One-on-One with Author Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner’s crime fiction shows off her research and writing abilities, a combination that has led her to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Her newest novel, “Find Her,” explores a high-profile kidnapping as well as the changing nature of the government’s response to crime. She spoke at a Houston bookstore a couple of weeks after being interviewed by Mike Yawn.  The interview is below.



Q: You do extensive research for your novels, and you often select topical issues. Tell us how you choose the topics.

A: The research I did for my new novel, “Find Her,” was something I started with “Catch Me.” It’s related to self-defense, and I think we’re all more conscious about safety and security issues. I attended a “Writers’ Police Academy,” and we learned various self-defense tactics and also how to free yourself from handcuffs with a “universal handcuff key,” which I found online for about $15. Since then, I’ve met various law-enforcement and military personnel, and they’re like, “Yeah, we never leave home without those keys.” I think my writing involves facing deep fears. As a mom, child abduction is one of my greatest terrors, and it happens to the main character, Flora, in “Find Her.”

Q: Speaking of Flora, she spends much time locked up in a coffin in your new novel. Did you actually get into a coffin or some enclosed space to write about that?

A: I’m claustrophobic, so I didn’t actually go into a coffin. But I did force myself into position in my office as if I were in a coffin. What are the boundaries? How limited is movement? What could you do to pass the time? I read several biographies of women who were in these types of situations, and they all discussed the boredom and isolation, among other things.

Q: In “Find Her” you hint at Stockholm Syndrome, the idea that captors can build a bond with those who took them hostage.

A: The experience that resonated more with me from my research is called “Trauma Bonding.” This can happen, for example, to battered women. They endure so much, but the tormentor might come back with an “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to do to that.” All the captives I read about discuss this phenomenon. Even the most evil kidnapper can only be evil so many hours of the day. Ariel Castro, for example, had movie nights for the girls he kidnapped. A “trauma bond” is created that no one outside can understand, and I think that is what Flora struggles with in “Find Her.” She hates the man who abducted her; how could she not? But at the end of the day, this might be the single most impactful relationship she’s ever had.

Q: You allocate about three months for your research, and then you begin writing. Do you have daily writing goals or quotas?

A: I have a page count each week that I like to achieve, and I break that apart a bit. I write in ten-page segments or so, and I also polish as I go.

Q: Do you outline the plot before writing?

A: No. I go where the writing leads me. Once the story is written, I work with my US and UK editors, and I do pretty extensive revision work. A lot of people think we pop books out, but writing is hard work.

Q: You’ve written more than 20 books in the crime fiction genre, and many of those are part of a series. Even if you don’t plot out individual books, do you map out your series?

A: No. My publishers are open minded about what story I bring to them. I’m definitely a character-driven author. The characters know what they’re doing and how things are going to work out.

Q: “Find Her” is part of what is now called the “D. D. Warren” series, but Warren was a relatively minor character in “her” first book. How did she evolve into the series’ focal point?

A: Some of that is feedback from the readers. She was a secondary Boston cop in the first novel, but the response to her was strong.   The readers said, “We would really like to hear her story.”

Q: D. D. Warren is not your typical detective protagonist. Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot are almost super-heroic. Warren is more dogged. She’s admirable, but not super-human. What do you think draws readers to her?

A: She’s human. She’s confident as a detective, but she isn’t a detective who sees things no one else can see. She has to work to get her information. She knows the system and the process, and she wants to solve the crime and she is going to keep going until she gets it right. Now she has a husband and a child, and she is juggling things, and I think people relate to that.

Q: You are sympathetic to officers in your novels.

A: I wish we offered more support for our law enforcement. It’s a difficult job. I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing officers and for them, it’s a call to serve. You don’t do this unless you are passionate about it, and you are putting your life on the line. Yes, some cops are imperfect but all of us are imperfect. They are public servants, and I wish we were more appreciative of that.

Q: What’s new in your latest novel?

A: It’s a terrific novel of psychological suspense, with an intriguing new character, Flora Danes. To bring this full circle somewhat, I also focus on a character who is a Victim Assistant with the FBI, a position that I researched before writing this novel. The nature of crime is changing today. In the classic murder mystery, you identify who did it, the case is closed, and people live happily ever after. That’s not true anymore. The Boston City Marathon bombing, for example, was a life-altering event for the victims and their families. That’s an ongoing process. Grandparents have to leave jobs because their grown child is in physical therapy or rehabilitation. What do law-enforcement agencies have to do to help ensure that needs are met? That’s the FBI Office of Victim Assistance, and I think people will be interested in learning more about a position that many people haven’t heard about.


Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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Texas Prison Officials Discuss Their Favorite Prison Films

The Great Muddy Escape, a prison-themed “fun run,” takes place this Saturday, October 26, 2013 and, with this in mind, Professor Mike Yawn spoke with various professionals associated with the prison system to discuss films involving prison life.  Yawn spoke with Wayne Scott, Jim Willett, Rick Thaler, Richard Yawn, and Brian Olsen.

Wayne Scott began working for the prison system in 1971 and retired as Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2001. He continues to work within the industry as a consultant.

Former TDCJ Director Wayne Scott

Former TDCJ Director Wayne Scott

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite prison film?

Wayne Scott: “The Shawshank Redemption.”  To me, it’s the truest depiction of life behind bars for both inmates and staff.

MY: The film seems to fit the stereotype of the old-time state prison where the Warden had power that carried beyond the prison walls.

WS: I totally agree with that, Mike.  One thing you learn from the film, particularly if you’re in that profession, is that if you put inmates in positions of trust, it’s generally fine, but when it goes bad, the consequences can be devastating.

MY: This topic of movies and prisons may be particularly well suited for you.  If I recall correctly, you were in at least one movie that was filmed at a Huntsville prison.  Was that you in a longshot walking up to the gates in the beginning of “The Getaway”?

WS: Yes.

The Getaway

The Getaway

MY: Did you meet Steve McQueen, Ben Johnson, or Sam Peckinpah?

WS: I met all of them.  They were nice to the correctional officers and the inmates.  Very nice people.

MY: Did you get to see the filming of “A Perfect World,” starring Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, when it was shot here?

WS; Yes and, in fact, we got to eat with the cast and crew there in the back lot down on the lower yard at the Huntsville Unit.  I met both Eastwood and Costner.  Another film, “Outlaw Blues” with Peter Fonda and Susan St. James, was also shot at the Walls in 1977.

MY: Why do you think these directors chose to shoot films in Huntsville?

WS: I think the Huntsville Unit is what most people think of as a traditional prison—the high brick walls, the architecture, the cells.

The Walls in Huntsville

The Walls in Huntsville

MY: Well, speaking of tradition, you began working for the prison under an older model, when inmates were in a position of trust within the walls. That changed with the Ruiz decision.

WS: Yes it did.  The biggest operational changes involved the tremendous increase in staff.  When you took those inmates out of trust positions, you had to backfill with staff, and we did that in the mid-1980s.

MY: You also witnessed the Fred Carrasco hostage situation at the Walls in 1974.  Did you see any changes in the system after that?

WS: That’s another situation where an inmate was in a valued position there as a bookkeeper.  He was able to get some freedom of movement that an inmate shouldn’t have had.  That was tightened up after that event.

Jim Willett worked for TDCJ for 30 years, starting as a guard at the Walls Unit, working at Pack II, the Diagnostic Unit, and retiring in 2001 as Warden of the Walls Unit.  He now serves as Director of the Texas Prison Museum.

Jim Willet at the Texas Prison Museum

Jim Willet at the Texas Prison Museum

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite film that involves prison life?

Jim Willett: You know, Mike, it’s a toss-up between “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” but I’d lean toward “The Green Mile.”

The Green Mile

The Green Mile

MY: Why is it your favorite?

JW: I thought that the film depicted what I actually saw in the prison system.  The inmates were like the inmates I was around, and the correctional officers were like the correctional officers I was around.  When I was there, most of the people in the system, whether in white or grey, were trying to do the right thing within the institution.  Of course, you had some bad apples…

MY: You also mentioned “The Shawshank Redemption.”  I don’t know if you realize that both “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” were novels written by Stephen King.

JW: I was not aware of that but, yes, I enjoyed “Shawshank,” some great acting in there, and also a movie that depicted what the system could be like.

MY: That film depicted an escape.  How many serious escape attempts did you have while you worked for the prison?

JW: I guess about eight to ten. We had one at Pack II who got away and on a train.  He wasn’t caught for several days, by which time he had made it to Trinity.

