Even though Kathlyn Gilliam was ready to give Linus Wright the benefit of the doubt, she couldn’t figure out how he finally got to be the city’s new school superintendent. “It was not a normal occurrence that Wright evolved to the top of the list,” she said. “There will forever be some questions on my mind on how that happened. It was not natural.”
Not natural? Mrs. Gilliam wasn’t specific, just vaguely troubled. She made the comment one month after she cast her vote against Wright’s appointment. But she said that the same feeling was with her the night of August 15, when the school board met to choose Dallas’ school leader for the Eighties.
At that meeting, the trustees sat quietly around the conference table in Nolan Estes’ back office. Each had brought stacks of paper – some of it scribbled notes, much of it the materials prepared by consultants. After nearly four months of searching, almost 30 hours of interviews, thousands of miles of travel and more than $40,000 in expenses, this was the final meeting. The new superintendent would be named. It was a task the trustees considered the most important they faced during their terms of office.
Hour after hour, the trustees took turns reporting on research they had conducted in the home cities of four finalists for Estes’ post. Most of the reports were glowing. Lee Smith, the school board’s attorney, reported on his legwork: The candidates had no serious blemishes; none proposed wild contractual demands.
Voting began – there were more than a half dozen votes in all. Then, when the trustees were but 30 minutes away from finally naming the man who would set the tone of public education in a city of 125,000 students, Mrs. Gilliam started to pick away at Linus Wright, widely regarded as a brilliant finance and management type. He hasn’t made his mark in instruction or learning, she said, and what is needed in the Dallas Independent School District is someone to boost sagging achievement scores. Robert Price joined her, arguing that black and Mexican-American kids, who comprise 62 percent of all students enrolled in Dallas schools, need a model to identify with and better instruction -not better balance sheets in the controller’s office. Price wanted Manford Byrd, the black superintendent from Chicago. But what he wanted most at this moment was a no-holds barred discussion-a critical comparison pitting the strengths and weaknesses of one candidate against the next.
“If you want to crucify Byrd in Chicago or Ramon Cortines in Pasadena and have Wright slapped in his face with all his weaknesses when he arrives in Dallas, if he’s selected, then go right ahead!” yelled an exasperated Gerald Stanglin.
“I will express my opinions,” replied Price. “How else can we make a choice?”
Easy, a majority of the board’s members thought, just keep voting until you’ve got a candidate that wins a one-vote majority. That way, the perceived weaknesses of Wright or Byrd or Cortines would not be aired and the men wouldn’t be dissected. And that way, those weaknesses wouldn’t become embarrassing Page One headlines. When Sarah Haskins was in Chicago reviewing Byrd, the Chicago Tribune called her at her hotel. “They sat there and read me everything we did in executive session, and then asked me if it was all true!” she says. “And there was another time, just after we decided on Wright, that the Winston-Salem paper called to ask why James Adams didn’t get it, and I said, ’Because he didn’t get five votes.’ ” The North Carolina paper was simply trying to verify a published report attributed to trustee Robert Medrano that Adams had not received a single first-choice vote – and he hadn’t.
Simple vote-taking may have squelched informed debate in the case of the Dallas school board. Just as important, it diluted the news that generally flows as freely from executive sessions as printer’s ink. The Board of Education has historically had a problem with news leaks. No matter how tight the security on private sessions, word gets out. And it’s always the juicy stuff. Like the questioning of candidates about their religious beliefs. And the fact that board president Bill C. Hunter made it clear he didn’t want “an al-leycat” chasing secretaries or getting drunk, and so recommended the hiring of private detectives to conduct character reviews on the candidates.
During last summer’s search for a superintendent, somebody was talking. Somebody couldn’t be trusted.
At this final meeting, suspicion and mistrust and fear were the prevailing moods. Nobody was allowed to go to the restroom alone; reporters and television cameras were outside waiting for the bits of information that would tell the bigger story. And one of those bits of information was revealing: On an early vote, when the trustees were asked to rank the candidates, the tally for first place was: Wright, 4; Byrd, 3; Cortines, 2; and James Adams, 0. More votes were cast against Wright than for him.
