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  United Front

Supported by his wife Missy, his children Din and Nia, and the community he represents, City Councilman Danny Mayfield fights the battle of his life.

by Betty Bean

Missy Mayfield didn't have to haul the wheelchair out of the back of the car for the last City Council meeting in March. Danny walked in unassisted, took off his black baseball cap and placed it on his desk so the big gold letters spelling "GOD" were facing the audience, who couldn't see the tube running from his left sleeve to the nylon case housing the pump for his chemotherapy. He went about the business of being the Sixth District City Councilman, which concluded with his colleagues denouncing those who let it be known that they wanted his seat if he resigns.

Or dies.

Two weeks later the GOD hat was sitting on a bedside table in the oncology unit at UT Medical Center. Danny's weight had dropped to 105, and his throat was so raw that he could neither speak nor eat. It is not a side effect of the bone cancer that has come back 13 years after he was cured as a teenager, but of the chemotherapy being used to cure him. Outside his door was a uniformed police officer assigned after a woman called in from a phone booth at the Broadway Shopping Center and said some guy was so angry over the prospect of another tax increase that he'd gone to fetch his guns to kill the mayor and a bunch of Council members. Hospital personnel were instructed not to reveal that Danny was a patient there, and the name on his door was "Walter Winchell," in case the gunman came looking for him.

It was an unusual set of circumstances, to be sure, but there's never been anything remotely average about Mayfield, a slight, soft-spoken guy who looks like a cross between Spike Lee and Gandhi. He burst onto the scene in 1997 to win an exuberant, against-the-odds campaign against a longtime incumbent. Once elected, he raised eyebrows when he was sworn in to office wearing an African robe, galled his elders with pointed criticisms of his parents' generation, lost influential supporters when he took on a quixotic campaign for mayor. Now, it is his life-and-death struggle with cancer that has captured the attention of people all over the city—that and his faith in miracles.

The Mayfield Family

Daniel Anthony Mayfield Jr. is 31 years old and is married to Melissa Dyanne (Missy) Mayfield, 30, a stunning woman who holds a masters degree in soil microbiology and biochemistry. These days, she answers his emails and telephone calls, sits beside him at public meetings and is his eyes and ears, and often his voice. They are the parents of Din, 9, and Nia, 5.

They came to Knoxville at the same time, though not exactly together. Their story began in 1989, when Melissa Chisholm's mom put her on a Philadelphia bus bound for Knoxville College courtesy of a foundation called "God Not Statistics" founded by Dr. A.V. Hankins, an African American woman who had made it as a physician and was determined to help educate bright young people who might not otherwise have a chance to go to college. Danny Mayfield and his cousin Anthony came down from Camden, N.J. and boarded the same bus.

Missy, who said she wasn't much in the mood for meeting men at the time, had piled her bags in the seat next to her to discourage anyone from trying. She was going to school to study.

"I'm one of those little nerd kids, okay?" she says. "Graduated from high school with a 98 average."

"I noticed her right away," says Danny, who was leaving behind a tough inner-city neighborhood in a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. "So I sat down in the seat right behind her and tried to get her to notice me."

He tried putting on some headphones and showing off his bodacious singing voice; he tried walking up and down the aisles asking everyone their names. But he made little headway beyond finding out that her name was Melissa. In fact, he struck out so badly that when he awoke from a nap and looked out the window at a rest stop somewhere north of the Tennessee line, the first thing he saw was Melissa holding hands with the guy who'd been sitting next to him.

"I kept thinking she was the most committed, smart, sincere, beautiful girl in the world—and she was his."

He made an impression on Missy, too.

"The first time I saw Danny, I thought he was conceited. He thought he knew everything. I thought he was nice looking, but he was just too doggone confident. I didn't like it. Out of 21 of us on that bus, there were only seven females, and out of them, I was the only one all of those stupid negroes tried to talk to—all of them but him. When he finally asked me what my name was, I said 'Missy," and he said 'I'm gonna remember that.'"

Things didn't look any more promising between the two of them when the semester started and Danny, in Missy's view, continued his overbearing ways.

"The first time he realized I had a brain was when he was leading a study session and was trying to tell them how to do a math problem. I said no, the procedure you are doing is wrong, and you're going to come out with the wrong answer. He looked in the back of the book and saw I was right. After that, the students would come to me for help with math."

Danny refused to give up, however, and he won her over before the end of their first semester, in part with that singing voice. She remembers the words to one song: "All I ever want to do... Is spend the rest of my life with you..."

That first semester at Knoxville College was memorable in other ways. Danny and other out-of-staters were shocked at the conditions on campus.

"We had thought we were headed to the Promised Land. A historically black college in the South—we had finally arrived! It didn't look the way it was supposed to; people felt betrayed," he says. "I wanted to leave. But Missy told me if I left, she was leaving too, and I couldn't face calling her mother and telling her why her daughter was leaving school..."

So he stayed and got involved in KC's highly publicized financial problems and became a well-known campus activist. He and Missy were married, and they moved into College Homes, where they were living when Din was born. "The semester we had Din, I got a 4.0," Missy says. "Both of us did. I tell the girls I work with that you can do anything if you just put your mind to it..."

