A familiar literary conception holds that when an honest man challenges a dishonest system, it’s the man who gets destroyed. At one end of the literary scale, this is the message of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, in which the citizens of a resort town ostracize their local doctor rather than let him utter the truth that their health-giving water is poisonous. At the other end of the scale, it is the story of Jaws, in which a sheriff is silenced about the menace from the deep until a giant shark is gobbling everything in sight.
Parts of reality conform to this conception, but other parts do not. Wyman Westberry belongs to a part of the world that Henrik Ibsen barely could have imagined, for Westberry’s is the story of an honest man who won. Twelve years after he began to challenge a corrupt system, Westberry has prevailed and the system has been destroyed. On his road to success, Wyman Westberr y was persistent and courageous, which is one reason his story deserves to be told. But he was also shrewd and cunning. His story demonstrates strategies that, if Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann had understood them, might have given a different ending to that play.
I first met Wyman Westberry in the summer of 1970. I was straight out of college, a “Nader’s Raider” working on a project in Savannah, Georgia. Westberry was then, as he is now, a millwright at the Gilman Paper Company’s plant in St. Marys, Georgia. The project in Savannah was a study of the influence that one large company—a paper mill—had on the surrounding community. Westberry had read a newspaper story about the project and telephoned one night to say, in effect, if you’re interested in company towns, I’ve got something you’ll want to see.
He called near midnight, while I was sitting behind a broken desk in our project’s office in Savannah. That first time, and in all the hundred phone calls I have had from him since then, he called through the operator, person-to-person. He’d seen my name in the newspaper, Westberry said, and he wanted to ask for my help—really, Ralph Nader’s—in his city. Then he began to tell me his story.
I was no stranger to the South, but I had rarely come across an accent as rube-like as what I was hearing over the phone. I had never heard of St. Marys, much less of someone calling himself Wyman Westberry. An older, more jaded version of myself might have dismissed the guy as a probable nuisance. We were under the gun as it was, in a rush to complete our Savannah report, and the last thing I was seeking was additional complications. But I was 20 years old, and this was the early bloom of the Nader movement; it was just not in the spirit of things to turn down a possible informant because I thought he sounded funny. A few days after Westberry’s call, several members of the project, including me and my wife, took the three-hour drive down the Georgia coast to St. Marys. Ever afterwards we have been glad that we did.
St. Marys sits at the very southeastern corner of Georgia, separated by a river from Florida and by a few dozen miles from the Okefenokee Swamp. Offshore is Cumberland Island, southernmost of the chain that includes such dressed-up resort islands as Hilton Head and St. Simons. Cumberland was once stylish, too. In the nineteenth century, Carnegies and Rockefellers had decorated the island with their estates. By 1970 most of the estates were ruins, and wild horses, pigs,and deer ran untrammeled across the dunes.
The land around St. Marys, red Georgia clay, was covered with southern pines. Because this was paper mill country, the pines were often planted in rows, like corn, and were harvested after 20 years or so of growth to be taken to the mills. The road to St. Marys led directly through these managed woods, and as we drove we could watch the pines march by in straight rows. The only way into St. Marys, if you were coming by land, was an 11-mile drive down a two-lane road that led from the state highway to the city, where it came to an end.
The city itself was a settlement of small frame houses, some on paved roads and some on dirt, divided into a black and a white part of town. The air was even hotter and more humid, even more like a blast furnace, than it had been in Savannah. Along with the pine trees, there were elaborately twisted live-oak trees, with greyish-green Spanish moss dripping from their branches. St. Marys advertised itself as the second-oldest settlement in America, after St. Augustine; in the middle of town was a graceful antebellum mansion, suggesting links to the past, that had been converted to a public hall. A block away, where the main street made a dead-end at the waterfront, there was a diner with a jukebox, which constituted the principal night spot in town.
In the middle of it all, though “it all” makes it sound unduly extensive, sat the mill. The Gilman Paper Company had moved south from Vermont late in the Depression, in search of cheaper labor. The St. Marys mill, which began operation in 1941, had been expanded and modernized several times since then, and by 1970 it was a medium-sized mill, producing about 900 tons of paper a day. To Gilman, the St. Marys plant represented the company’s entire output of paper; to St. Marys, Gilman represented the only meal ticket in town. Four thousand men, women, and children lived in St. Marys. The mill’s payroll varied between 1,500 and 2,000. After you made allowances for housewives, children, and pensioners, you were left with the fact that almost everyone who worked in St. Marys worked for Gilman Paper. Those who didn’t depend on the mill directly often did indirectly, as merchants and tradesmen whose major accounts lay on the other side of the mill gate. There were only a handful of exceptions, such as the fishermen and shrimpers, the family that ran the restaurant, and the local employees of the post office or the Georgia Power Company. “Gilman Paper Company is the only major Georgia industry south of Brunswick and east of Waycross,” the mill’s manager said in a speech in 1967. “It can be safely stated that not less than 75 percent of the economy of Camden County is directly dependent on Gilman Paper Company.”