Then Hunter asked the trustees to name their two favorite candidates-in no particular priority. This vote clearly established Cortines as the favorite or the near-favorite of the entire Dallas Board of Education; they also showed that Byrd had only three supporters, even among those who might have considered him their second choices The score was Cortines, 9; Wright, 6; Byrd, 3.
But there was no discussion of the merits of the contenders. And Price’s fight for open debate fell quickly to the anonymity of secret ballot voting. It was the safest thing to do.
The board next voted for their first choices among Wright, Cortines and Byrd. Cortines lost one of his early first-choice votes: Wright, 5; Byrd, 3; Cortines, 1. Trustees Jill Foster and Harryette Ehrhardt won’t say whether they were the first-round Cortines votes, and neither will say whether she stayed with Cortines on this first-choice round. But other board members believe that whatever unquestioned support Cortines received came from these two women.
Cortines and Wright then were run against each other, and Wright won, 5-4. The votes that would otherwise have gone for Byrd – Robert Medrano, Price and Mrs. Gilliam – went for Cortines, and either Mrs. Ehrhardt or Mrs. Foster is believed to have been the fourth vote.
Byrd and Wright were then run against each other, and Wright won 6-3.
The pleas of Mrs. Gilliam for trustees to explain why Wright was so good went unanswered. Price’s argument with Stanglin about open debate, about showing the blemishes, went completely dead. The room was a forensic vacuum; the prospect of their discussions becoming public spooked the trustees into voting in silence. “It was scary, a little unnerving, to go in there and make such an important decision, when I really had no feeling for where the vote would go,” says Stanglin. Likewise for Mrs. Foster. Likewise for Trustee Brad Lapsley.
The selection became a matter of personal choices made, apparently, by a subtle chemistry of observation, held firmly in place by mistrust and fear. Linus Wright scored. The paper ballots were repeated, and he continued to come up the winner.
If Ramon Cortines was Wright’s only real competitor, the board’s difficulty was only compounded by the fact that Cortines and Wright are opposites. Cortines made his mark in curriculum and desegregation; Wright made his in finance and management. Cortines is the hero of kids and parents; Wright’s most loyal following is among the gray-suited. Cortines is ebullient; Wright is low-key.
While Cortines, 45, is a native Texan, he studied at Pasadena College and served as superintendent of the Pasadena schools from 1972 until March of this year. He was fired when the Board of Education, apparently without proper legal authority, tried to muscle in on his administration. Cortines was tremendously popular in the community, which demonstrated aganst his firing, and he had gained national recognition for his part in writing a desegregation plan for the Pasadena schools-one of the first city school systems in the U.S. to desegregate. He had published papers on minimum competence standards in reading, as well as on the relationship between the courts and schools. (Hearings are now being held on Dallas’ desegregation plan because the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals objects to the DISD’s maintenance of more than 50 one-race schools.) Cortines is Mexican-American.
In a series of profiles written by the panel of educators that named him and other candidates for superintendent, Cortines was called “… a pupil-centered educator first, a mar-velously effective chief executive second.”
Cortines proved immensely popular with all nine trustees.
In his interview in Dallas, Cortines told of the time he once ran into a Pasadena school wracked with turmoil and jumped up on a desk and shouted himself into authority. Although he told board members it was not the proper approach to the problem, and that it was something he grew from professionally, it scared some. Trustee Brad Lapsley said in the final executive session he thought Cortines was terrifically impressive but that he had a vague reservation he could only express with a quip: “He’s tighter than a G-string.”
Manford Byrd, the black 50-year old superintendent from Chicago, had the support of Dallas’ minority trustees. But that was it. Byrd and Price have a personal friendship dating back more than 10 years; they lived only two blocks apart in a south Chicago neighborhood, represented their blocks at the local community center, and while Price served as financial secretary of Chicago’s Trinity United Congregational Church, Byrd was its moderator.
Byrd brought to Dallas battle scars earned in an unsuccessful fight for the superinten-dency in Chicago. “It was all politics and race,” says Price. Byrd’s opponents, who were mostly Anglo, said he took too long to make decisions under pressure. That couldn’t be fully explored or weighed in Dallas, however, because of executive-session paralysis. Some board members were unsure how much Byrd really wanted the job. There were reports that he would require in his contract that DISD buy out his more than 20 years’ accumulated retirement benefits from the Chicago school system, at a cost of about $100,000. There was scuttlebutt, too, about his wife needing an administrative job in the school system.
