He's an ex-con rebuilding his life after 31 years in prison. She's the unlikely county treasurer trying to prove her doubters wrong. And though politics and public attention are testing the limits of their renewed friendship, Norman Whiteside and Cheryl Brooks Sullivan refuse to let circumstances tear them apart again.
The pink morning glory is an odd sight. As the friends and family of Norman Whiteside arrive to celebrate his first birthday outside of prison in 31 years, they notice the solitary flower in a silver watering tin. It sits on a small table in the back room of Creole Kitchen on the Near East Side. In front of the flower is a box of Jolly Ranchers. Attached to the tin is a sign that reads, “Diurnal Flowering Oasis.”
In the room are Norman's children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and more. This is a close-knit group. They've stayed connected to the family patriarch throughout his decades behind bars and eased his transition back into civilian life since leaving prison in September 2016. Yet none of the family members gathered seem to know the significance of the display. It's a shared secret between two people—Norman and Cheryl Brooks Sullivan, the organizer of this March birthday celebration.
When the man of the hour arrives, the party takes off. Norman laughs, jokes and poses for pictures. Egged on by his family, Norman shows off a few dances moves. He's turning 64 on this day—and he has stents in his heart—but he's still plenty spry.
The pink flower, however, reveals a different side of Norman. He's subdued, maybe even a bit solemn, as he examines the display. He looks across the room and offers Cheryl a knowing glance. Later, with Cheryl at his side, Norman tells me the story behind the unusual display. In 1988, while at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, he admired through his cell window a flower that opened in the morning and closed at night. The little plant, hanging on despite a terrible drought, became his companion and friend, and in a strange ritual of tithing to this oasis of beauty in an ugly place, he tossed Jolly Ranchers at it through the bars of his cell window.
The tradition didn't last long, however. One day, Norman heard the roar of a lawn mower, and when he rushed back to his cell, the flower was no more. Norman, usually a jovial guy, broke down when he told Cheryl this story during a heart-to-heart conversation last year. The birthday display provides a symbolic reunion with that flower, much like the one Norman's shared with Cheryl over the past year.
The unlikely pair—the ex-con and the Franklin County treasurer—are a testament to the enduring power of friendship. In the early 1970s, they were first loves whose Romeo and Juliet romance ended after Cheryl promised her disapproving father never to interact with Norman again. Their friendship faded, but never died. And when Norman got out of prison last year, they reconnected, quickly becoming best friends, confidants and platonic soulmates.
It wasn't an easy choice. Norman has a history of forgery and a connection to one of the most notorious Columbus crimes of the past four decades—the 1982 accidental killing of Denison University student Laura Carter. Cheryl, meanwhile, is perhaps the most unlikely elected official in Central Ohio—an upstart with few political friends, an unusual history of her own (three bankruptcies and a felony drug conviction) and plenty of doubters who might be displeased to hear about her ties to someone with a criminal past. By opening their lives to me—I've written about both of them individually, unaware of their long history together until recently—they are putting their relationship through the crucible of public attention, an ordeal that also could result in political consequences for Cheryl.
So far, they're willing to take that chance. Theirs is a complicated story—a tale of love, loss, music, escape, sacrifice and strength—and they refuse to let circumstances get in their way again.
The romance began at the Ohio Theatre. It was 1972, and Terry Wilks, whose band the Soul Rockers was performing at the Downtown venue, asked Norman Whiteside, a precocious 19-year-old keyboardist, to watch the back entrance for Wilks' girlfriend, Laverne, and let her into the show. When Laverne arrived, she was accompanied by a friend—a statuesque beauty named Cheryl Brooks.
Norman was taken right away with Cheryl, who spoke then with a British accent, the result of growing up in England while her father, Bill, a U.S. Air Force logistics analyst, was stationed overseas. Nervously, he asked for her phone number, and much to his surprise, she gave it to him. “I looked at him, and his eyes were the most honest eyes I had ever seen,” Cheryl recalls.
Two days later, Norman called her. “I kind of tried to act like I wasn't as interested as I was,” he says. They began talking every day for hours over the phone. Age, however, wasn't a subject they discussed. “I'm assuming she's older than I am,” Norman says. “She looked older.” About two weeks into their budding romance, Cheryl's mother, Estelle, interrupted one of their phone conversations.
