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Mixed memories

The new year is bringing with it happier people--at least the ones who appeared in this column last year are in that condition, for the most part.

Minnie Washington, as you may recall, started out 1994 feeling incredibly grateful for having heat in her house. The 62-year-old great-grandmother had spent all of Christmas week 1993 huddled in blankets in front of her oven with a full house of children and grandchildren (as young as a one-year-old) in her care, trying to think of a way to get her broken furnace fixed for no money because she didn't have any.

She called the Dallas County Department of Human Services--which, if you know anything about Texas government, should have turned into an even bigger nightmare. But director Betty Culbreath took the call personally and had the furnace fixed within 24 hours.

We last visited with Ms. Washington at the end of January, when a North Dallas mother and son who had read about Ms. Washington's plight journeyed to a part of town where they'd never been to bring her a carload of clothing, sheets, diapers and toiletries. They also handed her a $500 gift certificate for Winn-Dixie. "This is the little Jewish prince up here," Leslie Auerbach told me fondly about 17-year-old son David. "He thinks life is a first-class plane ticket and a Caribbean cruise."

Not anymore. The Auerbachs' generosity continues. Mrs. Auerbach, after surveying the flimsy beds in Ms. Washington's house, purchased three large new ones and had them delivered. Upon hearing that Ms. Washington's air conditioning unit was broken, Mrs. Auerbach sent her own repairman to fix it--twice.

David took Ms. Washington's plight back to his youth group at the Jewish Community Center. The teenagers distributed fliers in the neighborhoods around the center, asking for donations. In late August, David's friends borrowed a truck and delivered the goods.

Just last week, David loaded his Jeep Cherokee with a toilet and sink for Ms. Washington--donations from Leslie Auerbach's interior designer, who was redoing his house.

Although the Auerbachs have done an enormous amount for the Washingtons--more than most people ever do in a lifetime for strangers in need--they are, surprisingly, disappointed with their efforts. "I know David is frustrated in what hasn't been done," says Mrs. Auerbach. "I only wish that people could have joined us in our efforts. I still think about Minnie all the time--even when we go out to dinner and spend a luscious amount on fancy food. I still get a pang in my heart. And I know that if I had all the money in the world--or I had won the lottery--I would have provided all the things they needed."

Mrs. Auerbach ticks off the list--she knows the needs by heart. Minnie's $250 Monte Carlo is dead in the driveway. The carpet in the house is threadbare. The kitchen floor has no tile and some of the kitchen cabinets are missing doors. Worst of all, there's a thin sheet of plywood on the bathroom floor that threatens to give way every time someone goes in the room.

Ms. Washington says she's just fine. But her heart is heavy, literally, with all her responsibilities, including a grown daughter who recently moved in with her three children in tow and Ms. Washington's 41-year-son, who lives with her and is completely disabled with a rare liver disease. "I'm just so happy I'm seeing the New Year," says Ms. Washington, who suffers from congestive heart failure.

Happy New Year, Ms. Washington. Here's hoping you get more guardian angels like the Auerbachs.

In June, we said goodbye to two of the most high-profile liberal activists in Dallas: Joe Cook and Karen Ashmore, two people who for years--and for nominal wages--gave a voice and a sturdy shoulder to people who didn't have the resources or the wherewithal to protect themselves.

Cook, former regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union, took a position with the ACLU in New Orleans. Although we didn't get a chance to talk with him for this article, Ashmore says when she last spoke to her fellow activist in September, he was exulting about the filing of his first lawsuit and complaining about the hot, muggy weather.

Karen Ashmore was Dallas' number-one feminist. She also did God's work--raising money full-time for St. Philips Episcopal School, a private black grade school in South Dallas. She left Dallas after 16 years to find "a more progressive town" that embraced, rather than shunned, victims of sexual harassment and police abuse and people with hard-to-solve problems like homelessness and mental illness.

And, of course, as all capable people do, she found exactly what she was looking for.

She left town in June with a road map and her nine-year-old son Nicholas and proceeded to canvass most all of New Mexico and Colorado--camping out at night, grabbing a local paper in the mornings, eavesdropping for local gossip in smalltown coffee shops.

 

Breakfast talk assured them that Taos, for example, didn't have many available jobs. They finally ended up in Boulder, Colorado, where mother and son live in a condominium at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains--which they see outside their windows.