The third important competitor to Wright was James Adams, a 42-year-old Kentuckian who is superintendent of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County, N.C., schools. The consulting panel called him “… one of the most brilliant administrators in the country.” He had previously served in two very posh school systems: Montclair, New Jersey, and Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Adams was bumped from the running when he failed to receive any first-choice votes on the first round of voting. One of his problems may have stemmed from a personality conflict; some trustees saw him as arrogant. Trustee Sarah Haskins says “They’re all different up there.” Up there? North Carolina? “Yeh, up along that whole coast; it’s a different thing.” Following his interview, Adams asked to meet with members of NETWORK, a group of community and business leaders that supports the DISD. Sanger Harris president Jack Miller heads NETWORK and is the prime link between DISD and Dallas businesses. Adams kept Miller, who planned his Saturday around the visit, waiting for 20 minutes. Adams then asked Miller, “Why should I bring my wife and kids to Dallas?” And what Miller says he felt like saying, but didn’t, was: “What makes you think we want you to come to Dallas?” “I’m never discourteous,” Miller says with a smile.
There were two other candidates who came for interviews and the board members were impressed by both, but they pulled out of the running. Wilmer Cody, superintendent of schools in Birmingham, was perhaps the most serious intellectual among all candidates, and he was described in the panel’s profiles as “. . .one of the most sought-after superintendents in the nation.” But he withdrew, citing commitments to his present school system.
Robert Wentz, superintendent of schools in St. Louis, could very well have turned out to be the first choice of at least Stanglin, Stanglin says, but Wentz withdrew for the same reasons as Cody. The panel described Wentz as having “… sheer intellectual capacity far and above the norm for big city superintendents.”
Linus Wright, who has never lived or studied outside Texas during his civilian life and whose Ph.D. at Texas Tech remains incomplete, appeared from the beginning to have very tough competition. And that competition was brought home early in the panel’s introductory profiles, which for Wright began with the same strength found throughout the reviews of his competitors. It called him “… heroic. A Texas educator for 29 years, Mr. Wright has done it all, with acclaim, but still has the capacity, energy and the desire to do it still better.”
Yet Wright’s review was the only one that wasn’t consistently superlative, unqualified. It carried a tone of apology: “He works 80 hours a week without visible fatigue. He may not be a speech maker or National Figure, but when he speaks in strategy sessions, he is attended to. Further, he really wants this particular job.”
Wright’s review was composed by Larry Haskew, a man whose involvement in the Dallas superintendent selection process has a depth that can be said to be unknown. He began in Dallas on February 7, the day Nolan Estes resigned from the DISD.
On that night, Estes called president Hunter aside just before the school board was to meet. Estes said he had accepted a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin and would leave the DISD in January of 1979. He would announce it in an executive session following the meeting. Hunter-picked up the phone and called Haskew, the retiring UT professor Estes will replace in January, and asked him to serve as a consultant to the school board in selecting a new superintendent. Haskew, who was instrumental in getting Estes the DISD superintendent’s job in 1968 and who had spent most of 1977 persuading Estes to be his replacement at UT, accepted. Then Hunter called Francis Chase, a full-time DISD, consultant, and Milton Curry, president of Bishop College. They agreed to work with Haskew.
Later that night, after the board was told of Estes’ planned departure and of Hunter’s appointments, the trustees agreed to a general plan: Haskew and his co-consultants, would nominate leading educators who would in turn conduct a nationwide search for superintendent candidates.
When the names of those educators came in, they showed an even distribution of men and women and blacks and whites and Chicanos. Choosing from among the 12 persons named was the first critical decision for the board: The makeup of the panel would determine who was nominated for Estes’ job. Larry Haskew’s name was not included on the list of potential panelists. But Larry Haskew became chairman. And Larry Haskew was the fourth Texan to be named to the seven-member panel.