Tribe One, the street ministry Danny and Chris Woodhull founded together, was born before Danny graduated, too. The ministry continues today and has a strong track record of helping kids reclaim their lives.

"We lived (in College Homes) because we were poor, and it was convenient to Knoxville College," Danny says. "Our experience there was part of the reason I needed to do Tribe One. But eventually, we had to get out. I never wanted my family to practice the things we had to practice. At 10 o'clock at night, we'd hear rat-a-tat-tat—automatic weapon fire—and we'd hit the floor; sometimes we'd have to spend all night there. And sometimes cars with those super-powerful sound systems would pull up right under my son's window, and we'd listen to Snoop Doggy Dogg all night long. Our son was born and raised there, but I just didn't want to bring my daughter into that. We were blessed with the opportunity to leave, and we took the opportunity."

That opportunity led them to the brightly-painted, one-story house in Historic Mechanicsville where they live today. Meticulously tidy and decorated with Danny's own art work, including bright oil portraits of Missy and the children, the order there reflects the disciplined nature of a family whose days begin precisely at 5 a.m., followed by a family devotional time at 6:30, when Din frequently reads the Bible aloud.

Din and Nia are bright, attractive, polite children who call adults "ma'am" and "sir." Five-year-old Nia is too young to understand what has happened to her daddy. But at 9, Din, who has just gotten some brand-new glasses and says he wants to be "a chemistry scientist" when he grows up, recently made first-honors at Green Magnet School, and understands a lot.

Does he worry?

"Not as much now."

Why not?

"Because I just don't want to worry. People ask me 'How's your dad doing'—questions like that. I tell them he's going to be fine."

He has had his moments of doubt, however. When he first heard his dad had cancer, he told his mother that he had a plan, should worse come to worst:

"He said if anything happened to his daddy, he was changing his name to Danny Mayfield," Missy says.

Councilman Mayfield

Danny Mayfield has become something of a controversial figure in his political life, in part because he is difficult to label and tends to do, and say, the unexpected. His health problems have not distracted him from paying attention to the goings-on in his community, and lately, he is very disturbed by the Rev. Jerry Upton's confession of cocaine use and dealing.

"There are so few people to look up to," he says. "Seems like maybe once every five years some major black figure gets brought down. It's terrible."

He knows that remarks he has made about the way his parents' generation raised their children have rankled many of his elders, and he's not sorry. In a generational piece in the News-Sentinel just after he was elected, he criticized older African Americans who "refuse to make things happen, but refuse to step aside when young folks try to do it. They are the first to block the way."

He realizes that telling them to "sit down" wasn't very diplomatic, but he refuses to apologize.

"Ah, those 'Boomers. If you look at what has happened to my generation—a whole bunch of us are dead, incarcerated or screwed-up—and look at the generation that raised us. Peace and love and free sex. What I have asked is where were your kids when you were doing all this stuff? Who was taking care of your kids? How can you deny it?"

Does he realize that he's made people mad by saying things like this?

"Probably. But the truth hurts. And if I say things like this, it means I gotta do something about my kids."

He is also painfully aware that running for mayor last year damaged some of his relationships with community leaders, white and black. He says he wanted to offer the voters a choice, and that he prayed long and hard before he made up his mind to do it. (His supporters say they approached him with the idea of running because they did not believe their end of town has gotten a fair shake in recent years.)

His campaign to unseat Victor Ashe never had a realistic chance of succeeding, but he has no regrets about that either.

"Thank God I had time to build great relationships with a lot of people."

Missy says she had to do some praying over the mayoral campaign, too.

"I wasn't too excited about it, because I was just getting used to the lifestyle of being married to a City Council person and getting our lives back to a place you could call 'normal.' But I talked to him some more about it, and he told me he believed it was God's will, and that persuaded me that it was the right thing to do."

Danny the Patient

It is Tuesday morning, the day of the City Council meeting, and Danny is dozing in something that resembles a barber's chair in the Thompson Cancer Survival Center's chemotherapy unit. He is a natty dresser, and even here, he is meticulously dressed in hounds tooth-checked lightweight wool slacks, a white knit shirt, and an olive green trench coat. The GOD hat is sitting on a table next to him. His doctor, medical oncologist Rick Grapski, divides his time between Thompson and UT, and Danny goes to both hospitals for treatment.

He is hooked up to an IV cocktail of drugs that is starting to shrink the tumors on his heart, lungs and near his kidneys. Missy is playing with Bailey, a gentle, bandanna-wearing golden retriever who visits the chemotherapy unit every week. Nurse Jodi Henry oversees the treatment, which takes two to three hours. Afterward, another nurse will load him into a wheelchair and roll him out to the corner, where Missy will come and pick him up. He will go home and rest up for the meeting.

While Danny is taking his treatment, Missy, who resigned her job at Knoxville College to care for him full-time, slips out for a quick lunch on Cumberland Avenue. It is the only moment she will have to herself during a day that stretches from 5 a.m. through the City Council meeting and will not end until perhaps 11 p.m. after she has gotten the kids to bed, made sure Danny is resting comfortably, and dealt with all the calls and emails. She laughs off warnings that she is working too hard.