MY: But no one made it to a tropical island, like Andy Dufresne in “Shawshank?”

Shawshank Escape

Final Scence from Shawshank

JW: Not during my time.

Rick Thaler began his career as a Correctional Officer in 1980 at the Walls Unit and progressed through the security ranks before retiring this year as the Director of the Correctional Institutions Division for TDCJ after 33 years.  He has two degrees from Sam Houston and is now the Associate Director of Graduate Programs at the College of Business Administration at SHSU.

Rick Thaler

Rick Thaler

MY: What’s your favorite film involving a prison?

RT: For entertainment value, I’d go with “The Longest Yard.”  Of course I am also a sports fan, so that adds value to the movie.  For substantive value, I’d say “The Shawshank Redemption.”  It was an entertaining and a realistic portrayal of that time in the evolution of prisons.

MY: “Shawshank” seems to be a lot of people’s favorite.  What is so appealing about that film?

RT: I think the concept of never losing hope is important. Even in a prison, some of the characters in “Shawshank” were hopeful about the future.  It’s important, wherever you are, to value life and maintain goals and aspirations.

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption

MY: What’s the biggest misconception for people who don’t have up-close familiarity with the prison system?

RT: It may have been different long ago, but correctional systems are largely forward thinking in today’s society, and there are opportunities for individuals in our systems to turn their lives around.  Violence within the institutions is rare.  Our classification system separates the extremely abusive offenders from those who are actually trying to help themselves, and that’s different than earlier years in the correctional system.  I’d say most of the films portray the older model of prison reality.  That’s not to say we don’t have incidents today, but it’s more of the exception than the rule.

Richard Yawn worked for the Windham School District for more than thirty years, beginning as a teacher and retiring in 2005 as the Director for Operational Support.  He currently works for Lee College, teaching American Government on various prison units.

Richard Yawn

Richard Yawn

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite prison film?

Richard Yawn: Right now, I’d go with Clint Eastwood’s “Escape from Alcatraz,” which is about Frank Morris who, along with two others, escaped from Alcatraz in 1962. We were just in San Francisco this summer, so that helped nudge the film to the top.

Escape From Alcatraz

Escape From Alcatraz

MY: And did you go to Alcatraz Island?

RY: Yes, we toured it, and saw some of the movie locations.

MY: Do you think Morris got away?

RY: That’s one of the interesting aspects to the film.  The ending is ambiguous and can be interpreted either way.  In real life, you could think about it two ways, too.  If they drowned, you would have thought a body or other remains would have been found.  On the other hand, if they survived, you would think that one of the survivors would have given a death-bed confession.

MY: You mention Alcatraz, have you seen, “The Rock?” That movie also takes place on the island, albeit after it was no longer used as a prison.

RY: Yes, that’s with Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris.  It was a fine action film, but I liked “Escape from Alcatraz” better.

MY: How about some other favorites?

RY: “Cool Hand Luke.”  I liked Paul Newman in that.

MY: Do you happen to remember how many eggs he eats in the bet?

RY: The bet was whether he could 50 eggs, which he does.  You kind of suffer along with him as he eats those.

MY: What else?

RY: Well, Steve McQueen was one of my favorite actors, and he was involved in several prison movies that I liked.  “The Great Escape,” “The Getaway,” “Papillon,” and “Nevada Smith,” the latter being a film in which he actually commits a crime so that he can get into prison to exact revenge on one of the inmates.  But out of all of those, I’d still have to go with Eastwood and “Escape from Alcatraz.”

Brian Olsen is the Executive Director of AFSCME, the Correctional Employees Council in Texas.  He has been involved in the security field for more than thirty years and is a life-long movie fan.


Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite prison film?

Brian Olsen: “The Great Escape.”  I was about eight years old when that came out.  We had a little small-town theater on Main Street in West Des Moines, Iowa.  It was mostly a poor railroad community, a bit rough, but we loved the old-fashioned theater that had a balcony.  We’d go in there on a Saturday and, if we played things right, we could stay for more than one movie.


MY: Who’s your favorite actor from the great cast in “The Great Escape?” You’ve got Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum.

BO: I like McQueen and Garner of course, but I also liked Richard Attenborough.

MY: Attenborough was an interesting character actor, but he was also a fine director.  He did “Gandhi.”

BO: I think he was also in some of the “Jurassic Park” movies.

MY: What other prison films do you like?

BO: “Papillon,” with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom are imprisoned on Devil’s Island.  McQueen’s character tries to escape nine times or so.  He eventually gets out, but he has to endure a pretty horrible place. I also liked “Birdman of Alcatraz.”  It stars Burt Lancaster, another of my favorites.  He was in prison, and he adopted birds and other pets that gave him a reason for living.  In the film, he gained the respect of the correctional officers, being compassionate and empathetic, adjectives that don’t typically come to mind when you think of inmates.

MY: Now, these movies you are mentioning are from the late 1950s and 1960s, which coincides with your childhood.  What do you think it is about your childhood or that time period that made films so magical?

BO: I was a movie nut as a young kid.  I went to the movies every Saturday, watching movies like “The Blob” or “The Curse of Frankenstein” or “The Great Escape.”  Spielberg and Scorsese grew up then, too, and they were influenced by these films and it spurred them to make more magical movies.  It was a Golden Age.  You had movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Lawrence of Arabia.”  I was a grubby little kid, a “little rascal,” but the movies were a chance to escape and to see what some consider great art.  It was a good era in which to grow up, and it was a good era in my life.

For those who would like to participate in their own “prison escape,” the Great Muddy Escape offers a chance for a dash of fun while raising money for a good cause.  Courses include a 5K, 2K, and a shorter “family run.”  All include obstacles worthy of a prison escape.  The Great Muddy Escape will be held Saturday, October 26, 2013.  For more information, visit

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Local Football Coaches Discuss Favorite Sports Films

With football season underway, Professor Mike Yawn spoke with some current and former football coaches in Huntsville to uncover their favorite films about the nation’s pigskin pastime. Shane Martin, Gordon Brown, and Willie Fritz identified football films that mixed comedy, drama, and inspiration, while Ron Randleman called an audible, and discussed the basketball film “Hoosiers.”

Coach Shane Martin Interview

Coach Shane Martin grew up in Texas and Louisiana, but came to SHSU for his college degree. He is, as he says, “a proud Bearkat.” He’s been coaching and teaching full-time for 20 years and has spent twelve years with Huntsville Independent School District. He is now the head coach for the Huntsville Hornet football team.

Mike Yawn: Coach Martin, what is your favorite football-related film?
Shane Martin: “Brian’s Song” (1972). I watched it as a kid, and it made me a Chicago Bears fan. The film is realistic, about football and life. It’s an inspirational story of Brian Piccolo’s fight with cancer, which took his life.

Brian's Song

Brian’s Song

MY: Even without diseases such as cancer football careers are short and are a fraught with the risk of injury. Is that something you worry about with your players?
SM: I have a 16-year old who has had ACL surgery twice. Injuries can happen to anyone, whether on the field or crossing the street. With football, you’re taking your chances, but with anything you do, there’s the possibility of something going wrong.

MY: The movie was based on a book by Gale Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams), whose brilliant career was ended by a knee blowout.
SM: Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were both running backs who came in as Bears’ rookies at the same time. Sayers was coping with his knee injury at the same time Piccolo was fighting cancer, and these challenges offer lessons. We tell people to live each day as though it were their last, and that’s true for some people, not just athletes. I encourage my players to give it their all, not just on the football field, but also in the classroom.

MY: The film has interesting actors: James Caan as Piccolo; Jack Warden played George Halas; and Dick Butkus and some of the Bears played themselves.
SM: Yes, Butkus played himself, and he and a lot of those other old players were some tough old goats, just like Halas.

MY: Any other films related to football that you have enjoyed?
SM: A lot of coaches will say, “Remember the Titans.” Again, you’re taking the game of football and addressing the larger society, segregation and the like. I used this film when teaching my health classes, to teach my students to deal with peer pressure, hatred, and racism. I think there are life lessons in a lot of the football games that we play or coach.

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans

MY: You’re teaching life lessons and football. What larger lessons do sports teach?
SM: Young people, like all of us, need to better understand dedication is a big part of what it takes to be successful at something that requires skills. Football is now becoming more and more of a year-round sport. The relationships you build and cultivate through dedication, should be there throughout life. I had the model of my defensive coordinator at Yoakum High School, Jimmy Yeager, who meant a lot to me. He was a coach and a father figure to me. Role models as well as life experiences teach young people right from wrong, so that they take more away from football than a won-loss record.

