"A walking, talking symbol of hope"

Coatesville's Osceola Wesley has helped addicts push the pushers away for half his 80 years. He's been there: "Many times I came back from death."

Posted: April 25, 2007

There is, to begin with, the name - Osceola.

It's the name of a Seminole chief, and it was bestowed on Osceola Wesley back in Georgia by his great-aunt Epsy, who was part Seminole herself.

The name fits the man. When he rises to full height - 6-foot-4 - he is a commanding presence. When he's wearing one of his trademark kufis, an Islamic prayer cap, and an iridescent African robe, he looks regal. One can imagine him, in another life, presiding over a tribal council or dispensing wisdom as a sage elder.

His teeth are gone, and his beard is no longer full. His heart is weak, and his frame more bone than flesh. But Wesley, at age 80, is still a magnificent specimen - if for no other reason than that he's still alive.

"Many times I came back from death," he said one day recently as he sat on a couch in his daughter's house in Coatesville. He resides there now after four years in a nursing home and what one friend describes as a "miraculous" recovery from congestive heart failure.

Wesley's life is too colorful, picturesque and quirky to be reduced to a single word. For starters, he's a black Republican Episcopalian ex-con who has been married five times. But there's no denying its dominant theme: drugs. Wesley spent the first half of his life surrendering to them, the last half battling them on behalf of others, mostly in and around Coatesville.

There, he is a revered figure, for his work as a counselor, for the antidrug marches he led, for the hundreds of people he helped escape addiction and the lives he redeemed and redirected.

"He's a true community hero," says former Chester County Commissioner Colin Hanna, who joined Wesley's antidrug marches during the 1990s. "He's a natural leader with a wonderful way about him. He can be impatient with people who don't share his sense of discipline and self-reliance, yet he has a gentleness and tenderness of heart."

His effectiveness stems in part from what Chester County Judge Anthony Sarcione calls Wesley's "pedigree" - as a drunk, a heroin shooter, a man so desperate for a high he used to boil off the alcohol in paragoric acid to harvest the trace opiates.

Today, Sarcione says, Wesley is "a walking, talking symbol of hope."

Ask Wesley what his proudest achievement is, and he replies without hesitation: "My recovery."

He can cite the exact date of his turnaround: Oct. 25, 1973, the day when he dragged himself to the VA hospital in Philadelphia for detox. He had no choice. All his veins were collapsed. His body was pocked with abscesses. His ankles were so swollen he could barely walk.

"I had no more flesh to shoot in," Wesley says. "I had run out."

It was a sad and shameful nadir for the former country boy who grew up wholesome on his daddy's 250-acre plantation in Georgia. The 10th of 15 children, Wesley quit school after eighth grade to work on the farm. When his father died and Wesley's first wife left him, he moved to Philadelphia, where he joined four brothers. Drafted by the Army during the Korean War, he was stationed for a time at Fort Bliss, Texas. During visits to Mexico, he became acquainted with marijuana, which eventually led to hard drugs.

Back in Philadelphia, he began using and selling heroin. He also ran speakeasies and began drinking heavily. In 1955, he was nabbed peddling heroin and sent to Holmesburg Prison, where he served five years of a commuted 10-year sentence. Once free, he immediately embraced his old habits. Sometimes he worked, sometimes he was on welfare. Always he was desperate for the next fix.

Finally, after 13 years, his ravaged body called it quits. After a week in the detox unit in Philadelphia, Wesley was transferred to the VA hospital in Coatesville.

"That's when I took off the mask," he says. "We all wear a thousand masks, and none of them is us."

The mask is Wesley's metaphor for denial and deceit - the psychological crutches that sustain all addicts, who are basically cowards, he says, fleeing from themselves, from failure, from life itself.

Wesley remained at the VA hospital for two years. There, he not only overcame his own addiction but also began helping others overcome theirs. He had a knack for reaching people and gaining their respect and trust. He could be patient and compassionate but also had the street smarts to honor them with bracing doses of tough love.

"If you feel sorry for an addict, he'll save you for last because he knows he can get over on you," Wesley says. He shied away from finger-wagging lectures and advice. ("The only thing worse than a vice is advice," he says.) Instead, he offered himself as a parable.

"I told them the story of my own life, what happened to me, how I made it," Wesley says. "We all have choices. Which road do you want to go down?"

Impressed by his determination and leadership skills, the hospital appointed him a resident counselor. In 1974, Wesley did volunteer work for a drug-and-alcohol rehab program called Project Together. He was so effective he was put on staff. After nine years there, he joined Riverside Care, ministering to addicts in Coatesville.

"He helped save my life, because I was really messed up," says Clarence Brown, 45, who was drinking heavily and using cocaine in his early 20s when he met Wesley. "I talked to him several times, and he pointed me in the right direction. Life is more than what I was doing, he told me. Get a job, get your GED. It's out there to get, if you want it. He was like a father type. He was just there for me."

In 1993, inspired by the late Philadelphia antidrug crusader Herman Wrice, Wesley began leading Friday-night marches of his own in troubled Coatesville. He and his fellow marchers routed pushers by bombarding them with chants:

"Up with hope! Down with dope!"

"Standing tall, looking good, taking back the neighborhood!"

Wesley led those weekly marches for nine years, from 1993 to 2002.

When Chester County set up a drug court in 1997, Wesley was an enthusiastic advocate and volunteer. The program enabled first-time drug offenders who remained clean for nine months to erase the slate. Wesley helped them mend their ways, regain their stride. "He has a really unique mixture of wisdom, compassion and humor," says Chester County Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody, who worked with Wesley in drug court.

"I didn't have any significant experience in dealing with drug addiction and all that goes with it. He didn't count me out. In a very kind and subtle way, he gave me the tools that enabled me to do my job. At the same time he was teaching us, he made sure we laughed at ourselves. He's fully aware of human nature and that we let one another down - we let ourselves down - and I think that's why he's so successful in inspiring people. He expects the best from everyone, and somehow he gets it."

In 2002, Wesley collapsed in Atlanta while attending a family reunion. His heart was so enlarged and weak he was given only months to live. His weight dropped to 113 pounds. At Main Line Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Malvern, he was fed intravenously. He lacked the strength to walk and had to use a wheelchair. He fell several times. One fall resulted in a broken neck and cracked ribs. Recently, he was diagnosed with diabetes and hepatitis C.

But once again he has resurrected himself. His vigor has returned, and he's able to walk with a cane. His spirit remains undiminished.

"It seems like life gets better and better," he declares.

He has a warm, ear-to-ear grin that he displays often, and his sense of humor is certified by laughter that is deep, hearty and sometimes makes his whole frame tremble with mirth.

His philosophy of life in a nutshell?

"Live as long as you can, and die when you can't help it."

Self-reliance is part of his creed, which is why he's a Republican.

"I'm a conservative in that I believe everyone ought to work hard and earn their own money, if they're able," he says.

The source of his strength?

"I'm a Christian and I believe in Christ."

For 28 years, he has attended St. James Episcopal Church in Downingtown, where he also served on the vestry and chaired the youth ministry. In the church directory, his black face stands out. African American friends sometimes ask why he attends a "white church."

His reply: "Man, when we go to heaven, you think it's going to be separate, whites on one side, blacks on the other? I go to church where I feel comfortable going."


Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-701-7623 or acarey@phillynews.com.

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