Tar Heel of the Week

Cary man finds his niche as a problem-solver

CorrespondentMay 18, 2013 

TARHEELNE051613CEL

Otis Herndon and his wife moved to the Chatham Forest neighborhood in Cary, she told him she didn't feel safe, and he vowed to change that. He started by engaging with area youth, spearheading Tae Kwon Do classes and other programs for them and personally stepping in to ease conflicts. Cary police say his unprecedented involvement in their Project Phoenix crime prevention program has made a huge impact in his own neighborhood, so much so that he is now helping train citizens in other Cary communities. Here he stands on the workout mat at the White Tiger Tae Kwon Do studio in Cary as a class warms up behind him.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Otis Lee Herndon

    Born: June 13, 1953, Apex

    Residence: Cary

    Career: Community watch representative and mentor, Chatham Forest apartment complex

    Family: Wife, Joan Herndon; two dogs

    Fun Fact: Though he devotes much of his time now to the children in his neighborhood, Herndon never had children of his own. He says he did help raise a niece and nephew; one is starting at N.C. State University this fall.

— After years of traveling around the country and world, Otis Herndon was ready to settle in when he moved to the Chatham Forest apartment complex six years ago.

But his wife said she didn’t feel safe in the community off West Chatham Street, where drugs and violence kept many residents behind locked doors.

So Herndon, a 59-year-old Apex native, vowed to make his new home safe. And he did just that, becoming a one-man community watchdog while also steering his youngest neighbors toward better futures.

Cary Police Capt. Don Hamilton says community members often help his department fight crime. But he says Herndon’s efforts rise well above the norm.

“From my experience, there’s probably no one like Otis,” Hamilton says. “He does more than anyone to make the community he lives in a better place.”

Herndon, often called “Mr. Otis,” keeps an eye out for crime on daily patrols through the neighborhood, serves as an informal youth counselor, drives neighborhood children to weekly taekwondo lessons and monitors the community’s pool in the summer.

He also works with police on outreach efforts in other parts of Cary, helping teach other residents how to deter crime and improve their communities.

“I promised my wife I’d make it safe here,” he says. “And I’m the kind of person that if I set my mind on a goal, I stick to it. Nothing is going to make me budge.”

A rough beginning

Herndon grew up in Apex when the town was strictly segregated, starting out on a tobacco farm but eventually moving around town several times.

On his side of the tracks, he says, violence and poverty were the norm.

His mother was killed when he was 3, and he went to live with a schoolteacher aunt. But he says he spent much of his time on the street.

“I ain’t always been an angel,” he says. “I had anger issues. I was just like any of these kids you see out there today causing trouble.”

He ran away several times as a youth, witnessed all manner of drugs and violence, and took part in many a knife fight, he says. He recalls once being stabbed, only to return to the streets as soon as the hospital released him.

But he says the county authorities tried hard to steer him in the right direction when he was brought in after fights as a youth.

“They saw something in me, God knows what,” he says. “They worked with me and worked on me.”

At one point, he says, a judge called him “a walking time bomb about to explode.”

“That stuck with me,” Herndon says. “Since then, I’ve tried hard to turn negatives into positives.”

He left town before he finished school, eager to strike out on his own, but returned in time to be drafted into the military in the 1970s. He was stationed in Korea and stayed in the Marines for eight years, rising to the rank of gunnery sergeant.

He met his wife, a Marine nurse, during that time. They were based mainly in Washington, D.C., and Virginia but also traveled abroad to Mali and the Ivory Coast, among other places.

They married once he left the service. When she retired, they traveled across the country in a motor home, with Herndon doing maintenance work at many of their stops.

He says he always liked moving around, taking in different people and places.

“I learned more traveling than I did staying at home,” he says. “I learned people. I see things and they soak in and I try to analyze it and use that knowledge later.”

He was working at a campground in New York when the aunt who raised him fell ill, prompting his return to North Carolina in 2007, where he got a maintenance job at the Chatham Forest apartments.

His aunt died shortly after he arrived, and he suffered a stroke not long after that.

He has not worked since, but he says his neighborhood activities have been important to his recovery, keeping him active and giving him a sense of purpose.

‘Thank you, Mr. Otis’

His first step in fixing the problems at Chatham Forest was to take a hard look at them.

“I got out and walked for about a week, and I thought, ‘Something ain’t healthy here,’ ” he says. “The kids were all inside, the parents wouldn’t go out.”

He found that gang activity was a problem, and he started calling the police regularly to report anything suspicious. He credits the increased police presence with forcing some of the worst offenders to move out.

But he also found groups of young people who may have looked tough but reminded him of himself as a youth – troubled children who might just as easily slip into criminal activity as not.

He wanted to turn them in the right direction, and he started talking to them about their behavior, their choices, the consequences of their actions. And he found that they listened.

“If I see them messing up, I pull them to the side and just say, ‘Hey, calm it down a notch.’ And they say ‘Thank you, Mr. Otis’ and go about their business,” he says. “If they have a problem, they know they can come to me, even if they don’t want to go to their parents.”

He also started offering them alternatives, arranging and promoting activities` with the help of the town and local churches and businesses.

In addition to the free taekwondo classes offered at White Tiger Taekwondo, twice-weekly tutoring sessions at Chatham Forest allow students to get help with homework.

Herndon is working on forming a track team.

Every other weekend, mentors take the children to hockey games, movies or other activities.

The main stipulation for all of this is that the children stay in school and get decent grades. So far, most of them have.

“What we do is try to keep them busy and positive,” he says.

Herndon says the changes started slowly but in the past few years have “taken off like a jet plane.”

Officer Josh Fulbright says crime is way down in the neighborhood, and the crimes that do occur are dealt with more quickly thanks to the close-knit group of residents that Herndon has united against crime.

“He has made it clear that the community is not going to be how it was in the past going into the future,” Fulbright says.

Valerie Marsh, a mother of four, was afraid to let her children play outside when she moved to Chatham Forest three years ago. But she says the turnaround has been swift.

“There was drug dealing, fighting, vandalism, and I didn’t want my children to be around that,” she says. “But this man gets out there and works hard making sure we’re safe. As a parent, I can say that I feel safer with him around.”

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