Coach Gordon Brown Interview

Gordon Brown came to SHSU in 1948, played football for three years, and graduated in 1951. He went on to coach at Conroe, Katy, Deer Park, and [he whispers this] Stephen F. Austin, before moving into administration at Conroe and Katy. Despite his many roles in many schools, he says, “My heart is always with SHSU.”

Mike Yawn: Coach Brown, what’s your favorite film about football?
Gordon Brown: There are a lot of them, but I’d say “The Blind Side” is my favorite.

MY: That’s an interesting film. Of course, most people know Sandra Bullock was in it, but the director, John Lee Hancock, also directed “The Rookie,” another real-life sports story. Also, “The Blind Side” was based on a book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball.” So the movie has a lot of sports and film connections.
GB: Absolutely right, and while I like the sports, I also relate to this movie because of the way I grew up. We were happy, but the work was hard. For the most part, we worked in the fields, although later I got a job paying 50 cents an hour at a filling station. My plan was to go to Baylor, but Coach Kenny Wilson from SHSU came into my filling station and said, “Can you help me find Gordon Brown?” I told him that was me, and he said, “We’ve been watching you play football, and we want you to come to SHSU. We’ll give you room, board, tuition, and $7 a month laundry.”

I said, “Where do I sign?”

That’s why I relate to the character in “The Blind Side.” I didn’t have the magnitude of problems Michael Oher [the main character in “The Blind Side”], but there were enough similarities to get my vote.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side

MY: Tell us specific things you liked about the movie?
GB: The country has many youth like Oher who can be productive and happy if given opportunities. We have other youth who have a different set of problems. They may be affluent but undisciplined, and when someone comes in and shows an interest in them, it gives them hope, even when they haven’t been the citizen they may have liked to have been.

Michael Oher

Michael Oher

I have a background as a coach and a school administrator. I know many children might not have the resources, encouragement, and love to guide them and help them develop realistic dreams. But those who teach them to reach upward are models for these students.

So the movie “The Blind Side” helps me better understand what encouragement and opportunity can do for students. It should help all of us be responsible to see that the environment is such that all students can be successful. This is a timely film, a reminder that we are in this together, and we need to work together to help others and to make a contribution to our country.

Coach Willie Fritz

Coach Willie Fritz graduated from Pittsburg State University before embarking on a coaching career that took him to Sam Houston State University, Blinn College, University of Central Missouri, and back to SHSU, where he has led the Bearkats to two straight National Championship games.

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite football film?
Willie Fritz: I’ve got a few of them. My favorite is the original “The Longest Yard,” with Burt Reynolds…

MY: …and Eddie Albert…
WF: Albert was the Warden. The film combines comedy and drama, with a bad-guy kind of a hero.

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

MY: What are some of your other favorite films about football?
WF: For comedy, the one I like is “The Best of Times,” with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams. It’s hilarious. The main character, played by Robin Williams, dropped a touchdown pass in the 1972 championship game, and he’s never gotten over it. He keeps reliving the game, and he finally convinces the town to replay the game. The QB is played by Kurt Russell, whose character probably has the greatest football name of all time: Reno Hightower. It’s a very funny movie.


The Best of Times (Robin Williams & Kurt Russell)

The other movie I’ll mention is “The Little Giants.” I have three children of my own with whom I watched the movie. They’re grown now, but we still repeat lines from that movie.

The Little Giants

The Little Giants

MY: Anything inspirational from the football world?
WF: “The Junction Boys.” A good friend of mine was the QB on whom one of the characters was based. In the movie, his name is Skeet Keeler, but in real life his name is Elwood Kettler. He and I coached together here at SHSU back in the early 1990s. He lives in Trinity. I enjoyed it, I think, because I had a special connection with that movie.

MY: That’s about Bear Bryant’s coaching days when he was at Texas A&M?
WF: Yes, Paul “Bear” Bryant took the boys out to Junction, Texas for pre-season camp. I heard so many stories from Kettler, and the film shows how these guys fought through harsh conditions. The ones who survived were highly successful in their careers, and they ended up going undefeated a year or two later.

The Junction Boys

The Junction Boys

MY: What is it about football that is useful to all your players, irrespective of whether they play professionally or go in another direction?
WF: I think you learn more in the sport of football than in any other sport. Football is not easy. Putting full equipment on when it is 100 degrees, lining up and running into somebody across from you is tough work. Structure and teamwork are required. Eleven people have to be on the same page. You learn sacrifice, helping your buddy, determination, and toughness.

MY: Speaking of toughness, this is the toughest question. What’s your prediction for the Bearkats this year?
WF: Our goal is to win the National Championship. We are practicing every day to do that.

Coach Ron Randleman

Coach Ron Randleman began his coaching career in Iowa in 1965, coaching football, basketball and track. He coached for forty years, including more than two decades at SHSU, where he was Conference Coach of the Year four times and remains the winningest coach in SHSU history.

Mike Yawn: We’ve heard a lot about football films. Would you like to tell us what your favorite sports film is, football or otherwise?
Ron Randleman: I would have to say “Hoosiers.”



MY: That’s from 1986, starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. What is it about that film that you enjoy so much?
RR: Many things. I like the setting. I’m originally from Iowa. I started out coaching and recruiting in Iowa, going to hundreds of schools in the area. I also like Gene Hackman, and he was very good in the movie. Finally, I had many friends who played basketball in Indiana, and I know that basketball is to Indianans what football is to Texans.
I played basketball in high school, and my first two years in coaching, I coached both football and basketball. Back then, everyone played in the tournament, and it was just one class. In the 1950s, the school Roland had about 50 people, and they played Davenport Central, which had about 4,000. It was one of the smallest schools in Iowa against one of the biggest, but Roland had a player named Gary Thompson, who went on to be an All-American at Iowa State. Roland won that game, something that occasionally happened in the one-class system. And that’s sort of the story line of “Hoosiers.”
Those were some of the things that caught my interest in this film.

MY: “Hoosiers” is about redemption, the idea that there is a champion in everyone. I know that’s about basketball, but you must have seen that as a football coach.
RR: So often in athletics people come through in crucial situations. It’s not necessarily the star. It can be anybody who has a big moment. Team events are special for that reason. Every person who is on the team is an important part of the process, and you never know when someone is going to have an opportunity to step up and do something significant. It’s one of the great things about team sports.

Pep Talk

MY: You’ve had a lot of success with team sports, and for the past five or six years, you’ve been teaching at SHSU. Will you still be teaching?
RR: No, not this year. Right now, I’m going to be a fan and enjoy the success that Willie and his guys will have this fall.

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What’s in the Water in Australia?

Last week several news agencies reported the death of a man who tried to swim across a body of water that has one of the largest concentrations of crocodiles in the world.  He died, killed by a crocodile.  It was, perhaps, appropriate that the nearest city was Darwin, Australia, and the death reminded me of an article about the unfortunate things that happen when you go in the water in Australia.

Strange and weird things happen in Australia.

Most recently, a young couple took advantage of the recent flooding by rafting down the Yarra River. Interestingly, they were using inflatable sex dolls for rafts, a use, one suspects, not intended by the manufacturer. Predictably, their hopes for a joy ride were deflated when the female lost control of her male doll, and was forced to cling to a tree branch until help arrived.

Passersby, seeing the 19-year old woman in distress, called authorities. Given that the recent floods in Australia have killedmore than 30 people, rescue teams have been sensitive to emergency calls, and they arrived on the scene quickly.

Once they better understood the circumstances of the emergency, however, they seemed none too pleased. Referring to the couple’s actions as “stupid,” Constable Wayne Wilson commented that “having to divert resources to that sort of thing is not ideal.”

Although the young woman was extricated from the river unharmed, Wilson noted that “the fate of the inflatable dolls is unknown” police later released a statement warning that inflatable sex dolls “are not recognized flotation devices.”

Of course, the inflatable dolls had nothing on American tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan. The Lonergans were two real, live, non-inflatable people who were passing through Australia in 1998 following a stint in the Peace Corps.

Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Hoping to SCUBA dive near the Great Barrier Reef, the couple purchased passes with the Outer Edge Company. Their first two dives on their excursion were uneventful. On their third dive, however, they stayed underwater longer than their allotted forty minutes.

Coming to the surface, they may have expected some stern looks from the crew, or perhaps even a scolding by the Captain. What they found was an empty sea. The crew had incorrectly counted the passengers and, thinking that all were aboard, returned to shore—some 35 miles away.