"I don't regret it at all," says Ashmore, who is doing consulting work and grant-writing for non-profit organizations. "Boulder is beautiful and progressive, and there's a good quality of life. People spend tax dollars here on the people who live here--on recreation centers and bike lanes and the purchase of open spaces. They don't spend it on tax breaks and incentives for corporations they want to relocate here. There's a slow-growth mentality."

Ashmore, who had just returned from a rigorous, one-hour hike up Mount Sanitas when I talked to her--as opposed to most of us Dallasites, who had just finished watching the Cowboys beat Green Bay--admits, when pressed, to missing Dallas. But only on two counts.

"I miss my friends," says Ashmore, whose new best friend is Boulder transplant Marcie Feinglas, former assistant director of the North Texas Food Bank here in Dallas. "And I miss the Tex-Mex."

The important things in life.

In July, we wished the best to Miss Oak Cliff Anna Villalobos, who competed later that month in the Miss Texas pageant.

It was all a bit confusing at first, because Miss Oak Cliff was actually from Plano--and Michelle Martinez, who competed in the Miss Texas pageant as Miss Fort Worth, was actually from Oak Cliff.

The bottom-line was that the pageant business isn't quite as homey and small-town as one might think when propped up against the bed pillows watching Miss Oak Cliff from Plano belt out a hefty, Vegas-style version of the "The Man I Love," which Miss Villalobos did quite admirably on TV in the statewide pageant.

In truth, this is serious business--so serious, in fact, that I was amazed to learn the young women not only duct-tape their breasts to provide that all-too-crucial cleavage, but they spray their fannies with Firm Grip (an aerosol wallpaper glue) before they don their swimsuits so the suit bottoms don't rise indelicately on the runway.

All of which was fairly amusing until Miss Oak Cliff, Anna Villalobos, became the runner-up--number two in the state, thank you very much--in the pageant, losing out only to a vacant-looking platinum blonde with a weaker voice but a set of choppers that must have dazzled the judges, unless, of course, they were too busy staring at the most robust midsection I have ever witnessed on television, except for Dolly Parton.

The folks in Oak Cliff, though, are not dismayed. Not only have they crowned a new beauty queen--19-year-old Carly Jarmon of Mesquite, Miss Teen Texas of 1992--but Villalobos, who has left pageantry to finish college has also left her parents' residence in Plano. To live in--where else?--Oak Cliff.

"She's become a Cliffie," says native Dallasite Danell Lichtenwalter, who chairs the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce. "She's moving into a duplex on February 1, and we're delighted."

Michelle Martinez, by the way, still lives in Oak Cliff with her parents--but came in second, behind Miss Jarmon of Mesquite, in the 1994 Miss Oak Cliff competition in October.

Go figure.

There were two employers we wrote about in 1994: Fishburn's Cleaners and Laundry and the Town of Addison.

Fishburn's was a surprise actually. Who knew that a venerated Dallas institution like Fishburn's was systematically tossing out some of its oldest, most loyal employees as a result of 25-year-old cleaning dynasty heir Edward Slater's skewed vision of modernity.

Loyal, however, does not satisfactorily describe the women who worked for young Edward's parents for decades--women who slaved away at low wages with dwindling, now nonexistent, benefits save an armed holdup or two every once in awhile.

When Fishburn's summarily dumped 70-year-old Grace Shoulders, a widow who had worked in the Casa View store for 17 years and couldn't afford to stop working, she got lucky. Because her 24-year-old granddaughter got angry--especially when she checked the classified ads last July to help "granny" look for a job and saw that Fishburn's needed sales help.

"Why in the world were they advertising for experienced people when my granny...was sitting at home, dying to go back to work?" granddaughter Wendy Roundtree told me. Dying to go back to a job, by the way, that was paying her $5.75 an hour, no pension, and no health insurance--and that salary that was up a whopping $1.50 an hour from her starting wage in 1977.

 

Ms. Shoulders was such an ace employee, by the way, that when the weather turned icy in the winters, she would sleep overnight in the store on the floor under a quilt rather than go home and risk not getting back to open up early in the morning.

This is a story where justice prevailed. First of all, Ms. Shoulders' granddaughter went and applied for the Fishburn's job herself--and got it, without even a reference check, for $6 an hour. She secretly tape-recorded the interview, then got her granny a lawyer--a good lawyer.

