A man redeemed
Dr. Bruce Douglas was just hired as the Coordinator of Student Engagement at Cloud County Community College (CCCC). He has a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Vocational Education; a master’s degree from LSU in Human Resource Education; and a Ph.D. in Education and Human Resource Studies from Colorado State University (CSU). A trained researcher, he is passionate about helping youth and young adults turn their lives around.
Bruce Douglas would know all about redemption. 23 years ago, he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for armed robbery.
At the time of his arrest, Douglas was a New Orleans police officer.
Douglas has never tried to hide his past. Many Concordians already know about the mistakes he made as a young man, and he will talk openly about it to anyone who asks. All he asks, in turn, is that you judge who he is now and not what he once was.
Born in the ghettos of New Orleans, near the Calliope Projects in the Third Ward, Douglas was raised by his mother and grandmother and grew up in abject poverty.
"Unless you've lived it you just can't really understand how bad it was there," he said. "For kids like me growing up in that environment, we only saw two choices in our future: prison or death."
Douglas did not want to become a statistic. He joined the Army and served for eight years, eventually becoming a drill sergeant.
He returned to New Orleans in 1991 looking for a job. The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) was hiring.
"I applied for a job, but I shouldn't have," he said. "They hired me, but I shouldn't have been a cop. I got caught up in the corruption."
The NOPD was, historically, one of the most corrupt police departments in the United States. A New York Times Magazine article in 1996 called the NOPD "The Thinnest Blue Line" and estimated that up to 15% of the police force - over 200 officers - were involved in criminal activities.
The federal government finally stepped in, and by 2012 over 500 NOPD officers - nearly one-third of the police force - had retired or resigned in the wake of non-stop investigations.
Douglas is bluntly honest when he talks about his three years as a NOPD cop. He does not try to make excuses or blame others for his mistakes.
"I was a corrupt cop. I took money. There was a culture that existed in the NOPD, and I fell into it. We would make an arrest, and if there was money in the person's pocket, we'd take it."
In 1994 Douglas got caught.
"We were called to a crime scene, and there was a bunch of money there. We took it, but it was all an undercover sting operation. We were arrested on the spot."
Douglas was charged with six counts of armed robbery. He didn't pull a gun on anyone; he was an on-duty cop and wearing his weapon when he stole the money, so the charge was armed robbery.
He pled guilty and was sentenced to seven and one-half years in the state penitentiary. The day Douglas walked into his prison cell was the day he made a vow to turn his life around.
"I was in that place - a cop, in prison - and I told myself: I do not want to ever come back here again."
Douglas knew that an advanced education would be a key step in his redemptive process. He began educating himself behind prison walls. He served three years and nine months of his sentence and was then released on parole for good behavior. He immediately tried to enroll at LSU, and encountered a singular problem that he must still deal with today: the stigma of having a felony conviction.
"I had to jump through a lot of hoops to be admitted to LSU," he said. "It's something I still have to deal with, and I fully understand the reasoning behind it. But it's also what makes me work so hard to be a better man."
Douglas received his bachelor's degree from LSU, and went on to also earn a master's degree. In his final semester at LSU he met a beautiful young woman in class named Adrian.
That woman is now his wife, Dr. Adrian Douglas, the president of Cloud County Community College.
"He told me right up front about his past," she said when recalling their first dates at LSU. "It was just so hard to believe, because here is this warm and loving person, and he's so funny! He did something wrong a long time ago, and he admitted it and never tried to hide it from me and never tries to hide it from anyone else."
The relationship soon blossomed into love, and Bruce helped Adrian move to Ft. Collins, Colorado, where she was going to earn her doctorate in community college leadership at Colorado State University. They loaded all her belongings in a truck and drove to Colorado in the middle of winter. Perhaps it was an omen, maybe just a coincidence, but her mattress almost blew off the vehicle in Kansas.
Adrian settled into doctorate life at CSU; Bruce went back to LSU to finish his master's degree. When he returned to Colorado a few months later to visit Adrian, he asked her to be his wife. She said yes immediately.
"I wasn't going to let his past define who he is now," Adrian recalled. "I saw a man who had turned his life around. I saw a compassionate human being dedicated to doing the right thing."
They were married and set up a life together in Colorado. Bruce also wanted to get his doctorate at CSU, but once again his admittance application stalled. He had a felony conviction.