The Lonergans were never seen again, and it took two days for anyone to even realize they were missing. A crew member from the Outer Edge came across some unclaimed luggage, prompting him, perhaps, to blurt, “Hey does this belong to anyone?” Only then did it dawn on the crew that not all of the passengers returned from the dive.

After a massive searched turned up no trace of the Lonergans, a staff member from the Outer Edge apologized, noting “somehow they fell through the system.”

Of course, things weren’t much better for poor Ginger Meadows, a “part-time model” from America who was eaten by a crocodile while vacationing in Australia in 1987. Yachting with a group of friends on the Prince Regent River, Meadows and another woman, according to the Houston Chronicle, “were frolicking in waist-deep water on a ledge under [a] waterfall.” One of the women, it’s not clear which, threw a plastic shoe at the crocodile, apparently to discourage any plans it had of attacking, a tactic that proved spectacularly ineffective.

Ginger Meadows

Ginger Meadows

Meadows made a move for the yacht, but the crocodile grabbed her en route and, according to the author Bill Bryson, “jerked her beneath the water.” She resurfaced with a “startled look on her face” and “went under again and was seen no more,” at least not alive.

Even dead, Meadows was given little peace. Once her remains were recovered, they were transported to the mouth of the river, when (presumably) another crocodile “lunged four feet out of the water and snapped at the body bag, trying to tear it.” The crocodile retreated into unseen depths, but this was too much for a stressed crew, who decided to make haste to the nearest port and allow a larger, tougher vessel to finish the voyage.

Of course, it’s one thing for a minor model to be eaten by a reptile, or for the Lonergans to go missing, or for some inflatable doll that no one’s ever heard of to drift away in a flood, but in 1967 Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt simply disappeared while swimming.

Holt lived near a beach controlled by the Australian Army, and they let Holt swim there without bother.  Out with some friends on December 17, 1967, Holt, according to Bryson, went for “The Swim That Needs No Towel,”  plunging “into the surf. He swam straight out from the beach a couple of hundred feet and almost instantly vanished, without fuss or commotion or even a languorous wave.”

Various theories were proposed for his disappearance. According to the Dallas Morning News shortly after Holt’s disappearance, “[Holt] has in the past been known to swim to isolated beaches to sunbake and has sometimes fallen asleep while doing this.”

Harold Holt

Harold Holt

As days wore on, however, hope for the Rip Van Winkle theory subsided, and rumors swirled: Holt purposefully disappeared to live with a mistress; he committed suicide; he was kidnapped by a Chinese submarine; even an alien abduction theory was floated.

The Coroner called these ideas fanciful, noting that Holt probably just drowned after being carried away by the rip current. Prime Minister Holt was never seen again.

In some respects, however, Holt was lucky. No one will ever remember the girl whose river rafting plans blew up when she lost her inflatable doll in the flood. Her name wasn’t even released to the public. The Lonergans have a facebook page, but they are remembered primarily as a warning to tourists planning Australian vacations, and Ginger Meadows is now largely forgotten. It’s hard to even find pictures of her on the internet, the cruelest fate for a model, part time or otherwise.

Only Holt has a memorial to keep alive his memory. In 1969, fewer than two years after Holt’s death from drowning, the Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris opened a municipal swimming pool in his honor.

Harold Holt Swim Centre in Australia

Harold Holt Swim Centre in Australia

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Local Educators List Their Favorite Educational Films

With students gearing up for a return to school later this month, Professor Mike Yawn set out to explore local teachers’ favorite “educational” films—movies that either take place in an educational setting or that can be used for educational purposes. Yawn interviewed Lisa Cording Burns (Mance Park Middle School), Dr. Bernadette Pruitt (SHSU History Department), Nancy Davidhizar (Alpha Omega), and Dr. Ralph Pease (SHSU English Department), shining a light on their methods for reaching students in the classroom.

Lisa Cording Burns grew up in Huntsville, graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in Education in 1988, and has been teaching at HISD for the past twenty-five years.

Lisa Cording Burns

Lisa Cording Burns

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite “educational” film?

Lisa Burns: I’m going with the 1983 film by Francis Ford Coppola “The Outsiders.”

MY: That was one of several films from the early eighties with a coming-of-age theme and lots of up-and-coming actors.

LB: Right.  I personally connected with it as a young person when it came out, but as a teacher I’ve also seen how it changes how my students think of one another and their awareness of different cultures in the high-school community.  One of the lines that sticks with my students is, “things are rough all over.”  The students see that despite superficial differences, people have basic commonalities, and we all want and should expect kindness from others. I think that’s a powerful part of the movie that gets overlooked.

MY: Do the students see beyond differences in era and understand the basic message?

LB: Yes, the film prompts them to analyze themselves and others.  Maybe they didn’t realize the person sitting next to them doesn’t have food to eat or proper clothes to wear. Or that another person in the class, while from a wealthier family, may still have a horrible home life.  That awareness spurs a profound change in the classroom.  I’ve had Huntsville High football players cry in class when Johnny dies in the movie.  I’ve had college students write to me years later, saying that the film stayed with them.  They relate to these characters.

MY: Speaking of characters, it’s notable for starting many careers.  Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane were all in it.  Do they recognize any of these people in movies today?

The Outsiders

The Outsiders

LB: Yes. Diane Lane, for example, was on a magazine cover recently, and a student brought it to show me. The students look up the actors to see how they’ve changed over the years.  It was the breakout movie for a lot of these “brat pack” actors.

MY: Now, do you have the students read the novel, “The Outsiders,” by S. E. Hinton?

LB: Yes, and it works with students of all levels.  I’ve had students in the Gifted and Talented program as well as from lower levels really respond to the book.  It may not be as literarily acclaimed as some other options, but it’s a good start to get my students hooked on literature and to analyze film actively.  I expose students to a great deal of literature, including some modern works such as “The Hunger Games” or “The Fault in Our Stars.”  But at the end of the year when the students do the evaluation, they tell me their favorite was “The Outsiders.”

Dr. Bernadette Pruitt received her Bachelors and Masters degrees from Texas Southern University and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Houston.  She has been teaching at SHSU since 1996.

Dr. Bernadette Pruitt

Dr. Bernadette Pruitt

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite film that involves the educational system?

Bernadette Pruitt: Probably the “Roots” series, particularly “Roots: The Next Generation” because it pays homage to the sacrifices African-descent Americans made following the transition from slavery to freedom.  Certain episodes in particular do a fine job of showing the roles that African-Americans played in establishing public education in the South—African-American elected officials pushing for public education not just for blacks, but for all southerners.

“The Next Generation” tracks the relevance of building strong communities from within, a message that is oftentimes lost today.  We are reminded of the negative, and we sometimes fail to remember that even amidst many challenges, people had hope.  A lot of that hope was centered around education.

MY: Ruby Dee was in “Roots: The Next Generation,” and she inspired many people with her career on television, film, and stage.  In the latter, I think she was in everything from “Arsenic and Old Lace” to Shakespearean plays.

BP: Exactly, she and her husband, Ossie Davis, were a part of the early African-American actors groups that were doing interesting things.  Oscar Micheaux and others were producing movies that didn’t relegate African-Americans to stereotypical figures.  They show that, despite challenges, black people are inspired to be creative.



MY: Are there any less lofty films, of the “high-school” fun variety, that you enjoy?

BP: I enjoyed the television series, “A Different World,” which highlighted the African-American experience on a historical black college campus in th

e 1980s and 1990s.  There were kids who got in trouble, horsing around or not studying, but there were also geniuses, the people who went on to graduate schools, to become engineers, businessmen, and businesswomen.

MY: Bill Cosby was the first African-American to have a starring role on television in a dramatic role, in “I Spy” in the 1960s.

BP: Yes, Dr. William Cosby opened a lot of doors and helped show the world that there are African Americans who are educated, talented and multi-faceted.  They are into art, they are creative, they inspire people, and most important, they pass these qualities on to their kids, who go on and excel and do well.  Everyone loves Cosby.

MY: What about some of your non-educational favorites?

BP: I’m really into the nostalgic horror films, the Universal Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Probably my favorite film is Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein.”

MY: “Gods and Monsters” [1998] was a particularly good movie about James Whale, who directed many of those films including “Frankenstein.”

Gods and Monsters

Gods and Monsters

BP: That’s a wonderful film.  To me those horror films told the story of people who are downtrodden, people left behind by society, and I think that’s an important story to tell.

Nancy Davidhizar has been teaching for almost twenty-five years, with experience in private school, public school, and home-school students.  She currently teaches at Alpha Omega in Huntsville, Texas.

