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Douglas presence brings smile, stability to Walter Hammond

The two boys, ages 2 and 3, stick their wide-eyed faces through the room divider so they can get a glimpse of their favorite teacher.

"Mr. Dinner!" they whisper excitedly.

They are talking about Dennis Douglas, a teacher at Walter Hammond Day Care in Quincy. He's made an impression on the two little boys, who beg "Mr. Dinner" to pick them up and make them laugh.

Douglas, a local basketball legend from his playing days at Quincy High School in the early 1980s, has found a job and a home at the Ninth and Lind facility.

"I've always dealt with kids," Douglas said, sitting in his classroom during a lunch break. "My mother (Cladine Douglas) worked here for years, and it's a good fit for me. And my brother, Jerry, always wanted me to do this, work with kids."

Douglas is a rarity in the day-care field dominated by women.

Walter Hammond has 106 children and 12 employees, but Douglas is the only male teacher. He was hired in September, and he says he enjoys working with the other teachers and staff.

"I tease them about being man-haters," Douglas says with a laugh. "They are different. Women know more about the kids, but in certain situations, it might be better for me to be around. I'm more of a disciplinarian, while they are more nurturing.

"The women stick together and have their opinions, and that's OK."

Walter Hammond serves a diverse group of families with various income levels and economic backgrounds, and fees are arranged on a sliding scale according to parent income. It's located at 906 Lind, next to the Frederick Ball public housing complex.

Walter Hammond Director Lisa Sams can't contain her enthusiasm when talking about Douglas.

"It's been a big change, and I see more dads picking up their kids now that he's here," Sams said. "It's working out great. Dennis has that deep voice and presence, and the kids know he isn't playing with them. It really helps minimize the conflicts with them and he's really a hands-on teacher."

Douglas graduated from Quincy High School in 1983 and played for some of the legendary Blue Devils basketball teams from that era, including the 1981 Class AA state champions. He played college basketball at Northern Illinois and Ferris State, worked at factory jobs, Chaddock and Quincy High School, as he tried to find his calling.

He had hip-replacement surgery not long ago, ending his factory employment days. Then a job opened at Walter Hammond.

It's taken a few months to get comfortable, but Douglas realizes the impact he's beginning to have on the students.

"One kid, you could tell he wasn't around men much, so we bumped heads," he said. "It took a while, but now he's one of my best students.

"You have to get their trust and earn their respect first. At this level, the kids need all the support they can get, and they are like sponges soaking it all up."

Douglas says he thinks a lot about growing up in Quincy and the men who helped mentor him. He remembers Dick Stewart driving into the neighborhood and the kids piling onto Stewart's El Camino. Other men like John Duncan opened up gyms and gave Douglas and his buddies the chance to play.

Douglas organized a Walter Hammond team into the CYO basketball league this past winter. He takes his students to the library and to other outdoor activities, works with a Boy Scout troop at Walter Hammond, and even does fun things like cooking and other life-skills activities.

His mother worked for more than 50 years in the day-care field, first at the Frederick Ball center, then moving in 1997 to the current Walter Hammond facility. She retired two years ago but still comes to visit her son and give him advice.

"My dad died when I was 12, but I have a close-knit family. I was fortunate I had brothers and family that looked after me, kept me on the right path," Douglas said. "I strayed, I admit it. And I'm still learning, as life goes on."

His own daughter, Damauri, 5, comes to Walter Hammond now. He's raising her and also proud of his son Allan, 20, who lives in California.

There isn't much money in day-care employment. The rewards come from seeing children understand, listening to their clever chants about him, seeing kids feel safe.

He's thinking about helping Walter Hammond get a gymnasium, and he wants to see it thrive.

"This place," Douglas said, "should be the cornerstone of the neighborhood."


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