The trustees had dinner at the Sheraton on Tuesday, March 21. They met in executive session in an eighth-floor conference room to appoint the panel. Hunter started pitching for Haskew from the outset. Unlike the final session in which Linus Wright was chosen, however, strikes against potential panelists were discussed. And Haskew took a beating. He was too close to the situation. He was a friend of Estes. He had just completed a study of the DISD administration and had established too close a working relationship with local administrators. “I had deep reservations about him,” says Mrs. Foster. “I bucked it hard.” So did Mrs. Ehrhardt: “I felt like he was gonna give us the same old thing.” And three other board members-Medrano, Price, and Mrs. Gilliam – also objected. That was a majority of the board against Haskew. Hunter, whose tenacity is tempered by patience, backed off; he put Haskew on a low burner while the rest of the panel was selected.
When Haskew again became the topic of discussion, Hunter fielded nearly an hour’s worth of questioning (“There had to be a good reason not to have him,” he says). And then a brilliant strategic move from the chair: Hunter said a third black would bring to the panel enough checks and balances to offset any possible biases of Haskew. It worked. “It wore us out, psychologically,” says Medrano. Mrs. Foster is more philosophical: “When you’re in there, situations arise when you need a compromise to arrive at where you’re going.”
Linus Wright was familiar with at least three of the panelists. Haskew became his friend during Wright’s stint as business manager for the Lubbock schools beginning in 1969. J. Don Boney, a black who is now chancellor of the University of Houston, formerly served as chief of instruction in Wright’s school system, the Houston Independent School District. And Will Davis, president of the National Association of School Boards, resides in Austin, where he once presided over the Austin Board of Education; Wright’s stature in Texas public education comes from having spent lots of time in Austin, taking a prominent role in legislative school finance matters. Haskew says he and Boney actively promoted Wright to the other panelists, who included Arnulfo Oliviera, Barbara Sizemore and Bernard Watson. Oliviera, the president of Pan American University in Brownsville, earned his Ph.D. at UT and is a native Texan. Ms. Sizemore, black and a former star student of DISD consultant Chase at the University of Chicago, is a consultant from Washington, D.C., where she once served as superintendent of schools. Watson is a black professor from Temple University in Philadelphia who also did graduate work at the University of Chicago.
The panel went through an arduous procedure of naming Wright and his five competitors from an original pool of 181 nominated candidates. It was a day-long conference at the Hyatt Regency in which a qualified group of 40 was distilled to 24, then to nine. Six were revealed to the board – three reserves were never reviewed by DISD trustees.
Haskew’s panel had conducted hearings at the DISD administration building on Ross Avenue to establish “selection criteria” for use in screening the candidates down to six. There was consistent testimony in those hearings, however, that Dallas wanted a religious man to succeed Estes the Baptist. In a meeting of the Dallas City Council of PTAs, for example, one woman told the panel, “It is important . . . that this person be in tune with the character of the community. We’re in the middle of the Bible Belt. Estes is of the moral character and stature that his conduct will not embarrass Dallas, the school system or me. He’s been a giant as a moral leader in this community.” There was hearty applause.
Later the same day, Haskew and his panelists met with principals of the DISD schools. Frank Guzick of Skyline High School was blunt: “We need a city man that understands city ways and school ways. And a critical area is that he be a tolerant and religious man to understand the religious groups in our community. If he’s not, he’ll be in trouble.”
On the day Haskew released the names of Wright and his competitors, he also gave to the school board a two-page report on green photocopy paper. It detailed the “selection criteria,” or what the panel considered important in choosing its nominees: “Initiative toward meeting problems”; “Making desegregation constructive”; “Cultivating teaching”; “Citizen and employee involvement.” The report was difficult to read in parts, since it talked of processing the many “inputs” from school groups that, when they recurred, became “peak” priorities. But Haskew’s final words came across with great clarity: “One other ’peak’ may have significance for the board. You will have to decide. An amazing number of the volunteered responses included ’One who is visibly and devotedly a religious person’.”
This is Larry Haskew’s way of saying his panel wouldn’t touch the religious criterion with a 10-foot pole.
Linus Wright saw those green sheets before his interview. And 12 days after his name was released to the board-on Tuesday, June 27, when he came to the Dallas Hilton for his interview – he made no bones about the fact that he was a religious man and that he’d taken on numerous leadership roles in his church.