Nancy Davidhizar

Nancy Davidhizar

MY: What’s your favorite film that relates to the educational process?

ND: Well, most recently I’ve been thinking about “Jane Eyre,” which of course came from a classical work of literature, one written by Charlotte Bronte.  This is the 1997 version by A&E, starring Samantha Morton, and it captures the depth of the work.  It not only has good character development and an excellent storyline, but it also has a main character struggling with life’s questions.  It’s a part of what we call the “Great Conversation,” with questions such as: What is the purpose of man? Is there a God?  What is my relationship to God? How should I respond to temptation?

MY: Can you elaborate on how you relate these questions to young people in the classroom?

ND: It’s a great book or movie for Junior High and High-School students. The main character has to struggle with her love for a man.  She wanted to be appropriate in her actions, and be consistent with God’s Word. In a world with a lot of temptations and a culture that doesn’t necessarily encourage correct behavior, these questions are pertinent to young people.

MY: …If I recall, “Jane Eyre” gets even more complicated…

ND: Well, as the story progresses, the main character learns that the man she loves is married, and his insane wife is locked up in the estate.  This produces another struggle.  Jane still loves Mr. Rochester but knows she cannot marry a man who already has a wife. She literally cries out to God.  She pleads for wisdom in how to reconcile her love for this man and what she thinks is right.  For young people, the work illustrates that life is full of struggles, but also that there are answers to those struggles.

MY: On a larger level, why do you think it is important to address these questions with young people?

ND: It’s been in my heart, because even students of Christian schools and other private schools struggle with the same things everybody else struggles with.  I think it’s important that we use the right tools to share the truth with them and help them through their teenage and college struggles.  And I think a classical-themed education helps us reach out to them and teach them these things.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

MY: I think that’s important for adults, too.  You may have heard of the 1990s film “The Madness of King George.”

ND: Yes.

MY: It was about King George III and originally titled, “The Madness of King George III.” Unfortunately, audiences didn’t know who King George III was, and they erroneously assumed it was a sequel.  They figured they hadn’t seen the first two movies, so they said they probably wouldn’t see this one, either.  The studio had to change the movie title. So, I applaud your efforts to produce young people well versed with history, literature, and art.

ND: [laughing] Thank you.

Dr. Ralph Pease

Dr. Ralph Pease

Dr. Ralph Pease received his Ph.D. in English in 1972, and he has been teaching at SHSU for forty-one years.

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite “educational” film?

Ralph Pease: One of them is “Teacher’s Pet,” starring Clark Gable, Doris Day, and Gig Young.  It’s about a newspaper editor [Gable] and a journalism professor [Day] who fall in love while clashing over the relative importance of education and experience. It’s a funny and engaging film, but it illustrates the difference between education and wisdom.  You and I, being in academia, know that one is not necessarily the same as the other. Of course, to excel in a profession, you need both, and that’s what the characters learn.

Teacher's Pet

Teacher’s Pet

MY: Are you sure you didn’t pick it just because Mamie Van Doren is in it?

Mamie Van Doren

Mamie Van Doren

RP: [Chuckles] Despite the fact that Mamie Van Doren is in the film, I still enjoy it.

MY: What about other films?

RP: People like “Goodbye Mr. Chips” [1939], and I do, too.  Many people think that good teachers are born rather than developed.  But Chips shows that these skills can be developed, and I think that’s true.

MY: What do you think about “Dazed and Confused” [1993], a film by Richard Linklater, who grew up in Huntsville and reportedly based some of the film on events he witnessed?

RP: For my wife, Linda, and me, it was a lot of fun to see the movie because we had heard some of these stories living in Huntsville.  The film is based in part on actual events in Huntsville.  I also liked that Linklater depicted a lot of the parents as caring, cool, and doing their best to raise their kids.  That’s probably because he has such a great mom [Diane Linklater], who did a great job raising Richard.

Linklater's Dazed and Confused

Linklater’s Dazed and Confused

I think some of those high-school films are a lot of fun.  Remember in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” when Sean Penn orders a pizza in the classroom?  Not only was it funny, but it shows the professor handling things the right way.  Rather than act heavy handed, he rolls with the punches, grabs a slice himself, and continues teaching.  Sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do in the classroom.

One more thing—films are a lot of fun, and they can be provocative and great topics for conversation.  As an example, back when I was doing film critiques for the Item, I got a letter from Peter Grivich, who disagreed with one of my columns.  We got in a wonderful discussion about films, and he ended up taking my Literature and Film class.  He’s smart, and a good writer, too.  Films spur these kinds of discussions, allowing people to exchange ideas and uncover things about the films. But these discussions also uncover things ourselves and the society in which we live.

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Lawyers and Their Favorite Legal Films

Bruce Green has practiced law for more than 30 years in Huntsville, Texas.  He graduated from University of Texas Law School in 1978.

Mike Yawn: Bruce, what is your favorite movie about law?

Bruce Green:  I have to go with “The Verdict.”  The movie touches the heart of every lawyer who has ever been in private practice, capturing the anguish, scariness, and huge responsibility that comes with the job.  It also depicts how evil our unbridled corporate world can be.  We are what stands between the individual citizen and this oligarchical corporate structure that controls so much of the power in our society.

The Verdict, Starring Paul Newman

The Verdict, Starring Paul Newman

MY: If I recall correctly, the Catholic Church was part of that control in “The Verdict.”

BG: Of course it was, and I am a Catholic [laughs].  I was trying to skirt that.  But it shows what can happen when law protects insurance companies over the rights of citizens, and when the judiciary gets involved in unethical practices.

MY: It was directed by Sidney Lumet and stars James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, and, of course, Paul Newman.

BG: Yes, Newman’s performance was incredible.

MY: It’s worth noting that two members of “The Verdict’s” cast, Jack Warden and Edward Binns, were also in “12 Angry Men,” some 25 years earlier.

BG: That’s my third favorite legal film.  That’s an incredibly important film, because it shows what a jury is supposed to do.  People have to understand what “beyond a reasonable doubt means” and, quite frankly, many jurors don’t take this responsibility seriously.  It seems as though they would rather convict an innocent person than risk letting someone go who might be guilty.

MY: Well, you’ve mentioned your favorite and your third favorite, what’s in between?

BG: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s more than a legal film; it’s a wonderful, powerful, beautiful movie.  Gregory Peck is amazing.

MY: Well, you’ve put “The Verdict” ahead of two other great films, “12 Angry Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” so perhaps you can summarize why the public should see “The Verdict.”

BG: They should see it to better understand the legal process, to understand how difficult it is for an ordinary citizen to get justice in a system controlled by people with a lot of money, and to understand the role of the lawyer.  I think the fact that Paul Newman plays a down-on-his-luck, alcoho

lic lawyer makes the movie’s message even more poignant, stressing what some lawyers go through to find justice for an individual in this society.

Mike Park is a partner at the law firm of Park & Durham.  He graduated from St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1976, and he has practiced law in Huntsville for more than three decades.

Mike Park

Mike Park

Mike Yawn: You are a lawyer who is also interested in film.  Tell us how those interests came about.

Mike Park: I’ve probably always been interested in both.  I played football in college, and after completing my eligibility, I took the LSAT, did well on it, and was accepted to law school.  Once I got into law school, I enjoyed it from both a practical and intellectual standpoints.  As for film, I love it as a medium.  I love old movies.  I subscribe to AMC, TCM, and I watch the classics when I can.

MY: Well, what would you say is your favorite legal film?

MP: Probably my favorite is the 1957 classic, “Witness for the Prosecution.”

MY: That was adapted from an Agatha Christie play, and filmed with Tyrone Power in the lead?

MP: Yes.  He was actually one of my favorite actors.  Of course, Marlene Dietrich plays his wife, and Charles Laughton is the lawyer, and he was good in anything he did.

Witness for the Prosecution

MY: If I recall correctly, the film hinges on—I don’t want to give too much away here—the constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

MP: It does hinge on double jeopardy, and it provides a very nice surprise ending.

MY: That film was directed by Billy Wilder, one of the greatest directors in film history.

MP: He was. “Sunset Boulevard” is a terrific movie, but many people aren’t familiar with it.  He also directed “The Lost Weekend,” which is another terrific film.

MY: Back to law films.  Are there any others, besides “Witness for the Prosecution,” that you think the public should see?

MP: I really enjoyed “The Verdict” with Paul Newman, although I thought that James Mason gave just as good of a performance as Newman.  I’d also like to mention “12 Angry Men,” which isn’t so much a courtroom drama, but shows the workings of the jury inside the jury room.

