December 12, 2008

Reporter profile: Easley proves that nice guys can finish first

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Freddie Easley in a familiar place, Light Hall. (photo by Joe Howell)

Reporter profile: Easley proves that nice guys can finish first

Freddie Easley walks through Light Hall, one of the 10 buildings at VMC that he manages. (photo by Joe Howell)

Freddie Easley walks through Light Hall, one of the 10 buildings at VMC that he manages. (photo by Joe Howell)

Easley, left, and his lifelong friend, Mozell Byars, grew up together, raised by Easley’s mother, Velma Edwards. (photo by Joe Howell)

Easley, left, and his lifelong friend, Mozell Byars, grew up together, raised by Easley’s mother, Velma Edwards. (photo by Joe Howell)

Easley shares a quiet moment with his wife, Jannie Easley. (photo by Joe Howell)

Easley shares a quiet moment with his wife, Jannie Easley. (photo by Joe Howell)

Easley, right, sings with the choir at St. Luke CME Church. Both Easley and his wife, Jannie, are active in the church. (photo by Joe Howell)

Easley, right, sings with the choir at St. Luke CME Church. Both Easley and his wife, Jannie, are active in the church. (photo by Joe Howell)

Those who know Freddie Easley don't hesitate to call him names.

Fair, trustworthy, friendly, reliable, compassionate, devoted, hard worker. The list goes on and on.

While Easley blushes at the compliments, he knows them to be true because he's always tried to live by the golden rule: treat people the way you want to be treated. Period.

As he sits behind his desk in the basement of Light Hall, Easley talks about his childhood in Brownsville, Tenn., and how he ended up responsible for more than 2 million square feet of space at Vanderbilt University Medical School.

Easley spent the summers of his childhood working from sun-up to sun-down alongside his family in the fields of a west Tennessee farm as a sharecropper earning $3 a day. He was productive, determined and knew the value of hard work. His wage equaled that of the adults.

When he was not guiding a mule to plough the fields for corn, okra and cotton, he was feeding the chickens and hogs and making sure there was a hot, steady fire (to cook on and warm the house) before walking to a three-room schoolhouse.

Life was simple but hard in the small farming community. Easley didn't know any different, until he moved to Nashville in 1969.

“The city seemed so far away,” said Easley of Nashville. “The early expectations of me and that I had for myself were that I would work on a farm. Sharecropping was hard work. It wasn't like you worked eight hours and called it a day.

“I learned early on the value of hard work and the importance of respect,” he said. “Those two things definitely impacted who I am and how I live my life.”

Once he moved to Nashville with his mother, Velma Edwards, his eyes were opened to the vast possibilities that awaited him. Never before had he put a lot of thought into his future. Like most young boys, the dream of being a professional athlete was always there.

But the one desire that Easley could never shake was his interest in helping people.

After graduating from Nashville's North High School in 1972, which is the present day Whites Creek Comprehensive High School, Easley attended Tennessee State University with his sights set on becoming a social worker. He earned his degree in Sociology in 1976. A year later he earned a master's degree in Guidance Counseling.

Unintended career

Throughout high school and college, he worked as a housekeeper at Vanderbilt University Hospital. What began as a summer job in high school to earn some extra money, however, somehow turned into a career.

“The intention was to work for the summer and go back to school,” Easley recalled. “I was going to convince my mother that I could do both — work and go to school. She wanted me to only work in the summer. But she said as long as I kept my grades up she would let me continue to work.

“I could have stopped. I had just started playing football in high school. But after I started working and making my own money at $1.20 an hour, I thought I was rich,” he said with a chuckle. “It was just me and my mother, and I decided to work and help out. She was more important to me than playing football.”

Perhaps he had learned the value of hard work, or maybe his stern upbringing paid off. With strict parents, “I couldn't have too many days of being bad. If I did something wrong, I only did it once,” said Easley. Whatever the reason, he developed an appreciation for being thankful for what he had.

“I remember when I first came to Vanderbilt and people would complain about how much they had to work and how they didn't like this or that about work … I would tell them that when you used to work sun-up to sun-down in the hot, sweltering, blazing sun and here we all were in air-conditioned buildings, getting paid, they just didn't know how good they had it.”

Armed with a degree to become a social worker, promotions at Vanderbilt made it difficult for Easley to leave. When he first began in the department, now called Environmental Services, he worked on the patient floors. His knack for getting the job done helped him move up the ladder from assistant supervisor, to supervisor, to assistant director over the evening shift, to his present day post as director of Facilities and Operations for the School of Medicine.

“Just after I graduated, the jobs in social work were not as good,” Easley said. “It was harder to get a job in social work and make a living. I was at the point where I had applied to certain positions, and I would have been making less than what I was making as a supervisor here.

“Being raised on a farm with a certain work ethic, I was always taught the importance of a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. It made it hard to leave that kind of stability to try my hand at something else.”

Besides, Easley was already practicing his trade in his role as a supervisor, community activist, friend and church member.

“I was working with people and helping people on different levels,” he said. “I loved working in the service area. I felt like I was not too far away from social work. I felt like I was making an impact on the community while helping patients and families.

