West Asheville. Hank Williams, Jr., David Allen Coe and Waylon Jennings.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Watt Espy's Last Interview

This whole interview is very interesting. Just turn up the volume. A favorite part for me is when Professor Mike Radelet, who is mentioned prominently in the blog post below, goes to Uncle Watty's old family home (49:38 mark) and reminisces a bit.  Mike and Uncle Watty go way back.

For a little warm-up activity before watching the interview, see what you already know about Watt Espy, using the posted questions.  For the three highlighted ones, my intention, before the start of the New Year, is to come back and expound on these, sharing some personal insight I got from Uncle Watty during our numerous visits and phone conversations.  Our relationship "took off" in the mid-90s when I arrived back in Headland and worked at the bank.  I was very curious about his life and work, but I also was drawn to his knowledge of our family's history, of which he was the source, period.
  • Why did he not complete his university studies?
  • What moved him from simply being a 'crime buff' to researching records?
  • What kind of funding did he have in those early years?
  • What led the ALCU's Henry Schwarzchild to contact him, and what influence did he ultimately have on Watt's career?
  • At the University of Alabama, what disagreement led to Watt returning to Headland, and where did he then set up his death penalty project?
  • What horrific event in Watt's family peaked his curiosity as a child?
  • What became his main source for gathering death penalty information?
  • What was his view of the death penalty before starting his research?
  • How did Mike Radelet and Watt Espy cross paths?
  • What does Mike recall about visiting Watt in Headland?
  • What type items did Watt collect that also were of real interest to the notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy?
  • What vice did Watt have that afflicted him virtually all his adult life, and what helped him overcome it? 
I will let Uncle Watty answer the first part himself.  This was in his early days of e-mailing, when CompuServe was the thing.  My brother Mark and I were getting ready to go on a road trip to Little Rock to see Auburn play the Razerbacks.  And although it may seem this is sharing something too personal about Uncle Watty, think again.  Much to my admiration and the admiration of his friends and peers, Watt Espy talked openly about his struggles, and used his position and evolving status as a death penalty expert to go into prisons and give talks to inmates on this very subject - many convicts that were scheduled for release someday, and would get out and have to reassimilate into society.  I believe what Uncle Watty shared had to have helped them.

Just as there was a confluence of negative events, factors and circumstances that led to his addiction, there was an equal number of forces that eventually helped him overcome it.  The one he would talk about the most was AA.  Uncle Watty found an accepting home and place at AA, and his intensive involvement in it turned his life around.  He attended meetings all the time.  I know that his sister Marilyn - and siblings Mark and Mila - went to AA meetings when Watty spoke or received some recognition for reaching a big milestone in his recovery.  I went to one or two myself, just to be there for him.  And I do remember him speaking.

Where I come from, people seek all kinds of escapes from reality.  Overdosing on drinking, sports, religion and eating are common forms.  And although some vices are more socially acceptable due to the pervasiveness of them among the masses, I don't rank one of these any worse or better than the others.  They are all escapes.  What I respect is when someone, like Uncle Watty, recognizes the addiction, explores the reasons it exists, and then finds healthier ways of embracing life as it is.
  • What were his political leanings?
  • How does he describe his views on race during the 1960s?
If you watched the interview, Uncle Watty said, "I was a bigot back then."  To reach a point where you can be honest at that level is quite refreshing and humbling, first, to that person, and second, to those listening.  I commend anyone for being truthful and for examining their own life, even if it's at the end......because at least that record goes forward, and the next generation can take it, be influenced by it and perhaps muster up the courage to deal with today's big issues. 

