Joe Is Still With Us

By Kent Babb
Updated: June 30, 2008

KANSAS CITY — The voice on the other end of the telephone is tired. He has told this story before, but he needs to tell it again. He wants you to believe him now.

The old life? The drugs and the prison term? He says that’s behind him. LeMarkits Holland wants you to believe that, even at age 34, he’s going to make something of the life Joe Delaney gave him.

“I messed up,” Holland says. “I wanted to be grown when I wasn’t ready for it. That’s where I messed up at. I thought I was ready.”

25 years ago this past Saturday, Delaney jumped into a Louisiana pond and tried to save three children who had drifted out too far. Delaney drowned. So did two other boys. Ten-year-old LeMarkits, who now goes by the nickname Marty, was the only survivor.

Holland says he felt guilty after the deaths and became self-destructive. He says it was because he grew up too fast. But so did the three daughters Delaney left behind when their father died trying to save someone else’s children.

Delaney was a 24-year-old Chiefs running back with a bright future; he was days away from signing a contract that would have pulled his wife, Carolyn, and daughters out of rural Louisiana.

But then Joe died, and it left three girls and a dazed 10-year-old boy with changed lives and blank futures. Time passed. Lives were forged. Paths were chosen. The children most directly affected by Joe Delaney’s actions on June 29, 1983, pointed their lives in different directions.

Delaney’s daughters — Tamika, Crystal and Joanna — got to know their dad through newspaper articles and old stories now passed through the generations.

They watched as their mother refused to remarry — no one could measure up to Joe, she says now — and struggled with money, denying them material things and a comfortable life, but raising them to be strong and independent. They learned the strength to overcome anything, even more unexpected death. All three are college graduates. All three have jobs in medicine.

Holland, though, sold cocaine. He carried around wads of money and baggies of white powder, selling his life away by the gram. Then the cops caught up with him.

Holland is talking about God now, saying the path to righteousness is through learning from and admitting your mistakes. He’s not sure his words are enough to make you believe, but he’s willing to keep talking until he thinks he’s made a difference.

“A lot of people who know me didn’t believe me, either,” he says. “But I don’t hang around people who sell drugs. I don’t even fool with people who sell drugs no more. I don’t want people to look at me like that anymore because that life is behind me now.

“It’s time for me to do something with my life.”

Crystal Delaney stood in the front doorway and waited for her father’s car to come home. Crystal was 3 when her mother told her that Daddy went to heaven to be with their grandfather. Crystal nodded and cried, but even years later, she believed her father would drive up any minute now.

He would pull that sky blue Mercury Cougar into the driveway and pop through the front door. That’s where the two eldest girls, Crystal and 5-year-old Tamika, would latch onto their famous father.

Carolyn would carry 3-month-old Joanna over to greet him, and they would stand there and hug each other for a long time. Then they’d follow Joe into his music room, where they’d sit and sing for hours while Joe strummed his electric guitar in time with his Lightnin’ Hopkins records.

“No, Crystal,” her mother said, pulling her away from the door. “He’s gone.”

Joanna was too young to remember anything about her father, but the two eldest girls take stock in memories that grow cloudy with the years.

Tamika is 30 now. She thinks back and remembers the little things — going to the store with her dad, the rides in that ’81 Cougar, the wrestling matches on the floor. She remembers stepping into the high school gymnasium, hundreds of people seated around a casket that held her father.

“That was hard,” Tamika says now. “It took time, and I’m still not over it.”

She remembers her mother sitting her down after the funeral and telling her that Tamika’s dad was a hero, he had saved one boy’s life and died trying to save two more. Dad would always be there with them. He would always be in the room looking after them, regardless of the difficult times that lay ahead.

The girls nodded. Then Carolyn left the room. She needed to be alone; the girls didn’t need to see her cry. She couldn’t believe Joe would do this to her. She couldn’t believe her husband of six years, her best friend, would leave her with so much to do — and all of it to do alone.

“I was angry at first; I really was, for him leaving us behind,” Carolyn says now. “I felt that our lives were just starting, you know?

“I kept asking myself, Why? I wish I could have asked him: Out of all them people around, why did you have to jump in there to save them kids? Then I thought about the type of person that Joe was, and I guess that kind of brought a little comfort to me then. If he was here to answer the questions for me, I know what he would say: He just had to do it.”

