ROSELAND — When Fenger High School Principal Liz Dozier got the news Saturday morning that another of her former students, Lee McCollum Jr., was shot and wounded, she spread the news in a tweet that made headlines.
“Fenger grad featured on CNN’s “Chicagoland” TV show shot,” the papers reported.
“Most people who watched the show have no clue about what it’s like in Roseland, but they knew Lee through his story. That’s why I tweeted it out,” Dozier said. “They can connect to what’s happening because they know Lee, and he was shot, and that makes the conversation more real.”
I was part of the team that told Lee’s story on “Chicagoland,” but I had never met him until Tuesday.
He hobbled on crutches from the bedroom of a tiny apartment, sat on the couch, struggled to prop his bullet-fractured leg on the coffee table and shook my hand.
Lee McCollum Jr. — the namesake son of a former South Side gang member who lost a leg to gunfire and took a bullet in the head — is 20 years old.
Lee grew up in Roseland gang territory called “The Ville” and by grade school already had enemies he had never even met.
Lee’s father was in and out of jail when Lee was a boy, and at one point both his parents were incarcerated at the same time.
“Most people think their parents are supposed to get things for you. I know what it feels like not to have your parents there to take care of you,” Lee told me. “Me having that experience at an early age forced me to be a man on my own.”
For a time it seemed that the man Lee would become didn’t have much of a future beyond street life.
But he was fortunate to have special teachers, and a high school principal that treated him like a son, to show him there was more to life than the streets.
“One day my third-grade teacher gave me a book and said, ‘Take this home with you and ask any of those gangbangers on the street who talk to you to read this book to you,’” Lee said, holding his wounded leg where a bullet remains lodged. “You know how many people was able to read it to me? Two. Two people. That’s it. And I knew that wasn’t right.”
Fenger graduate Lee McCollum Jr., who was featured on CNN’s Chicagoland, was shot in the leg while going to work on Saturday. Fenger graduate Lee McCollum Jr., who was featured on CNN’s Chicagoland, was shot in the leg while going to work on Saturday.
On “Chicagoland,” we learned of Lee’s transformative years at Fenger, where, under principal Dozier’s guidance and tough love, he made a remarkable transition from being a gang-affiliated street tough hated by rivals to an honor roll student-athlete and prom king with his sights set on junior college, a first for his family.
“People think my senior year of high school I had it made because I looked happy. But they don’t know the whole time we were homeless as a m———. We ain’t got nothing during whole year of high school. Nowhere to go,” he said. “We were living house to house. I still came to school every day, still made honor roll, still graduated.”
Dozier says she knew Lee was living in different places during his last year in high school, the same way about 54 percent of the Fenger student body still does.
During Lee’s senior year, and even after he graduated, Dozier pushed Lee to escape Roseland before the neighborhood violence that left at least three of his friends dead in a year’s time caught up to him.
Lee knew that he was a potential target, so he fled to stay with Downstate relatives, and even got a job at a box factory.
But it didn’t last.
Lee moved back to Roseland, got a job at a fast-food restaurant. He even started working out and practicing with the basketball team at Governor’s State University. GSU coach Anthony Bates said Lee “impressed me with his skills,” and that the “door is not closed for him” if he’s able to recover from his injury.
In fact, Lee said he was just weeks away from finally putting together enough money to move out of Roseland to attend school when shots rang out near 115th and Yale on Saturday morning.
‘My leg was smoking’
After spending Friday night with his girlfriend, Lee got up about sunrise and headed to his grandmother’s house a few blocks away to check on her, as he usually does, before heading to work at the fast-food restaurant.
Lee forgot his bus pass and was headed to pick it up about 7 a.m. when two men in a car pulled over about a half-block away, got out and started shooting.
One bullet went straight through Lee’s thigh. A second bullet entered his lower leg, fractured his shinbone and didn’t come out.
“I didn’t know I was shot. I ran. I had to run. The bus pulled up, and I was gonna run toward it, but there were old ladies at the stop. I couldn’t run to the bus and have the shooter run behind me and everyone else on the bus gets what I got. So, I ran another way. They were chasing me, shooting.”
Lee made it as far as the alley behind his girlfriend’s place where he fell on his belly and crawled, arm over arm, closer to the back gate.
“I didn’t know I was shot until I looked down and raised my pants leg up, and my leg was smoking,” he said. “I crawled through the alley. I called my girlfriend’s mother and told her I was in the backyard, shot.”
Lee’s girlfriend and mother called police and ran to help him.
“My whole body was hot. Hot. I asked for water … and they tried to get me to drink it. I said, ‘Naw, pour it on me.’ I’ve never been so hot. Sweating bullets.”
Paramedics rushed Lee to Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, the nearest trauma unit on the South Side, where doctors treated his wounds.
“I got shot twice dis morning … it’s a blessin’ to be livin’,” he posted on Facebook at 12:35 p.m. Saturday.
‘Born to lose’
On Tuesday, Lee slumped his head in frustration as we talked.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m only born to lose. Every time you try to skip out and do something good. The more you try to do right, the more wrong come up on you. It’s hard to manage around that,” he said.
“There’s a lot, a whole lot [from my past] hanging over my head. You know it’s like I’m trying to escape the past. You see the door to get out, and there’s always something that prevents you from getting through that door. People don’t know the struggle. It’s like carrying a load. And it’s so heavy.”
Dozier feels frustrated, too.
“I think myself and other members of the staff end up being parents to these kids. And you can’t be a parent without some level of frustration. I had this conversation with Lee over a year ago … that he was going to wind up shot or dead if he didn’t get away from the neighborhood violence, not sugarcoating it at all,” she said.
“Hopefully this is a wake-up call that it’s time for him to go. But I think he’s scared. A lot of people have fears that stop them from making decisions to better themselves.”
‘I got shot doing something positive’
On “Chicagoland,” Lee said, “My two worries in life are not making it and not being successful and ending up on the streets being a bum. And the second is I want to be a father that can provide for his family.”
Those fears are still real, but Lee says he can’t give up on himself and can’t be distracted by things that are out of his control that he’s left behind, like getting street justice.
“As far as revenge goes, God says, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.’ So, I go by that oath,” Lee said. “This could have been a lot worse. But just because I got shot doesn’t mean I’m going to stop living. It’s gonna slow me down, but I’m not gonna stop trying.”
On Tuesday, Lee said he’s struggling with knowing that he was prepared — physically to play basketball and mentally to start school.
His heart was set on finally leaving behind Roseland and the generations of violence that always was “just the way it is” to make a better life for himself.
And it hurts him to know that despite all his work to change that some people might just see him as another street kid who got shot.
“What gets me mad the most is people who say you should have been doing something positive. You stupid. I was doing something positive,” Lee said. “I got shot doing something positive.”
And that’s why Dozier took to Twitter to let Chicago know that Lee from “Chicagoland” was shot on another weekend day when the wounded body count hit the double digits.
“People get desensitized by the numbers. And what’s happening in our neighborhoods is not just about the weekend count of 20 shot,” she said. “We get caught up on the numbers, when behind every single number there’s a story.”
And Lee’s story — like the stories of so many nameless victims of gun violence — doesn’t end once the shooting has been counted.