Physically, the symbol of the mill’s preeminence was its enormous smokestack, from which issued billows of steam, smoke, and the many gaseous by-products of paper production. All paper mill towns have an unmistakable, overripe, cooked-cabbage odor; the smell is nearly impossible to eliminate, since the methyl mercaptans that create it can be detected at concentrations of several parts per billion in the air. But in this as in many other things, St. Marys displayed conditions at their extremes. The smell here was far stronger than in other pulp towns; you could almost feel the acrid particles on your face. The oak trees that stood downwind of the factory had small leaves and were bare of Spanish moss. Close to the mill, some of the oaks were skeletons that had no leaves at all. A fine grit covered cars that were parked on the street; it ate at their rubber fittings and their chrome.
Psychologically, the mill’s presence was as inescapable as its odor. The Gilman Paper Company was life, and life was the mill, and woe be to him who complained about the arrangement. The company once circulated a newspaper expressing its creed:
“REMEMBER THIS—IF YOU WORK FOR A MAN,
in Heaven’s name, WORK for him. If he pays your wages which supply your bread and butter, work for him; speak well of him; stand by him and stand by the institution he represents… As long as you are part of the institution do not condemn it. If you do that, you are loosening the tendrils that are holding you to the institution, and at the first high wind that comes along, you will be uprooted and blown away, and probably—will never know the reason why.”
The Gilman headquarters were in Manhattan, where the Gilman brothers, Charles and Howard, presided over the company and led a cosmopolitan life as patrons of the arts. But since the late forties, the Gilman family had delegated nearly all authority for local operations to the resident manager in St. Marys, one George W. Brumley. Brumley had been a colonel in the army during World War II, and he retained command presence in St. Marys. There he was known by such names as “the big man” and “the king.” He had become a major landowner and was the largest single shareholder in the St. Marys State Bank. His greatest tactical advantage was that nearly everyone else in St. Marys stood in a position of dependence upon him. The result was a climate of suspicion and fear. Wyman Westberry drew all the shades in his house before he would talk with us— and this was a marvel of courage. Another man would talk with outside visitors only after he had turned out every light and waited for the visitors to creep into his dark and apparently vacant house. Most others would not consider talking at all.
As we later learned, the people of St. Marys had excellent reasons for their fear. Within four months of our first visit, Wyman Westberry would see his political ally, a local physician, framed on a trumped-up charge of rape. Within two years, one of his fellow Gilman employees allegedly would be hired to murder Westberry. And when that alleged plot was foiled, Westberry would lose his job and be driven from town on the basis of a pathetically fraudulent accusation.
All these things would happen because Wyman Westberry launched two waves of challenges against the established order in St. Marys. One was an appeal to outside allies, beginning with Ralph Nader; the other, an attempt to develop local political support. As those efforts grew more and more successful, the mill’s counterattack became more and more intense. It was aimed at Westberry’s supporters, and at his income, and even at his life. That Wyman Westberry was able to survive the counterattack, and finally saw his opponents driven from power, depended partly on his skillful tactics, but also on the traits of character he had formed before he came to the town.
Mess Hall Messiah
Wyman Westberry is a shortish man, quite powerfully built. At the time I met him in 1970, his dark hair was already receding, even though he was only 28 years old.
Westberry had grown up in Jesup, Georgia, the sixth child out of ten and the youngest son. His father was a dealer for Sinclair Oil who later went to work for the state department of agriculture. It was a tight but not impoverished setting, and one strong on basic right/wrong religious values. Westberry was always industrious. He took jobs and saved money from the time he was young. In high school, he says, he concentrated on girls and football. “I was normal then.”
After high school, Westberry moved from here to there, attending college briefly in Savannah, taking night courses at the City College of New York while working construction during the day. In 1964 he was drafted, and while in the army he demonstrated some of the literal-mindedness about questions of honesty that was to have such an impact on St. Marys.
Near the end of his service Westberry was assigned for a short tour to his engineering company’s headquarters at Fort Belvoir, outside Washington, D.C. There he found that his company had been substantially beefed up, in preparation for dispatch to Vietnam. But of the 100-plus men in the company, only ten or twelve were eating in the mess hall. “I asked the question, Why is this?” Westberry says. “Some of the guys said, just eat over there and you’ll find out why. So I did. They were serving hot dogs twice a day, for lunch and the evening meal, and for the morning it was what we called s-o-s. The good quality of meat and food was just not there.”
One evening a short time later, a soldier named Marshall came running into the barracks saying, “Wyman, Wyman, come here with me!” Marshall had been working K P. The officers in charge of the mess hall had told him to put the steaks and other top-grade food off to the side, and then they had dismissed him. He, Westberry, and another soldier (a one-time law student) went back to the mess hall, where they saw a lieutenant and two sergeants loading the food into the trunk of a car.
Several days later Westberry and the former law student went to the U.S. Capitol and found the office of Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who was then the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They were told by his assistant that they would have to file a formal complaintagainst the food services of the U.S. army, which they did.
“The first part of the next week I was singled out of formation,” Westberry says. “The captain told me that he did not appreciate any such complaint, and that I would be restricted to the company area until further notice.
“I told him, ‘You may keep me here a week, you may keep me here a month, or you may keep me here for the balance of my military service. But one day you are going to have to let me go, and at that time I am going to tell Senator Russell that I’ve been penalized for speaking out about wrongdoings.’ That was in the morning time. At lunch time, when I went through the mess hall, the mess sergeants said, there’s the goddam squealer, there’s the guy who complained about our food.
