If anyone’s story can blot out all the bad press that came out of T/E schools last year, surely LeRoi Leviston’s can.
His journey from starting Stoga quarterback to Mr. Lev, beloved Valley Forge Middle School teacher, to Roi Lush, full-time rapper, is as improbable as it is inspiring.
The odds against LeRoi, 28, were stacked from the start.
He was born on Long Island to parents who “were very into hardcore drugs,” LeRoi tells SAVVY.
(He shared his “whole story” with us shortly before headlining his first local concert at the Main Line School of Rock last weekend.)
His grandmother insisted that little LeRoi, then 2, his mom and big brother move to Paoli to live with her “to get away from” LeRoi’s dad, who would die from AIDS complications when LeRoi was 5.
While his mother was “more like a best friend,” his grandmother, Flo, was “the glue that held the family together.”
It was Flo who laid down the law. And it was Flo who enrolled her grandson in organized sports, in part to keep him out of trouble.
LeRoi was a natural. Living up to his name’s translation “the king,” he ruled – on the field, the court and diamond.
In one Pop Warner season, he scored 45 touchdowns.
In Little League, he’d blast home runs and pitch perfect games.
He was routinely named MVP of his Paoli Wildcats basketball tournament teams.
Along the way, he became buddies with another standout athlete, Mark Herzlich, now a linebacker for the N.Y. Giants.
It was a friendship that would change his life.
For the Herzlichs’ household, just a few miles away in Wayne, was worlds away from the Levistons’ life on Summit Ave.
“I grew up in one of T/E’s low-income pockets,” LeRoi says. “It was the Main Line but it wasn’t very Main Line. It’s more urban because of the drug addicts and the drug deals, the fighting, and the cops always coming on our street.”
When he’d visit Mark’s family or any of his sports pals’ homes, he was dumbstruck. “First, they had moms and dads around – that was new for me. And they had good cars, nice houses, cleaning ladies, front lawns and back lawns.”
His sports buddies became like brothers. And the Herzlichs, in particular, became family.
To his mother’s dismay (at least at first), LeRoi began calling Mark’s parents, Barb and Sandy Herzlich, “Mom” and “Dad,” a practice he continues today.
Until then, LeRoi’s only male role model was the father of his younger brother, Kris – the three Leviston boys had different fathers – but Kris’ dad was mostly MIA, in jail for years at a time.
Things went from bad to worse during LeRoi’s last years at Stoga. He lost his grandmother to cancer, leaving his mother, a low-wage earner with a gambling habit, the sole breadwinner, he says.
“We were evicted from our house and moved to Paoli Place [around the corner on Central Ave.] but we had trouble keeping the lights on.” Dinner some nights was buttered bread.
It was around this time that a second local couple took an interest in LeRoi: Sandi and Kirk Gorman. Their nascent non-profit, T & E Care, began helping the Levistons pay their bills, LeRoi says. The Gormans, too, would hire LeRoi to do yard work and odd jobs, anything to put a few bucks in his pocket. To this day, LeRoi calls Sandi Gorman “an absolute angel.”
In March of his senior year, another bomb: his big brother, Michael, was sent to jail for dealing drugs out of their Paoli home.
“It was just really hard at this point because then I knew I’m now the man of the house and I’m 18 years old,” LeRoi remembers.
Meanwhile, the Herzlichs had taught LeRoi to drive, had opened a college fund for him and Kris, and did all they could to keep LeRoi’s eyes on the prize – a college degree. His ticket out of Central Ave. that wasn’t a jail cell.
He went off to Wesley College to play football, a lifelong dream.
But his mom “was having money trouble again and would cry all the time on the phone.” During a visit home, he and “Mom Herz” went to the bank to check the balance in the college fund.
“It was the first time we cried together,” LeRoi says. His mother admitted to taking the money to pay bills.
At the end of freshman year, he ditched his dream and moved back home.
“I couldn’t fathom my family being unstable and me being away at college.” He took a full-time job at the Paoli Walgreens and a full course load at Delco.
“There were so many times I could have followed in my big brother’s footsteps selling drugs,” LeRoi admits. “We’d known people all our lives go to jail and go home, or go to college and drop out, fail out or get kicked out. I knew I had to be a role model to keep my younger brother from going down that dark path. That’s one thing I’m most proud of in my life. With everything I’ve been through, I was able to show Kris there’s a different way.”
The lights and cable were turned off a few times and there were eviction notices. LeRoi was working, studying and trying to take care of his brother. “We ate Wawa an awful lot that year and a half,” he recalls.
