The Truth About Townview (Part II)

How John Wiley Price and Chad Woolery have made students pawns in Dallas' racial politics

By the beginning of December, with pressure on Watson mounting, a new and much more formidable ally stepped onto center stage on her behalf: County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

It is no accident that Price's two biggest racial battles this past year have involved Ora Lee Watson--at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where she serves on the board, thanks to an appointment by Price, and at Townview Center.

The two have been the closest of friends since Price chaired her successful campaign for the Dallas school board in 1986. (She served only one year before resigning to return to the district as an employee.) Although a recent profile of Watson in the News hinted that the two may have been "romantically involved" at one time, that suggestion didn't come close to divulging the extent of their relationship.

Consider Price and Watson the Ma and Pa Kettle of Dallas racial politics: He yells and screams and hurls epithets, but most of the time she's the one writing his words. It's been that way for years.

Although Price refused to be interviewed for this story, Watson freely disclosed, during a four-hour conversation in her home one afternoon, that she writes the commissioner's speeches for him. In fact, she smiled proudly when asked about it. Watson also sometimes writes Price's correspondence. In fact, their working relationship is so close that it's hard to separate what would normally be strikingly disparate roles as Dallas educator and Dallas agitator.

Two months ago Watson's ghostwriting created a brouhaha at the Dallas County Commissioners Court offices downtown when one of her faxed drafts for Price was inadvertently placed in County Judge Lee Jackson's mailbox.

On January 2, Price had received a hand-delivered letter from Jackson criticizing his shabby treatment of Dallas lawyer Jaime Ramon, whom the entire Commissioners Court had appointed to the Parkland board the year before but whom Price was now blasting in his daily protests at the hospital. Price had been quoted in the press calling Ramon a "coconut" who should "go back to old Mexico" or, for that matter, "go to hell."

"You can, of course, treat your own board appointees in any way you see fit," Jackson wrote. "However, when you attack volunteers who are representing the entire Court, you are using them as a scapegoat for disagreements with policies supported by a majority of the Court."

Jackson noted Price's consistent failure to use his office to try to effect change through the system rather than to merely make noise.

"You have never shared your specific concerns about Parkland with the Court," Jackson wrote. "Perhaps this is the time to do so."

Price didn't like Jackson's letter. Two days later, at 1:26 p.m., Watson faxed a response from her Bryan Place home to the commissioner's court offices. Since all five commissioners share a fax machine and since the letter Watson sent was a draft of a letter to Jackson, a county staffer mistakenly put the letter in Jackson's mailbox.

"In response to your letter of January 2, 1996, I take exception to your suggestion that you are even in a position to discuss with me who [sic] I may criticize and [sic] as a County Board member and who I may not," declared Price's ghostwriting school administrator. "It comes as no surprise to me that you support Jaime Ramon and his inactivity as a member of the Parkland Board of Trustees."

Suddenly it was revealed: Esteemed educator Ora Watson was stuffing volatile verbiage in John Wiley Price's mouth so he could amp up the volume in the race war he's waging against a man with whom Watson serves on the Parkland board. (In a particularly amusing touch, Price sent copies of the Lee Jackson letter Watson drafted to all the Parkland trustees--including Watson.)

Comments Ramon: "It's appalling to me that we have someone working in the school system--who has been acting as a principal for a lot of children during all this incredible tension--who is personally involved in this campaign of derogatory racial and ethnic slurs."

It's no secret inside the school district that Watson and Price are a team. School employees have occasionally faxed her handiwork to him from school. He visits her at schools and sends her flowers. She bought a green Mercedes from him.

So when Price showed up at Townview on December 6--with not only the Warriors, but Watson's 29-year-old son Damon Rowe in tow--school insiders weren't surprised. They also weren't surprised when Watson, on that first day, came out onto the steps to watch the show staged on her behalf.

"Nobody--nobody--would listen to anything I had to say until he stepped out that door," she says, "so I cannot be sorry that he was there."

Watson's two bosses, Woolery and Hayes, were: They asked her to call Price off. She told them she could not.

"I could not have said, 'Don't come,'" she says. "His mother couldn't have said, 'Don't come.' Nobody could have said, 'Don't come.'"

As we discuss this, sitting together on her L-shaped sofa in the downstairs den of her sleekly furnished townhouse, I spy a tiny pair of bright white sneakers laying on her glass coffee table.

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