SMU's Shame

Let's assume we have two camps. People in Dallas who love President Bush and would love to see the Bush Presidential Library here. People in Dallas like me who do not love President Bush and would not love to see his library here. Fair enough.

But I don't see why either camp would want to see the library go to Southern Methodist University. Given the ugly history of the land acquisitions underlying their bid, I would think none of us would want to see it at SMU.

For those who revere the president, the SMU site would link his name with an inappropriately dirty story. For the rest of us, that dirty story would provide a darkly appropriate final chapter to the entire Bush saga, which we would rather see end in Waco or West Texas than in our home town.

The one peek at this story provided by Dallas media in recent months has been a lawsuit brought by Gary Vodicka, who owns condominium units in the University Gardens apartment complex near the intersection of Mockingbird Lane and Central Expressway on the eastern edge of the SMU campus.

Vodicka is suing to stop SMU from demolishing the complex. He claims University Gardens is the site SMU wants to offer for the Bush library. SMU says no decision on a site has been made. Given the property the university does and does not own or control in its immediate environs, however, it's hard to see how University Gardens could be anything but a most-favored location--12.5 acres of land, unoccupied except for Vodicka's small portion, with excellent freeway access, cheek-by-jowl with the SMU campus.

Now shut off by temporary steel fencing--trash-blown, windows walleyed with plywood--the complex looks like an arson waiting to happen. Six years ago it was a thriving, genteel little community of 374 units occupied by people like Mrs. Pat Davenport, now 74, who had raised her children in the Lakewood area of Dallas.

"In 1987, my husband bought a unit at University Gardens, and my plan was for that to be my final resting place," she told me the other day.

In his lawsuit, Vodicka accuses SMU of buying the entire University Gardens complex through a fraudulent scheme authorized by the SMU board of trustees at a time when now Vice President Dick Cheney was a member. "It is my contention," Vodicka told me, "that in 1999 when Bush was running for office, his cronies and friends and politicos thought, well, they wanted the presidential library to come to SMU." He says SMU began buying units with the specific goal of being able eventually to tear down the entire complex.

SMU has denied his allegation and argues it began buying into University Gardens well before 1999 and before any notion of a presidential library. In fact, SMU started buying in about 1998. Those early purchases prompted an attempt by the owners--people like Mrs. Davenport--to stop the university from commandeering the entire complex.

SMU sued the owners to get its way, and that lawsuit now provides a better window on SMU than Vodicka's suit. The earlier suit was settled some years ago. I spoke with the office of SMU's vice president for legal affairs, S. Leon Bennett. His staff referred my questions to Patti LaSalle in the university's public affairs office. I sent LaSalle a two-page single-spaced letter identifying a specific document in the case and providing detailed examples of portions of it I intended to cite in an article.

My purpose was to provide SMU an opportunity to dispute any element. The university did not dispute any of what I presented to them. LaSalle wrote back simply saying, "Your questions relate to past litigation that was settled to the satisfaction of all parties."

Tell that to Mrs. Davenport's 43-year-old daughter, Leslie Davenport. She says owners like her mother caved in and sold at the last minute only out of fear they would be left with nothing. She speaks of other elderly residents who died soon after selling and wonders if stress contributed to their declines.

"We have literally spent since January of 2001 trying to find help, legal help, help from organizations, the ACLU, watchdog groups," she said. "When you don't have money, you can't defend yourself.

"It was very, very upsetting to watch somebody hurt your parents. There were a lot of tears over this, a lot of depression."

The legal battle between SMU and the condo owners turned in part on abstruse provisions of the bylaws of the condominium association, none of which am I going to try to parse. But lawyers for the owners also raised compelling moral issues in the way the university had proceeded, which I think just about any of us can understand.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze