Dim and Dimmer

Last week, thinking about how great the newly opened Old Red Museum is downtown—and then thinking about the fact that it's under the Dallas County Board of Commissioners—I was reminded of a favorite Bible verse, Matthew 7:6.

"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you."

When the Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture opened last May in the restored Old Red Courthouse, it was immediately the best and brightest public attraction downtown since the opening of the Sixth Floor Museum in 1989. A crack professional staff and an enlightened board of directors have created a spot-on venue that strikes just the right balance between truth-telling and entertainment.


county commissioners

Enter the county commissioners.

At some point in the last month, according to very good sources, Dallas County Judge Jim ("The Accident") Foster went over there and told museum director Dr. Tom Smith to take down or significantly alter part of an exhibit commemorating Margaret Keliher, who was, after all, Dallas county's first female county judge.

Foster denies all of this. But so far I can't find even a single reason to believe one thing he says. Ever. About anything.

Keliher, a Republican, was elected to four years on the court in 2002, making her the first woman to hold the office since the county was organized in 1846. She was defeated for re-election last year by Foster, who floated into office from absolutely nowhere on a countywide Democratic demographic sweep.

His appearance on the political scene has been one of those eerily fascinating natural mysteries, sort of like self-beaching whales. But he's here. And he's the judge.

So why would Foster have gone to the museum and told them to take down the Keliher exhibit? Was it because he was still mad at her from the campaign? Actually, very few people I spoke with about this were willing to give him credit for being that self-directed.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat, told me: "I'm sure he was coerced to do that."

Other sources told me Price is right and that Foster was sent over to the museum by county Commissioner Maureen Dickey, a Republican, who is sometimes described as the commission's second-dimmest bulb, which is unfair. She's the dimmest. Foster doesn't have a bulb.

When Keliher and Dickey served together on the commission, they sometimes clashed, especially on transportation issues, where Dickey foolishly considers herself an expert.

The scheme, then, would be this: Dickey calls Foster into her office. She swings her pearls back and forth once or twice in front of his eyes and tells him to count backward slowly from two. Then she says: "You will go over to the Old Red Museum, where you will tell Dr. Tom Smith to take down that exhibit of that damned bitch, Margaret Keliher, and replace it with a picture of somebody I like, like maybe former Commissioner Nancy Judy or some broad like that."

Which, according to Price, is just what Foster did: "Tom Smith basically told me that he was told that all of the commissioners wanted it down and that in the future if they wanted to get something done they needed to move Keliher's picture."

Price did not tell me Dickey was the one who had hypnotized Foster and sent him off on his mischief. I got that from other sources. But I did call Dickey directly and gave her several chances to tell me it wasn't true.

I said: "People have told me Jim Foster went over and told Tom Smith to take it down, that he didn't like it, didn't think it was appropriate and that Tom needed to change it. I have asked people why Jim Foster would care about it, and the answer I got was that he doesn't. He doesn't really know about it. But people are telling me that you are the person on the court who thought that was an inappropriate exhibit."

She said, "I really don't have a response to that. That's a rumor as far as I know, and I don't have a response to a rumor."

I said, "Well, OK, but I don't hear you telling me it's a false rumor."

She said: "I guess this is the first time I've heard the story, and so I'm just saying I don't have a response. I'm glad to talk to you about news, but as far as a display in the Old Red Museum, it's not really something that I'm concerned with."

I went back to this several times and did try to give her more opportunities to say she didn't do it. But all she would tell me was that she didn't think the matter of the Keliher exhibit was worth discussing.

"You know, I could care less what exhibits they have there," she said. Later in the conversation, when I asked her if she thought an exhibit commemorating Keliher as the county's first female judge was appropriate, she said: "As far as Keliher, well, personally I could care less."

Now, I admit this is just my interpretation of her remarks, a mere opinion, but I would say her answers were tantamount to plucking a Magic Marker felt pen out of her purse and writing across her own forehead, "Yup, I done it."

I did, of course, attempt to reach Judge Foster, as I always do and always shall. I submitted my question via e-mail through his assistant. His assistant e-mailed me back, saying, "I passed your memo on to the judge. He asked me to tell you this is untrue and he's not sure where the story is coming from. He prefers not to do an interview."

I e-mailed back to the assistant saying, "OK. But I have other commissioners telling me he is the one who spoke to Dr. Smith."

The assistant e-mailed me back saying, "I don't doubt that, but that's his response."

Do you think maybe the assistant has an eye on Foster's door at all times and one of those traveler's emergency rope ladders in his desk?

I did call Dr. Smith, of course, who happens to be one of the most respected people in his field in the country, and he did decline, understandably, to dive into the middle of this. He referred me very politely to David Biegler, chairman of the Old Red Foundation Board of Directors, former vice chairman of TXU Corp. and a heavyweight in Dallas political and civic circles.

Biegler and I exchanged several e-mails. In one e-mail, Biegler denied there had ever been a Keliher exhibit. "There has never been an exhibit, a card, a display, or identification as first female county judge. Therefore there has never been anything to take down," he said.

In a subsequent e-mail, Biegler told me there has always been a Keliher exhibit and it's still up, referring to an image of Keliher that appears on a "scrim" or window shade without any identifying legend or text, even to say who in the hell she is.

"There is an exhibit commemorating the first female judge, and it is the photograph on the scrim," he said. "It is treated in an identical manner and in the same location as other county firsts, such as Nancy Judy's scrim image as the first female commissioner."

But that is not the case. Former commissioner Judy is commemorated in an exhibit box with a card beneath her photograph identifying her as the county's first female commissioner.

Dr. Smith told me Keliher had to be put on a window shade with no name tag because she was a sitting official and the museum has a policy against exhibits of sitting officials. But that is not the case. Commissioner Price, who sits, is commemorated in an exhibit with a card and text identifying him as the county's first black commissioner.

I asked both Biegler and Smith if Judge Foster had spoken to them at all ever in any way—smoke signals, drum beats, ululation—about how Judge Keliher was being commemorated in the museum. They both declined to answer.

I'm guessing ululation.

I know they're in a tough spot not of their own making. They have a great museum. But I must interpret their responses to my questions as another of those Magic Marker moments.

I asked Smith why there is no exhibit commemorating the county's first female judge as an important achievement in the suffrage of women. He said, "That was a decision we made."

I spoke to former Judge Keliher, who is now off on a career with a big law firm probably making money by the buckets, and she more or less told me she thought the whole thing was just embarrassing and crazy and she didn't want to discuss it. I understand that. She's too smart to play mean girls.

Now the smartest person on the commission—well, let's just go ahead and say it, the only person on the commission now who is smart—is Price. Think about it. He's a Democrat. Judge Foster is a Democrat. Keliher's a Republican. Partisan wisdom would call for Price to look the other way even if Maureen Dickey hypnotized Foster and sent him out to snatch Keliher bald.

Oh, man. I wish I hadn't put that idea in print.

But Price is offended by people thinking they can mess with history. "I was really upset by it, because like I told them, I didn't want anybody tampering with history. She was the first female judge. Her picture was prominently displayed. But Foster went to them and basically told them to take it down."

I asked Price about an even larger issue here. I asked: "Is the county judge...what can you tell me...is he fully functional these days?"

Price said: "No. No. No. No. No."

Yikes. Yikes. Yikes.

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