Jesse White Tumblers celebrate 50 years

February 23, 2010 2:35:39 PM PST
The Jesse White Tumbling Team is celebrating its golden anniversary Tuesday.

As members continue to turn flips and somersaults that defy gravity, they're turning their lives around. More than 10,000 young men and women have benefited from the program since it began in 1959.

Jesse White was a gymnast as a kid on the near North Side. His athletic, academic and military career brought him back to Chicago. What was supposed to be a one-time show for the park district began the tumbling team. Today, the team has taught two generations about far more than tumbling.

The team makes propelling oneself into air and defying gravity seem so simple. The Jesse White Tumbling Team has wowed audiences for 50 years, all under the leadership of Jesse White.

"Strong behavior when you get it, you give it back and every day you have to do something good for someone," said Jesse White, Jesse White Tumbling Team.

Before Jesse White became Illinois' secretary of state, he was a teacher and coach to hundreds of Chicago children. Since the first tumbler show in 1959, more than 11,000 young men and women have grown up in the strict yet fair community of tumblers.

"If you want to be a part of the program, no gangs, no drugs, no drinking, and of course, you cannot dislike anyone because of how they came into the world," said White.

Many tumblers see White as a mentor and a father figure.

"He teaches us how to do bank accounts and how to take your hat off when you come into the building and speak the right way and words you shouldn't say and how to pronounce words the right way," said Deon Allen, Jesse White tumbler.

"He's given us a lot and me making this team is like I'm doing better than some other kid would do," said Marshall Dillard, Jesse White tumbler.

The full impact of having White's guidance and discipline in the tumblers may not be felt until later in life.

"I know I don't look like it now, but I used to be one of the tumblers," said Richard Blackmon, Jesse White Tumbler '67.

Richard Blackmon grew up in Cabrini Green. But economic disadvantage was overshadowed by the high expectations and exposure of being a tumbler. He says beyond the physical training, White taught him etiquette, manners and that anything was possible.

Blackmon went to college and law school and throughout his career he has helped a new generation of young people. Currently, he's a career coach at the Hyde Park Academy.

"Any relationships with adults that care about them and care enough to sometimes say no, what you're doing is wrong, you're headed in the wrong direction. I'm not going to tolerate that out of you. You're better than that. That is his legacy," said Blackmon.

"There's a lot more to be done and I just hope that I can get others to join with me in helping these young people to grow tall and straight and become productive citizens in our society," said White.

Most of the tumblers come from single parent households. The team provides those relationships, mentors and adult who hold the young people accountable.

At a recent tryout, 800 children turned out and only 360 were selected.

Tuesday night Jesse White and the Tumbling Team members will be honored at the United Center.