A tragic trip

Parents blame maverick Collin County teacher-candidate for their daughter's death

Looking at him, standing in front of a roomful of college kids, there is absolutely no question that this is the Pied Piper of local higher education.

"Everyone with us?" he says, eyeing his students as he rocks back and forth on his brown loafers, shirt sleeves rolled up in earnestness, a piece of white chalk clenched between two fingers. "Ready to move on? Isn't this fun? Cool."

Mr. Cool is a 36-year-old history instructor at the Collin County Community College in McKinney. He is good-looking. He is energetic. He is funny. He is full of jazzy pitter-patter about his subject, a highly informative hipster who can somehow make a long-dead American president sound like the next star of a Jackie Collins novel.

"Andrew Jackson grew hemp on his plantation," Joe Jaynes says with a mischievous smile. "So we're not quite sure what he's smoking, right?"

"Screw the Supreme Court," he says moments later, prompting broad smiles around the room. Later, popping in a videotape--a dramatization of the Battle of the Alamo--for their perusal, Jaynes wisecracks, "I can tell I'm getting old. When I was young, it was the Playboy channel. Now it's the history channel."

Yes, his students are mesmerized. They hang on his every word. They chuckle. They scribble in their spiral notebooks.

"Don't try to take dictation," he admonishes them at one point, as they drag pen across paper. "We'll hit the high notes here in a minute."

Yes, he is an 18-year-old's dream.
He is also the worst nightmare for at least one 18-year-old's parents.
And he is about to become the newest Collin County commissioner.

A little background for those south of Plano.
Last Friday, Collin County Commissioner John Witherspoon held a press conference. The 40-year-old accountant and two-term county official had a startling announcement to make: Although he had been campaigning for months for re-election--and had successfully beaten back two of three opponents and was now headed for a runoff election on April 9--he was abruptly withdrawing from the race.

It had been no secret to the voters of Collin County that their commissioner was very ill. Last November he'd been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease--a debilitating, incurable illness that cripples the muscles and has left Witherspoon confined to a wheelchair, unable to use either arm. Though the disease does not affect a person's mental capacity, people who came in contact with Witherspoon saw an obviously ill man--his voice slurred, his energy zapped, his extremities withered.

Witherspoon persevered--determined to serve a third term. Doctors assured him last November that he had six to 15 years to live, but last Wednesday, with Witherspoon clearly in a downward spiral, doctors revised the estimate down to a year.

Enter Joe Jaynes--Witherspoon's opponent in the runoff. Since no Democratic candidate contested the race, the winner of the runoff election would become the next commissioner.

On paper, Jaynes would seem to have been an insignificant threat--a little-known virgin politician with no business or government experience. But he's clearly had the wind at his back. More formidable pols in McKinney--the heart of this predominantly rural commissioner's district--had stayed away from the election in deference to Witherspoon. But the incumbent was sick. And the energy and charm Jaynes exuded in the classroom played nicely on the campaign trail.

In the Republican primary elections two weeks ago, Jaynes led Witherspoon by three percentage points. "Joe is a very politically astute individual," Witherspoon says. "And he is a very, very vigorous campaigner. He has been campaigning for the last one-and-a-half to two years. I just hope he can do as good a job as commissioner as he can campaigning."

Howard and Susan Geffen don't think so.
Last October, the Geffens suffered an enormous personal loss: Their 18-year-old daughter, the oldest of their three children, was killed in a terrible car accident on a remote stretch of highway in Tennessee. They blame two people: the 21-year-old who fell asleep at the wheel, Olivia Ritter of Plano, and the history teacher who sent them to Tennessee, Joe Jaynes. "I hope you make it perfectly clear in your story that this man is not fit for public office," Howard Geffen told me bitterly last week.

Well, I wouldn't go that far. But certainly the Geffens' incredibly sad story raises some legitimate questions about the judgment and maturity of Collin County's commissioner-elect, who will take office next January at the end of Witherspoon's term. It raises just as many questions about the goings on at the publicly financed Collin County Community College where Jaynes has worked since it opened in 1986.

In those 10 years, Jaynes estimates he has taught history to 3,500 people--one of whom was a shy, quiet girl named Angela Geffen. "There are always two or three students you zero in on--you're not connecting with them," Jaynes told me in an hourlong interview at the end of his history class last Wednesday. "So you almost gear the whole class toward them to get their attention. That's what I tried to do with Angela. She used to look so bored."

She wasn't. But she was not a carefree student. She had ADD--attention deficit disorder--and that meant school had never been easy. Tests were hard; lectures frustrating; good grades hard to come by. But that didn't deter Angela from pursuing her dreams. She was a scrapper--accustomed to obstacles, such as the scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, with which she was diagnosed in the eighth grade. She went to sleep strapped into a hard, pink body brace every night for several years.

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