“How old are you?” she asked Norman.
“Nineteen,” he said.
“Well, my daughter is 15.”
The revelation didn't end the courtship. “I didn't really look at myself as being an adult,” Norman says. “So if there was a mismatch, we both failed to see it.” Though Cheryl's parents forbade her from dating until she was 16, the couple continued their marathon phone sessions. They also enjoyed the occasional supervised visit at Cheryl's home and ate lunch together at McDonald's during Cheryl's lunch breaks at Eastmoor High School. Once, Norman hot-wired his father's car to hang out with Cheryl at a party on the South Side.
Cheryl says their relationship helped her recover from a traumatic experience—a pastor molested her at 14. “I trusted [Norman] immediately,” she says. “From the first time we started talking, it was almost like something that was broken started mending. I let somebody else in, and he took very good care of every feeling and thought.”
But their stars were crossed, and in 1973, Cheryl's parents announced the family was going to move to Brazil for a new military assignment. Cheryl couldn't bear to leave Norman, even suggesting they bring him along. “That, of course, was a ridiculous request,” she says.
With a bag in hand, Cheryl showed up at the home Norman shared with his mother, Mary, on the northeast side. Norman told Cheryl to go home, they'd work things out with her parents. But she insisted on running away, despite having no money, car or place to stay. “He wanted me to do the right thing, but he wasn't going to not be there for me,” Cheryl says.
Norman and Cheryl holed up in his cousin's small Oak Street apartment, sleeping underneath a dining room table. While hiding out, Norman stayed in contact with his mother and Cheryl's parents. He also continued to urge Cheryl to end her flight, insisting it was foolish. After two weeks, Cheryl finally agreed to go home.
Norman says police arrested him on a charge of wrongful influence of a minor, and he spent a night in jail. The case ended with one stringent condition: Cheryl's father agreed not to press charges if his daughter promised never to see Norman again. She acquiesced. “I didn't want anything bad to happen to him,” Cheryl says.
The breakup devastated Cheryl. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. Yet Cheryl kept her promise. Aside from a couple of brief, insubstantial encounters, she stayed away from Norman, and slipped from one bad relationship to another in his absence. Three failed marriages contributed to her three bankruptcies, and in 1996 in Florida, she was sentenced to probation for purchasing $5 of crack cocaine, a second-degree felony.
Cheryl says memories of Norman haunted her later relationships, and she never connected with another man the way she did with her first love. “Norman's my only,” she says. “Norman's my Norman. There will never be another Norman.”
Music was one of the ties that bound them. A pianist herself, Cheryl recognized Norman's gifts. “I thought he was brilliant,” she says. “I thought he was a musical genius. That was one of the first things I was attracted to was his brilliance.”
After they split, Norman began to deliver on that promise. He joined a band called Wee, which became his outlet for producing the kind of progressive, ambitious R&B in the vein of his heroes Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone. In 1977, Wee released You Can Fly On My Aeroplane on the local label Owl Records. Norman wrote and arranged every song on the genre-bending album.
The record was a cult favorite locally, and a few major label executives showed interest in Norman. But bad luck and poor decisions prevented him from breaking through. As his musical dreams began to fade, Norman discovered he had a talent for forgery, and soon he was masterminding a massive phony check operation that earned “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” as a former Columbus police detective told me in 2009.
Around 1981, Cheryl was involved in a car crash in Columbus. The impact knocked her unconscious, allowing a thief to steal her purse. A few months later, two check-squad detectives told her someone had used her stolen ID to create fake payroll checks in her name. They also told her she had a connection with the main suspect: Norman Whiteside. “I basically laughed in their faces,” Cheryl says. “I said, ‘Norman would recognize my picture and my name, and he would never do that.' I was adamant about it.” (Norman says he wasn't involved.)
