Regrets, what-might've-beens, for J.J. Revear and mentor Kim Bailey, too

TAMPA

One night this past spring, Kim Bailey was making ice cream in the kitchen of his restaurant when a phone call forced him to put down his tasting spoon. A television reporter had news about J.J. Revear.

He hadn't heard that name in years.

J.J. had been shot dead in the parking lot of a windowless bar on a rough stretch of road. It was just 10 miles away from where Kim stood surrounded by white tablecloths and a waitstaff in white shirts and black aprons.

That contrast reminded him that theirs had always been an unlikely friendship.

The reporter wanted a comment, but Kim, usually so garrulous, couldn't say anything.

Robert "Kim" Bailey, 57, was practically a native of affluent South Tampa. He was a restaurateur who had tasted fame after starring in a national infomercial. Walter "J.J." Revear, 28, with multiple arrests since the age of 12, was infamous. Tampa police had called him the "poster child of juvenile crime." His publicized arrests in the 1990s polarized a community debating whether wayward youth deserved punishment or redemption.

Like the generous portions he cooked, Kim believed people needed a second helping of grace, and then a third if necessary, to straighten out. Years ago, he had been J.J.'s mentor before losing sight of the troubled teen in the midst of his own personal collapse.

Now he wished he hadn't lost touch.

Kim got off the phone and told his head chef that the boy could've been a talented artist. For proof Bailey ran home to find the drawing.

J.J. had drawn the shoe when he was 15. Oxford in style with rugged tread, the detail in the drawing was exquisite.

He propped the card next to his computer and began to type his weekly newsletter. Usually about food, this issue was about regret.

• • •

On the local TV news in 1995, a baby-faced kid who could barely see over the witness stand caught Kim Bailey's attention. Just 12, J.J. was on trial for armed robbery, accused of being a getaway driver. He had another robbery, attempted robbery and 15 car theft charges — all pending.

Kim had gone to high school with J.J.'s public defender, DeeAnn Athan. He asked about the boy's family. J.J.'s father was in prison. His mother was absent and his grandmother raised him. They lived in Central Park, a public housing complex near downtown.

Could J.J. use a mentor, he asked Athan.

They met at the courthouse. A big paw met a meek handshake. The teen's shy eyes held a glance only for a second. J.J. addressed Kim as "Mr. Bailey."

The hardened criminal Kim expected was nowhere to be seen.

Kim had no obvious goal but to influence the boy to make better choices. He was allowed to take him out of juvenile detention for a few hours at a time. They began with lunch at Burger King because it was close by.

Over Whoppers, Kim learned J.J. liked to "draw things," so from then on he had the boy draw. He also learned the boy preferred to be called by his given name, Walter. So that's what Kim always called him.

He bought J.J. a suit from Men's Wearhouse for his birthday, worked with him on a firm handshake and had J.J.'s shoe sketch printed into a box of greeting cards that the teen could give to people he loved.

About three weeks after their mentorship started, J.J. was at Kim's Bayshore Boulevard condominium when he got a whiff of some Peruvian spare ribs Kim was cooking. The smell prompted a conversation, and J.J. mentioned that he loved fried chicken.

Kim promised him a meal: chicken, buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes, green beans and chocolate cake. Invite your family, he said.

A week later, the guard at Kim's condo called upstairs, saying a "Mr. Revear" had arrived.

Out his peephole, Kim watched as both elevator doors opened. Nearly 20 people stepped out. He realized he hadn't defined "family."

Kim had cooked for about four. He considered ordering Kentucky Fried Chicken. He rummaged through his fridge and pulled out leftover stew. He grabbed ingredients he could whip into simple dishes. Somehow, there was plenty of food.

"He shaved the corn off the cob," recalled Kendra Revear, J.J.'s sister. "It was delicious. He could really cook, and it was soulful."

The dining room table only sat six. Everyone else spread out on couches, the floor, even the balcony. Uncles, aunts, lots of cousins: They all talked to Kim for hours.

J.J.'s grandmother and sister thanked him repeatedly. They invited him to their home. He went there often, sitting in the living room, joking with J.J.'s grandmother, helping the boy with homework.

"He was like a family member," Kendra said. "Like every other day, I remember seeing Mr. Bailey around all the time."

It was there that Kim saw the dichotomy. He lived on the 14th floor of the Atrium on the Bayshore, which included 24-hour security, a cascading fountain, tennis courts, pool, spa and exercise room. J.J. lived in subsidized housing where aimless teens and young men loitered outside at all hours.

"If he's going to survive," Kim thought, "I have to get him out of here."

Kim had a contact at Without Walls International Church, a huge evangelical congregation that was active in the community. The church knew of a middle-class family in Carrollwood willing to offer J.J. a home, and after a few meetings, they took him in.

By February 1999, about four years since they had first met, J.J. was wearing a golf shirt and khaki uniform, attending a small private school and making the honor roll. Kim saw changes. J.J. seemed to be staying out of trouble and adhering to his foster family's rules.

He felt the boy was in good hands.

He let go.

Within a year, J.J. violated his probation when he and a friend were found with a gun. J.J., now 17, was sent to prison.

Kim had no idea. He had his own problems.

• • •

Kim came from a family where no one ever questioned quantity or quality. His first taste of cooking came at 10 when his dad took him to Trinidad on a business trip and left him in the Hilton hotel's pastry kitchen. Kim's father asked the chefs to babysit him while he worked, so they let him ice cakes and roll dough.

In high school, Kim made a steak dinner for several friends and their dates that gave him a measure of teenage fame. He hosted college dinner parties for 30.

