A Q&A with an Ironman

Former police officer Aaron Perry became the...
A Q&A with an Ironman
Former police officer Aaron Perry is a fifty-one-year-old athlete, author and radio host works with Dane County's Gang Response Intervention Team, calling himself ‘just another dude in the community.'

What is the most misunderstood thing about gang-involved youth, and how do you find “success” in your day job?
You come into contact with kids who are struggling, who may be showing signs of being gang-involved. My job is to come in and try to help them get back on the right track, get them to a point where they become self-sufficient and not relying on anything or anyone but themselves. The overarching goal of my job is to help keep these kids out of the juvenile justice system, stay out and become productive members of our community. And I have success with that because I know this is not a nine-to-five job. I’m constantly visiting over at the night basketball at the Y. I’ve worked with juvenile detention facilities for many years. These kids come in, they threaten you, they talk about what they’re gonna do. But what the average citizen does not get to see is the kid at two o’clock in the morning when you do the bed checks, and these kids are balled up in the fetal position, and you hear this little faint “mama, mama.” That’s when you realize that they’re just kids. And so when I hear people in the community talk about these kids as if they’re little monsters, I can’t lose sight of the fact that they’re just kids. If a kid comes to me breathing, I can work with him. I don’t approach my job in that one-size-fits-all manner, because what works for this kid will absolutely not work for another. Something happens over that period of time that this magical thing called trust is built. I’ve had kids talk about knifing me, shooting me, but these same kids will now call me up and they will say, “Aaron, I’m thinking about hurting myself. Can you talk to me?” The three things that I focus on are the love, discipline and respect. And when I see the kids pushing me? I just push that love right back at ’em.

You and your six siblings grew up poor, raised by your single mom in Milwaukee. How have your personal struggles influenced your work?
I was an athlete in high school, had the opportunity to play collegiate ball at various places, but two weeks before graduation, my mom was killed by a jealous boyfriend. That’s why I support programs like DAIS [Domestic Abuse Intervention Services] and at one point served on the board with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. I went off to school two months later, and that was really difficult, leaving my family behind, but I tried to be the provider. I ended up going to Marycrest University on a basketball scholarship, but the majority of those first few years was a blur, because I was lost on campus. I tell people, fathers can pick up and leave and the family can stay intact, but when mama leaves, everything falls apart. It was even more frustrating, unfortunately, when the guy who killed my mom only served three days in jail. And I just felt like, you know, we were a poor family, and I think we got poor justice.

As a young Black man in Milwaukee, you describe being profiled and essentially harassed by a particular police officer who even punched you in the stomach once–some-thing you didn’t tell anyone for years. Did those experiences influence you toward police and social work?
In college I switched my major from law to social work, graduated and had the opportunity to work in the Quad Cities. I worked at places like Arrowhead Ranch, a juvenile detention facility for kids who had some very significant, serious run-ins with the law. From there I got homesick and wanted to come back to Wisconsin. My initial plan was to go to Milwaukee, but I knew I wanted to be a cop, and I knew that I could not take a friend down. I decided Madison because there would not be such a close personal connection with people I grew up with. I joined UW Police but it wasn’t a good fit for me. And so I came back to juvenile justice in 2001.

Diabetes is the fifth leading cause of death for Black men. You wrote a book about your journey to the Ironman finish line in 2005. You chair the Dane County African American Men’s Health Advisory Committee. You host the Tuesday Morning Buzz Radio Show on WORT FM. You’ve founded the Rebalanced Life website and you currently facilitate community health initiatives including Soul Strides and Black Men Run.
I was twenty-nine when I was diagnosed with [type 1] diabetes. I wasn’t overweight. I was extremely active. And so from the age of twenty-nine to forty-two, some years I did very well with my diabetes care but the majority of the years I didn’t. At age forty-two, my doctor basically got on my case. I was starting to show complications from poor diabetic control. I said, “Well, I did see this thing called the Ironman triathlon.” And 362 days after that doctor’s appointment, I crossed the finish line at the Ironman triathlon. Now I do a group, Black Men Run, and we’ve got some heavy guys. They know they need to lose weight, and it’s awesome to see them coming, see them starting to take their health serious now. I stopped for a lady walking down John Nolen and I said, “Hey, we’re gonna be doing this walk in about a month. You should come and I’ll let you do it for free.” And she showed up to Soul Stroll and she couldn’t walk a mile and [now] she’s lost sixty-seven pounds. It’s so cool when you can be in the right place at the right time.

You had some really scary experiences training for the Ironman, from starting out unable to swim to a car driver who threw a cup of beer at your head and used a racial slur while you were on your bicycle out by Mount Horeb. You’ve had many trying experiences in your life that could have made anyone as angry and dangerous as the kids you work with today. How do you stay so positive?
When I went through the psychological evaluation for the UW police department, I remember the psychologist who did my evaluation saying, “Gosh, man, you rarely get rattled.” My mom was a very mild-mannered woman; that was what was modeled to me. Even though I only had sixteen and a half years of having that modeled, it has definitely impacted me. [After the racially motivated attack while training] I remember getting off the bike and saying to people that I’m done. I remember one of my friends saying, “Aaron, you can’t let this break your spirit.” And then I started riding with groups of people, and it was better. When I got out on the route during Ironman, when I got to that area, I remember thinking, wow, I almost quit. It was important for me to finish. I’m living my life. Live your life. This is the only one you’re gonna get. Just make the best of it. I no longer look back and have those low moments because I should have made this move or that move. Because all of these things got me to the point where I’m at. And that’s the role I’m in now. Honestly, I can’t afford to be bitter or angry because I’m a role model for these kids and if they see me being that way, that’s gonna give them permission to continue on. I can’t afford to be angry. I’ve got to lead by example.

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