After migrating from New York in 1981, Leon Hutchison volunteered to assist in coaching the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church (ABC) basketball team for boys 14-17 years of age in the Berkley section of Norfolk. Hutchison attended Catholic schools back in the Big Apple and appreciated the sense of teamwork and purpose instilled in his life by his coaches.
At Antioch, Kenneth Cooper Alexander was one of Hutchinson’s players. He was a Forward on the team which required him to move the ball down the court and play both defense and offense.
“I believe if you taught a boy or a girl player the fundamentals of the game, they will play well,” said Hutchinson, a trained engineer, who is retired and now living in Chesapeake. “Good players like that prepare for the game. Kenny worked hard, was highly competitive and one of the key leaders of the team. He also had a sense of humor. I could tell back then, even though he was 15 years old that he would go places.”
Hutchison says the Antioch team was in the city church league title game each year during a three-year period and that Alexander and other players, such as John D. Mack were on the squad. Mack, now a 52-year-old social worker living in Philadelphia, returns home frequently. “Kenny and I still get to break bread and catch up on life,” said Mack. “Kenny was a leader because he cared about more than basketball; he also cared about his fellow players. He cares about his family and the city we call home.”
Alexander admits that although he did not burn up the courts on the basketball team, he made his presence known. As with his peers on the basketball team, Alexander said he was active in pulling his fellow youth in the pews of the church, Boy Scouts troops, Vacation Bible School tutoring, and other programs at Antioch. Alexander, who is now a Virginia state senator, is a “Berkley Boy” as his long time homies call each other. He did not stray far; he inherited his father’s business in his childhood community – Metropolitan Funeral Service.
This spring, he is competing in one of the most intense contests of his life, seeking to become the first African-American mayor of his home town.
Alexander is running a very polished and high tech, media savvy campaign complimented by high profile endorsements and a lot of beating the bushes for votes in one of the most demographically diverse cities in the state. He is competing with two other notable politicians for the job, Sheriff Bob McCabe and Councilman Andy Protogyrou.
Alexander’s work in his community as a youth pushed him to become the president of Beacon Light Civic League, which encompasses all of Berkley. He was appointed to the city’s Human’s Services Economic Development and then the Planning Commission before he replaced Jerrauld Jones in the House of Delegates. State Senator Yvonne Miller was one of his political mentors, and when she passed, he was elected to her seat which encompasses a large portion of Norfolk.
Leading up to the May 3 elections, he has been endorsed by the Virginian Pilot, Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce-Norfolk Division, Governor McAuliffe, Virginia’s two U.S. Senators Warner and Kaine, and former Governor and mentor L. Douglas Wilder. Alexander uses his local and state experience to point out why he should replace long-time Mayor Paul Fraim as the city’s next political leader.
“Think about the legislation and funding that I and other members of the Hampton Roads delegation have fought for in order to bring back home support for not only Norfolk, but the whole region,” said Alexander during a recent interview with the New Journal and Guide. “I have supported legislation which provides funding for our schools, law enforcement, ports, and roads. Additionally, I have been vocal about my support in creating economic development opportunities that will bring jobs to the area. These are very important local issues that I will further pursue as mayor.”
Alexander said he was the chief sponsor of legislation that the city needed for changing the charter to allow Norfolk voters to directly elect the mayor instead of appointments by the council. “My Senate District is equal to the population of a mid-sized city,” said Alexander. “Constituents call on me with state concerns that are similar to the issues residents face on the local level.”
While attending Lake Taylor High School, Alexander said that he was chosen as the school’s Drum Major. At urban schools, this position is equal to the star quarterback because it calls for athleticism,leadership, organizational skills, and drive. “I had to work hard and be disciplined because I was in charge of the band’s discipline by organizing endless rehearsals to get the formations tight on the field and practicing to get the right sound in the band room.
Additionally, I was responsible for bringing different personalizes together to perform every Friday night. That took a lot of work and sacrifice.”
Alexander enrolled at John Tyler Community College and later to Old Dominion University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. He is fond of looking back and talking about how his work in the community and mentoring from highly regarded civic and political leaders has helped him hone his skills as a polished leader in power circles at the state and local level.
His grandmother, Mrs. Ruby Cooper, who coordinated political activities in Berkley played a very important role in his life. Alexander is also keen to remember George Banks, Horace Downing, Henry Hicks, and Minnie Maddrey, who were important movers and shakers on the Southside of Norfolk when he was growing up. Alexander said he learned the fine art of community outreach and constituent services from his grandmother. “My grandmother was the secretary at Antioch Baptist Church for a long time,” said Alexander. “All of the politicians came to my grandmother to ask her to talk to the pastor for permission to speak to the congregation before election. “She would organize volunteers to work the polls for countless elections.
“I recall setting up chairs from my dad’s funeral home at political meetings and rallies,” he recalled. “Additionally, candidates for elected office came to my father’s funeral home to get their petitions notarized.” Alexander said that he was attending the now defunct Gatewood Elementary School when he first became involved in political activities. “I recall Reverends John Foster and Joe Green coming to Berkley around 1976, when they were running for city council,” said Alexander. “I was 10 years old and passing out campaign literature.”
Long time Berkley resident and civic leader George Banks said Alexander honed his skills running the Beacon Light Civic League on the Southside of Norfolk.
Alexander said that his concerns about the conditions of Berkley grew and he began speaking out about them. He said he called a community-wide meeting at St. Helena Elementary School.
“People listened to him because he had something in him that was good and it needed to come out,” said Banks. “Kenny’s family was not rich, but he was raised and trained very well. You don’t often find young people interested in helping the community.
“He also was taught well by his grandmother, Downing, Hicks, Mrs. Maddrey and others,” said Banks. “If he didn’t have that experience, we would not see the Kenny we know today. He would be in the dark. But, people saw the light within him and it has come to shine.” He recalls Alexander’s father, David Cooper Alexander, who, Banks said, was a “Jack of all trades” which is now realized in his offspring. “His father had a TV repair shop at Appomattox and Liberty Streets,” Banks recalled. “Kenny’s daddy also ran a private ambulance service and both businesses were very successful. His father later used the ambulance service to open the funeral business and that was successful.”
Banks continued, “The apple does not fall too far from the tree. Because while his daddy owned one funeral home, his son now owns three and is doing very well.” Anne Boone is an Administrator at Antioch Baptist Church and President of Berkley’s Historical Society. She moved to the community in 2001, and witnessed Alexander presiding over Beacon Light Civic League. “I could see he was leader because he could make decisions. He was humble and a good administrator,” said Boone. “And you could see that people appreciated his ability to listen to them and he respected their input.
More importantly, Kenny could get things done by pulling people together. He did not like leaving people out.” George Crawley headed the Department of Social Services before he was named Norfolk’s first African-American Assistant City Manager in Norfolk in 1975. Crawley moved from Newport News to the Southside in the early 1960s to head an anti-poverty program in the Ghent section, before joining the city’s rolls. His wife was a third grade teacher at Gatewood Elementary School and one of her students was Kenneth C. Alexander.
“When he got older, I noticed he attended city council meetings and showed an interest in government,” said Crawley, who is retired now. “I mentioned that to Councilman Mason Andrews, and we later appointed him to the Recreation Committee.” Alexander got seats on other important boards and commissions because, Crawley said, city officials “noticed his leadership ability and ability to analyze quickly.” “Also he listens to people,” said Crawley. “He is an enabler and is willing to give people a chance to have input in the process. You need that these days.”