Norman's life took an even darker turn when he and some other Columbus criminals became involved in a dispute with rivals from Cleveland. A shootout between the two gangs resulted in the 1982 accidental killing of 18-year-old Carter, an innocent bystander traveling in a car on East Broad Street with her parents. Her death inspired '80s soft rocker Christopher Cross, who was dating Carter's best friend, to write the song “Think of Laura,” which became a hit when the soap opera General Hospital made it the theme for its popular Luke and Laura characters.
Though he didn't shoot the bullet that killed Carter, wasn't at the scene of the crime and actually provided police with the murder weapon, Norman was convicted as a conspirator in the aggravated murder of Carter. Authorities portrayed him as the leader of the violent plot that led to Carter's death, a claim Norman has always denied. In 1986, Norman was sentenced to a maximum 25 years in prison, in addition to his conviction the year before in a massive forgery case.
While in prison, Norman's music wasn't completely forgotten. Soul music aficionados snapped up rare 45s of Wee's mid-tempo masterpiece, “Try Me,” a single from Aeroplane, for up to $800 a pop. Then in 2008, the Chicago archival label Numero Group, which launched in 2004 with its tribute to Columbus' Capsoul record label, reissued Aeroplane. The rediscovery didn't elevate Whiteside to the top of the charts, but it did introduce him to a wider audience. He was written about in Spin and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications, and one of his songs was featured on the TV show How I Met Your Mother. In 2015, he became that rarest of things in the Ohio prison system—a Grammy-nominated inmate—thanks to Kanye West, who included the chord progression from the title track of Aeroplane on his hit “Bound 2.” A year later, the Ohio Parole Board granted Norman parole after rejecting him five previous times.
For Cheryl, 2016 was a big year, too. As something of an afterthought, she ran against incumbent Franklin County Treasurer Ed Leonard in the Democratic primary election. To everyone's surprise—including hers—she defeated Leonard, even though she barely campaigned. She followed up that shocker with another victory in the November general election against Republican Ted Berry, a Grove City councilman. She did this with no money, no endorsements, no support from her own party and plenty of skeletons in her closet (her drug arrest and bankruptcies came out after her primary victory). “I could probably explain almost every election logically,” says Ray Miller, the former Columbus state senator and representative who spent 24 years in the Ohio General Assembly. “That one, I cannot explain logically.”
I chronicled her unlikely rise to public servant in last year's Columbus Monthly story “The Accidental Candidate.” When I wrote a short story about Norman's parole a month before my feature about Cheryl came out, she sent me a text telling me she knew Norman. I wasn't terribly surprised.
Norman had cut quite a swath through Columbus back in the day, and I've been bumping into his friends and acquaintances over the past eight years since I first wrote about his prison tale. When my wife and I went to Norman's Columbus comeback concert in November, I was mildly surprised to see Cheryl there. When Cheryl and I met for coffee a month later, she told me Norman said hello, further piquing my interest about their relationship.
It turns out I'd witnessed their reunion that day. After Cheryl's father died in 2008, she decided her promise to him no longer held. She contacted Norman via his Facebook page but was disappointed in the response (since Norman was in prison, his cousin ran the page and didn't recognize Cheryl). Then, after Norman returned to Columbus—and realized that the “Cheryl Brooks Sullivan” in the news was his old flame—he messaged her through Facebook. They talked over the phone a few times, and Norman gave her tickets to the November show.
Cheryl arrived at the concert a bit late, missing the opening acts. Good thing, too, because the anticipation of waiting for Norman was overwhelming when she arrived at the Xclusive Elite Entertainment Center on the Far East Side. “It was driving me nuts,” she says. “I just wanted him to come out. When he came out, it was like, ‘Damn! That's Norman! That's my Norman!' Immediately back to 19-year-old Norman. I saw no difference, heard no difference. The exact same familiarity. It was like no time had passed.”
She hung around after the show to say hello. They exchanged pleasantries: “You look great.” “Enjoyed the show.” Norman invited her to an after-party. She declined—it was late, and she had something to do in the morning—but they talked over the phone again the next day.
They haven't stopped talking since. Romance doesn't seem in the cards; Cheryl wants to concentrate on her new job as Franklin County treasurer, an important position responsible for collecting $2.2 billion in taxes and overseeing roughly a $1.1 billion investment pool. She assumes the office in September, a delay that allows the outgoing treasurer to complete the collection of the previous year's taxes. Plus, she thinks Norman needs to “sow some wild oats” after 31 years behind bars.
