Teacher Takes In A Teen, And Gains A Family

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Ralph Catania with Colbert Williams in Ann Arbor, Mich. i

Two Fathers: Ralph Catania with Colbert Williams in Ann Arbor, Mich. hide caption

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Ralph Catania with Colbert Williams in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Two Fathers: Ralph Catania with Colbert Williams in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Just before he became a father, Colbert Williams left home because his family was too poor to take care of him. As he remembers it, "My mother didn't have a place for me to go."

Williams and his son discussed their strong bond at StoryCorps in Michigan. But in a "prequel" of sorts, Williams also spoke with the man who took him in as a teenager — his fifth-grade math teacher, Ralph Catania.

Catania, 69, was divorced and had no children of his own. He became Williams' legal guardian when his former student turned 16.

"Was there anything that you feared about moving in with me?" Catania asked.

"Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?" Williams said. "Everything."

And he really does mean everything — from what kind food Catania kept in the house to his culture and background. All Williams really knew about the man he was moving in with was that he was a nice teacher.

"I'm a young black man and you're a white man," Williams said. "And I'm like, 'I don't know anything about white people.' "

Then Williams asked Catania about his thoughts after learning that Williams, then 16, was going to become a father.

"My first reaction was, there isn't too much I can do about it."

But he was impressed with something Williams said: "My son is going to know who his father is."

It wasn't easy, of course. There's the night Williams was up late studying for an exam, and his son was sick and hungry. As he started to give the baby some milk, fatigue got the better of Williams.

"I forget to put the top on top of the bottle, and I just hand him milk — and milk just spills," he said.

The arrival of Williams' son, Nathan, was perhaps the most emphatic sign that Catania's previous life, in which he lived alone, had been changed for good.

"I have truly been blessed. There's no other way to explain it," Catania said.

"What you see in me is a reflection of what you put in me. So today I say, thank you."

Catania said that he's heard that from other people that he did a great job helping raise Williams. But still, he doesn't fully agree.

"I truly believe that a lot of this comes from within you, and within your soul, my friend," he told Williams.

"Any parent would be extremely proud of a child that has accomplished what you have accomplished."

Produced for Morning Edition by Vanara Taing. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo. Recorded in partnership with WUOM.



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