QUINCY -- Gerome Crayton has one of those faces that strangers find familiar, and his voice is booming and commands the room.
His exclamatory tone softens only in those moments when he gazes down to the small metallic cross woven into the bracelet he wears on his right hand, when his head bows, and he whispers, "Thank you, Lord."
The former drug dealer went from cooking crack cocaine and selling it on the streets to cooking comfort food and selling it through the catering service he started.
A Keokuk, Iowa, resident, he is now looking to expand his business into Quincy and Hannibal, Mo., where he works as the residential care coordinator of the behavioral unit at Levering Regional Health Care Center. Crayton also is the assistant youth pastor at the Cathedral of Worship in Quincy.
Born and raised in Milan, Tenn. -- a simple Southern town where children swung on grapevines and tromped through creeks -- his trials began early.
Through his earliest years, he was burdened by a birth condition that left him numb below the belt and unable to pass water traditionally. The attention drawn by the condition taught him about human nature.
"People judge you from the outside," he said. "They don't know what's going on on the inside."
Before his first day of school, the principal suggested homeschooling Gerome because his physical condition could leave his clothes soaking. He had to bring two backpacks -- one for books and another to hold half a dozen change of clothes -- but he attended school, throwing himself into his schoolwork.
During the week, he struggled through the feelings of inadequacy his condition brought. On the weekends, he would travel with his mother across the state, searching for a physician to correct the condition. The search was made even more difficult by his mother's religious views -- she was a Jehovah's Witness who refused to allow blood transfusions -- and it continued until he was 12.
After years of traveling Tennessee, they found a Memphis surgeon who did the operation without a blood transfusion. The procedure proved successful and changed Crayton's life.
"When I got to middle school, the whole world opened up for me," he said.
He had never played sports before or rough-housed or done most of the things an active young boy would do. Now able to engage in whatever he wanted, and with newfound attention from girls, he began to partake in the "lights, sounds and bells of life." His grades began to slip, and his values shifted. He favored the glamour of the street life, "causing mischief," and soon found himself affiliated with a gang.
Plans to play football, go to college and find a career dissipated when he chose dealing drugs over summer school. He quit school after his sophomore year and took a job at a restaurant and coffee shop, working alongside his uncle. The two began selling marijuana.
After getting into some trouble, he got a job slicing meat at the grocery store where his sister worked, but he kept selling drugs. When a more-connected dealer approached him with a deal -- trading drugs for meat -- Crayton took it. He was caught after three heists.
"The guy that was training me, that took me under his wing as a big brother, said the money and the ticket count wasn't matching up," he said.
He was arrested and lost his job and his apartment. He began using cocaine, which soon progressed into smoking crack cocaine.
Almost 20 years later -- a long run for any crack user -- Crayton hit his breaking point.
A weekend altercation with a rival gang member that brought his mother out to a nightclub in the middle of the night, carrying a hammer to protect herself while escorting him home, showed Crayton that he needed to do something drastic to change his life.
"I heard this voice come to me," he said. "It said, 'Have you given any thought to your life?' I said, 'No.' "
The following Monday, he bumped into his cousin who was part of a team of roofers going to Iowa to do a two-month job. They had one more spot open.
"I'd prayed that weekend," Crayton said. "I told God this wasn't the way I wanted to die."
The first thing he noticed about Keokuk is how much slower everything moved -- a change that enticed him. When the roofing job was over, he returned to Tennessee to pack his belongings and told his mother he was moving up north. That was in 1997.
He landed a job at a manufacturing plant, moved in with a woman he met and life seemed idyllic. He married the woman, Bridgetta, and she got him going to church. Together, they have four children.
But he was still using.
"I thought if I left Tennessee, all of my life would change," he said, "but I realized it wasn't where I was. It was in me."
In December 2004, he came home after a two-week binge to find his wife was losing hope for their future.
"I couldn't do it anymore," he said. "Thoughts of suicide began to creep in. Who would miss me?"
Devastated and fearing he might be having a nervous breakdown, he spoke to a pastor who encouraged him to go to the emergency room. He spent the next four days in a psychiatric unit before a bed opened up for long-term treatment program in Des Moines.
The program was a progression of phases.
"It wasn't treatment at first," he said. "I walked into a homeless shelter, thinking 'How did I get here?' "
Those who participated in the programming at the shelter were allowed to move on to treatment. The previous cook had just moved on when Crayton arrived in the shelter, and he was told to fill the vacancy. The same thing happened when he moved on to treatment.
"I've been around cooking all my life," he said. "I couldn't play outside or anything, but every weekend, when my grandmother and father would cook for the family, I was always in the kitchen."
Cooking three meals a day for his homeless peers and learning under a chef, Crayton realized his long-dormant dream. He was given the freedom there to plan the menus, cooking what he liked and preparing it how he wanted.
"I hadn't cooked any food like that for awhile," he said. "All I'd been cooking was dope."
He graduated from the program in 2005.
His first cooking contest was in 2006 -- the Cajun Cook-off in Keokuk. He made a simple Cajun chicken pasta that was well received, but he didn't win. He was undeterred, though.
The next year he took home the Judge's Choice and the People's Choice awards with the same dish. From that contest, he was invited to attend Keokuk's annual Rollin' on the River Bluesfest, where he has been a presence every year since.
"That put my name out there," he said.
He and Bridgetta -- Crayton still pauses to thank God when talking about how she stuck with him -- started Tastebuds, a comfort food catering service. The company is best known for its baked beans -- a simple recipe that Crayton said can be eaten as a main course -- which have made their way onto the menu of a restaurant in Keokuk. Tastebuds is a side project for Crayton, a way to supplement his income and keep his dreams alive.
"I got a second chance," he said. "With the right care and unconditional love, anybody can rebound."
Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.