“That afternoon, I was singled out of formation again and told to report to battalion headquarters. I went down there and was waiting to see the major. I started to salute when I saw him, but he reached out to shake my hand. He said, ‘I want to thank you for being conscientious enough to bring to attention any wrong-doing you see. We would have liked for you to bring it to our attention first, but we know about it now and we’ll make the change.’ He gave me a three-day pass, and when I got back, I noticed that 75 percent of the company was eating in the mess hall. The major also required the officers to eat there so they’d see what kind of food we were having. All the mess cooks were gone, too—not a single one of the old ones was there.
“That was when I realized that you could buck the system, if you were right, and if you stuck to your guns.”
From some men, such sentiments would sound grandiose or sarcastic; but Wyman Westberry means them to reflect the literal experience of his life. Episodes such as this must have been crucial in confirming Wyman Westberry’s understanding of the world. Their plain lesson was that if you were forthright and persistent, and if you had sufficient cunning about where to look for help—not every draftee would have thought to speak to Senator Russell—and if you were right, you would eventually win. That lesson was soon put to the test in St. Marys.
The original object of Westberry’s complaint—the reason he called me in Savannah— was the Gilman mill’s pollution of the nearby waters of the St. Marys and North rivers. In the late 1960s, paper mills all over the country were beginning what was to be a long and very expensive process of reducing air and water pollution. Gilman was several steps behind the pack, The 18 million gallons of waste water the plant generated daily were discharged into the river with no treatment at all. Although the Gilman plant produced only one third as much paper as did the Union Camp mill in Savannah (which was the focus of the Nader project), the two plants released roughly the same amount of organic pollutants into the water.
The water pollution showed up as a dirty white foam that scudded along the river. At the water’s edge, the marsh grass had been burned from its normal deep green to a dead grey. The recreational life of St. Marys focuses on the water, and when people took their motorboats across to Fernandina Beach, Florida, they could see the foam being churned up by their wakes.
When he moved to St. Marys, Westberry took up waterskiing and started to notice the pollution. “At first I wondered why I was the only person doing any waterskiing,” he says. “When I came out of the water, I found out. I’d try to rub that foam and chemicals off my body.” It was after one such waterskiing session that Westberry made his call to Savannah.
At the same time Westberry was taking his first steps toward enlisting outside assistance, no doubt hoping that once Ralph Nader’s interest had been attracted by pollution he would pay attention to the larger problems in St. Marys, he was also attempting to alter the balance of local political power. The state elections held in 1970 provided an opportunity, and this opportunity Westberry was quick to exploit. Carl Drury was a 30-year-old physician who had grown up elsewhere in Camden County and moved to St. Marys in 1967. In 1970 he decided to run fora seat in the state legislature. As a doctor, he was one of the few people in the town who were not completely dependent on the mill; as the product of a well-established local family, he had an independent political base. The two men had quite different personalities— Westberry careful and deliberate, Drury ebullient and given to grand gestures—but at the time they had a shared political purpose. Dr. Drury’s campaign provided a vehicle for West berry’s challenge to the established order in St. Marys, and Westberry, with his bulldog tenacity, kept turning up information that Dr. Drury could use.
Dr. Drury’s opponent, the incumbent state legislator, was a man named Robert Harrison, whose personal history told a lot about the way St. Marys worked. Harrison was a lawyer, but it would be more accurate to say that he was the lawyer in St. Marys. In addition to serving in the legislature, he was the attorney for Gilman’s St. Marys mill. At the same time, he served as attorney for the cities of St. Marys, Folkston, and Kingsland; for the local school board and the hospital authority; and for Camden and Charlton Counties. In other words, he had it all wrapped up. If a dispute arose over the mill’s obligation for city or county taxes, Robert Harrison would speak for the mill—and for the city, and for the county. Because he also sat in the legislature, he could, for instance, promote legislation authorizing special tax agreements between a company and a town. His brother, Kenneth Harrison, published the major local paper.
In running against Robert Harrison, Carl Drury (with Wyman Westberry’s help) made the Gilman Paper Company’s influence, as personified by Robert Harrison, the issue in the campaign. He concentrated on the advantages the company enjoyed as a local taxpayer. Like so many companies that had moved their mills to the South during the Depression, Gilman had negotiated for favorable tax treatment from St. Marys. Under an agreement with the city signed in 1958, the mill was guaranteed that the valuation placed on its assets for property tax purposes would be permanently frozen at its 1958 level. (If the mill built new facilities, ten percent of their actual cost would be added to the valuation.) The same agreement provided that if the company bought any new land, the land would be totally exempt from city tax. Wyman Westberry later discovered that George Brumley had exploited this provision, by placing parcels of his own land in the company’s name, to shield them from taxation.
Because of these agreements in the early 1970s, the mill’s value was listed on the city tax digest as $3 million. On the Camden County digest—which had to be approved by the State of Georgia and was less directly under Gilman’s control—the value was $15.4 million. Wyman Westberry pointed out that despite its theoretically enormous tax base, the town had no sewer. Drury used other examples of the mill’s influence. A story published in the Atlanta Constitution (after the election) illustrated the incestuous arrangements that Westberry and Dr. Drury were attacking. Jeff Nesmith wrote:
“An eight-room elementary school adjacent to the huge Gilman Paper Co. paper mill here was recently declared surplus property by the Camden County School Board. “At the same meeting, the board sold the school. There were no public bids. The sale price was $45,000. The buyer was the Gilman Paper Co. Three of the five members of the school board work for Gilman Paper Co.
