The forgotten man

Rush to eulogize RISD icon J.J. Pearce ignores 25-year-old victim

In mid-September, The Dallas Morning News reported the demise of a giant in Texas public education.

Joseph Jones "J.J." Pearce, 88, the superintendent "who guided the Richardson school district's transformation from a single rural campus into one of the top urban school systems in the state," had died, reporter Selwyn Crawford noted.

In 31 years of service as Richardson superintendent--Pearce retired in 1977, at the age of 70--he had attained the status of a mythic figure, "Mr. RISD." A Richardson high school already carries Pearce's name. His death prompted the current RISD superintendent to shut down all district schools at noon on the day of Pearce's funeral.

"He was a great gentleman," superintendent Vernon Johnson told the News' Crawford. "He really built the entire school district, built the foundation for the district we have today.

"We want to honor him," Johnson said, explaining his decision to call off classes, "and also I don't think we can find enough substitutes to fill in for the hundreds of employees who will want to attend the funeral."

Crawford's story noted Pearce's influence in public education across the state, as well as his involvement in civic organizations such as the Richardson Chamber of Commerce and the Richardson Rotary Club. "He's just an icon," said Johnson. "I'm glad I got to know him personally and professionally."

The September 11 obituary also contained the paper's only reference to the cause of Pearce's demise--and even that was brief. The former superintendent, Crawford wrote, "died Sunday of injuries he suffered in a car accident Tuesday."

But in the rush to eulogize J.J. Pearce, the paper made no mention whatsoever of a critical and tragic fact: Pearce was not the only victim in the accident. The crash on the morning of September 5 involved two cars--and also claimed the life of Brian Keith Thomas, a 25-year-old with a promising future.

Also unmentioned in the News' coverage: the police report lists Pearce's failure to yield while making a turn as the primary cause of the accident.

Brian Thomas was a computer operator at Northern Telecom, a polite young man who was studying to complete his college degree while working full time.

At 9:30 a.m. on September 5, Thomas was in Richardson, driving his white 1993 Mercury Cougar XR-7, his pride and joy (it carried the vanity license plates "MY COOG"). He was heading east on West Campbell Road, heading toward its intersection with Waterview. The light was green.

Witnesses told police he was speeding, going 50 mph in the 40-mile zone, as he approached the intersection. But that would not have been a problem had J.J. Pearce, driving his 1989 Cadillac Fleetwood, not tried to make a left-hand turn onto Waterview from a westbound lane of Campbell Road.

According to the police report, Pearce turned in front of Thomas' Cougar. Notes the report: "Officers investigation revealed that driver #1 [Pearce] failed to yield right of way to driver #2 [Thomas] while turning left." The report lists "failed to yield ROW-turning left" as the sole item under "factors/conditions contributing" to the accident in the investigator's opinion. Under "Other factors/conditions may or may not have contributed," the investigator listed "speeding--over limit" by Brian Thomas.

The Cadillac slammed into the Cougar, sending it off the road, through a fence and into a tree. Pearce's car, which also carried his 14-year-old grandson, spun and struck a light pole.

Before being rushed to Presbyterian Hospital, the police report says, Pearce told investigators he saw Thomas' car, but thought he had time to make the left turn safely.

Thomas, who had been wearing his seat belt, was unconscious. Taken to Parkland Hospital, he died at 11:30 p.m.

The News noted what happened to him only in a 90-word "news briefs" item two days later. The paper reported: "A Forney man died late Tuesday from injuries he received in a two-car accident in Richardson earlier in the day." The brief misidentified Brian Keith Thomas as "Thomas Brian Keith"--and never connected J.J. Pearce by name to the accident, noting only that "Mr. Keith" was injured when a car driven by "an 88-year-old man" failed to yield while making a turn. It added: "Police say the case will be referred to a grand jury to determine whether the elderly driver should face any charges, as is routine in fatality accidents." The case, of course, never got that far. Pearce died on Sunday. (His grandson was treated and released on the day of the accident.)

Thomas' parents got the news about four hours after the accident. They rushed to Parkland Hospital, but their son never regained consciousness.

Thomas' death prompted an outpouring of sympathy from the family church, Forney Baptist; friends at Northern Telecom, where both Brian and his mother worked; and the many who knew them in Forney. But the family remains bitter and sad that the News--and local TV stations that covered the accident--either ignored the death of their son, or treated it as an afterthought.

"I've got nothing against Mr. Pearce," says Roy Thomas, Brian's father. "Mr. Pearce probably was a great man. But my son might have been just as great--if he had a chance to live that long.

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