Marty Holland stood on the bank of that pond at Chennault Park in Monroe, La., and watched as a police diver named Marvin Dearman pulled Marty’s brother and cousin from the murky water.

Their legs were wrapped in weeds, the kind that must have grabbed hold of Marty’s ankles when he was trying to swim. Then Dearman pulled a larger body out of the water. Some people nearby said the man could run with a football but couldn’t swim a lick.

That was the man who jumped in trying to save three young strangers. He had been sitting under a shade tree that June afternoon when a crowd of children waited to go down a water slide.

Three boys — Marty, his 11-year-old brother, Harry, and an 11-year-old cousin, Lancer Perkins — jumped into a nearby pond. The boys didn’t know there was a steep drop a few feet off shore.

Marty stood on the bank, wondering why someone had grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to safety. Even now, Marty says he is uncertain who pulled him out of the water. Some say it was another cousin. Many more say it was Delaney.

It has been a quarter-century since that day, and Marty says the scars have yet to fade. He says he doesn’t know why he survived and his brother died. He thinks about it a lot these days.

“When I close my eyes,” he says, “I just think about where my brother would be, what would he be doing — all sorts of things. He was so young when he drowned; I just wonder in my mind: How would he be, older?”

Marty says it took him nearly a decade to control the flashbacks of that day. He felt guilty and was often depressed. As he grew, healing sometimes came at the expense of judgment.

He moved out of his parents’ house at age 16 and moved in with a girlfriend. He rolled with friends who drank beer all night and slept most of the day.

When he was about 17, Marty says he and the girlfriend were hurting for money. Bills were due, and Marty couldn’t keep a job long enough to pay them. A friend suggested selling cocaine.

“I got tired of doing bad, tired of struggling,” he says. “I needed money at the time; needed it basically to help this girl out.

“I just got off into it, simple as that. The money started flowing.”

Crystal took her father’s death hardest. Carolyn enrolled her in counseling but watched as Crystal grew into a young woman who wanted nothing more than to be like her father.

She ran track and watched tapes of Joe with the Chiefs. Crystal tried for six years to break her father’s sprinting records at Haughton High School in northwest Louisiana.

When she graduated, with Joe’s records still intact, Crystal went to Northwestern State, where her father had played football. She was going to study nursing. That’s what she thought he would have wanted.

“I think if he had been here,” Carolyn says now, “he would’ve told her she didn’t have to do those things. He would’ve said, ‘Be yourself; make yourself happy.’ “

But Crystal kept plugging, and the years kept passing. The girls were becoming women, and Carolyn was having a hard time keeping up. She worked a handful of jobs, from grunt labor at a print shop to driving hotel guests from here to there. Money was scarce most times, and Carolyn had to tell her daughters that there was no way she could buy cars for them.

Carolyn asked for help sometimes, and other times, it came naturally. Her mother, Eliza, stepped in occasionally, watching the girls while Carolyn worked.

When a man’s work needed to be done, like when Crystal was named to the homecoming court at Haughton High, her uncle, Charles Dudley, escorted her.

“It was pretty simple,” Dudley says. “There was nobody else to do it.”

The hardest thing for Carolyn, though, wasn’t the empty bank account or the side of the bed that has been cold for 25 years. It was watching her daughters — their daughters — grow up without Joe by her side.

Carolyn was alone when each daughter walked across the stage for their college degrees. Tamika finished her degree at a community college, Crystal at Northwestern State, and Joanna at Louisiana State.

“Growing up without a father, it was hard for me because all my friends had a dad at home or a stepfather,” says Crystal, who is a medical lab technician. “But it just made me stronger and made me want to work harder in life. I think my mama did a good job raising all of us and putting all of us through school and encouraging us to go to college. She taught us to be the best that we can be.”

Marty Holland’s friends set him up with the connections. All he had to do was be there with the cocaine, and they’d be there with the money.

Marty says now that he doesn’t remember the first time he sold drugs, but he remembers it being easy. He walked around with wads of twenties in his pockets, and he no longer worried about how to pay for things.