“This week presentments published by the county grand jury complained that schools in Camden County are overcrowded.
“Using $147,000 in state grants, the county plans to construct eight brand new elementary school classrooms. Four of the new classrooms will be added to a school less than two blocks from the eight-room facility sold to Gilman Paper Co.”
On September 9, 1970, the day of the primary election, Drury lost in St. Marys but had enough support elsewhere in the district, largely because of family ties, to take the Democratic nomination away from Harrison. In normal cases that would mean that the seat was his.
But this case was far from normal. Wyman Westberry and Carl Drury had successfully challenged one of the mill’s long-assumed prerogatives, its political control; it was all but inevitable that there would be a counterattack. In the middle of October, just ten days before the general election in which his victory would be ratified, Dr. Drury learned what form the counterattack would take. He was approached by the company doctor for the Gilman plant, who presented Dr. Drury with a choice: he could leave town and withdraw from the election, or he could face an ugly scandal. Dr. Drury was told that Henry Bloodworth, another Gilman employee, was prepared to accuse him of rape. But Bloodworth would be willing to forget his charges if Dr. Drury disappeared. Carl Drury refused the offer. Henry Bloodworth thereupon presented an affadavit from his 16-year-old daughter, Suzanne, saying that Dr. Drury had tried to rape her when she was in the hospital recovering from a tonsillectomy.
For a moment, it looked as if the counterattack might succeed. Dr. Drury’s medical license was immediately suspended. A grand jury was convened to look into the charges. Nonetheless, he managed to survive the general election, and in February 1971, as he took office as a legislator, the grand jury issued a report that cleared him of the charges. The report pointed out that Suzanne Bloodworth’s friend, a supposed eyewitness to the attack, had been taken to Robert Harrison’s office by Mr. Bloodworth and asked to sign an affadavit she had never read. The Camden County juvenile judge said that “a majority of the people in this county think this was a framed-up political deal.”
In the 18 months that followed Dr. Drury’s election, the challenges that Wyman Westberry had orchestrated became dramatically more direct and effective. From his seat in the legislature Carl Drury was able to ask for investigation of Gilman’s affairs, from taxes to pollution control. The director of the state water-quality agency, a gruff figure named Rock Howard, ordered Gilman to speed up its anti-pollution efforts. Georgia’s attorney general ruled that the tax agreement between Gilman and St. Marys was unconstitutional. Then the legislature passed a law requiring that cities use the county tax valuations, which were approved by the state, in determining city taxes. This meant that Gilman’s annual taxes in St. Marys would rise from about $45,000 to $227,000. A federal grand jury was convened to look into various irregularities in Camden County politics.
While these political challenges were proceeding, Westberry continued to attract outside attention to St. Marys. Stories about the situation, with titles like “The Mill that Runs a County,” kept appearing in the Atlanta and Jacksonville papers. In the summer of 1971, Ralph Nader released a report called The Water Lords, of which I was the principal author, that made an unflattering comparison between Gilman’s position in St. Marys and the way other companies behaved in other mill towns. In May 1972 Harrison Wellford and Peter Schuck, two of Ralph Nader’s associates who had overseen the Water Lords project, published an article in Harper’s about St. Marys called “Democracy and the Good Life in a Company Town.” It concluded by saying, “The question, of course, is not whether Gilman has brought a measure of affluence to St. Marys, but why its citizens, unlike most other Americans, should be compelled to purchase this affluence at the cost of cherished political freedoms. Why, in short, does the mill not confine its activities to making paper?”
That same spring, Mike Wallace and his film crews from CBS’s “60 Minutes” descended on St. Marys, tipped off to the story by Wellford and Schuck. Their report concentrated on taxes and Carl Drury’s campaign. One of its highlights was an interview with George Brumley, who wore dark glasses throughout, spoke to Mike Wallace as he was accustomed to speaking to his employees, and generally confirmed by his bearing everything the reporters were trying to say about his attempts to dominate the town. Newsweek also carried a column describing the situation in St. Marys. With these doses of national publicity the stakes went up. The news of St. Marys even reached Manhattan, where the Gilman brothers, known for their refinement, found their family name identified with a squalid company town.
It was at this point that those who had enjoyed dominion in St. Marys for so many years apparently decided that something must be done. They could see regulators attacking, tax assessments soaring, reporters crawling over their backs. They may have realized that, for all the election-time publicity about Drury, Westberry had been at the center of it all. Westberry had launched his multiple attack upon the company, and the company would respond. The rape charge had not stopped Drury, so in this case stronger measures would be tried. According to evidence that convinced a federal jury to find three men guilty, that meant killing Westberry. The story went this way:
In the spring of 1972, when activity in the legislature was at its peak, Tommy Thomas spoke to Lawrence Brown at the Gilman plant. Brown was a towering black man who weighed 260 pounds; Thomas was a supervisor at the plant. Thomas said he would pay Brown $1,500 if Brown would kill Wyman Westberry.
