(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's time now for StoryCorps. And we're going to hear a conversation between two men who first met in the 1990s. Johnny Holmes was head of security at a high school in Blue Island, Ill. And Christian Picciolini was a student at that school. He was also the leader of a local neo-Nazi group. Picciolini eventually renounced the movement's racist principles. And today, he devotes himself to helping others leave hate groups. He credits Johnny Holmes with being the person who helped turn him around. And they came to StoryCorps to remember how it happened.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: I put you through hell.
JOHNNY HOLMES: You were rough.
PICCIOLINI: I mean, there were fights. There were words that we had those years that I was there.
HOLMES: The one that I remember - I kind of ushered you into the dean's office.
PICCIOLINI: I remember.
HOLMES: I remember she put her arms around you to try to calm you down. And excuse the language, but you were like, you black [expletive], get your filthy hands off of me. And I live to see the day when a [expletive] will be hanging from every light pole in Blue Island. Now, in my younger days, we would've been fighting until tomorrow. But my philosophy was be the parent away from home. You were a 16-year-old kid. I knew you had been brainwashed. And I remember saying to you, Chris, how can you be filled with so much hate? You play on the same football team as my son.
HOLMES: And so I wanted the opportunity to get through to you.
PICCIOLINI: It did get through to me. I want you to know that. And it was that compassion when I didn't deserve it that eventually stuck. You know, I got out of what I was involved in. But I still didn't have the courage to tell people about my past. Many years later, I was working for IBM. And I was terrified because, of all the millions of places that IBM could've put me for my first day of work, it was at my old high school. And, of course, within the first five minutes, as I'm standing in that hallway, here comes you, walking right in front of me. And I didn't know what to do. You didn't see me. But I decided I was going to follow you to the parking lot and tapped you on the shoulder. And you took a step back.
HOLMES: Because I knew you as you were.
PICCIOLINI: I didn't have words for you because I know all the hell that I had put you through. And all I could say to you was, I'm sorry. But one thing that you told me that day - you were like a prophet. You said this isn't just about some white kid who goes into, you know, a Nazi group.
PICCIOLINI: This is about every young person who feels vulnerable and, you know, is looking where to belong. And because you did that, I'm doing what I do now.
HOLMES: You've been doing a wonderful job because look at what's happening now - reaching people, getting people on the straight and the narrow. That was one incident with us. Look at how it's multiplied.
PICCIOLINI: Yeah. I want to say thank you because I'm sitting here now because of you.
MARTIN: That's Johnny Holmes and Christian Picciolini of Chicago, Ill., sitting down for the first time in 18 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN SINGLEY'S "YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE")
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