Still, she and Norman talk every day, support each other and seem as committed to one another as most married couples. “We have such an honesty,” Norman says.
He made that comment in December, the first time he talked to me about Cheryl and just a month after he saw her again for the first time in more than 30 years. Even then, he recognized the delicate nature of their relationship. “We have to pace ourselves so that I don't cause her any drama, so that my association with her doesn't cause eyebrows to raise too much,” he says.
Cheryl has tried to win over skeptics during the past 10 months. Her efforts appear fruitful, with Democratic Party chairman Michael Sexton, interim Treasurer Ron Hagan and John O'Grady, president of the Franklin County commissioners, all praising her in recent interviews. “We've had some positive experiences with her,” O'Grady says. “She's handled this the right way. I'm looking forward to [working with her].”
But Cheryl will face an uphill battle when she takes office. Miller, the former state legislator, says she'll be graded on a tougher curve. “When you have questions about your background, you can't afford to make mistakes,” says Miller, now publisher of the Columbus African American News Journal.
Which raises a question: Is her friendship with Norman a political blunder? “That's an interesting question,” says Miller, who knows both Cheryl and Norman slightly. He says Norman did his time and appears to have turned his life around. But Miller also says Cheryl needs to be extra vigilant about good judgment. “When you're in public office, you cannot separate your public life from your personal life,” he says.
In late June, I was forwarded an email from a “concerned citizen” that called for an investigation into Cheryl's relationship with Norman, questioning whether it's wise for the soon-to-be manager of the county's tax coffers to be seen around town with a convicted forger and murder conspirator. “If there is a collaboration between those two, Franklin County will lose!!!!” wrote “Susan Grey,” the supposed author of the email. I shared it with Norman.
He quickly suspected who the sender might be—replies to the email address were returned as undeliverable—and jumped at the chance to confront that person. Cheryl disagreed. “I don't think there is any retaliation necessary, any response necessary,” she said a couple of weeks later. Norman's response “put me in a very uncomfortable position,” she said. I asked her where the disagreement left her relationship with Norman. “I have no comment on anything,” she said. We were supposed to meet for an interview, but she canceled.
About a month later, Cheryl reconsidered, agreeing to meet with me after some persistent lobbying from Norman. She gave me just one stipulation for our conversation: Norman must be there, too.
In early August, we meet at the small split-level East Side home that Norman shares with his son, Delayne. Cheryl, usually a warm and gracious presence, is quiet, even a bit dour on this Wednesday afternoon. As we chat in Norman's cluttered living room, Cheryl slowly warms up. We talk about her first meeting with Norman in the Ohio Theatre. We talk about their teenage romance and breakup. We talk about their reunion last year and the deep connection they've formed since then. A smile returns to Cheryl's face. Her answers grow longer and more thoughtful.
Norman leaves to pick up Cheryl's daughter Rachel, allowing us to continue our conversation. Cheryl admits she sometimes wonders what might have happened if she and Norman stayed together in the 1970s, maybe even gotten married. Could she have kept him out of trouble? Possibly. But she quickly dismisses the entire notion. “God doesn't play tricks like that,” she says. “We had to go through what we had to go through.”
Did the email cause tension between her and Norman? “It caused tension between you and I more than Norman,” she says. She trusts Norman and doesn't think he'll make bad choices. But why expose him? Why take that chance? “I'm a bit protective of him,” she says.
Still, the email did present Norman with an alternative view of their friendship. And as they disagreed about how to respond, Norman threw out a drastic suggestion: Maybe he should stay away from her. If their relationship is causing problems, then perhaps it's a mistake. Her response: “I'm not going to deny my friendship with you. We haven't done anything wrong.”
When Norman returns from his errand, an alarm goes off on Cheryl's phone. She reminds Norman to get ready for another appointment. “I'm his timekeeper,” she says.
Before they leave, I ask Cheryl a hypothetical question: Would she rather have her friendship with Norman or be Franklin County treasurer? “In my world, I can have both,” she says.