Brown replied that he was worried. He didn’t want to end up on a chain gang, or worse. Thomas told him to stop worrying; no jury in St. Marys, no jury made up of Gilman employees, would ever find him guilty. Brown said that wasn’t good enough. He never could rest easy until he got reassurances from the top. He’d have to hear it from the “big man.” As it turned out, there were other things on Lawrence Brown’s mind that he didn’t share with Tommy Thomas.
According to his later testimony, Brown never intended to go through with the deal at all. He was interested in only the money; once he got it, he’d skip town. But before doing so, he approached George Beaver, who worked in the same “lab” as Brown did at Gilman Paper. Beaver was a friend of Wyman Westberry, and Brown told him that he should let Westberry know that certain people wished him ill.
Beaver immediately told Westberry, who confronted Brown himself, and then drove with Brown across the state line to Florida. Once there, he called the FBI from a pay phone to tell them that he had a federal case to report, and a man standing alongside him who’d been hired to kill him. The FBI and its state counterpart, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, swooped into St. Marys. They suited Brown up with body bugs to record his later conversations with Tommy Thomas. They started tapping phones.
Meanwhile, Brown continued his dealing with Tommy Thomas. A few days after the original proposal he was told to show up in the parking lot of a high school in a neighboring town. There he saw George Brumley, plus Tommy Thomas and Robert Harrison. He asked for reassurance that he’d be protected if things went wrong. He got a nod of assent from the big man, George Brumley himself.
On the strength of the evidence that had been gathered, a federal grand jury was convened to take testimony about the murder plot in May 1972. But at this point Lawrence Brown pulled his. second switch. When his turn came to testify, Brown said that it had all been a mistake. There had never been a plot to kill Wyman Westberry. The only plotting had been done by Westberry and Drury, who had offered him $10,000 to tell ugly lies about Brumley, Harrison, and Thomas. Then, after the grand jury had finished with him, Brown returned to his original story. There had been a plot, he said, and the only reason he denied it before the grand jury was that the same men who hired him to do the killing threatened to kill him if he talked.
Federal and state investigators wrestled with the case through the summer but took no definite action. But in late summer, Jeff Nesmith of the Atlanta Constitution ferreted out news about the investigation. On September 19, 1972, the Constitution ran a story about Lawrence Brown and Wyman Westberry at the top of page one. The headline, which ran across all five columns, said, “Offered $1500 to Kill—Now He’s Missing.” The “he” referred to Brown, who could no longer be found.
To those who had been bedeviled by Wyman Westberry, this must have seemed the final straw. They had tried to shut him up by apparently hiring a killer—and then when Brown turned out to be a rat and the plans fell apart, Wyman Westberry remained very much alive. Surely they could at least do something to drive him away. Would it be so much to find grounds on which to fire him?
The effort to fire Westberry became, after the rape charge against Carl Drury and the alleged murder plot, the third wave of the company’s counterattack. On September 26, 1972, seven days after the story in the Atlanta Constitution, Westberry discovered what the company’s tactics would be.
“Dear Mr. Westberry:
“This is to advise you that effective immediately, you are terminated from your employment with the Gilman Paper Company. The reason for your discharge is that evidence has come to our attention that on or about March 21, 1970, you poured a substantial amount of toxic or acid-type liquid on a black construction employee who was then using what, until that date, had been a sanitary facility utilized exclusively by white employees. The black employee suffered first and second degree burns.
“The evidence of your culpability in this matter has just been brought to our attention.
“As you know, your general conduct has been a matter of grave concern to us, not the least of which is the controversy concerning Lawrence Brown. I understand that this and other matters are presently being investigated by appropriate government agencies, and I am confident that your involvement in these other matters ultimately will be resolved by the government agencies. I mention this to make it clear that you are being terminated only for the offense noted in paragraph one above and that we have not taken any other matter into consideration in our decision.”
This was slightly too clever an approach. It was clever in attempting to besmirch Westberry in the one way surest to scare off his outside allies—the accusation that he was a violent racist. Someone in the Gilman plant was a violent racist, for two and a half years earlier someone had poured “white liquor” on a black man named Amos Rawls as he sat on a toilet, leaving Rawls with serious burns on his head and groin. But it was too much to tie Westberry to the incident. Over the previous two and a half years no one had identified him as a likely suspect. The government investigators had taken evidence and had given up; the company had closed the books. But then, the day after the Atlanta Constitution made the St. Marys murder plot front page news, new evidence came to light.
On that day, September 20, three letters were written, all of them accusing Westberry of the crime. One, sent to George Brumley, was from the mayor of St. Marys, the improbably named Richard Daley. Daley was a good-looking, ambitious young man, the labor movement’s equivalent of a Jaycee. In addition’ to his civic duties, he was president of the electricians union, traditionally the most docile of the three unions that operated at the plant. Daley said in his letter that another member of his union, L.N. McGhin Jr., had just come up with evidence that Wyman Westberry was the man who had burned Amos Rawls. The second letter, also to Brumley, came from a second union president, Jerry Ridenour of the Pulp and Sulfite Paper Mill Workers. Ridenour had also heard from McGhin. In his letter Ridenour enclosed letter number three, a statement from McGhin himself, saying that he’d heard certain black workers voice suspicions about Westberry.