“If I wanted something right then and there, I could buy it with no problem,” he says. “You make a lot of fast money, but you’re always looking over your shoulder; you’re always looking for the police. You’ve got a lot on your mind. You never know if you’re going to give your life up or not.”

Marty sold cocaine for nearly 10 years on the streets of Monroe. He was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to one year of hard labor and five years’ probation.

It was when he sat in a cell at Louisiana’s Ouachita Parish Correctional Center that word leaked out that the boy whose life Joe Delaney had saved had grown into a man whose life was ruined by drugs.

“When I first found out about it,” Tamika Delaney says now, “it was sad. It hurt me. When his life got spared and my dad’s got taken, I felt like he should have tried to do better.”

“We lost our dad, trying to save him, and he went to jail selling drugs. I expected him to try to do something with his life because his life got spared and a good person’s life got taken.

“I mean, everyone deserves a second chance. I’m a firm believer in that — if they try to clean up themselves and do better. But you know what? He already got a second chance.”

Tamika’s phone rang late one night in 1997. Something had happened to her husband during his vacation to Los Angeles. They didn’t know how serious it was. But she needed to be with her family.

Tamika’s husband, Rodney Francis, and some friends had been at a nightclub. They walked outside, and a gang opened fire on the crowd. Rodney had been shot in the back.

Tamika went to her mother-in-law’s house at 3 a.m. and waited for the phone to ring again. When it did, Tamika snatched one receiver off its cradle, and Rodney’s mother grabbed the other one. They both heard a doctor say that the bullet had hit an artery. There had been severe internal bleeding. He was gone.

Rodney was 24. He left behind two children, Ranerika and Rodney. For the second consecutive generation, children with Joe Delaney’s blood running through their veins would grow up without a father.

Tamika leaned on her mother, Carolyn, after Rodney’s funeral. Carolyn told her eldest daughter that she knew how she was feeling. And Carolyn told Tamika that she could not stop being a mother, could not stop being the person she had been before her husband’s death.

“She talked to me when I got frustrated or when I still get frustrated,” Tamika says. “She told me what I had to do: Just don’t give up, and put God first. I didn’t give up. I stayed strong for my kids like she said.”

Tamika says she still has good and bad days. Like her mother, she has not remarried in the nearly 11 years since her husband’s death. Rodney Jr. is 10 years old now, and he’s beginning to look like his father.

Tamika says it is bittersweet to see her son walk like Rodney and talk the same way. But it also helps her remember, and Tamika learned a long time ago that memories count for something.

“We couldn’t just stop. We had to take one day at a time and take it slow,” she says. “Life had to go on. It was hard at first.

“All this, in some ways, it made me stronger, and I feel like it made me a better person for the simple fact that I saw my mom and saw her accomplish what she did. We can go on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. But we can go on.”

Marty Holland sits in his home in Monroe and presses the phone to his ear. He’s talking about the future and the past, and the possibilities that one can glean from the other.

He says he thinks all the time about what happened 25 years ago today. He realizes it could have been his body that divers pulled from the pond, and he admits he is embarrassed by how he spent part of the life he was given as a gift.

He says that as much as Delaney’s daughters kept living despite every reason to give up, he gave up despite every reason to live.

“I figured that out a few years back,” he says. “You sit back and look at your life and think about what happened. You can sit down and pinpoint the mistakes that you made, what you should’ve did and what you shouldn’t have did.”

Marty says he is focusing now on the things he should do: keeping his job at a zoo in Monroe, being a productive citizen, and making certain his four children do not spend any more days growing up without their father.

“Now that I’m back on track,” he says, “me and my kids have a lot of fun. I’m on track now thanks to the good Lord.”

Marty talks a lot about God now, saying that with belief, strength and prayer, he never again will be tempted by drugs and crime. But he says he knows others need more convincing than five clean years.

Marty says it is time to go now, time to hang up the phone and stop talking about a life he has left behind. It is time, he says, to live the life some imagined when Joe Delaney’s hand reached into the water that day.

“I think about Joe a lot. I think about Joe every time I see a football game,” Marty says. “Because all those people were out there, and he was the only one out there to risk his life to try to save a life.

“The name Joe Delaney means a lot to me right now. I’ll never let anybody disrespect that name because of what he did for us, for my family. We’ve got to give thanks to him. I don’t see it no other way.”