There’s an extensive history of public service that runs deep in the Tyner family tree. Giving back was a mantra instilled in Damon and Nicole by their respective parents throughout their childhood in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “The importance of giving back was a very important part of our upbringing,” explains Nicole. “Both our parents went beyond talking the talk, they walked the walk. They gave back in ways we can’t even comprehend.”
She recalls seeing her parents (who were teachers and then principals) lending a supportive ear to their students, and even collecting clothes and winter coats for those who had none. “My parents were my role models. They went above and beyond, and frankly, it was what was expected in my family.”
As for Damon, his father, who passed away two years ago, was a highly respected police officer trusted by the community he patrolled—so much so that people would often turn themselves in to him because they knew there was no risk of police brutality or unfair treatment by this founding president of the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club. It was the norm for Damon to come home and find a teenager who his dad arrested or one that had been abandoned by his own parents sitting at his dinner table.
“You never knew who he would bring home,” shares Damon. Till this day, people come up to me and share stories about my father. They say, ‘He arrested me, but when I got out of jail he had a job for me.’ His commitment to service had a profound effect on me.”
This dedication to social responsibility is one the couple has passed on to their three children, Chelsea (16), Chloe (14) and Nicholas (10). Recently, Nicole and the children partnered with Our United Way and collected books to donate to children. “We want our children to understand we are too blessed not to give back,” points out Nicole.
This overriding theme of service isn’t the only path of their parents Damon and Nicole have chosen to emulate. “Growing up, people would always ask if I would follow in my parents’ footsteps, and I would say absolutely not,” says Nicole, who is presently the assistant director for the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “Education in the end pulled me in.” Prior to working as an educator, Nicole was the director for health planning and education for Atlantic County Public Health.
Damon, who earned a degree in microbiology from Howard University, had plans of becoming a doctor until he realized his junior year “that it wasn’t his passion.” After graduation, he took a year off and applied to law school. “I loved the social engineering aspect of practicing law,” says Damon. “I enjoyed resolving peoples’ issues and counselling them.”
He practiced real estate development planning, residential and education law. This past month, he was appointed to the Superior Court of New Jersey. “It’s the highest calling of public service,” he says. “It’s been a private goal of mine, and Nicole understood the value it had for me and the sacrifices that came with chasing that dream.”
Throughout the 15 years Damon practiced law, the grueling hours he put in at work kept him away from his family. Their time spent together was rare when he ran a close race for State Assembly in 2005 and 2011. “I look back at some of the pictures of Nicole and the kids and I don’t remember those days,” Damon says. “I wasn’t there. I was always on the campaign trail. I am so lucky to have such a supporting partner in Nicole,” he continues, adding that during those rough times, Nicole joked “she wanted to come back as one of my clients, since they got more attention from me than my family.”
“I cried here and there because it was difficult, but I knew that it would all pay off,” says Nicole. It was one of the reasons she had to make a career change to working part-time as a teen program manager at the Gilda’s Club South Jersey, a free cancer support organization, a job she describes as her most fulfilling to date. “We did what we had to do for our family,” she says. “My mom and dad were partners and they worked together to build a good home, and that’s what I know a marriage to be,” states Nicole. “I couldn’t imagine trying to accomplish my dreams without Nicole,” says Damon.
Although the kids are older today, that doesn’t mean family life has gotten easier to juggle for the couple. In fact, they point out that their children’s busy schedules (overflowing with extracurricular activities) coupled with their own hectic work obligations keep the entire family on their toes.
“We are an active household, but we never stop working on our relationship,” says Damon. “You can’t or else you start taking your partner for granted.” Every Friday night ever since they got married has been their date night. “We enjoy being around each other,” says Nicole. Every minute together counts, they say.
“We have to fit in time when we can. There are times I have to go to Walmart and we’ll go together. It can be as simple as that,” says Nicole. “Sometimes the kids will ask to come and we say no. Now that they are older, we can do that. We explain that Mom and Dad have to have some time together, even if it’s 30 minutes to go pick up pizza for the family,” says Damon. “It’s important to have that time because the kids won’t be here forever and I don’t want to look up one day and see Damon and say, ‘I don’t know you’,” Nicole expresses.
Damon and Nicole have been married for 17 years and they’ve been together for 27 years.
It was June 18, 1987 when the two met at a basketball game. Damon, 17 then, spotted 16-year-old Nicole in the crowded gymnasium. “Atlantic City is big, but at the same it’s a small community and you pretty much know everybody or their family,” says Damon. He had never seen Nicole before that day. “That caught my interest. Who was this new girl?” “Except I wasn’t new!” Nicole interjects laughing. “I was born and raised in Atlantic City.” “She was a homebody,” adds Damon before Nicole jumps in: “You make me sound boring!”
The two exchanged numbers and spent the rest of the summer on the phone and spending time together. “It was a great summer and we got to know each other. She was pretty, intelligent and unlike anyone I ever met before. There is a passage in Othello where he says about Desdemona, ‘I saw her visage in her mind.’ The minute I read that in college, it summed up how I felt about Nicole. I saw her beauty in her mind,” says Damon.
“I thought he was so cute, and our values and goals in life were the same, and that was important. Education was big for both of us. We were both college bound. I couldn’t just bring anyone home, especially with my parents being educators, and he couldn’t either,” says Nicole.
They dated throughout their time in college. Damon was at Howard and Nicole at Rutgers University. “People always asked me why I did not go to join Damon at Howard, and I said because it wasn’t my path. We made a conscious effort to follow our own paths. My priorities at that time were my goals and succeeding professionally.” They do admit it was difficult to keep up a long-distance relationship, but after graduating, they both decided to move to Delaware together. Damon attended law school and Nicole was working towards getting her masters in urban affairs and public policy.
Upon graduating grad school, Nicole moved back to Atlantic City to care for her mom, who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. Damon joined her when he got a job back home. “Moving back to Atlantic City wasn’t planned, but it was probably the best thing we did. We got to raise our family there, and our parents got to be around the kids. They were a tremendous support to us,” says Nicole.
In October of 1995, Damon proposed to Nicole, and they got married on June 28, 1997, 10 years to the day they first met. “I was nervous proposing. It was really solidifying the commitment we made a long time ago. It was another part of our growth,” says Damon. “Marriage meant we were now going to start a family. I knew he was the one when I was in grad school,” says Nicole, who gave birth to her first born, Chelsea, in 1998. Chloe came unexpectedly six months after (“It was like having twins, really,” says Damon), and in 2004, their youngest, Nicholas, was born.
When Nicole looks back at their relationship, she credits their open communication for their thriving union. “All marriages go through growing pains,” explains Nicole. “You don’t stop growing because you’ve been married 10, 20 or 30 years. We are on a journey and it has different stages. If you have open communication, then you are golden.”
Damon agrees and stresses the importance of a strong bond, definitely the epicenter of their marriage. “Marriage is the strongest partnership you can imagine,” he says. “We went from a friendship into a teenage love that developed into a great love song.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.