His mother was a healthy cook, who used good ingredients. His father was a Southern boy from Christmas, Fla. He hunted, made bear and rattlesnake chili and served huge portions. Every Christmas, his mother made 20 pumpkin pies and gave them all away to family and friends.

It was from both parents that Kim's culinary style developed. Like his father, he turned a blind eye to measuring. He just threw handfuls of brown sugar and cups of melted butter into his Georgia peach upside-down cake. Like his mother, he looked for the best ingredients, like Madagascar bourbon vanilla — $80 a gallon.

But when it came to a career, he passed on joining his father's shrimp brokerage firm and started his own travel agency at 23. He sold it after about six years and opened a consulting firm. He put a 1-inch by 1-inch ad in the Wall Street Journal that ran daily for seven years: "Own your own travel agency."

His firm grew so successful he had his own infomercial with Robin Leach in the 1990s, selling $29.95 and $49.95 kits that helped people open their own home travel agencies. They sold more than 70,000.

But the late 1990s brought turbulence to the travel industry. The Internet made travel agents expendable. Debt-ridden airlines stopped paying agents, too. A payout Kim expected from his infomercial never materialized.

Kim almost went bankrupt.

He had overextended himself financially, buying the condo at the Atrium he couldn't afford. He sold it and was forced to move in with friends.

By 2000, the jovial, large man who never lacked for company had become ashamed and a recluse.

He spent days downtown at the John F. Germany Public Library, reading books about Abraham Lincoln, who lost his first election, and Milton Hershey, who went bankrupt a number of times. He was searching for a resurrection story.

A break came months later, when a friend recommended Kim to another friend who needed a caterer. He wasn't doing anything, and he figured he'd do a good job.

He was successful, and it led to other jobs. Sleeping in friends' spare bedrooms, he now needed their kitchens, too. He relied on borrowed equipment. Soon came his first big party — 100 people — for a large law firm.

He was eking out a living. He watched the twin towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, in someone else's house. While the nation was headed toward an economic free fall, his resurgence was taking root.

Kim rented a small, one-bedroom apartment blocks from his old condominium. His brother paid his first five months of rent and gave him an Isuzu Passport with plenty of room to haul catering equipment.

"I don't like the words pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," Kim said. "I don't think you do that to get yourself through. It does take a village."

He created his own company, Bailey's Catering, but continued working out of his apartment and friends' kitchens for years. In 2007, he leased a small cottage in Old Hyde Park Village for his business. He moved into a two-story townhouse at Carolina Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard — just blocks from his old high-rise.

It took about seven years, but he had made it back.

• • •

As Kim climbed back up, J.J. plummeted. In May 2000, a judge sentenced J.J. to six years in prison with credit for time he served in a boot camp.

In 2003, he was arrested on cocaine possession charges and resisting an officer and sentenced to five years in prison.

In 2009, just three months out of prison, he burglarized a home but was found incompetent to stand trial. He spent about a year at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee for mental health treatment.

• • •

Last year, Bailey's Restaurant & Catering moved into an even larger space on Davis Islands with a courtyard. Firmly back on his feet financially, Kim has returned to his generous ways.

He expects guests to take home leftovers, and he shares his recipes just as freely. He regales his weekly radio show audience with tales of meals he has enjoyed at other restaurants and advice to those just getting into the business.

His restaurant offers free meals to "caretakers" — anyone taking care of aging parents or sick family, and he is a longtime volunteer at Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a middle school for low-income scholarship students.

About a year ago, while homeless panhandlers proliferated, Kim drove around thanking God he was not one of them. He related to their predicaments, counting himself fortunate he had friends and family who supported him when he lost everything.

He took umbrage at the common argument that they were just drinking donations away. The implication was: There's no point helping them.

It was the same indictment he often heard about J.J.

One day, Kim sat on a bench near the University of Tampa and saw a homeless man asleep. He stuck $50 on the man's duffel bag and sat on a bench several yards away.

The man awoke surprised. He took the money, walked to McDonald's, ordered a hamburger, small fries and a free glass of water.

Kim followed and watched.

The man continued to Walgreens. He bought a toothbrush, went straight to the bathroom and brushed his teeth.

"Holy cow," Kim recalled thinking. "Now he may have done what everyone said and bought alcohol, but that first hour and a half he bought essentials for the night."

It was the proof Kim needed to justify his belief that people just need help. Someone to follow up.

• • •

J.J.'s drawing stared Kim in the face as he sat at his desk on that night in May when he learned J.J. was dead.

First he read news stories about the shooting. He read about how J.J. had been released from prison on probation, how some people said he was putting his life together. He read other quotes that said society should have been tougher on boys like J.J.

He disagreed.

"What unmet talent this man possessed. Society failed him. The courts failed him. The prison system failed him. His parents failed him. And yes, I failed him . . . all leading to him failing himself.

"For of course we all make choices in our lives, so he played an active role as well. . . . But this kid didn't have much of a chance from the start. We can do better for kids, however. We must do better."

J.J.'s family doesn't feel Kim failed him.

"You can't blame him, because everybody has their own life," Kendra Revear said. "They make their own choices."

It's the "what if" that haunts Kim.

"I think when you make a commitment," Kim said, "it's easy to find something and pass it off. It's much harder to stay with something and follow through."

A few days after Thanksgiving, Bailey's Restaurant will host 31 Academy Prep students for lunch. He'd like to select two or three interested in cooking and put them through a long-term culinary training program — one that will offer continual support all the way to college. The kids are scheduled to do some cooking demonstrations.

Kim will be watching carefully, looking for apprentices, hoping for a shot at redemption.

"That would be great," Kim said.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.

Regrets, what-might've-beens, for J.J. Revear and mentor Kim Bailey, too 11/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 18, 2011 4:02pm]

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