T & E Care had stopped helping with the family’s bills, LeRoi says, because “nothing was changing. My mom was still playing the lottery and smoking cigarettes, wasting a lot of money on those things.”
When the family was evicted in 2010, the Herzlichs called LeRoi with a proposal: Be part of our family. Live here on school breaks. Celebrate holidays with us. “They couldn’t stand seeing me bouncing around with my mother and brother.”
Deciding to live with the Herzlichs was “one of the toughest choices I’ve had to make. I felt like I was abandoning my family a little bit. I don’t think at that time that my mom knew how important the Herzlichs were to keeping me on the straight and narrow.”
By now, LeRoi had transferred to West Chester, cobbling together grants, loans and funds from T & E Care.
“I am happy to say I was the guinea pig for T & E Care’s college assistance program. They took me under their wing. I wanted to be a success story for them.”
While he loved living on campus, LeRoi hit rough patches at West Chester. He says he even thought of ending his life at one point.
For a time, he says he smoked pot to keep his mind off his family troubles. “But I never got into the hard core stuff. To this day, I’ve never tried to crush a pill or try a drug because I know I have addiction in my genes and I know I just won’t be able to stop.”
Through his highs and lows, his team of mentors – the Herzlichs, the Gormans and others – remained steadfast.
And in 2012, LeRoi Leviston received what no one in his family ever had: a college degree, a bachelor’s of science in health & phys ed. His brother Michael, released from prison, even made to it to his graduation.
Impressed by his diligence and winning way with kids, the T/E School District hired LeRoi right away: first as a teacher’s aide and coach, then as a security guard (a big pay bump), and finally, as a contracted teacher.
In Sept. 2014, he returned to his middle school alma mater, Valley Forge, as a health and P/E teacher. “They took me in so fast – the staff, the kids – it was like a homecoming,” LeRoi recalls.
Mr. Lev was a hit from day one. Fun-loving, upbeat and unusually willing to share his personal struggles to connect with students, he occasionally brought something else to the classroom: his rap songs.
His dad had been a musician and LeRoi had been writing songs for years. He’d released his first mix tape in 2012 under the name, Roi Lush, a nickname from his Conestoga days.
For two years he juggled teaching and rapping, opening for more established artists, recording music videos, working with Rinne Records producer/agent Jerry Yirenkyi, a Malvern Prep alum.
While others rapped about drug violence, profanity and degrading women, Roi Lush was keeping it “90 percent” clean and positive.
Today he’ll tell you he’s a hip hop artist who tells personal stories, not a rock rapper throwing out disjointed rhymes.
A funny thing happened around this time. Since childhood, LeRoi had a significant stutter. But when he taught a class or rapped, the stammer vanished, his voice ringing clear and true.
LeRoi’s big break came last spring when he was invited to a showcase at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin.
The gig went so well that he went back to his hotel room and cried. “I couldn’t believe I got myself to Texas. I’d never been off the east coast before. Here I was performing at one of the country’s biggest music festivals. I started wondering: ‘What if I pursued my music full time?’”
Back in town, he floated the idea over dinner with the Herzlichs.
“I was convinced they were not going to be on board with it. We had worked so hard to get my degree and to get me in the best school district in the state.”
But the Herzlichs were with him. They knew how passionate LeRoi was about his music. As long as he gave it “100 percent” effort, he had their blessing.
Torn for a few months more, he tendered his resignation early last June.
On his last day teaching, he fought back tears, telling his students to set “realistic and unrealistic” goals. “It’s the unrealistic ones – being a rapper, an artist, an inventor – that will drive you crazy and keep you up at night,” he told them. “’But you give it a shot, you give it your all, and that means everything.’”
He still has a stack of notes and cards from students and staff wishing him well.
When T/E resumed classes in September, LeRoi remembers waking up and thinking “Holy crap, I’m unemployed.” He even “went through a depression” that first week, missing the kids, the staff and the rhythm of teaching middle school.
For now, his managers are paying his rent and some bills. To make ends meet, he trains former students and leads basketball clinics. In a few weeks, he’ll return to T/E as a substitute teacher.
But not for long.
On Feb. 1, he plans to move to LA to be closer to his producer and further his career.
“It’s another leap of faith but I’m ready. I know the world is bigger than the Main Line. It’s a safe bubble here and I love it. But I need to have new experiences. I need to know if I can be successful outside this bubble.”