But sometimes people's judgements of others are clouded by more than just the mistakes they've made. Sometimes an opinion of someone is formed based solely on the color of their skin. Racism and bigotry still exist in America to varying degrees, and probably always will. Bruce Douglas has a felony conviction and is also a black man.
"It's the same thing; the stigma of it all. The perception. As a black man with a record I just have to work even harder to change people's minds, to show them the kind of man I am today."
Bruce proved himself at CSU and was admitted into the doctorate program, where he earned a Ph.D. in Education and Human Resource Studies. Life seemed so good for the newlyweds.
Then tragedy struck. Their baby girl, Angel, was born premature, and died soon after.
"That was so tough," Bruce said. "I've been through a lot, but nothing compares to losing your child."
As the couple coped with the grieving process, they got a call that again changed their lives. A friend's daughter was about to have her third child. Neither the daughter or her parents could afford to care for another child.
"They asked if we could adopt the baby," Bruce said. Braelyn Douglas was born two months later and joined the family at birth. The Douglases filed the appropriate paperwork, and were approved once the long adoption process was completed. Then a relative of the birth mother decided she wanted the child. Thus began a three-year custody battle in which attorneys tried to use Bruce's criminal record against him.
The Douglases won the court case and Braelyn, now age nine, remained with the parents she adores.
By now the family was living in Cedar Hill, Texas. Adrian was the Vice-President of Business Services at Eastfield College, where she managed the college's $46 million budget, business office, facilities, information technology, and auxiliary services. Bruce worked as a Family Life Educator for several non-profit groups, taught at a community college, and mentored teens and young adults in outreach programs.
Adrian had applied for the presidency at CCCC, but CCCC initially hired Dr. Mark Smith. He resigned shortly thereafter, and Adrian was offered the job.
"We love Concordia!" Bruce said. "This is just a great place to live and raise a family."
Adrian assumed the mantle of leadership at CCCC with a resolute ideal of implementing change. But often times innovation and alteration of entrenched methods engenders ill will. She has fired personnel, reassigned personnel, split some administrative positions and consolidated others.
"We are trying to create a culture of empowerment and accountability on the campus," she said. "We have not necessarily had that here in the past. Our staff, for the most part, had been left to their own devices."
One of the new positions created at the college was the Coordinator of Student Engagement. There were six applicants for the job. Dr. Bruce Douglas was one of them. When Adrian recommended that the CCCC board of trustees hire her husband for the position, she knew there might be blowback because of lingering ill will over the changes she was implementing, and certainly because of her husband's past.
"We knew people would talk; we knew we were going to hear things," Bruce said. "I just don't want people to use my past to stop the positive changes and improvements that are taking place at the college."
"I labored over that (decision)," Adrian said. "I prayed about it and gave it much consideration because I knew what people were going to say. Honestly, Bruce was the most qualified applicant for the position. What I said then and what I will continue to say, is that if he was not the most qualified applicant then he would not have been recommended for the position."
On January 29, the CCCC board of trustees approved the hiring of Dr. Bruce Douglas by a 4-2 vote.
He is overjoyed for the opportunity to work with students: "I have an opportunity to impact people's lives," he said. "In some ways, because of the mistakes I made, I'm the best kind of mentor. I'm a living example of how someone can turn their life around."
Adrian fully supported her husband's desire to tell his story to the Blade, and to talk openly in the media about his past. "I see him dealing with this time after time, and he always overcomes it," she said. "He is so positive and so passionate about the good things he can do now... I believe in second chances, and I believe in a God who believes in second chances."
The revered poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once wrote: 'the greatest gift you can give yourself is the power to forgive the mistakes of others'.
Redemption is measured not by words written on paper, but by the actions and deeds of the redeemed. Redemption is not a right; it must be earned by hard work, dedication, and a resolute willingness to stand tall in the face of adversity, even when that adversity is the result of stigma.
Dr. Bruce Douglas earned his redemption. He knows that some people will never be comfortable with the mistakes he made nearly 23 years ago. But he is comfortable with the kind of man he has become. He appreciates the forgiving attitude of so many, and all he asks of the others is the opportunity to show them just how hard he will work at being a better human being, not just for himself, but for the lives of everyone he touches.