ST. LOUIS – In the eighteen years since Eugene “Teddy” Willingham has been out of prison, he has become a man on a mission – but he will be quick to tell you it is not his mission.
“God can use everybody,” Willingham says, describing his approach to life and his work ethic as all part of a larger mission.
In his recent book “From the Streets to the Throne,” Willingham writes, “If sharing my story will help change someone’s life from destruction, then my story is worth sharing.”
Anyone who has heard Willingham speak will get a peek behind the curtain of St. Louis gang life in the early 1990s.
He is open and blunt about his run-ins with the law, his street hustle, the fights, the deaths of close friends and his downward spiral that led to the penitentiary. But you will also hear him describe an inner awareness that there had to be a better way.
In 1993 he met with then-Mayor Freeman Bosley, who came to his street to demonstrate his willingness to engage with the community. The 18-year-old Willingham challenged the mayor and began a relationship that resulted in a letter to Bosley that started, “As a present gang member I would like to take this opportunity to present my concerns.” That letter ended by saying that “we are just as tired of the killing and dying as you are.”
Looking back, Willingham sees that as a turning point in his life. The relationship with Bosley opened an awareness of the importance of networking and relationship building that would become beneficial to him later in life.
Today Willingham spends his day working construction but has a vast array of business interests including the selling of exotic dogs, a clothing line, and real estate. He acknowledges that his evolved mindset, personal transformation and work ethic “opened doors” for him.
Based on his experience, he has designed a training program aimed at creating opportunities for ex-cons in the railroad industry, where he got his start.
He sees the violence that permeates his community and hopes that he can help lead ex-cons, as well as young people mired in gang life, to a similar path.
His commitment to his family is rooted in the belief that as an African-American man, “the better you are, the better your family is going to be. “