Best changed people's addresses and lives

March 31, 2004|HERB BROCK

When Priscilla Johnson was a little girl, she lived in a neighborhood whose houses hardly would have been featured in a showcase of Danville's fine homes.

"A person came to our neighborhood and spotted an animal running around in a yard and said, 'Look at that cat,'" Johnson said. "Our neighbor said to the person, 'Cat? Honey, that's a rat.'"

Johnson uses that story to paint a vivid picture of how bad conditions were about 25 years ago in the neighborhood in which she lived at the time, which was in the High Street area of Danville. But she has many other stories to make the picture even sharper and darker, like the one about how her mother regarded doing the laundry like a soldier would view entering a combat zone. It was a life and death situation.

"The wiring was so bad in our house, Mom had to worry every time she turned on the washer whether she would be electrocuted," she said.


The stories of disease-infested rats and faulty wiring, plus accounts of homeless transients living in abandoned houses and competing with the rats for discarded food in garbage cans, were horror tales not just for Johnson and her parents, Vellis and Anna Mae Howard, and her three sisters, as they tried to make a home out of a run-down, two-bedroom house. They also were reality for her grandparents, aunts and uncles, who were neighbors. Many of her extended family members also lived - or tried to live - in substandard housing in the High Street area.

"All of the adults in the family worked and worked hard to make ends meet, but they made just enough (income) to put food on the table, buy clothes and pay the bills," Johnson said. "There wasn't enough left over to upgrade the houses, much less buy new ones.

"And we kind of fell through the cracks," she said, talking figuratively about finances, not the real cracks in the flooring through which she could see the basement from the first floor. "Our income was too low for us to do much about improving our living conditions, but it was too high to qualify for any government help that was available at that time."

Government program provided help

But a government program soon would seal those cracks, both literally and figuratively. It was the Danville Urban Renewal and Community Development Agency, now called the Danville Community Development and Section 8 Housing Agency.

The agency, headed by executive director Guy Best, had obtained federal grants to undertake a major project in their neighborhood, including High, Smith, Earl, Third and Fifth streets. The houses were bought by Urban Renewal and demolished, and the new vacant lots were sold mainly for commercial uses. Meanwhile, the Johnson family received relocation money and eventually was eligible for low-interest house loans, all under the same project.

"My parents were able to buy their first real home, and my three sisters and I each had our own bedroom," said Johnson. "My grandparents, aunts and uncles also bought new houses, and we moved to nice neighborhoods on Baughman and Locust and in Highland Court."

Gratitude for man who made change possible

Now, Johnson, who works at Centenary United Methodist Church Christian Life Center in Danville, lives in a nice home in Lincoln County with her husband, Melvin, and their six children. But she still remembers the great change in living conditions experienced by her family more than a quarter of a century ago, back in 1978 when she was 9 years old. And she always has gratitude for the man who made that change possible.

To her, Guy Best and his agency not only changed people's addresses, but also their lives.

"As a girl of 9, I always remember my parents talking about this man named Guy Best. They talked about how he was going to make it possible for us to have a new house and a new life," Johnson said.

While keeping warm thoughts of "this man named Guy Best" ever since, Johnson had never met this life-changing man until two years ago.

"He was just as nice and sweet and kind as I pictured him when I was a 9-year-old girl," she said. "I just gave him a hug and thanked him for what he did for me and my family.

"He was real humble and said he was just doing his job. I told him he did more than his job. He made a new home and life possible for us - a life free of dangerous wiring and rats and full of security and hope."

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