LAKE PLACID - Reading "From Dirt to Design," a biography of former Lake Placid resident Ron Bercume Jr., I kept asking myself the same question: "What makes this man in his early 30s so special that a biography had to be written about him?"
Bercume had a troubled childhood with divorced parents, and he's had ups and downs with his own relationships, coming out the other side of life's challenges a success thanks to his hard work, talent and perseverance. There's no doubt he worked through some tough stuff, and he deserves credit for repeatedly picking himself up after getting knocked down, brushing himself off and fighting the good fight. But with all the come-back-from-the-dead stories in our over-saturated media landscape - filled with cancer survivors, legless veterans and more - the circumstances in "From Dirt to Design" are not so extraordinary to warrant an early biography that sufficiently answers the question, "Why should I care?"
That said, when you consider the book's audience - disadvantaged teenagers who are impressionable and are faced with tough choices about which road to follow, the good one or the bad one - having Bercume's life story in their hands is a valuable resource.
Bercume is young enough that teenagers can relate to his roller coaster story, growing up in the 1990s, whereas someone with gray hair who grew up in the 1960s may not have as much of an impact.
"From Dirt to Design" - written by former Wilmington resident and Lake Placid High School graduate Tim Follos and essentially commissioned by Bercume, a fellow classmate - is more about showing teens a bona fide role model than it is about stroking Bercume's ego. It's a book with a mission.
"If this onetime 'fat, smelly kid in thrift-store clothes' with an attitude that was 'questionable at best' can earn a slice of the American dream, then they can, too," states the book's media release. "This book was written to help show them how to overcome daunting challenges through old-time virtues such as self-belief, hard work and doing the right thing."
Follos does an admirable job presenting Bercume as a character you want to care about. The more I read, the more I was engrossed in the story, and the more I was rooting for Bercume to survive and thrive. This four-year book project even has an unexpected plot twist toward the end that nearly unraveled plans to publish it. And yet, Bercume continues to fight the good fight.
As the story begins, Bercume lived with his mother, Laurie, in Bakersfield, California, even though both parents had roots in northern New York. There were good times and bad times, like any other family, and mother and son had positive things to say about each other in the book, even though there were definitely problems in the household.
"My mother was always crying," Bercume said in the book. "Something was always a problem. Something was always wrong as far back as I can remember. My mother wasn't a negative person at that time, but there were toxic things going on in her personal life and with my family. ... She made decisions to keep me from knowing things, even to this day."
Some of the problems included abusive boyfriends, drugs, alcohol and finances. When Bercume was about 8 years old, he moved to Florida with his mom. That was 1988, and they lived there until 1994.
"He lived in 19 different places over the next six years and became a juvenile delinquent," Follos wrote.
Bercume spent most of his time in Florida in trouble with the law, mostly for vandalism and shoplifting. He was arrested on a felony count of burglary when he was 13.
In 1994, Bercume visited his father in Las Vegas and learned about his father's "new age spiritual philosophy."
"He said that our family was descended from aliens that had populated the Indians," Bercume said. "According to him, they came and abducted him every once in a while, and that's where he got his information. He was an alien planted on the earth."
After a few months living in his father's trailer, Bercume's mother decided to move to Las Vegas and reclaim her son. She showed up at the trailer with the state police, but that didn't work, so she pulled him out of school one day.
"Laurie remained silent while the principal informed the boy that if he did not go with his mother, he would be sent to juvenile detention," Follos wrote. "Ron and Laurie soon flew back to Florida under assumed names."
Bercume dropped out of high school by the time he was 14. He was getting into fights and more trouble.
"I was sick of getting beaten up, and I was ready to beat other people up," Bercume said. "That's why we left Florida; I needed to start a new life, or I wouldn't have one right now."
And so Bercume moved to Lake Placid with his mother when he was 15, and they never looked back. Life in the Adirondacks seemed like a safe haven, a place they could start over.
"I was used to people beating me up and putting me down," Bercume said. "Life in Lake Placid wasn't like that. I was pretty much welcomed into that high school. I had a clean slate."
What Bercume did with that clean slate was become a success. He ended up studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology after high school graduation, starting his own business and getting hired by a major firm in Philadelphia. And he gives a lot of credit for his success to teachers and administrators at the Lake Placid High School.
There's a strong message to adults in this book. Bercume was lucky when he moved to Lake Placid. He had teachers who cared about him, believed in him and, by doing so, gave him the self-confidence to turn his life around, from a troubled teen to an overachiever.
"I hope 'From Dirt to Design' finds young people facing similarly daunting circumstances, as well as the teachers who might be inclined to give up on them," Follos wrote in the book's introduction.
Some of Bercume's teachers and school officials are featured as characters in this book, people like art teacher Anne Rickard, guidance counselor Roger Catania (who is now the school superintendent) and technology teacher Tom Dodd.
"The classes I took with Mrs. Rickard and Mr. Dodd were the foundation of everything I've achieved," Bercume said. "I spent a lot of time in those classrooms, and it was clear that they appreciated that. I credit them and Mr. Catania and Mary Smith for helping me to see that if I continued to work hard, it would pay off."
High school students know the difference between a good teacher and bad one. As they graduate and begin to live in the real world, they increasingly realize which ones made a difference in their lives. There are plenty of teachers out there: bad, mediocre and excellent. Then there are the standouts, the inspirational teachers who change their students' lives forever.
It doesn't take much to be an inspirational teacher. They all have that ability, yet many choose not go the extra mile. Sometimes it means tough love. Sometimes it means lending an ear to listen. Most times it means sincerely believing in a student and showing support with actions as well as words.
In Bercume's case, Catania and Rickard both believed he should interview at RIT, so they helped out.
"They thought it would be a good idea for me, so Anne booked my mother and I a rental car for the trip to RIT for the interview," Bercume wrote in his "Anne Rickard Made It Happen" chapter. "How many teachers would do that? ... If Anne hadn't gone out of her way - repeatedly - to help me, my life would be totally different."
I sincerely hope students, parents and teachers read "From Dirt to Design" because it is worth knowing Bercume's story. He may not be an amputee who fought in Iraq, a breast cancer survivor or a world leader, but he has a lot to share with disadvantaged teens who may end up on the wrong side of the prison fence if someone doesn't show them they care.
This book is Bercume's way of paying it forward. Proceeds will benefit a summer arts scholarship for teenagers from the greater Whiteface Mountain region, giving them an opportunity to succeed. And maybe one of those students will someday write a book with the chapter, "Ron Bercume Made It Happen." That's the potential here, and it's why this book is so important.
"From Dirt to Design" is on sale at The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, and at The Little Supermarket in Wilmington. It can also be purchased through amazon.com.
About the author
A native of Wilmington, and a high school friend of Bercume's, Tim Follos is a journalist who has written for the Washington Post Company's free daily tabloid, Express, as well as for the Onion, the Valley News, the Georgetown Voice, and numerous other publications. He is a former sports editor of the Lake Placid News and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. He currently labors as a humble scribe for Federal News Service, in Washington, D.C. "From Dirt to Design" is his first book.