The charges were obviously concocted, but for the moment that didn’t matter: Westberry was out of a job. Men had been laid off as grumblers before, and they had never returned. Ineffective as it might have been in its other counterattacks, this time the company scored.
Full Court Press
Wyman Westberry was pressed to the wall, virtually exiled in his own city. The large-scale injustices he had complained about were now visited directly on him. At this point he was driven to a third scheme of attack. He had worked first with outside allies and second with local politicians; now he turned to the courts. There he began a protracted legal struggle for survival, and revenge, that stretched over the next four years.
The first step was to try to get his job back. Westberry made the gesture of appealing through Gilman’s in-house complaint system. Once that appeal had been denied, he appealed to authorities outside St. Marys. Westberry’s union, Local 1128 of the International Association of Machinists, traditionally had been the most independent of the unions that operated at the mill. At a union meeting where Westberry explained his case, the union voted to take his case before a federal arbitrator. Westberry hired his own lawyer, a 30- year-old labor specialist named Fletcher Farrington, to represent him at the hearing—and also to file a $2,225,000 damage suit in federal court against the hierarchy of St. Marys. The suit was directed against the Gilman company and the three familiar figures, George Brumley, Robert Harrison, and Tommy Thomas. It asked damages on grounds that they had “conspired among themselves to deprive plaintiff of his life.”
The “white liquor” arbitration didn’t begin until May 1973, eight months after Westberry had lost his job. The company presented its witnesses,.who claimed one after another that they’d always known Wyman Westberry was the culprit. It was only coincidence, they said, that all the letters incriminating Westberry were written on the same day, two and a half years after the original event. Fletcher Farrington tore into every witness, challenging them for indications that they’d ever tried to communicate their suspicions or that the company had ever questioned them about Westberry before the story of the alleged murder plot broke in the Atlanta Constitution.
Three months later, in August, the federal arbitrator came down resoundingly on Westberry’s side. There was not one bit of evidence, he said, that the company had ever considered Westberry the culprit before the fateful day, September 20. It was clear to the arbitrator that Wyman Westberry had been “unjustly dismissed.” In compensation, the company was ordered not only to give him his job back but also to restore his benefits and seniority and to make up for all his lost pay.
The spirit in which the company received this decision may be suggested by its response. Two months passed. The first anniversary of Westberry’s dismissal came and went, and still Gilman made no move to put Westberry back on the job. On October 1, 1973, Farrington went to the U.S. District Court in Savannah and asked that Gilman be ordered to comply with the arbitrator’s order within 24 hours. That afternoon, Westberry’s phone started ringing; would it be convenient for him to begin work the next day? Westberry said that it would, and on October 2 he walked back onto the job.
That left the question of back pay. When Westberry was rehired, a lawyer called Farrington to report the company’s offer: $3,000 for a year’s lost pay. On hearing this, Westberry sent Farrington straight back to court to ask for an order compelling a more reasonable offer. The judge concurred once again, and once again the company was forced to bow. Eventually Westberry received some $15,000 in back pay.
To those who had followed the case, at close range in St. Marys or from a distance, as I did in Washington, this outcome was simply astonishing. Someone had challenged the gods—and won. When he was fired, his enemies might have considered it good riddance to a traitor; his friends saw him as a heroic martyr, but a martyr all the same. Now he had come back from his martyrdom, demonstrating that it was possible to fight back and survive.
“It was a good feeling, to come back here,” West berry said. “A lot of people had felt there’s no way under the sun you can beat those people, with all the power they’ve got. It felt good to show them that as long as you’re right, there’s some justice in the world. What amazes me about people in general, when something happens to them and you talk to them about getting a lawyer and going to court, they say, ‘Oh, it’s just not worth it.’ Well, I wanted to show them that was wrong.”
Yet this was not the end of Westberry’s legal assault. His suit charging Brumley et al. with conspiracy to kill him had been thrown out by the district court judge in Savannah, on grounds that federal courts did not have jurisdiction in such a case. On January 22, 1975, a little more than a year after Westberry returned to his job, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision; let the conspiracy suit proceed, it said. One week later, the impact of this ruling was registered in a notice posted inside the Gilman plant:
“It is with deep regret that the Board of Directors announces that George W. Brumley has decided to take early retirement, effective February 1, 1975.”
Robert Harrison also resigned as counsel for Gilman Paper. When the conspiracy case went to court, he and Brumley would not be appearing as official representatives of the company.
As it happened, their day in court never came. The company’s attorneys—who by now were dealing direct from Manhattan, no longer leaving the Westberry negotiations to the local talent— offered to settle the case. Westberry accepted, fora sum that has never been publicly disclosed. But even though the trial was aborted, it had done what mattered: the man most responsible for the set-up in St. Marys, George Brumley, and the man in position to help him most, Robert Harrison, had been driven from their positions. Whatever else happened in St. Marys, they would never again have the tools with which to dominate the town.
Yet if Brumley and Harrison thought that they finally had tasted the worst of Wyman Westberry’s medicine, they soon discovered that they were wrong. In October 1975, eight months after George Brumley’s resignation, Brumley and Robert Harrison were indicted by a federal grand jury. Along with Tommy Thomas, they were ordered to stand trial on federal charges that arose from the alleged conspiracy to murder Wyman Westberry.