Movies have changed over the years, but I think that one reason older movies were so well done is that the studios had access to such good character actors.  In “12 Angry Men,” Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb were the protagonist and antagonist, respectively, but you also had E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, and Ed Begley.  Their roles were smaller, but they were great actors.

MY: You are clearly a lover of films, a love that started at an early age.  Can you leave us with a film you loved as a child that still holds up well?

MP: I think “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It had a great cast and the director, Frank Capra, did a lot of movies where people with strong core values play

Tracy Sorensen

Tracy Sorensen

ed central roles, and I thought it was one of his best.  I think it just gets better and more revered over time, and I think that’s true of all great films, legal or otherwise.

 Tracy Sorensen is a solo practitioner at the Law Office of Tracy Sorensen.  She graduated from South Texas College of Law in 2005 and has been practicing law in Huntsville since 2006.

Mike Yawn: Tell us your favorite legal film.

Tracy Sorensen: “The Rainmaker, by Francis Ford Coppola, although when I told my mother [Kathy Davis, from Point Blank] this fact, she said, “But I thought it was ‘Legally Blonde!’”

MY: That was originally a Grisham novel? “The Rainmaker,” I mean, not “Legally Blonde.”

TS: Correct.

MY: The film has a truly great cast.  Matt Damon, Mickey Rourke, Claire Danes, Roy Scheider, Virginia Madsen, and Dean Stockwell.

TS: And Danny DeVito!

MY: Well, tell us why it is your favorite legal film.

The Rainmaker

The Rainmaker

TS: It’s about a young lawyer, played by Damon, who doesn’t know what he’s doing when he starts out, but he overcomes challenges and wins.  He’s a lawyer that probably wasn’t at the top of his class coming out of law school, but he’s trying to make his way in the world, overcome his doubts, and be successful.

MY: Now, that film is about the young lawyer who takes on a giant insurance company, and I think Jon Voight is the opposing counsel. They certainly emphasize the difference in experience between Voight and Damon.

TS: Yes, they do a very good job of that.

MY: By the way, do you remember who makes a cameo in that film?

TS: Was it Randy Travis?

MY: Yes, for reasons I have forgotten, he leaps from the jury box and attacks Jon Voight [laughs].  For that reason alone it’s worth renting.

TS: I remember that.

MY: What do you think the public should come away with after watchingThe Rainmaker?”

TS: Well to paraphrase a sports movie, “Any Given Sunday,” anyone can win the day.  In “The Rainmaker,” the lawyer doesn’t make any money at all and chooses not to be a lawyer, but I think it’s important that it shows the little guy defeating the big guy, whether that’s going against a corporate giant or going against a twenty-year high-profile lawyer. The brand-new lawyer overcomes and wins for justice.

Aaron LeMay is the Controller for Sam Houston State University, where he has worked since 2011.  He graduated from the South Texas College of Law in 2010.

Aaron LeMay

Aaron LeMay

Mike Yawn: Your education, it seems, would give you a foundation for a lot of things and perhaps a unique perspective on film.  You have Bachelor’s Degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Biblical Languages and Accounting; a Master’s Degree in Education, specializing in Student Affairs and Administration at Baylor; and a law degree from South Texas College of Law. That may be the broadest set of degrees I’ve ever seen.

Aaron LeMay: Most people say it’s because I am indecisive, but I haven’t decided whether I agree with that…[laughs]

MY: What’s your favorite legal film?

AL:  “V for Vendetta.”

MY: That’s the most modern of the films that has been chosen thus far.  What is it about that film that makes it your favorite law-related movie?

AL: Well, I could have gone with more of a courtroom drama, but I like that this film addresses the role of government in individuals’ lives and the role of the individual in establishing and perpetuating the government and its laws.

MY: One of the interesting aspects of this film is that it involves an individual who uses terroristic tactics, which are generally regarded as illegitimate means of social change.  But he is using them against a totalitarian state.

V For Vendetta

V For Vendetta

AL: That’s one of the serious issues of the film.  We have a negative perception of vigilantes, but there is the question of a society that is so bad that a vigilante is almost a necessary catalyst for change and, by extension, improvement.  A lot of popular films, particularly of the action-hero variety, depict that right now.  Batman is a perfect example; he’s a complete vigilante.  From a more historical vantage point, you also have the leaders of the American Revolution.  They were working against the British government, serving as catalysts for change.  In either case, a person is being subversive to an existing order, serving as the engine for positive change in society.

MY: You mention the founding fathers and, of course, if the Revolution hadn’t been successful, they would have been hanged as traitors and gone down in history as such.

AL: Yes, to quote from a different movie, in the “Count of Monte Cristo,” Colonel Villefort says, “Treason is all a matter of dates.”  If the founding fathers would have lost the war, we would have had the same society we had before, which we viewed as an oppressive monarchy controlling what we believe is our freedom.

MY: One of the actors in “V for Vendetta” is John Hurt, who plays the dictator.  It is interesting that he was also in “1984,” another film warning of the dangers of totalitarianism.

AL: Yes, he was Adam Sutler in “V for Vendetta.”  You know, in the film Sutler begins blacklisting people who are associated with V, and that’s the sort of thing you would see in “1984.”  The government, in that case, is more involved with personal lives than the general protection of society.

MY: James McTeigue, the director, was the First Assistant Director on “The Matrix.”  There are some thematic similarities between these two films, and I would think that the people who like one would like the other.

AL: Well, that’s true for me.  I own and watch on a periodic basis “The Matrix.”  The sequels are less critically acclaimed, but they do continue the story of how the people emerge from a machine-driven oppressive society.  Neo, of course, is the catalyst for that change.  In a lot of ways he is portrayed as a Christ-like character who is the salvation of the people and the machines.

MY: And this may seem obvious now, but how do you think your broad educational background, particularly in the Humanities, has affected you?

AL: Well, for people with a background in Western philosophy or Biblical Studies or the Humanities, a lot of imagery and ideas stand out.  In the end of the “Matrix,” Neo is carried out by a machine, and he’s in a prostrate position.  It’s a position similar to that which Christ is believed to have been in when he died on the cross. That’s pretty apparent if you’ve studied that sort of thing.  But I think everyone brings their own experiences and backgrounds to film, and that’s one of the great things about the movies.

David Moorman is a partner at Haney and Moorman.  He has practiced law in Huntsville for 20 years, following his graduation from Baylor Law School in 1993.

David Moorman

David Moorman

Mike Yawn: David, what’s your favorite legal film?

David Moorman: “My Cousin Vinny.”

MY: Aha, Joe Pesci.  What is it about that film that prompts you to choose it?

DM: I like comedies, and I also think that it does a pretty good job of showing the trial process in a criminal case.  Obviously it’s a movie, and a comedy at that, but it addresses the process, people’s rights, and the penalties associated with certain charges.  It also shows that the process sometimes takes over at the expense of people who aren’t guilty.

MY: The movie involves a New York attorney trying his first case, and it’s in rural Alabama.  Can you describe how the film shows the importance of attorneys knowing the local culture?

DM: Right, the lawyer is from New York, and the trial is in rural Alabama, so he’s culturally a fish out of water.  Even in the same state, things can be different from county to county or from judge to judge within the same county.  It’s easier to make a blunder when you don’t know the local terrain.

MY: It’s also the attorney’s first court case.  What is that like?

DM: Not everything you learn in law school translates immediately to the courtroom.  Every case is different, and you see that even when you’ve been practicing for twenty years, but it’s particularly tough when you just come out of law school.  You come out with a lot of energy, but you are really wide-eyed, and there’s a steep learning curve.

My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny

MY: What does “My Cousin Vinny” tell the public about the legal system?

DM: Once the legal process gets into motion, particularly if the media rush to a decision, it’s hard to stop.  The case that comes to mind is the case of Richard Jewell, in Atlanta.  A network decided he was a “person of interest” in the Olympic bombing case in 1996, when, in fact, he was trying to help people on the ground during and after the bombing.  The charges, which had no basis in fact, ruined his life.  It took years for him to get his name cleared.  Even then, his name had been out there.  The “news” is on the front page; the retraction is on page three or otherwise buried in the newspaper.

The movie came out in 1992, when I was law school. But I saw it when we going through the courtroom procedures and doing practice court. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than twenty years.

MY: What other films might you recommend?

DM: “Witness for the Prosecution” is a classic with many twists to it, as well as a good illustration of classic themes: betrayal, a scorned lover, and retribution.  Also, “A Few Good Men.”  Sometimes as an attorney you have to take on unpopular clients to ensure that the system works for everyone, and sometimes that’s not understood by the public.

