Grace: 8 years before Payton, there was Tootie -
Published Monday, January 27, 2014 at 12:00 am / Updated at 2:40 pm
Grace: 8 years before Payton, there was Tootie

She used to call her Mississippi-born grandfather Paw-Paw. Odie Coleman used to call his little granddaughter Tootie.

Tootie used to root around Paw-Paw's house for spare change. Paw-Paw used to say, help yourself.

Tootie used to ask for seconds on ice cream. Paw-Paw used to say, give that baby some.

Tootie used to be 5 years old.

She used to live in the Pleasantview housing project.

She used to live, period.

But then, in the same almost incomprehensible way that Payton Benson's life was taken earlier this month, so was Tootie's.

La-Sandra “Tootie” Coleman died more than eight years ago, after someone sprayed bullets at the car she was riding in.

Last week, just after Omaha said a formal goodbye to 5-year-old Payton, Odie Coleman sat in his home, looked at Payton's photograph and saw, in her face, his granddaughter's.

Tootie wore her hair like Payton's. Tootie was excited for school like Payton.

“Another baby,” Odie said in a soft Southern accent, “done got killed.”

* * *

When Tootie Coleman died, people were outraged. They packed the church for her funeral. They gave to a fund that paid for a grave and a pink headstone that promised Tootie would now be “safe in the arms of Jesus.”

At the foot of a tree, near the spot where she was killed, people placed toys and flowers and a purple bike. And on that tree they posted a sign that asked the question on everyone's mind: Why?

Now we're asking the same question in the wake of Payton's death. We have the same outrage. We packed a similar church and we made the same promises to not let her death be in vain.

But will this time be different? Will the community remember Payton any more than we recall Alazia Alford, age 6, killed in 2008; or 4-month-old DeAndre Robinson Jr., killed in 2003; or C.J. Boykins, age 2, killed in 2002?

How much do you remember Tootie?

* * *

She was a kid living with her mother, Sandra, in Pleasantview — the 1950s-era brick public housing apartments that stood about six blocks away from the home where Odie and his father, Roy Coleman, still live.

Sandra and the kids stopped by regularly, sometimes for food or rides or other help and sometimes just to be social. Tootie would crawl onto his lap, run in his yard with her big brother T.C. Bryant or plop onto the couch to watch TV. Once, Tootie walked the half-mile from Pleasantview to Odie's home on Charles Street to deliver a gift. It was a stuffed panda bear.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

All that changed, of course, after Tootie was killed.

On the night of July 11, 2005, Tootie and T.C., then age 8, had climbed into the back of a family friend's car.

Johnny Hill drove them to pick up their mother and her boyfriend, after their cleaning shift at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

At 11:30 p.m., Hill steered the car east onto Parker Street toward the far east end of Pleasantview, where the Colemans lived.

Then bullets. Then screaming. Then medics, unable to help. Then a pronouncement of death at Creighton University Medical Center.

“Daddy!” Sandra Coleman had screamed into the phone to her father, Odie. “Tootie done got shot!”

Odie was shocked. He was angry. He was sad.

For Sandra, in those first few years, the death was too much.

She lost weight and lost some hair and lost her job and lost, for a while, two of her children.

Shawn was sent to live with relatives in Sacramento, Calif. The courts took T.C. because he had missed too much school and Sandra was deemed too depressed to properly care for him.

That left Shay, who was 15. Everything had changed. Their once-close family seemed distant. They were moved to new housing in a duplex. Nothing made sense for the teenager, who deeply missed her baby sister and her brothers and worried about her distraught mother.

Shay acted out, got in trouble and bounced in and out of foster and group homes.

“I actually just gave up on everything,” she said. “I thought my life was over.”

After a turbulent adolescence, Shay rebuilt her life. She went back to school and got certified as a nurse's assistant and medication aide. Now 23, she is enrolled at Metropolitan Community College, where she's taking nursing classes and hopes, someday, to become a doctor.

Shay refuses to leave Omaha because Tootie is buried here.

“I go visit her often,” she said. “I didn't want it to be like everybody completely left.”

Sandra eventually got it together and regained custody of T.C. Haunted by the shooting and frustrated by the lack of progress in catching her daughter's shooter, she moved with her son to Sacramento, where they remain.

There, Sandra was treated for breast cancer. T.C. is a 17-year-old high school junior who still misses his little sister.

“He still cries to this day,” Sandra said. “My oldest son still cries to this day. I don't cry anymore because I know (Tootie) is in a better place and God called her.”

Sandra does hear her daughter's final words over and over: “Mom, I was good today. Mom, I love you.”

“And that's the last time I heard her voice,” she said. “I said, 'I love you.' ”

* * *

There is no more Pleasantview.

The complex was torn down. Officials saw it as an outdated way to house the poor — too expensive to repair, too plagued by violence. Tootie's death in 2005 may have been the final straw. The 29 buildings came down in 2010.

Ambitious plans call for putting up new homes there.

People like Willie Barney, who heads the Empowerment Network, see the building plans as one sign of hope that things can change.

But so much remains to be done.

“People say, why don't they just stop shooting?” Barney said. “Why don't they put the guns down?”

Because, he answered, you can't have peace without progress.

Progress requires more personal responsibility, Barney said. He also says it means bringing jobs, better housing and more opportunities to a part of Omaha in desperate need.

All that will take more than a community's temporary bout of grief.

For families like the Colemans, the loss never fades.

“I still have days,” Shay said, “when I cry about it.”

Payton's death reminded Sandra of Tootie. “It hurts my heart,” she said.

Odie thinks about his granddaughter every day. He keeps her photograph tucked into the front console of his pickup truck. He keeps yellowed newspaper clippings from 2005. He keeps that panda bear.

He keeps visiting Tootie's grave in Mount Hope Cemetery and that tree on 29th Street, north of Parker Street, where Tootie's memorial once stood.

But the memorial is gone. There is no more purple bike. There is no more sign that asks, “Why?”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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