It was the third interview for the board, but it was the first to be clouded and strained by media coverage that told the people of Dallas potential superintendents were being asked about their religious activities. The board was uptight. The trustees read stories that quoted Wentz as saying he hadn’t attended church regularly in 10 years, and informing them that Adams had told the trustees, apparently for their edification only, that they could be opening themselves to a lawsuit with that kind of question. The headlines brought down upon the board an anxious awareness: Somebody – one of them – was talking to the press about the confidential interviews. Hunter was furious and there were arguments among trustees. If trust could not be shared, if confidences couldn’t be held, how would the board be able to make the best selection?
Linus Wright would help them. He gave them no constitutional or libertarian mumbo jumbo in his interview. Wright didn’t talk about rights-he just gave them straight talk about community involvement. Like the fact that he was Chairman of Elders at Houston’s Westbury Church of Christ.
Linus Wright knew his audience.He continued to help them in other ways. He furnished more of the right kind of information than you could digest. Wright’s resume, for example, is a manual-the complete guide to a five-foot-six, 165-pound, 51-year-old native Texan. It has a 19-part table of contents. It lists 48 professional references; it lists nine character references, among whom are included Lt. Gov. William Hobby and Speaker of the House Billy Clayton. It lists Boy Scout sponsorship and Church of Christ membership in Denison as far back as 1949. You can learn, for example, that during his high school years he worked as a part-time fountain and stock clerk at Kingston Drug Store in Deni-son. Or that in 1952 he took 250 clock hours of training in the signal officer’s school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
You can also learn, on page 24, that Linus Wright is a religious man. Under a section entitled, “Leadership Positions in Civic Organizations and Lay Boards” these items are included: “Deacon, Woodlawn Church of Christ, 1957-60, Sherman, Texas; Deacon, Colorado and Jackson Church of Christ, 1961-63, San Angelo, Texas; Deacon, Broadway Church of Christ, 1964-69, Lub-bock, Texas; Chairman of Elders, Westbury Church of Christ, Houston, Texas.”
Gerald Stanglin thinks Wright’s resume is a tremendous piece of work. “All the resumes were neat, but Linus’s was a little book; it had a spiral binder,” says Stanglin. “I remember thinking This guy’s thorough!’ Byrd’s resume was late, and it was only two typewritten pages. That caused several of us to wonder. I mean he said it was in the mail, and it took over a week – I don’t know. There are two contrasts there: With a superintendent, you’ve got to be thorough. I didn’t disregard Byrd for that, but I did think of Linus.”
Wright had a stylistic counterpoint to the other candidates that only complemented his delivery. You could see it in his resume, on page 1, under the heading, “My Statement of Educational Philosophy”: “… Whatever method or technique is used in schools to insure success for every pupil, it must advance the cause for responsible citizenship and the belief in the American way of life.”
And the trustees could see it in the interviews: When they asked other candidates to relax and make themselves comfortable (most sessions were longer than four hours), some peeled down to shirt sleeves, as if in a work session. James Adams smoked a pipe. But Linus Wright remained in full suit, hands folded at times on the table, the soldier of self discipline. Where others challenged the board, or admitted mistakes, Wright was the picture of quiet strength, warm and direct.
If you know your audience, you also know their buzz words, the concepts that trigger a visceral response. For Mrs. Haskins, the words union and collective bargaining, as they apply to teachers, are buzz words. She squints and asks you to look at the school systems that no longer exist in Philadelphia or New York. Yankees and unions mean punks in the classroom, the end of school board control of the schools and the end of Texas as the last frontier in public education.
“Linus just smiles and says, ’There’s nobody we’d rather fight’ when you talk about teacher unions,” says Stanglin, himself smiling.
Nolan Estes is in the anti-union camp, and knowing Wright as he does, surely he must have felt comfortable in nominating Linus Wright for the superintendent’s post in Little Rock, Arkansas. This nomination was made during the time the DISD was searching for a successor to Estes, and while Estes was playing a Haskew-like consulting role in Little Rock. It occasioned yet another opportunity for Wright to restate his interest in Estes’ job. In a letter to Estes, which found its way into a packet of recommendations distributed to each board member, Wright wrote: “I do want to express my appreciation to you for the recommendation to the Little Rock Board of Education … I received an invitation from them this past week. However, since I have dropped my name in the hat for Dallas, I do not feel it is appropriate to express an interest in the Little Rock job at this time.”
