By the time he was 10 years old, Thomas Rumph was selling bags of peanuts and popcorn on the side of the road in Toombs County, Ga.
Young Thomas would tell his small-town customers -- truthfully -- that he was saving for college.
From little Vidalia, Ga., Rumph eventually made it to cap-and-gown ceremonies at Florida A&M University and later at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta, where he completed his dental training.
Today, he operates Eastdale Family Dentistry on Wilcox Boulevard, but he has never lost his passion for business. Dr. Rumph collects businesses like other people collect baseball cards. Besides his dental practice, his other properties include a barber shop, two beauty salons, a nail salon and a restaurant. His business holdings are spread across the city: Eastdale, Brainerd, the Highway 58 area.
His dental office is known as a place that builds smiles and spreads goodwill. At Christmastime he distributes gifts to poor families. The practice has a 15-passenger van to provide transportation for patients, and no child goes home hungry after a visit to Dr. Rumph's office.
From where he sits, Dr. Rumph believes much of the crime and despair in Chattanooga's urban neighborhoods can be traced to a scarcity of black-owned businesses and entrepreneurial role models.
"Solving our problems has to start with people like me," Dr. Rumph said in an interview last week at his office in Eastdale. "For a lot of folks out here, the only business they ever see a black person own is a drug business."
Dr. Rumph has taken it upon himself to take steps to try to change that.
On July 30 he is offering free tacos, pizza and haircut coupons to community youths who gather at Orchard Knob Baptist Church (1734 E. Third St.) from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Besides Dr. Rumph, speakers will include Carolyn Jones, president of the health records consulting company C.J. Enterprises Inc.; and Charles Kimbrough, president of TrinTech Solutions LLC, an information technology company.
"I feel like the best way to stimulate [young people] is to show them our lives," Dr. Rumph said.
It's notable that this isn't a government intervention or a push from the pulpit. These are black businesspeople trying to pay forward a message of hope based on good old, American free enterprise.
By offering coupons for free back-to-school haircuts for young men and hair-styling for young women, Dr. Rumph hopes to attract 150-200 young people to his pro-business revival.
He has partnered with Solomon Williams, whose nonprofit Community of One organization held a similar back-to-school rally in Cleveland, Tenn., last year, to spread the word about the haircut giveaway. The two met at Miller-Motte Technical College, a local trade and career school where Williams works and Dr. Rumph recruits talent for his businesses.
Dr. Rumph says offering a free back-to-school haircut is a way to help boost a child's self-image at a vulnerable time.
"I want these kids to feel proud their first day back at school," Dr. Rumph says. "For single parents, haircuts cost lots of money."
Adds Williams, "Think of the parents who have to choose between a haircut and buying a new shirt [for school]."
To think that intractable problems such as poverty and crime can be solved with a few haircuts is naive. But then, who would have thought a little boy selling peanuts on the side of the road in Southeast Georgia would one day own several businesses that employ dozens of people?
One thing is indisputable: Where no seeds are planted, nothing will grow.
To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter@TFPCOL UMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedy columnist.