Uncle Watty, like us all, was a product of his environment.  As an amateur historian and a lover of history, I personally realize that most of the beliefs and ideas we claim as truths or hold dear are primarily things we've been taught.  It's just the way it is.  Some of it's good, and needs to be retained.  Some of it's bad, and needs to be discarded.  Understanding how to make the distinction is the most challenging part.
  • What role did faith play in his life and in his views on the death penalty?
Watt Espy, like most in his community and family, was raised Baptist.  And, in that sense, technically, you can say, "He was of the Baptist faith."  However, during his adult years and most of his working life, he questioned his faith, lost it a few times, and simply adopted other views.  Perhaps you could even describe him as an agnostic, atheist or humanist during those years.  Now in the early 90s, when he was approaching sixty, and as he was working towards completing AA's 12 Steps, he did indeed have a religious conversion or experience where he accepted that there is a power outside of himself that could bring healing to his life and help him overcome his addiction.  It was then that he talked more frequently about "being a Christian" and started collecting Gospel albums - by the way, with the same obsessive fervor he would collect autographs, movies and compile his rich death penalty work.  Now, he didn't start going to church or reading the Bible or praying before meals - and hadn't since his childhood.  And, as I discovered from my time with him in the mid-90s up until when he died, he made it very clear that he was not an evangelical or fundamentalist, and had no interest in organized religion.  In fact, one time, during a family gathering he gave a relative of ours a little bit of "a lecture" on Calvinism and what qualms he had with it.  His faith in the afterlife, and reuniting with his parents one day in heaven, was very unique to him, and it was not dogmatic in any way. 

In the interviews and articles Uncle Watty talks a bit about how his Christian faith helped shape his opposition to the death penalty.  Ironically, devout Christians in his community - and the South as a whole - overwhelmingly support the death penalty.  This difference is one of the reasons people, including family members, didn't really embrace or quite understand Uncle Watty's work.  Now, on the flip-side, Uncle Watty remarked to me several times, "I can't understand how my abolitionist friends are not pro-life when it comes to abortion." 
  • What did honor Watt receive in Seattle, WA, and how did he feel about getting it?
  • What was his compensation for this interview?
  • What does he think of the future of the death penalty?


Anonymous said...

I haven't had the chance yet to check in and tell you what a great experience it was for me to get to meet Watt a few years ago, especially after hearing so much about him and the amazing collection of execution materials that he worked so hard to compile. We couldn't be more honored and pleased in having a good part of the execution records here in Albany in the National Death Penalty Archive. I hope that someday your travels might bring you to our neck of the woods; it would be a treat to show you the NDPA and to meet you. I've been communicating with Brian about his upcoming trip to Headland in July, and will be most interested to learn more about the materials he will be examining. Thanks for copying me on the e-mail correspondence. Very best wishes-- Jim Acker, UAlbany, June 2010

Anonymous said...

I first knew Watt in the mid 1970's. In my circle of contacts, Henry Schwarzschild "discovered" Watt and brought him to my attention in the mid 1970's. Henry was the death penalty program director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1970's and wrote the Forward to my 1984 book, Legal Homicide. My 1974 Executions in America was based in large measure on an inventory of executions since 1856 that I included as an appendix. When Henry learned of Watt's work he also found that Watt had detected corrections and additions to the inventory I used in Executions. For my 1984 Legal Homicide book Watt provided me with numerous additions and corrections to the original inventory. I made Watt's inventory of executions current as of December 1981 Appendix A to Legal Homicide. In the introduction to this appendix I credit Watt's work and thank him for this contribution. All of my contact with Watt was over the phone until sometime in the mid to late 1980's when he traveled to San Francisco or Seattle to receive an award for his outstanding work from the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (NCADP). Though I am not sure of the location or exact date, I do remember the thrill of meeting him and our conversation about his having abandoned alcohol. It occurs to me that you might try contacting the National headquarters of NCADP about their records of past meetings and award recipients. They might very well have a picture of Watt in a newsletter circulated after the meeting about the principals. - Bill Bowers

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful – absolutely invaluable. He knew better than anyone that many saw him as “eccentric,” but taught all who came to know him to overcome our biases and stereotypes and to treat him with the same dignity with which he taught others. And he retained that dignity until the day of his death. - Mike Radelet

Anonymous said...

Watt had such an influence on me, personally and professionally, that I'm surprised at how infrequently I actually spent time with him. Let's see - I saw him once when he was in Gainesville to visit Mike and we made a trip over to Jacksonville. I saw him at NCADP meetings
at least twice - Philadelphia and Seattle. He came to Tallahassee once when I was there. I accompanied Mike on one or two trips to Headland. And then there were the two trips to Headland relating to the donation of the materials. It really is hard to believe that that is all! Margaret V.