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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Learning How to Breathe: The Endless and Fruitless Search for Chuck Standberry

Posted By on Tue, Dec 17, 2013 at 9:38 AM

click to enlarge Willie Stanberry prepares for the Celebration of Life planned for the seventh anniversary of his father's disappearance. - ERIC SANDY/SCENE
  • ERIC SANDY/SCENE
  • Willie Stanberry prepares for the Celebration of Life planned for the seventh anniversary of his father's disappearance.
The clank of traffic shuffles along West 25th Street. It is a Sunday morning, which means everybody’s out for the day. Just off the main drag, Willie and Carla Stanberry are walking up the icy stairs in front of Franklin Circle Church. They’re dressed impeccably because today is, after all, a celebration.

Inside, yawning wooden beams cross over a quiet sanctuary. The Virgin Mary embraces an infant Jesus Christ and looks down across towering organ pipes. The pulpit, from which the Rev. Allen Harris leads formal services, is empty. Dangling ceremoniously from the ceiling are dimly lit chandeliers. The Stanberrys are here a bit early to get everything ready. They’re in from Erie, Pa., for the weekend, and the whole family’s going to be here soon.

Willie says that today is a Celebration of Life, and the slight rasp of his voice curls richly around those capitalized letters. “I don’t want my family to be sad. He wouldn’t want us to be sad,” he says. “He knows I’m gonna keep going, keep pushing, keep doing everything I can - fighting - whether I find him dead or alive.”

He’s talking about his father, Chuck Standberry Sr., who disappeared on Dec. 7, 2006, in Cleveland. Since then, Willie, whose own last name drops the “d,” hasn’t chanced upon a single clue as to what happened that night. The police sure haven’t helped. And the streets aren’t coughing up answers. Willie, the kind of son who takes up the mantle of family when times get difficult, says he hasn’t exhaled in seven years.

“Not knowing is the worst,” he says, choking back tears and shifting his gaze toward the stained-glass windows above him. “I see some people who lost their parents; they know, though. And I just want to know. How am I supposed to do that?”

***

Chuck Standberry played at the Apollo.

Twice.

The bassist performed with members of The Temptations all over the country. But his shows at the Apollo were pinnacle flashes in the man’s otherwise ordinary life. He liked to kid his son, Willie, about that. Willie had played all over the country, too; he took after his dad and picked up the bass as a teenager. But Willie hadn’t played at the Apollo, and Chuck liked to rib him now and then about that.

“Everything he did, I tried to emulate. He was my idol,” Willie says. It’s been seven years now since Willie’s idol disappeared into the thin air of Cleveland’s near east side. In the early days, when answers seemed closer and within reach, he spent time trying to recreate his father’s last known actions.

Chuck was 73 years old and in bad health when he left a friend’s house in the twilit hours of Dec. 7, 2006. He had phoned his girlfriend, Betty, to let her know he’d be over soon.

The best guesses as to what happened begin near East 89th Street and Grand Avenue. Chuck was wearing a beige jogging suit and a suede jacket and driving a 2001 Ford Focus (license plate: EAU 8688). Some stories put him at the Sunoco gas station near East 123rd and St. Clair.

Chuck never made it to Betty’s place. He and his car disappeared completely.

“He had a good heart. Like anybody, he had faults,” Willie says, now shielding cloudy eyes with a tissue. He doesn’t want to be crying when the family arrives here at the church, so he’s not resisting his emotions too much right now. Apart from Willie’s low, gravelly voice, it is completely quiet in the sanctuary. But he rolls onward, describing his father in vivid detail before the man’s sudden disappearance turned the family’s world upside-down.

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