“I helped my staff work through challenges of their own. I listened. I advised. And I had always been active in the church. So in many ways I felt like I was working in the arena I had been trained for.”

Real life love story

It is his passion for helping others that introduced him to the love of his life.

While in college, Easley was a member of his church's outreach team. He and other young adults would venture out into the surrounding neighborhoods and bring people to church. For Easley, it was part of his commitment to his church and service to the community.

Unknown to him, it was also the start of something that would become much, much more.

Jannie Brooks was one of the many children Easley and the outreach team brought to church on a regular basis. She recalls being shuttled by him to and from church. The pair became friends, but eventually went their separate ways.

More than three decades later their paths crossed again and they promised to catch up.

“I saw him at the Waffle House,” Jannie, 47, recalled laughing. “I remember I couldn't even eat my food. He told me I should come back to church. I gave him my phone number to call me about church events and all.

“That number rotted in his wallet for at least two years!”

But eventually they went out on an official date.

“Ours is a love story, really,” said Easley grinning. “I was at the point in my life that most people thought I would be a bachelor forever. I wanted to have someone to love, but I had seen some bad marriages and didn't really know if I could deal with that kind of hurt.

“So I prayed this prayer. I said 'God, if I am to be married, you are going to have to show me the person and have them come to me. They will have to tell me they love me.'”

As Easley came to learn, sometimes what you are looking for is right under your nose.

“I've known Freddie since I was 12 years old,” said Jannie. “From the point when I first met him, I thought the world of him.

“On our first date I sat him down in my living room and told him that I had loved him all my life and if this didn't work out, it was fine. I knew having him in my life at all was a blessing.”

At that point Easley was stunned. Both were in tears.

“Then he told me about the prayer,” said Jannie. “That was when we knew — God had put us together.”

Treating with importance

When asked to describe her husband of 11 years, the words humble, loyal and trustworthy roll off her tongue with ease.

“Everywhere we go, he really treats everybody equally no matter who they are. He's a real gift,” she said.

Mozell Byars, Freddie's lifelong friend, agrees. More like brothers than friends, the Brownsville natives were always together — attached at the hip — as most folks say.

When he was 9, Byars' mother died. It was Easley's mother who stepped into that role. While the pair was in college, she invited Byars to live with them — forever sealing the brotherhood bond.

Although six years older, Byars admits he looks up to Easley.

“He is so kind and gentle,” said Byars. “If he meets someone, it's always a friend, never an enemy. He'd give you the shirt off his back if that was what you needed.

“He's always been the same, but he seems to get better over time. That's just Freddie. He's the kind of person that when you meet him, you know you have met someone special.”

Although Byars has never worked for Easley, he knows his commitment to a task. As members of Saint Luke CME Church and the only men in the choir, they work closely on many church events. He said Easley is very thorough and dependable.

“I've heard that about him as a boss,” said Byars. “He is really good about showing you how to do something, and he's willing to come back if you need further help. He wouldn't hold it against you.

“For instance, when we were living together, he was always so neat. We never argued about cleaning because he would always do it. It was just his thing. Now, I could have done it, but he would have gone back and redone it. But he wouldn't have said anything to me about it.

“He is just that way. He doesn't want to hurt your feelings or put you down. He's unique that way. He's more than my brother, he's my best friend.”

Institutional landmark

Around town and on the Vanderbilt campus, Easley has often been mistaken for a minister or security director.

“It's just the way he carries himself,” said Birdia Byars, Mozell's wife. “It's his personality. He has always been that way.

“The easiest way to find Freddie is to look for someone who is walking, head up straight and with a smile on his face,” she said. “He is proud of who he is and what he has accomplished in life, but he doesn't flaunt it. He truly cares about people.”

Easley's genuine demeanor and tenacity to achieve a job well done go a long way. It has to in order to manage nearly 10 buildings on the Vanderbilt Medical Center campus as well as handle budgets, personnel, training, vendor relationships and customer satisfaction.

His days begin as early as 5 a.m. and oftentimes require a return visit to campus to check on the status of various situations or just to interact with the night staff.

“I really am happy where I am,” said Easley. “After so many years pass by, you realize that this is a great place.

“Now, it can be challenging in terms of keeping everybody happy, especially when you are covering this much space. But it is so rewarding to work with some good people who do a great job. “

It's been nearly 40 years since the summer of 1969, and Easley couldn't be happier.

“I look back at when I was 11 or 12, before I came to Nashville,” said Easley. “I was still on the farm unaware of what lay ahead. Everything there was different. The opportunities did not exist for me.

“But it's always been my dream to affect people in a positive way. So when I look at it and think — how do people label success? I know my parents would have been proud of me and that says a lot. I lived the life my parents taught. I don't know if I would have been able to accomplish more and been happier in my life had I had a different beginning.”

The telltale sign, said Easley, will be the ending, specifically the inscription on his tombstone.

“Hopefully it will read — he helped someone along the way,” Easley said. “As long as I impacted someone's life for the good and it was not about me, then I think I did just fine.”