Wright’s last sentence: “I have always appreciated your advice and counsel and hope that I can call on you in the future.” The letter is dated May 24, or more than three weeks before Haskew’s panel actually nominated Wright and five others.
Little things mean a lot to some people. Linus Wright knows that. If anybody helped Linus Wright go to the head of the class, it was Linus Wright. He may not have been known in Houston for fancy footwork or razzle-dazzle front-running, but the man can market himself.
Wright wrote personal thank-you notes to each board member following his interview. Individually typed and column justified, the letters referred to a day that was very stressful to the trustees because of the media blast on religious questioning: “Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the position of the General Superintendent . . . I compliment the Dallas Board of Education on your procedures and the thoroughness in which you went about your awesome task of selecting and interviewing candidates,” Wright wrote. And he made it clear he was waiting in the wings: “The experience was very pleasant and profitable for me. Should it be your decision, I welcome the opportunity to become part of the great leadership team in the Dallas Independent School District … I anxiously await your decision.”
With slow emphasis, Mrs. Haskins says, “That’s the man. He’s that typeof man. He’s thoughtful and, in the positive sense, methodical. And his resume was a tremendous piece of work.”
By the time the trustees gathered for their final executive session on August 15, Linus Wright stood in reasonably good stead, although the board members never talked about it. With Cody and Wentz out, there were only Cortines, Byrd and Adams. And Byrd was the black candidate. Even though he gave a good interview, race is a touchy issue with board members. They won’t discuss it with each other. Race means quotas and court orders, certainly, but the qualitative social factors of having a black superintendent versus a Mexican-American versus an Anglo represent a turf the trustees won’t inch up to.
There are subtle points here. Just after Estes announced his resignation, school administrators were predicting, privately, that a black would not be named superintendent because Dallas was not ready for a black school leader. Yvonne Ewell, who heads the DISD’s all-black East Oak Cliff subdistrict, even took the argument one step further:’ ’Black leaders are too busy being black,” she said. And when Mrs. Gilliam and Price and Medrano sold hard for Byrd in the final voting, it upset some black community leaders, according to Mrs. Foster, an Anglo trustee who represents a predominantly black section of southwest Dallas. “They said to me they were disturbed at that because they felt Dallas wasn’t ready for a black superintendent,” she says.
That left Wright to contend with Cortines and Adams. But again, the trustees weren’t talking about it. Publicity paranoia had taken a strong hold. From midpoint in the interviewing stage, when Wright had come to Dallas, until their final meeting, the trustees experienced pressure and embarrassment. District Attorney Henry Wade told the press that if the board really did ask the kinds of questions that were reported, well, yes, it looked like they’d broken the law. Headlines announced the possible jail terms or fines trustees could get. Law suits were threatened against the school board.
The trustees became fixated on the fact that whatever they did behind closed doors would wind up in print. Stanglin openly wondered whether someone was taping the meetings or whether the rooms were bugged. “It seems ludicrous, but the quotes were verbatim!” he said. The question for many board members became, “Who can I trust?”
What started as a casual agreement among board members not to discuss the candidates until all interviews were completed took on a new dimension: To avoid bad press and breaking their own confidences with the candidates, the trustees wouldn’t discuss them at all. They continually talked about narrowing the field of candidates, but never got around to it. On the basis of mathematical possibilities alone, it is good that Cody and Wentz dropped out. That only left four to vote on in a final meeting.
“I can honestly say that there was no talk among board members about who would be selected,” says Stanglin. “We were scared to.”
“I didn’t talk outside the meetings, I guess I was getting paranoid – I still don’t know where the leaks were,” says Mrs. Haskins. “The whole thing was weird.”
For Mrs. Ehrhardt, the suspicion and broken confidences brought such pressure to bear that she perceived a menacing scheme: “I began to get paranoid. I saw a conspiracy. I was very tired and tense and I worked hard. I interpreted some scheme. On the religion thing. I couldn’t understand why [there would be disclosures to the press], and I didn’t know who. I don’t know why we got into the row on religion. I still don’t know. Was it a chance for Dallas’ conservatives to bring to a head their demand for a religious leader?