Nicholas Beaty is a solo practitioner at the Law Office of Nicholas C. Beaty.  He graduated from the South Texas College of Law in 2008 and has been practicing law in Huntsville since 2009. 

Nicholas Beaty

Nicholas Beaty

Mike Yawn: Are you a film buff or more of a casual fan?

Nicholas Beaty: I’m more than casual fan, but maybe not a true buff.  Frank Blazek, my former employer, is a true film buff—not to mention a brilliant legal mind.  He’s suggested many movies to me that I’ve enjoyed.

MY: What’s your favorite legal film?

NB:  “And Justice for All” with Al Pacino.  An attorney suggested it to me as I was starting law school, kind of a “what-are-you-getting-yourself-into” exploration.  Of course, it’s a movie, and you take it with a grain of salt, but I understood what he meant after I watched the movie.

MY: That was directed by Norman Jewison, who also did “In the Heat of the Night” and “Hurricane,” movies that explore injustice.  That’s a major theme of “And Justice for All,” too.

NB: It certainly is.  I appreciated the film more as I began to practice in the area of criminal defense.  You begin to realize that being an ethically sound individual does not necessarily produce the perception of being the best criminal defense attorney.  Doing what you think is right is not always in line with the rules of professional conduct, the rules of the court, the desires of your client, or what the state sees as justice.  They don’t always hold together.

MY: The film also has a good cast.  In addition to Pacino, there’s John Forsythe, Christine Lahti, and the seemingly ever-present Jack Warden.  Other than the cast, though, tell us why it is important for the public to see this film.

And Justice For All

And Justice For All

NB: For the non-legal community, it’s important to know that the system that regulates attorneys and the rules under which attorneys operate are just as imperfect as the system.  In the last scene of the movie, Pacino has been kicked out of the courtroom and will probably be disbarred.  He is thinking, “What did I just do?”  Lawyers face ethical dilemma regularly, and they can sometimes have adverse effects on our careers.

MY: Tracy Sorensen chose “The Rainmaker” as her favorite, and the lawyer protagonist in that film also faces dilemmas and opts to leave the profession, although not in the same dramatic fashion as Pacino. What are the stresses of the attorney’s life that might lead people to find other paths in life?

NB: You are dealing with people who are at the worst and most stressed-out emotional points in their lives, and you absorb some of those emotions as you represent them.  If you cannot deal with emotional swings, then law may not be for you.  It’s important to have the emotional resiliency to balance your emotions in the courtroom while also zealously representing your clients.

MY: What other legal films would you recommend to learn more about the field of law?

NB: Well, my other two favorites are “A Time to Kill” and “A Few Good Men,” the latter because I love Jack Nicholson and I was in the military for a few years.  Both of those are entertaining, but as far as learning about the legal system, I’d say, pick up a book and you’ll probably learn more about law than you would from a movie.

Frank Blazek is a partner with Smither, Martin, Henderson & Blazek law firm.  He graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1977, served as the Walker County District Attorney, and has practiced law in Huntsville for more than 30 years.

Frank Blazek

Frank Blazek

Mike Yawn: Tell us about how your love of law and film developed.

Frank Blazek: When I was an undergraduate, I took every course with the word “law” in it.  I didn’t know any lawyers, and I wanted to be a lawyer, so that’s how I learned about the legal profession.  But I also took some electives, and the course that probably shaped my life more than any other was my movie appreciation course.  I learned a little about appreciating movies, and that was as culturally enriching as anything I’ve ever done.

MY: Well, I am teaching that class in the fall.  I hope the students get as much out of as you did when you took it.  But it’s tough, most students are attracted to a narrow niche of films.

FB: Well, I understand that.  When I took the course, I knew what movies I liked: tough detective films, filled with action.  Don Siegel was my favorite director.  When our professor showed the first musical, I thought, “Am I going to have to sit here and watch these?”  But it turns out “Singing in the Rain” was just a wonderful experience.  Once I understood these things, I could appreciate them, comedies, musicals, fantasies, even foreign and silent films, things I hadn’t liked before.

MY: You didn’t mention legal films.  How about your favorite from that genre?

FB: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  It has, I think, the strongest character development of all the legal films I’ve seen.  Sometimes the impetus for changing people’s hearts comes from unanticipated sources.  There’s a scene in which an angry mob is outside the jail, waiting to attack and kill the accused.  The attorney, played by Gregory Peck, is outside the jail and his daughter approaches.  She recognizes one of the people in the mob, and she makes a friendly gesture to him.  This little act of humanity dispels the anger, and the crowd dissipates and goes away.  There are conflicting values in people, but people have good in them.  You have to find those values and connect to them.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

MY: You know, I had a chance to see Gregory Peck in the 1990s, and he indicated that Atticus Finch was his most important role.   What qualities do you think Finch embodied that attorneys should take to heart?

FB: He put his clients’ interests first.  He knew that you can’t always win, but that you had to present your best case—even when up against insurmountable odds.  He didn’t place money or fame or pride or any of those attributes ahead of his integrity.  He also had empathy, and I think a good lawyer has to have empathy for all those involved in litigation. Of course, you also need to go home at night and feel good about yourself and not be ashamed of what you have done during the day.  And I think Atticus could do that.

MY: That’s an answer that reflects a love of the film and law.  What are some other legal films worth seeing?

FB: “Anatomy of a Murder” is a great film, particularly for its realism.  The rulings of the judge and the courtroom dialogue are not as constructed or theatrical as in many other films.  Of course, what’s most realistic about the film is that the lawyer doesn’t get paid in the end. [laughs]

MY: You know the judge in “Anatomy of a Murder” was the counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings.

FB: That’s right!

MY: He famously asked Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?  At long last, have you no sense of decency?” (Youtube clip here).

FB: Another courtroom movie is “Inherit the Wind.”  The courtroom dialogue, the cross examination, was taken in part from the actual transcript of the trial.  The names were different, but everyone knew the lead lawyer was Clarence Darrow.  And then there’s Compulsion, based on the Leopold-Loeb case…

MY: Also featuring Clarence Darrow for the defense…

FB: Right.  It was the first “trial of the century.” It was a horrific crime committed by two young men, there was mystery involved in how the case was solved, and suspense in how Clarence Darrow saves their lives.  A tremendous story.

MY: You know Hitchcock’s “Rope” and the 1990s film “Swoon” were also based on the Leopold-Loeb murders.

FB: I missed “Swoon,” but Hitchcock’s “Rope” is a favorite.  As an aside, you have to wonder how Hitchcock is going to make one of his famous cameos when the movie is conducted inside of the apartment.

Another interesting film is “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote.  If you’re going to watch that, follow it up with “Capote,” which addresses Capote’s life during the period he wrote “In Cold Blood.”

MY: The movie “Infamous” also addresses this time period in Capote’s life.  It was based on a work by George Plimpton, which pieced together various recollections of Capote by his friends and acquaintances.  But I’m glad you brought up “In Cold Blood,” because Capote was childhood friends with Harper Lee, who, of course, wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

FB: Exactly, there you go.  We come full circle.

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Chris Tritico, Tim McVeigh’s Lawyer, Discussed Law, Clients, and Sam Houston State University


Chris Tritico at Let's Talk

Chris Tritico at Let’s Talk

Chris Tritico, a high-powered Houston attorney and Sam Houston State University Alum, recently returned to his alma mater for the University’s annual “Let’s Talk” event (  While on campus, he sat down with SHSU Professor Mike Yawn to discuss his career in law and some of his more notable cases and clients, which have included Moses Malone, Gary Sheffield, and Timothy McVeigh.  With the Boston bombings bringing terrorism back in the news and today marking the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, The Huntsville Item is publishing this interview, which has been edited for length and flow.

Chris Tritico with Mike Yawn

Chris Tritico with Mike Yawn

MY: Chris, you spent some time in Huntsville when you attended Sam Houston State.  Can you tell us about your time there?

CT: I got here, and I met my wife, and I fell in love with the campus.  I got involved in student politics, and later became the president of the Student Government Association.  This is such a special place, and holds such special memories for me.  I can’t think of anyplace that I could have graduated from that would be better.

MY: You were actually President of SGA when Old Main burned.  Can you describe your memories of that?

