantial.
The Detroit riot was two years in the past, and Coleman Young was five years from becoming the city’s first black mayor. In the second decade of the race to the suburbs, a city of 1.5 million was already 43 percent African-American. But the men in blue were almost universally white, and jobs in the fire department were handed down within families like great-grandma’s silverware.
“We were aware things were changing,” McDaniel said, “but we were comfortable with the way things were, because that’s the way we grew up.”
Carson has told of sheltering white classmates in a science room when a disturbance broke out after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Media attempts to confirm the story have been unsuccessful, though the dust-up itself has been verified.
“I think that was kids who wanted to get out of school,” said Gerald Ware, 65, a friend from Carson’s graduating class. “That’s what I wanted it for. It was just half a day off for me.”
After graduation, Ware took the road that led through the auto plants.
Life’s been good: 47 years of marriage, three sons, a pension. But times have changed, and Felicia Reese will tell you people need help — the sort of help HUD can provide.
Reese, a registered nurse, lives in Carson’s old house on Deacon Street. She bought it in 1992 for a bit less than $40,000, more than it’s worth now, but it’s loved and it’s paid off.
Carson’s new home in Florida has a brick driveway, six bedrooms and a cross-shaped pool. It’s 12 times the size of Reese’s.
She spoke to him briefly when he showed in the old neighborhood with Trump during the campaign. He didn’t ask to come inside.
“That house, despite how little it is, it costs a lot to maintain,” she says.
Whatever Carson remembers about Detroit, or doesn’t, she hopes he won’t forget that.