Linda Dutton wears a porkpie hat. Like the lid itself and the jazz musicians who made it popular, she is a cool classic; bopping to the beat of her own drum and, at 52, comfortable in her own skin. As she tells her story, she is inclined to long verbal riffs, peppered with bits of slam poetry of her own creation. Listening to her is like listening to an improvisational jazz piece, freeform, and a little hard to pin down. You never know where it’s going to take you but you know it’s going to be someplace good – so if you’re smart, you’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride. Only then do you realize that what at first seemed a bit extemporaneous actually has structure, direction, and a great deal of lyrical passion. Throughout her life – just like the jazz and R&B musicians she loves – Linda has known when to lay back, when to break out, and when to step up and take the lead. And when she does, she nails it.
Linda grew up in East Baltimore in a fairly stable home but where the world just outside its doors was menacing. At a very young age, she and her brother, Conrad – aka Cutty – made a pact to watch out for and protect each other against the potential danger they saw lurking around every corner. They were best friends and shared everything together including a love of basketball and special confidences. They even entered the military together. Linda spent 6 years in the army and Cutty had a stint in the Air Force. They were each other’s touchstone, keeping one another on the straight and narrow as they travelled through life. After the army, Linda won a basketball scholarship to Coppin State College but she dropped out after only 2 years because, already in her late 20’s, she was itching to start life and “make some money.” For the next 15 years Linda worked for Boise Cascade, an office supply company where she rose to the position of supervisor in charge of furniture. It was a good job with significant responsibility. She had her first child, Justin, at age 30 and though single, Linda provided a safe and nurturing environment for him. Life was good. And then, suddenly, On October 24, 2001 tragedy struck. That day Cutty, an experienced window washer, was killed on the job in a fall from the 30-story World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore. The accident rocked Linda’s world.
“Nobody grieves the same,” Linda told me philosophically as she recounted the story. And Linda grieved for Cutty, her brother and best friend, like she had never grieved before. She was out of her mind with grief, so much so that she feared for the safety of her co-workers who moved heavy furniture under her supervision. In hindsight, she realized she might also have been a little burned out by the job.
“The thrill was gone,” she admitted. And so, because the events of life converged the way they did, Linda left her job at Boise, and – at the age of 40 – embarked on a new odyssey; one that would eventually lead to The Caroline Center, but not before encountering a few detours. Linda had no way of knowing that she had quit her job at the beginning of an economic downturn, one that continues to linger through today. For a few years, she bounced around from job to job, barely making enough money to support Justin and herself. Just when she thought she was getting somewhere or had the chance to fill a permanent slot, there would be a job freeze and she’d have to start all over again. During those years Linda worked for the Baltimore Downtown Partnership as a special liaison to the homeless, for the Health Department as a substance abuse counselor, and for social services in a special work-study program. She also attended a city run pharmacy tech program under the tutelage of one Doctor Ruth Davis, a woman who would come to figure prominently in her life. Though Linda passed the state exam for pharm-tech certification, she didn’t pass the national exam and so her options were limited. She would have to try again. In the meantime, she accepted a job at the Vascular Center at Mercy Hospital. One day while there she heard a patient in another room complain angrily about how “she couldn’t wait to get it out of her.” Linda had never heard anyone speak so bitterly and went to investigate. To her horror she realized the patient, a drug addict and HIV positive, was talking about the baby she was carrying; a baby for whom she had no feelings whatsoever and who – as far as she was concerned – only caused her physical distress. At that moment Linda knew that after a few years of ‘noodlin’ around’ (to put it in jazz parlance), it was time to stand up and take the lead once again.
“I would like to adopt your baby when it’s born,” she told the mother calmly. “Biological don’t mean logical,” is how she explained it to me.
“You serious?” the mother asked in disbelief.
Linda couldn’t have been more serious. She had done a good job of raising Justin, by now in high school and on a clear track for college. And she realized in that moment that her pact with Cutty was not just a promise to protect each other from harm, but to look out for the vulnerable wherever she encountered them.
The mother shrugged as if to say ‘suit yourself’ and then added as if were a deal breaker:
“You bring me some Popeye’s the day it’s born?” Nonplussed, Linda said, “Sure.”
And so a couple of months later, with the signing of a few pieces of paper and for the price of a bucket of chicken, Linda took her new son, Anthony Conrad, home. Though it would be another 13 months before Anthony was given a clean bill of health, it was a new beginning for them both and the perfect time for Linda to try her hand at Pharmacy Tech again. An acquaintance and Caroline Center alum told Linda about the Caroline Center program, which she immediately investigated. While there for an interview, she mentioned her former mentor, Dr. Ruth Davis.
“Well, you’re in luck,” said the interviewer. “Dr. Davis works at Caroline Center now.” Some things are just meant to be.
Linda’s life, which had started out tightly scored and then drifted off into a freeform but staccato sort of exploration was coming back together again. Like a jazz masterpiece, all the parts were beginning to fit. She was accepted into the Caroline Center program and reconnected with Dr. Davis, who, seeing something special in Linda, was determined to help her succeed. This time around, with the help of Dr. Davis and so many others at Caroline Center, Linda passed both the state and national certification tests. She graduated from Caroline Center in 2008, and has worked as a pharmacy technician ever since.
“For me, Caroline Center was the right place at the right time,” Linda stated. “They give you whatever you need and empower you to be your best. For real, they’re Baltimore’s best-kept secret.”
Today, Linda works full-time for Kaiser Permanente where she makes good money and gets a raise and added responsibilities every year. Justin is now a college grad, out on his own, and working as a chef for a well-known Baltimore institution. And Anthony is a healthy and beautiful 9 year old, devoted to his mother, if not his third grade homework.
As for Linda, she takes great pride in her work.
“I always arrive early and stay busy. Caroline Center taught me there’s no such thing as downtime. If I’m not waiting on customers, I’m fillin’ trays or takin’ orders.”
And true to form, she knows when to play backup and when to step in front and take the lead. She always goes the extra mile for customers, and has the stories and thank you notes to prove it. Take, for example, the case of Ida. Ida was an elderly customer of Linda’s who used to walk to the pharmacy for her medications from her home down the street. As she got older and frailer, Ida became more and more afraid to cross the busy street by herself. Distressed and in need of her prescriptions, Ida explained her problem to Linda over the phone. Linda told Ida she’d meet her at the corner and escort her across the street any time she needed to come in.
“If you willin’, I’m able,” Linda says matter-of-factly.
A big believer in ‘paying it forward,’ Linda recommends Caroline Center to anyone who will listen and spends much of her free time mentoring each new crop of pharm-tech trainees there. She speaks with the women at least three times a year, sharing with them letters of appreciation she has received from grateful customers (including one from a doctor who told her she had saved a patient’s life), as well as bits of wisdom and sage advice. She tells each class that being in the Caroline Center program guarantees them a lifetime membership and that no matter where life takes them, Caroline Center will always be there for them. Just as quickly she reminds them that, “you only get out of the program what you put into it.” Or, in the words of one of her poems ,”Life is lessons with blessings.” She knows this is particularly important for the younger ones to hear. She encourages all the women to “strive for big things” and on a final note adds, “Then come back and share.” It is a beautiful ending to a soulful setpiece, ‘played’ to perfection by one very cool original.
Help others like Linda achieve the success they deserve. Click here to donate.