Scott Frenkel was so good, in fact, that within two months, the matter went to mediation, and Fishburn's settled. Ms. Shoulders and her granddaughter say they are happy with the result.

Unfortunately the good guys can't discuss the details. "They didn't want any more bad publicity about this," says Wendy Roundtree. "In fact, if there was, probably the deal would be null and void."

The Town of Addison, however, is another matter.
Last June we wrote about a terrific young police officer in that town named Gerald Runnels. A former, highly commended Dallas police officer who was looking for less stress for the same pay, Runnels went to Addison and found something else: racism.

On Runnels' last night of training in his new job, a dispatcher named Randy King decided to be a funny man and type into the onboard computer terminal in Runnels' car the initials "HNIC"--"Head Nigger in Charge."

Runnels was shocked. He wanted the dispatcher fired and his fellow 48 officers--all of whom were white except for two Hispanics and one other African-American--given immediate, intensive sensitivity training. Neither of which happened. King received a five-day suspension without pay; Runnels' fellow officers still treat him like he broke code blue and made a mountain out of a molehill.

Runnels, like Shoulders, hired a lawyer. Too bad Runnels didn't hire her lawyer. Instead, he hired an Oak Cliff attorney named C. Victor Lander, a municipal judge who has a big reputation as a civil-rights attorney. But apparently limited interest in this case.

Lander sent the town a demand letter last June, asking for the actions Runnels wanted taken, plus monetary damages. The officer says nothing has happened since, though his attorney sent a lovely letter to the town's lawyers last month, wishing them a good holiday and a healthy New Year.

"It really irritated me that I paid for that," says Runnels, "but it just wasn't worth the additional $150 it would have cost me to call up my lawyer and argue with him about it."

So true. Because, quite frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if Lander couldn't remember Runnels' name.

"Was that dispatcher a he or a she?" Lander asked me, trying to reassemble the facts of the case while watching the Dallas Cowboys football game on TV last Sunday. "It was a she, right?"

Lander explained to me that his technique was different than other lawyers. "We try to straighten it out outside the lawsuits," Lander told me. But if the town of Addison didn't straighten up soon, he said, his voice rising, "then we go to the EEOC and then file a lawsuit."

Ah, good strategy. Too bad Runnels had already been to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Last June. Remember? "Oh, yes, I'm sorry," Lander said.

Runnels, though, is the kind of guy who will make lemonade out of these lousy lemons.

He's just enrolled at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he needs 28 credit hours to graduate with a degree in government and political science. And then?

"I'm seriously thinking of going to law school," says the industrious 31-year-old. "Because I want to help people in situations like mine. Before all this happened, I had the impression that in 1994 people could go to work and not be called a nigger. But it's not the case--not in 1995 either. And I want to do something about that."

Dennis Martinez is happy to be away from his employer, too--the City of Dallas.

Exactly a year ago, Martinez was fired from his job as director of the city's economic development department after an agonizing, 60-day investigation by superiors into sexual harassment charges that were never confirmed (and were largely based on the accusations of a young female employee who was involved in a sexual-harassment lawsuit with her last employer in California).

Nonetheless, City Manager John Ware and his top staff chose to leak the accusations to the media anyway, resulting in an unfair smear of Martinez's name--all when a simple "we'd like you to move on" would have worked nicely, thank you.

Today, a year later, Martinez is his own man--Martinez Associates is a consulting firm specializing in economic development. Based in Dallas, Martinez also works out of San Antonio, where his wife took a job as budget manager for the city of San Antonio after the Dallas City Hall debacle. They have kept a house in both cities.

 

"I'm having fun," Martinez says. "I'm actually having a good time, and that's a big switch."

Martinez admits he's been watching the Machiavellian goings-on at City Hall regarding the crusade for a new sports arena with more than a little interest. And a sense of vindication. The lying, the obfuscating, the deceit that City Manager John Ware and First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley are displaying, he says, is sad but not surprising.

"Having worked with John and Cliff, I know exactly what their style is," Martinez says. "And the style is to manipulate and hide the facts. And they did it when I was there, and they'll continue it until the city council decides they want to stop the wool from being pulled over their eyes. The integrity of the city manager form of government is at stake--and will be until these people go."

We'll see what 1995 brings.


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