Community activist Timothy Rhambo, who started out as a tough teenager but, as an adult, steered kids away from gang life, died Saturday, March 24. He was 49.
Longtime friend Fausto de la Torre said Rhambo suffered a heart attack.
Growing up in the Kings Villages apartments in Northwest Pasadena, Rhambo joined a local gang as a teen and began selling drugs.
“When I went outside that’s what I saw. It’s what I always saw,” he told the Pasadena Weekly in 2008.
But he beat the odds and left the gang behind him, eventually mentoring local youth on the dangers of that lifestyle. Rhambo worked as a local boxing trainer in Pasadena and Duarte. He also worked at several local youth organizations, including the Sycamores in Pasadena and the Asian Youth Center in San Gabriel.
“He’s my brother and he was my sparring partner,” said de la Torre, who operates the boxing program at the Villa-Parke Community Center. “We saw each other from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. I hold him very, very dear to my heart. I don’t know what else to say.”
Rhambo also worked at Rose City Continuation High School. In 2014, he received the Outstanding Service to Youth Award from the city of Duarte for his work in that community.
“Tim Rhambo was a young man who really had a grasp on the issues,” said former NAACP President Joe Brown. “More than anything else, he did not see color. He just wanted to see young people do the best they could. He didn’t mind getting in people’s faces, but he was always respectful.”
Brown said he and Rhambo clashed after several incidents occurred between African-American and Latino teenagers.
“He told me, ‘You are seeing color and it’s not about that,’” Brown said. “He knew how to bring people together.”
After being arrestd a number of times, Rhambo’s road to redemption began in 1990 after he was arrested and sentenced to four months at a youth camp. A year before that, a gang-related shooting left his brother Michael paralyzed from the waist down.
An additional six months was added to his sentence after he fought with a rival gang member and he was sent to a high-security youth camp.
Ironically, while serving that extra time Rhambo met Iler Patterson, a woman who changed his life.
The former English teacher forbade students from dropping their books on top of their desks. Violation of that rule meant time in solitary confinement. Rhambo and Patterson sometimes butted heads and Rhambo spent two weeks in solitary. After several confrontations, however, he finally began to bend and slowly gained respect for Patterson.
Rhambo said he knew he was smart enough to make it on the right path, but he needed a push.
“Everybody was telling me, ‘You’re going to go to the penitentiary or you are going to die.’ At first, I thought they don’t know me, but then I realized they were right. When I would get out of Juvenile Hall, they would say, ‘I’ll see you next week, Rhambo.’ I didn’t like that because they were predicting my future.”
After he was released in 1991, Rhambo spent time taking care of his brother, who was now confined to a wheelchair. At that time, he began working as a security guard and soon started training under local boxing coach and former NAACP President Charles “Buddy” Bereal in hopes of competing in the Olympics.
But instead of competing for Olympic gold, Rhambo ended up becoming a community leader, working with police chiefs, City Council members and at-risk kids in order to curb youth violence.
Part of Rhambo’s agreement with Pasadena police as a youth adviser required him to go back to school. He later graduated from high school with a general equivalence diploma (GED), fulfilling his childhood dream and later became an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
But his heart was always in working with the community.
“I started working in the community and talking to people in the streets,” he once told the Weekly. “We started helping a lot of the kids and a lot of the families.”
In 2005, when rival sets within local Blood gangs began feuding, Rhambo teamed with police youth adviser Ricky Pickens to start the Movement, a group aimed at stopping feuds and getting young men out of gangs. About 60 people with gang affiliations attended an event in Robinson Park, including current Interim Police Chief John Perez, who headed up the city’s gang unit at the time.
“Talk about an individual who regretted his mistakes,” Perez said of Rhambo. “He spent his life telling kids not to make the mistakes he made. Everything he got involved in was about steering young people in the right direction.”
Former Councilwoman Jacque Robinson Baisley called Rhambo a “champion for Pasadena’s youth.”
“I first met him as a middle schooler,” she said. “He recruited my sister and I to join an organization he called Youth Against Injustice and Racism. You would be hard-pressed to find a youth of color that has not been touched by his passion to help young people develop into good leaders at home, at school and in the community.”
Community organizer Tarik Ross said that when he began his work to help reduce youth violence after moving back to Pasadena from Los Angeles, he was told about Rhambo and immediately the two discovered they had a shared passion for working on solutions to end youth violence. They both also wanted to see better police and community relations and black and brown people working together.
“If a person wanted to earn a degree in youth leadership and development and civic engagement, I would tell them to enroll in the Tim Rhambo University by studying his decades-long work,” Ross said. “Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley lost a great youth leader who impacted many lives across age and racial barriers.”
Rhambo attended hundreds of community meetings and was a constant presence at rallies and vigils after local shooting incidents. In just about every shooting case, he knew the victim or the suspect. Sometimes he knew both people involved.
In 2016, after six people were shot in five separate shooting incidents, Rhambo called for community unity.
“We all need to come together,” Rhambo said. “I see community vigils that are all Hispanic or all black or all white. No more separate vigils. People are coming to the streets with penitentiary attitudes.”
Rhambo is survived by children Jasmine Rhambo, Timothy Rhambo Jr., and Aliyah Brown; granddaughter Jada Morris; mother Lauren Rhambo; and brothers Isaac, Michael, Edward and Larry.
The family is raising money for memorial services. To contribute, visit gofundme.com/tim-rhambo.