By Toni W. Riley
Ron Gager sits behind his desk at the H.O.P.E. Family Resource Center at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary and smiles broadly as he describes growing up in Hopkinsville.
Gager, 51, grew up in Eastside Terrace from the mid-1960s to the late-1970s. His parents are Alice Albritten and the late Samuel Gager, but he grew up in a single-parent household with his mother, three brothers and two sisters. Ron was the youngest.
His mother was a secretary and switch board operator at Western State Hospital.
“She was a strong, influential woman,” he recalls. “We were a large family, but we all worked together to help each other.”
Eastside Terrace was a part of the Hopkinsville Housing Authority, or the “projects,” as it was called then.
“We were in the ‘new’ projects,” Gager says. “Moores Court was the old projects.”
Reflecting, Gager describes his childhood as one in a close-knit community where everyone knew everyone. He was surrounded by good friends and people who cared about him.
He and his friends went outside and played every day, being the true definition of “free-range kids.” There was no staying in the house. Everyone watched after everyone’s children. They played and ate at each other’s homes. They were like extended family. Gager is still close, today, with childhood friends Darrell Davie and Ricky Cheatham.
Gager fondly remembers a group of friends who built a basketball court in the woods next to Eastside Terrace. The youthful DIY’ers cleared out just enough area to have a court — even though they had to dribble around an occasional rock or tree — and nailed chitterling buckets to trees for goals. Their basketballs, the ones that were thrown out at basketball games, were plastic and about the size of a grapefruit.
Gager grins when he reminisces the nicknames of professional basketball players they each took on — he was Nate Archibald “because Nate was small.”
There were many good teachers helping him make his career decisions, but the real turning point was when he had Mary Barnett as a teacher in fifth grade at Attucks Middle School.
“Mrs. Barnett believed in me,” he said. “She instilled in me that I could learn like anyone else and needed to be moved up to Level 1.”
In those years, classes were leveled by ability. The first level students were considered the “smart kids” by the other students.
“You have to realize the (Level) 1s were all white kids, except for one African-American child and one Asian child, and I was scared to be the second African-American in the class,” he said.
Gager knew he would be teased by his friends and did not look forward to going, but with Mrs. Barnett’s insistence, he moved up. As a result, he excelled in math, and Mrs. Barnett wanted to take him to an academic meet at South Christian Elementary.
“I was not going,” he laughed. “Mrs. Barnett came to my house to pick me up, and I was NOT going. She told me, ‘You get up, you are going,’ and I did.” He and Mrs. Barnett remain close today.
There were other nurturing parts of his childhood. His church, First Street Baptist, was another supportive community, where children were corrected when they did something wrong and hoped their parents weren’t told.
Gager also remembers Jossie Jessup, a 4-H assistant who had activity groups at Eastside Terrace and would teach the children how to make things they couldn’t afford to buy.
Summing up his childhood, Gager said it was challenging but good.
“You know what’s really exciting about my upbringing was we didn’t know we lived in the projects; we were just a bunch of neighborhood kids playing together,” he said. “Our parents expected us to go by the rules, go to school, learn and say, ‘Yes mam and no mam.’ Just because we lived in a housing project was no excuse. Everyone was like that.”
Gager went on to graduate from Hopkinsville High School in 1982. He earned his degree from Western Kentucky University with a major in physical education and minors in counseling and military science. He has been at the H.O.P.E. center for 21 years and worked at Pennyroyal Center as a prevention specialist prior. He and his wife, Terrie, have one daughter, Idaya.
By Toni W. Riley