CT: Old Main was the centerpiece of a great university.  I was at home at my apartment, asleep, and the phone rang.  One of my friends said, you’ve got to get back to campus, Old Main’s on fire.  It was around midnight, I think, one o’clock in the morning, and I got dressed and ran over to the campus, and it was completely engulfed in flames.  The fire department was throwing water on it, but it was too late.  I ran into Dr. Bobby Marks and I said, what can I do, and he said, get some people and make a perimeter.  And so, we kind of blocked off the walkways to keep people out, and I stayed on campus for 24 hours, helped keep people out of the site while they were trying to preserve it.   It was a horrific night.

Old Main Burning

Old Main Burning

MY: Other than being president of SGA and filling in as an unofficial EMS worker, how did you get interested in law?

CT: I decided that I was going to be a lawyer when I was seven-years old. There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t say I wanted to be a lawyer. It’s probably Perry Mason that did it, but I don’t know – that guy never lost a case.

MY: The magic of television.

CT: One of the things that I’ve lived my life by, and I think that my dad taught me this, is to set goals and to always keep working toward the goal. So, when I was seven, I set a goal that I was going to be a lawyer. It was one of those goals that I worked toward through high school, through college, and into law school.

Chris Tritico

Chris Tritico

MY:  You started your law career with Racehorse Haynes. Tell us about that.

CT: Racehorse Haynes is the premier criminal defense attorney in America. He’s been a dear friend of mine my whole life. My dad and Richard “Racehorse” Haynes grew up together, and when I was in high school, my dad ran into Haynes and told him, “My son wants to be a lawyer.”  Haynes said, “Send him by and I’ll give him a job.” At that time, Haynes had just finished trying one of the biggest cases in America: Dr. John Hill [a Houston doctor accused of killing his wife in 1969]. I called Haynes’s office the next day, interviewed shortly thereafter, and they said, soon as you get out of school, come on in.  Two days after high school I started working for Racehorse Haynes, and I stayed there from 1979 through college, through law school, and became an associate of his when I got out of law school.

MY:  You went on to represent sport stars such as Moses Malone, Gary Sheffield and Julio Lugo, but Haynes also represented a sports star of sorts: Morgana, The Kissing Bandit.

CT: I was there when he represented Morgana.  She was a lady who became famous for trespassing onto baseball games.  She would jump into centerfield, and run and kiss the pitcher, and then run off the field.  What made her so famous was that she had 60” breasts, that’s the truth.  Morgana ran onto the field in Houston.  She called us beforehand and told us she was going to run out there.   I’ll never forget.  She ran out there, and they stopped the game, and Nolan got down on one knee [Tritico mimics Ryan, with his arms outstretched] and she ran into his arms.  It was pretty funny.

People asked Haynes, “What is your defense?”  And he said, “Gravity.  She was leaning over to catch a foul ball and gravity took over, and she fell onto the field.”

MY: You’ve represented a lot of celebrities.  Tell us how that is different from representing non-celebrities.

CT: When you represent someone famous, no matter how minor the situation is, the media are there. In most cases, the media are there because of the act, not because of the defendant.

Second, a lot of professional athletes get this impression that they really don’t have to do what the rest of us have to do. You have to build up trust with them, and then you have to knock them down a bit, because you can’t sit in front of a jury with a guy who thinks he is bigger than everybody else. A jury’s going to see that, they’re going to hate him, and they’re going to find him guilty for that alone.

MY: Your highest-profile client was Timothy McVeigh. Tell us about representing him.

CT: McVeigh was accused of, convicted, and executed for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and killing 168 people, some of them children. I knew about Tim McVeigh what everybody else knew. I saw the “perp walk,” and everybody hated Tim McVeigh, everybody except his dad and his mom and his sister.

I had left Haynes’ office by this time, and I had my own firm, but we were still in the same office building. Haynes called me and told me to come up to his office. When I got there, he said, “Do you want to be famous?” I said, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings.” He told me that McVeigh’s lead lawyer, Stephen Jones, needed a trial lawyer and that he was going to recommend me. Stephen called me and said, “Why don’t you come to Denver and talk to me?”

At that time, I didn’t have any money. I had a small law firm. We were struggling to make payroll. I had to buy an airline ticket to Denver and pay for a hotel room. That was about $1,200 we didn’t have. We borrowed, my partner and I, and I flew to Denver to meet with Jones for two days. The last night, it was about 1:00am, and we had met for ten hours, and he said, “Go to your room and get some sleep. I’m going to think about it tonight, and we’ll talk in the morning, but I really I think I need a woman for the trial attorney.”

I went to back to my room, and I was devastated. This was the chance of a lifetime. The next morning, we had breakfast, and I told him, “Steve, if it’s that important to you, I’ll wear a dress.”  He cracked up, and he said, “You know what, you’re the guy.” And so I got the gig. In all, there were 14 total lawyers representing Tim.

MY:  Is it difficult for 14 lawyers to work together under this kind of pressure?

CT: The practice of criminal law is the most pressure-filled thing you’ll ever do in your life.  Maybe brain surgery is more pressure, but in a capital murder case you are cradling the life of a human being in your hands.  But, yes, we had 14 lawyers. Quite frankly, we had too many lawyers. Were there conflicts? Of course. We had conflicts over how we’re going to put this massive case together. We had 32,000 FBI-302s— witness statements. It was 100,000 pages of written materials. Hundreds of hours of video tape. A forensics lab that had all of this bomb stuff, residue. This had to be sorted and processed, and put in some order. It was the most massive undertaking with which I had ever been involved, and I was hired shortly before trial, and I was given the forensics! I had to learn, in six weeks, how to build a bomb, blow up a bomb, and clean up a bomb, along with tire prints, fingerprints, and everything else you can think of forensically.

MY: While you were representing McVeigh, how did your friends treat you at cocktail parties?  Were they put off, intrigued, or both?

CT: Both. Few people said anything negative. I don’t own what McVeigh did, and I don’t have to agree with what he did, and I don’t have to have his belief system to stand in a courtroom and say, “Prove it.” That’s what the Constitution requires. The government has to prove you’ve done something wrong, and if they can’t, you get to walk out the front door with me. It’s that simple.

MY: On a more tactical level, how do you defend a guy who’s cooperating with journalists on a book about how committed the crime? [McVeigh sat for interviews with Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, who later wrote “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing.”]

CT: [laughs] Well, I didn’t know that. Nobody knew that he was working with those guys. When he was in pretrial, there were only a few of us that could get into that prison to see him. But after being sentenced, he had several years before being executed and there was more access. I don’t think he started that book until after he was convicted.

MY:  In their book Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck indicated that McVeigh wasn’t always thrilled with his representation, but that he respected you.

CT: We had some major problems in the defense. There were some early leaks, and it was a huge eruption in the case. I knew nothing about those leaks. I was preparing the forensics, so I was off on my own. When the eruption occurred, Tim wouldn’t talk to anybody, and I don’t blame him.  I went to the jail about three days later, and the guard told me that McVeigh wouldn’t come out.  I said, “Give him my card, tell him it’s me, tell him I’m here alone.” Well, he came in, and he was mad.

MY: You really don’t want Tim McVeigh mad at you.

CT: No, you don’t. But I said, “I know how mad you are. Why don’t we just sit down and talk?” So we talked for about two hours, and I’m not going to get into it because it’s privileged, but at the end of the meeting, he said, “Okay, I will talk with you—only—until this case is over.  Within about a week I was able to get him to come back and work with us.


MY: On a more whimsical note, you also represented a Denise Wells, in a case sometimes referred to as “Pottygate.”

CT: She was at a George Strait concert at the Astrodome, which isn’t very potty friendly to women. She was at this concert waiting in line for the restroom, and she couldn’t wait any longer. She walks into the men’s room, and she said she covered her eyes like this [uses his hands as blinders] and said, “Sorry guys, just coming through,” and she went straight into the stall, went to the bathroom, came out, and got arrested for indecency.

We tried that case in municipal court. Cases in municipal court are speeding, running stop signs, and they take about an hour to try. We were in trial in this court for two days, and it went viral.  We had reporters from Spain, England, all over the world sent to cover this trial of the girl who went into a men’s restroom. But we won.

MY: We’ve talked a lot about your experience. What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing law careers or those who wish to make a career out of public service?

CT: I said earlier that I’ve lived my life setting goals, and that’s the only way you succeed, by having a goal, reaching that goal, and having another goal. And keep doing that. I’ve tried to do that. I wanted to be a lawyer. I became a lawyer. My next goal was I wanted a talk radio show; I did two of them for ten years. My next goal was to work on television; I’ve done that. And my next goal is to get my own thirty-minute TV show. I think after that, I just want to go on a cruise.



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