Frank Meeink's long journey from skinhead to the Tattered Cover tonight

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Few people can say that they have been to hell and back. Fewer still can say that they have emerged far better than when they started. Frank Meeink is one of those people. At fourteen, Meeink became a skinhead. By sixteen, he was a leader of a skinhead gang. At eighteen, he was imprisoned for beating a member of a rival skinhead gang senseless.

Today, 35-year-old Meeink is partnering with the Anti-Defamation League to discuss the importance of tolerance. He coaches a hockey team called Harmony Through Hockey that teaches urban youth teamwork, compassion and respect for those of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. He is a husband, a father, a mentor and, for many, an inspiration.

So what changed?

For Meeink, the road to hell was paved with neglect and abuse. After years of being beaten by his stepfather, Meeink was sent to live with his father in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia. But his father was an alcoholic incapable of providing the guidance and support that Meeink sorely needed. "He was a street-tough guy who lived and died by the streets," Meeink remembers. "He loved his boys more than he loved his boy."

Meanwhile, as one of the few white students, Meeink was targeted at his middle school, and got daily beatings that were ignored by the administration. "I feared going home. I feared going to school," Meeink says. "I had a lot of anger. I was a broken kid."

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At fourteen, Meeink was recruited to the skinhead movement by his older cousin and his neo-Nazi crew. "Everybody feared us," Meeink explains, "and I loved that feeling. I loved people fearing me finally."

The skinhead movement gave him an identity. "It could've been any group," he says. "It could've been left-wing guerillas. Anyone who could explain why my life was so crappy, that could let me vent my anger and tell me that I wasn't crazy...that I wasn't morally bankrupt, I would've followed them."

Meeink's foray into the world of Aryan supremacy soon grew more serious, though, as he made the transition from follower to leader. He and his own gang of skinhead recruits would roam South Philly, beating street people, gays and blacks, and defacing Jewish places of worship. When Meeink moved to Illinois, he founded a cable access show that he dubbed "the Reich," and he became the face of the movement, a "wild" teen tattooed with swastikas. "I truly believed this was right, that I was a foot soldier for the movement," Meeink reflects. "I would do anything for the movement to survive. Long-term planning was not on my mind."

Meeink hit bottom when he was arrested after he kidnapped a rival skinhead gang member and beat him for hours while a friend videotaped the violence. "It was just another [beating] for me. I happened to get caught," Meeink says.

Ironically, it was prison that planted what Meeink calls "the seed of willingness" to change his beliefs. There he bonded with certain black and latino inmates, both by playing football and basketball and by "talking about girlfriends and being young...things I didn't talk to my Aryan friends about." After he returned to his skinhead activities after his release, he was doubting the legitimacy of some of his beliefs.

His doubts were strengthened after he was hired by a Jewish furniture owner who gave him "pep talks" about life. "He told me I was one of the smartest people he'd ever met," Meeink remembers, "and I was truly grateful to God for putting this man in my life." Meeink recalls a moment when, looking from the store owner to his own red-laced Doc Martens, he was overwhelmed by humiliation: "From the top of my neck down...I was absolutely embarrassed."

Meeink extricated himself from the movement just before the Oklahoma City bombings, an event that shook him to his core. "I knew it was the movement even before they caught Timothy McVeigh. I just knew it in my heart and it just killed me," says Meeink. That was the moment when Meeink began looking for ways to heal his dark past and put the personal demons that had haunted him for years to rest.

At 7 p.m. tonight, Meeink will be at the Tattered Cover at 2526 East Colfax Avenue to promote the book he has written with Jody M. Roy, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead. The book is a searing account of Meeink's trials, tribulations and revelations, the story of his s triumph over odds many would see as insurmountable. Yet the book just scratches the surface: Meeink's anti-hate work now ranges from working with youth to being a producer on a film adaptation of his book.

Asked about what more the future holds, Meeink answers with a lopsided grin and characteristic levity. "I don't have any real big plans," he says. "I don't know what I want to do when I grow up."


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