"When this is all over and Danny is well, you won't be seeing Missy for awhile," she says. "I've told Danny, I'm going somewhere to relax for 10 days or so. I'm already looking at brochures. I don't know where I'm going to go, but I plan to enjoy it."

Meanwhile, Danny seems to be doing as well as can be expected for someone whose white blood cell count had fallen to a dangerously low 400 just the week before. A normal count is 8,000 to 12,000. Today, Danny's is a miraculous 10,000.

"That's what prayer can do for you," says Ella Wallace, 73, a breast cancer patient occupying the chair next to Danny. "It's kept me alive for three years."

The tiny hoses connecting Danny to the IV are attached to a Porto-Cath that has been surgically implanted in his upper chest just below his neck, to avoid the torment of "sticking" him each time he receives treatment. He was to remain on this particular course of chemotherapy for 10 days. Others will follow.

The current chapter in the lives of the Mayfield family began this winter when Danny started having heartburn. He consulted his family doctor, who recommended some tests. In February, the doctor came by the house and told Danny he needed to some more X-rays. Biopsies came next, and Danny was sent to UT Hospital for a CAT scan. There, he was told that he might have histoplasmosis.

"She said 'I'm fairly certain this is not cancer,' and I said 'Thank you, doctor,' but I was thinking 'How am I going to explain this to people—that I have a disease caused by bird droppings and getting too close to bats.'"

But the diagnosis came back osteosarcoma—a rare recurrence of the bone cancer he'd had as a teenager, 13 years before. Danny says he wasn't afraid, even when he heard that the tumors are attacking his heart and lungs.

"I asked my doctor what are my chances, and if he knows anybody alive today who has had what I have. He said, based on the information he has, which is 10 years old, the answer would be no. I asked the oncologist and he said the same thing."

He is resolved to tough the treatment out and to "do what it takes" to beat his grim odds.

"Just because I walk around in a hat that says God doesn't mean I'm God—it means I am God's son. If you are looking for someone who believes in the word of God, you've found him, because I believe it."

When he met Dr. Grapski, Danny had some questions for him

"I asked him if he was a believer. He said 'Not like I should be.' I asked him to be open to the possibility that he will find something unusual or special that has to do with this miraculous healing that we'll experience."

Grapski says he'd welcome a miracle, and that Danny is doing pretty well, considering what he's up against.

"Am I in favor of a miracle? Absolutely," says Grapski. "I've been doing this for a number of years, and attitude is very important. Danny certainly has the right attitude, so maybe he will be lucky. He's lost some weight, yes, but he's actually getting better. The problems with his mouth and throat are side effects from the chemotherapy. The medicines we're using are really affecting his mouth, where the soft tissue has died, and his esophagus is red and raw right now."

He calls Danny's cancer "a pretty serious tumor in four different locations," but says the tumors have already started shrinking. "The calcium in the tumor may not allow it to shrink all the way, but he's having a good response. We're going to try to wait another couple of weeks to evaluate him."

When they met, Danny asked Grapski to give him the grimmest possible scenario; Grapski told him he would probably have only six months to live if the treatment doesn't work. The fact that Danny's tumors are already beginning to shrink means that he has probably bought himself some time, Grapski says. The next step, if the tumors continue to respond, will be to prepare him for surgery to remove his left lung. He will probably have to go out of state for this operation.

"This surgery is very expensive," Grapski says. "The thoracic surgeons at UT are excellent, but they may not want to tackle this one. So we are probably looking at traveling, maybe to Houston, or Boston...

"We're crossing our fingers and saying lots of prayers."

While the Mayfields wait for their miracle, friends are easing the pain. Missy is running out of wall space for the cards and letters they have received. There are occasional offers of strange miracle cures and inquiries from political wanna-bes who are impatiently waiting for Danny to vacate his Council seat, but on the whole, the calls have represented an amazing flood of generosity.

The family has had help with childcare and transportation. A crew came over to work on landscaping the Mayfield yard. Chris Woodhull gave them a gift of the New Testament on CD. A group of volunteers take turns bringing them home-cooked meals every evening. A radio fund drive run by Hallerin Hill of WNOX brought in pledges of nearly $50,0000, helping make it possible for Missy to resign from her job as an administrator at Knoxville College. A service organization called Men-N-Black collected more than $1,000 for the Mayfields last weekend.

Missy has come to believe that God led Danny to run for mayor for a reason they never could have guessed during the campaign. She believes it made Danny more familiar to Knoxvillians, and helped set the stage for the outpouring of spiritual, financial, and practical help her family is receiving now that they are in need.

"I am so overwhelmed and so grateful for everything that people have done for us," she says. "We have been so supported and I can just feel it all the time. I love this community and the people of Knoxville and will never be able to say thank you enough. Knoxville, Tennessee is always going to be home."

Her husband agrees:

"I won't say our cup is running over yet, but it's getting close," Danny says. "I've got churches I never heard of praying for me. Some friends went to Paris and lit candles for my health. That's Paris, France. Can you imagine? People have been sending love and support, and God has blessed our family."

April 6, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 14
© 2000 Metro Pulse