He may be moving on, but LeRoi says he’s forever mindful of his roots, the community that took him in, the school district that gave him a chance.
“I want to be the person who puts the Main Line on the map for hip-hop,” he says.
Sure, it sounds grandiose.
But for a young man who’s beaten the odds, who’s straddled two families and two worlds, anything seems possible.
LeRoi Leviston is Roi Lush now.
Hear him roar.
“Pen to the pad, glimpse in the past, pissed at my dad.
Envy of parents I was wishing I had.
Just listen, not every risk can be bad.
It can be tough to stay your path when you get mad and the conditions are bad.
Not all addition is add when problems pile up and your child and you just want to get your style up.
Lost in America feeling like a wild pup.
Just to make it out your situation would require luck, I’m fired up.”
–- “Always” (Unreleased song by Roi Lush)
T & E Care, the non-profit that confidentially helps local families (like the Levistons), will hold its Fall Fest fundraiser Saturday, Nov. 5. Festivities include dinner, raffles, auction, live music by WheelHouse and line dancing led by Mojo Fitness’ Cindy Brauer. Click here to order tickets.
As The Haverford School Turns.
The Delaware County DA’s office has dropped charges against the private school’s headmaster.
John Nagl, 50, was arrested for simple assault last week after he reportedly put his son in a chokehold and cops saw red marks on the 15-year-old’s chest.
Seems the headmaster had found pot in his son’s backpack two days prior and had taken away his cellphone. When he overheard the teen talking on the phone, Nagl confronted him. The boy refused to give up the phone and Nagl grabbed it. The son reportedly then came back at him and Nagl put him in a chokehold. The son called 911.
Nagl’s attorney told Philly.com that his client was just trying to be a good father and called on the DA to drop the charges.
The Haverford School Board of Trustees has put Nagl on paid administrative leave and will meet next week to consider his reinstatement. Nagle is a retired Army officer with combat experience. He’s been Haverford’s headmaster for three years.
High drama near the Paoli rails this week.
Tredyffrin Police – with an able assist from Willistown, Easttown, Malvern and the FBI – collared a guy who held up a Paoli bank Monday afternoon.
The robber was wearing a dreadlocks wig and passed a note to the Wells Fargo bank teller stating he had a gun.
Witnesses saw the robber flee the bank and run down the rail tracks. Police found him hiding in a nearby dumpster.
The whole episode – from holdup to arrest – took just 15 minutes, says Tredyffrin Police Chief Tony Giaimo.
Score one for the speedy Boys in Blue.
The alleged robber, Philadelphia resident Jimmy Agoro, 20, was taken to Chester County Prison.
The family of the Main Line boy who nearly died when he was swept away in a Radnor stormwater culvert is suing the township.
The suit filed by Logan Schweiter’s family says the township ignored repeated stormwater management studies showing hazardous conditions at the culvert near Radnor Middle School.
Five years after the July 2011 accident, Logan Schweiter remains in a near vegetative state with permanent physical and mental injuries. Logan was a sixth-grader at St. Katherine School when he was playing in pooled water in a friend’s yard and was pulled into an underground drainage pipe.
You’ve seen her shiny stuff at Macy’s, now you can ogle a store full of Kendra Scott fashion jewelry the near the SoulCycle in Suburban Square.
Meanwhile, Bryn Mawr continues to bubble over with women’s fashion boutiques. A second Main Line outpost of Scout and Molly’s (after Paoli) is now open at 825 Lancaster Ave.
The hoops house at Villanova U. is getting a new look and a new name.
The plain-Jane Pavilion will be named for benefactor William B. Finneran, Nova Class of ’63.
See what $22.6 million buys.
The arena has gone nameless since the infamous John Du Pont moniker was yanked 20 years ago. No final word yet on where games will be played during the 2017-2018 season when renovations begin.
Looks like the western Main Line will be getting another wedding hall.
New owners of the Civil War era-mansion Loch Aerie say they’ll put an addition off the back, a romantic swing out front, and make the place a year-round event venue.
We’ll toast to that.
Designed by noted architect Addison Hutton, the sagging Swiss Gothic estate near the Home Depot in Malvern needs some serious TLC.
A finally, a SAVVY shoutout to Harriton ’96/Harvard ’00 grad Becca Brown for striking a sweet deal on Friday’s “Shark Tank.”
Shark Robert Herjavec gave Becca and her biz partner $500,000 in exchange for a quarter stake in her company, Solemates.
For the record, Solemates makes plastic high-heel protectors and other shoe gizmos.