The reason for this development was that Wyman Westberry’s influence, direct and indirect, had reached even into the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice department had looked into allegations about the murder plot once before, in 1972, and had decided to do nothing, mainly because the star witness, Brown, kept changing his story every week. But Westberry kept sending documents to attorneys general John Mitchell and Edward Levi, assistant attorney general Henry Peterson, and J. Stanley Pottinger, head of the civil rights division of the Justice department. He made repeated late-night phone calls to (among others) Harrison Wellford, coauthor of the Harper’s article, who on leaving Nader had become an aide to Senator Philip Hart.
Westberry’s badgering could be a nuisance—as those interested in his case have learned over the years. (His lawyer Fletcher Farrington even called him “pestiferous.”) But his persistence—which could seem so exasperating to those of us not on the scene—was also one of the secrets of his success. During a chance encounter in Washington early in 1975, Wellford buttonholed Stanley Pottinger and asked whatever became of the St. Marys case. Pottinger sent a “tickler” down through the channels of his organization, asking the same question. At the other end of the tickler was Steven Horn, a 28-year-old attorney who eventually put the pieces of the case together in convincing enough fashion to win an indictment from a grand jury.
At the trial, the defense lawyers did everything possible to discredit Lawrence Brown’s credibility as a witness. “He could tell 45 lies to 45 people and keep them straight,” Westberry’s friend George Beaver said privately of Brown—and he was on Brown’s side. Steven Horn, managing the prosecution, replied that if the case rested on Brown’s word, he’d ask for a verdict of not guilty. The clinching evidence seemed to be the recording made by Lawrence Brown’s “body bug.” It captured a meeting between Brown and Tommy Thomas, in which Brown said, “I’m ready, I’m ready for him” and Thomas replied that he had to “cool it” because the FBI was in town. The defense did not attempt to rebut the tape recording, or even mention it, through the rest of the trial.
The case was sent to the jury on the morning of January 21, 1976. That same afternoon, the jurors filed back into the courtroom to announce their verdict: all defendants guilty on all counts.
In St. Marys, the effect was comparable to the impeachment of a president, the dethroning of a king. “There was a sense of shock,” said a man who had recently moved there to work for one of the utility companies. “And then almost dancing in the street when the idea sunk in that he [Brumley] was going to jail.”
Once again, there was a legal anticlimax. Brumley, Harrison, and Thomas appealed their convictions, and the start of their year-and-a-day prison sentences was postponed until the appeal was decided. In October 1977, three judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the conviction and directed that all three defendants be acquitted. Their ruling was based mainly on reinspection of the evidence; after reading through the trial transcript, they found Lawrence Brown’s testimony too weak to support conviction.
By the time this news reached St. Marys, though, it no longer really mattered. George Brumley was not going to jail, but neither was he coming back to St. Marys. His days as the big man were finished, and in the town he had once dominated some fundamental changes were beginning.
Brumley returned to his retirement home in Sea Island, Georgia, a resort up the coast from St. Marys. His place at the mill was taken by William Davis, long his assistant, who practiced a more conventional version of company-civic relations. Robert Harrison quietly resumed his law practice but kept his distance from local politics. Lawrence Brown became a deputy sheriff(!) in another Georgia town.
In 1976, when Richard Daley ran for reelection as mayor, he won by fewer than 100 votes. In 1978, he lost to Alvin Dickey, a rawboned, salt-of-theearth character who, as a shrimper, had always been independent of the mill and aggrieved about its water pollution. A new city council came in with him, of which Westberry’s buddy Russell Tyre was a member. The council voided the previous tax agreements the city had made with Gilman, including a contract drawn up under Mayor Daley’s auspices in 1975 after the state had ruled the previous tax agreements unconstitutional. The council started out asking Gilman for $900,000 in back tax payments; it finally agreed to accept $300,000: Under constant pressure from the state, the company has greatly reduced its air and water pollution.
“There’s a far more relaxed atmosphere in the town, and at work,” Tyre said while he was on the council. “If people have gripes, they’re not afraid to stand up and gripe. In the last two years, we’ve circulated a petition to do something about pollution. Two hundred people signed it, including some salaried supervisors. Ten years ago, you could have held a gun on a salaried supervisor and not get him to sign.”
There was one other change in St. Marys, which guaranteed that all the other changes could never be reversed. Through the early 1970s, the U.S. navy laid plans for its fleet of enormous Trident submarines, each one of which would carry 24 nuclear missiles. The navy planned to base some of the Tridents on the West Coast, in Puget Sound; in December 1976, it announced that Tridents also would be based at King’s Bay, Georgia, just outside St. Marys. New facilities would be built. Subcontractors would locate their offices nearby. By the early 1980s, the project would bring some 5,000 new people to town. Eventually as many as 30,000 might come to Camden County.
The boom that the navy brought to St. Marys gave the town what it most desperately needed: the economic diversity that gives human beings a choice. Instead of bullying people into compliance, the mill has to compete for their loyalty against other bidders. That simple fact has changed everything else about the town.