“But, maybe it was just circumstance. It was a very bad time for me personally. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t appear in the paper.”
Mrs. Foster also wouldn’t talk, even though she says she knows who spilled the board’s secrets. “I knew it was Robert Medrano, but how do you deal with it? He does not feel responsibility towards his city in these areas enough to keep his mouth shut.” How is she sure? “I just heard from everybody else . . . and I also had journalists slip it to me.”
And Medrano says he took the heat for being suspected. “We were in one of the meetings,” he recalls, “and Bill Hunter said, ’I’m just afraid to talk; I’m no longer at ease, asking questions to these candidates, for fear that they’ll be in the press in the morning.’ Bill then looked at me and said, ’Whoever is leaking to the press is very cowardly.’ He said that the closed meeting was the only format to have the discussions in.”
Medrano did openly violate his commitment to secrecy, however, at the board’s last meeting when Wright was named. Medrano, in fact, was one of the prime reasons for the bathroom buddy system. He says he felt Linus Wright was coming to Dallas all along via the Haskew/Estes/Hunter connection; that the deck was stacked in Wright’s favor. “That’s why when Linus was picked, I blew it open. I wanted an educator first, and then someone to deal with the finances. But in Dallas, the money came first and we got the guy who can manipulate the dollar.” What Medrano “blew open” to reporters was a still-disputed version of the board’s voting that put Wright in Estes’ chair.
What he didn’t “blow open” to reporters was that, prior to the final meeting, he had enlisted the aid of his father, Pancho, to “do some digging” on Wright in Houston. It’s a perennial political ploy, as much a part of American democratic elections as the voting booth. You simply get some dirt on somebody. Pancho came up empty-handed.
Of course, other people wanted to know more about Wright and his competitors, and not for tactical purposes. In the community, there was an absence of general information about the nature of school board debate and also about the candidates. Press reports were fragmented; Mrs. Ehrhardt calls them “biased” in that they inflated bits and pieces into whole stories that did not exist. Jack Miller suggested to Times Herald publisher Lee Guittar that the newspaper send reporters to the home cities of the candidates to produce an in-depth series. It was done. The stories were very favorable to the candidates, including Wright.
Wright has always gotten good press. And now, nearly three months after choosing him, some board members believe the flaws of the selection process are cancelled out by the simple good fortune of having landed someone like Linus Wright for Estes’ job. Hunter is one, and he says the executive session paralysis “might not have been bad, as it turned out-maybe, rather than a detriment, it was a blessing.”
And Mrs. Ehrhardt says she is glad Wright became the product of a selection process she would not endure again, even though it was she who objected to Haskew on the grounds that he’d give Dallas “the same old thing.”
Linus Wright is not the same old thing. Nolan Estes is flamboyant and spins yarns on any subject; Wright is quiet, reserved, straight-talking. His bedside reading of late includes the biographies of Eisenhower and MacArthur. Wright has been called the man who does Billy Reagon’s work (Reagon is superintendent in Houston). Says a Houston reporter: “You’d go to Reagon and feel like a fool when the story came out; I’d always check with Linus.”
“I didn’t want a shaker or a mover,” says Mrs. Ehrhardt. “We don’t need to be shaken. Linus is not a shaker and a mover. I don’t think we need someone who’s a head taller than everybody else in the room. We’ve been there already.”
And few underestimate Wright’s ability to get a job done. It’s the man’s style that is different. He did well in marketing himself to the school board, for example, in waging a gentlemanly, low-key campaign to succeed a superintendent who relies heavily on showmanship. Above all, he is persistent.
Bill Hatfield, an officer at Republic Bank, says so. Hatfield roomed with Wright as a freshman at Austin College in Sherman, and says, “Linus was a pretty determined individual. He came to Austin College that way. Linus is a little small of stature, and as you might expect, would always try a little harder.
“He’s a very determined individual.”
Even though Kathlyn Gilliam was ready to give Linus Wright the benefit of the doubt, she couldn’t figure out how he finally got to be the city’s new school superintendent. “It was not a normal occurrence that Wright evolved to the top of the list,” she said. “There will forever be some questions on my mind on how that happened. It was not natural.”