“There’s competition in the labor market now,” Carroll Myers, who spent his working life with Gilman until he retired with a disability, said in 1980. “Now you can go work for the navy if all you need’s a job. Before, they could tell you, if you don’t like it, leave. They let Brumley run things, and there was so much power I think he got obsessed with it. They can’t do that any more.”
A Theory of Justice
As Wyman Westberry drives from his house to the plant each day, he can pass the house where Henry Bloodworth has lived ever since his daughter accused Carl Drury of rape. Driving by, Westberry sees the new woodwork and siding that was installed at the Bloodworth house shortly after Suzanne Bloodworth swore out her affidavit. If he turns the opposite way at the end of his street, perhaps to head toward Antoinette’s restaurant for breakfast, he can tell whether Robert Harrison is in his office by checking for the brown Cadillac parked outside.
One evening in 1980 as Westberry was preparing to put his boat into the river, I noticed a grimace cross his face. He nodded toward a man standing a few feet away and told me to take a look at him. “That’s Buddy McGhin,” he said as the man passed out of earshot—the man who testified nearly a decade earlier that he saw Westberry throw “white liquor” onto Amos Rawls. When we reached Westberry’s home, he pulled a document from a pile next to the couch. The paper was a Gilman Paper Company announcement, dated February 24, 1977, announcing that Buddy Mc Ghin had been promoted to “permanent salaried employee as a supervisor.” “That would have come maybe 20 years down the road, without the white liquor,” Westberry said. “I pity him for being so weak. But I also feel that if he’d been man enough to stand up to these people, a lot of this would never have happened.”
Westberry has made his peace with some of his former antagonists. In 1972, when Jerry Ridenour was president of the Pulp and Paper Workers Union, he wrote one of the letters to George Brumley accusing Westberry of throwing white liquor. “I fell into the error of believing idle gossip,” Ridenour told me eight years later. “I was told something about Wyman, and I checked it out and thought it was authentic. Later on I found out that it was all a lie.” Westberry’s reputation within his own union is such that in the fall of 1981, without opposition, he was elected president of Local 1128 of the International Association of Machinists.
Others in town seem unsure how to regard him. His position is somewhat comparable to that of a man who has beaten cancer. Everyone is impressed, but some are uneasy. “You can’t take anything away from Wyman,” one of his friends told me. “But the difference between Wyman and me is that I’ve got a family.”
This Westberry concedes. “I thank God it was me they picked on in the labor movement. I had accumulated some money. I was in a position to fight back.”
True, Wyman Westberry was in a better position to be brave than most people in St. Marys. He had no wife and children, whose welfare might deter him from sticking out his neck. He didn’t have to worry how he’d feed the children if he lost his job, or what his wife would do if he were killed. He had built up a savings account and was not saddled with debt. He could withstand one full year with no pay without being driven into submission.
But something more than being in the right position was involved in Wyman Westberry’s victory. No matter how well situated he might have been, he would not now be living evidence that one man can change a system unless he had been unusually skillful in interweaving three strategies of reform.
The first was his understanding that, when the local balance of power was stacked in favor of the other side, he had to look for help from powerful outsiders. In the army, this meant appealing to Senator Richard Russell. In St. Marys, it meant enlisting Ralph Nader, the Atlanta Constitution, CBS News, and others whose base of support lay outside the influence of the Gilman Paper Company. These people could speak to a wider audience than Westberry himself could ever reach, and a fraction of the power they enjoyed nationally might be imported into St. Marys, where it could help offset the forces that were dominant inside the town.
Westberry constantly coupled that approach with his second effort, which was to do everything possible to affect the local balance of power. Many “reformers” with the burning zeal of a Westberry lack the personality, the family history, and the other ingredients that give a politician his appeal. Recognizing that they themselves stand no chance of being elected, they tend to give up on electoral politics as a means of reform. Westberry understood that the trick is to find someone who does have the politician’s gifts and then use him as a vehicle for your cause. Carl’ Drury and Wyman Westberry barely knew each other before Drury’s campaign. But Westberry saw that Drury had the right ingredients—family connections, a professional income independent of Gilman—and that the campaign was an opportunity that could not be missed. He knew the same thing about Alvin Dickey, the shrimper who became mayor of St. Marys. The twist is that in the end Westberry’s own political standing had risen so dramatically he was elected president of his union.
Finally, Wyman Westberry understood that ultimately he might have to turn to the courts. No one in St. Marys was going to tell the officials to give him back his job, or admit the white liquor case was a frame-up, or say that powerful men simply could not get away with plotting to kill an employee. Those messages could come only from outside the city, and they could be enforced only through the power of the state. That was why Westberry appealed to the federal arbitrator and the federal court. Less scrupulous “reformers” have clogged the court schedules, and the wheels of industry, by filing nuisance suits and crying discrimination whenever someone makes an unpopular decision. The difference with Wyman Westberry is that he did not take the step toward litigation until he had endured injustice of the most extreme sort, in the form of an apparent murder plot against him and the denial of his livelihood. However cumbersome or misguided the legal system at other times may be, at this point there was majesty in the law.
Wyman Westberry draws from his struggles in St. Marys the same moral he took from the army mess hall episode: if you struggle long enough, and you are right, justice will eventually be done. Other men’s experience with life has left them with darker conclusions, but Wyman Westberry’s cannot be dismissed, for he has laid out all the steps, and he has proven that they can work.