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January 13, 1998


Xmas Eve Media Massacre of Whiddon

When the Christian story is taken seriously, Christmas is a time when peace on earth and good will to all persons prevails, but those for whom power is all and everything, the Christmas season is just another occasion for being charitable to themselves. Apparently peace and good will mean little or nothing to the Herods who run the Mobile Register. In an editorial on Dec. 7 and again in two long stories on Dec. 21 and Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, Howard Bronson, President, Publisher, and CEO of Mobile Register, exceedingly wroth up and wrought upon (the question is by whom?), sicced his Pit Bulls on Fred Whiddon, founder and President of USA.

Before Bronson arrived in Mobile, there was very little negative press against Dr. Whiddon, not because he was above criticism -- everyone knows that Dr. Whiddon has been very slow at mastering the art of walking on water -- but because, despite his many peccadilloes, people respect him for his on-going creativity, which over the years has continued summing to a monumental contribution to the educational and economic welfare of southern part of the state of Alabama. As Robert Shipp pointed out in a letter to the editor of the Mobile Register, Dr. Whiddon, "even in the last 15 years has crafted the increased worth of the USA Foundation from near zero to three times that of Auburn and three times that of Florida State." But that's to look only at the bottom line. Dr. Whiddon's real contribution is inestimable and he deserves a lot better treatment than he's currently receiving from the braying attack dogs at the Mobile Register.

In the December 7 editorial, Dr. Whiddon's contributions are summarily dismissed by the editorialist as things that are dead and gone: "Although he was [emphasis added] a powerful force for progress as the university's founding president, he no longer serves its best interest." Later, in the editorial, in an effort to appear fair-minded, the editorialist avers "Fred Whiddon indisputably made USA what it is today," namely a "huge economic force in the region." And what does this mealy-mouth editorialist offer to substantiate his assertion that the Board of Trustees of USA should remove Dr. Whiddon as President of USA? He claims that "Dr. Whiddon has become breathtakingly manipulative in micromanaging his staff," offering as somewhat less than stunning proof the fact that he hired a new basketball coach without consulting his Athletic Director. Big Deal! Why should a university-President not take a leading role in selecting coaches to insure a successful athletic program, especially when a controversial head coach suddenly vacates his position right before the season begins?

Over the years Dr. Whiddon has been pressured mercilessly to go big time with athletics, but his top priority has always been to build the academic side of the university first, so to his great credit he has resisted that pressure even when several members of the Board of Trustees have advocated repeatedly that USA's athletic program should offer football. James P. Nix, Mayor of Fairhope and the former chair of the Board, back in 1994 told a reporter for Mobile's daily that he felt "college football is something that would benefit USA as well as the community" And he was for it. He and fellow board member, Ken Kvalheim, were for it because, as Kvalheim put it, it would make a big difference in student spirit, and especially because, as Nix put it, "just think what five or six home football games would do for the economy here" (Mobile Register, 8/18/94).

John Cameron's Dec. 21, 1997 column in Mobile's daily is indicative of the unremitting pressure put on Dr. Whiddon by the Mobile Register and the commercial interests in Mobile; Cameron said: "Without question the administration at USA has disappointed Jag alumni, students and fans many times over when it comes to commitment to athletics," meaning that Dr. Whiddon has disappointed them by failing to produce a brand-name athletic program at USA. And when in 1996 Dr. Whiddon finally saw a clear path to give these folks what they have been clamoring for, namely an on-campus arena, enthusiasm from several quarters bordered on ecstasy. District Judge Herman Thomas, a USA alumnus and university trustee said, "I'm really excited about this. It's been needed a long time." Judge Thomas initially voted against the arena when Dr. Whiddon presented it to the Board of Trustees as a barebones project, but changed his mind when later the project was reconceptualized; he said: "They were only talking about building the shell at that time. Now I think I'm more excited about it than anybody at the university, including Fred Whiddon" (Mobile Register, 4/21/96).

Next on the Gung-ho scale was Mayer Mitchell, who said, in reference to corporate donations for the basketball court floor and scoreboard, "I think we'll have them standing in line to bid on it" (Ibid.). Also, Mitchell, in another article by Ronni Patriquin Clark, burbled enthusiastically about the money making potential of plush seats and "sky boxes" in the priority sections. He said, according to Clark, "it will cost up to $1,000 a year extra for an upholstered 'priority' seat and the right to buy the tickets to the games, and $10,000 a year to lease one of the facility's planned 16 to 23 sky boxes." Mitchell added, "Sky boxes and priority seating have become big business for the nation's top college athletic programs" (4/21/96). Mitchell was also very loquacious about the corporate presence in these sky boxes: "I go to all the University of Alabama football games and sit in a box," Mitchell said. "And there's a lot more that goes on in these boxes that will benefit the University of Alabama than somebody just buying tickets to go to the game" (Ibid.). On cost, "Thomas said he doesn't doubt that Whiddon can erect the arena for not much more than his goal. 'We're going to get a class facility for about half what other people have paid'" (Ibid.) This statement is very prescient on Judge Thomas's part since USA will, even with the doubling of the original cost, still be getting a facility at half of what others have paid for similar facilities.

At this date in 1996, Dr. Whiddon told trustees and others that his estimated construction cost of $8.5 million did not include the cost of completing the 70,000 square feet of bonus space under the stands for classrooms and offices. Also, the $8.5 million did not allow for plush seats and sky boxes dearly desired by trustee Mayer Mitchell. The matter of the "sky boxes" was settled at a meeting of the USA Foundation on April 25, 1996, when Mitchell, along with other members of the Board, voted unanimously that a loan of $1.5 million would be granted to the University for the purpose of adding the "sky boxes" (Minutes).

And yet now that Dr. Whiddon has taken the sports hook and is going ahead to build a first-class arena at the university, these same people -- who strike me as more than just a tad hypocritical -- are on his case about spending too much money without, they claim, their obligatory consent as trustees of the University. However, not only was Dr. Whiddon quite frank from the start about costs, he was also given, in two resolutions at meetings of the Board of Trustees (February 27, 1997 and May 29, 1997), what appears to be blanket permission to spend for necessary work and equipment without going to the Board of Trustees for approval. The resolutions in the minutes read: "BE IT RESOLVED that the President or his designee are duly authorized to enter into any agreement on behalf of the University of South Alabama to accept and award such bids and carry out the work relating to such bid aspects of the University Center" (Minutes of the Board of Trustees). Trustee James Nix made the motion for the May 29 resolution and trustee Kvalheim seconded it.

Moreover, In a Mobile Register article published on April 21, 1996 by Ronni Patriquin Clark, Clark states that "University of South Alabama officials don't really know how much the University Center will cost." In that article Clark lists a plethora of costs not figured into the original estimate. Moreover, several trustees admit they knew it would take a good deal more money than Dr. Whiddon originally asked for. They knew then that a specialist in arena construction said "most new arenas cost $100 per square foot, plus $1,500 to $2,000 per seat.". Those figures would push the total cost to around $22 million, more than twice what Dr. Whiddon originally estimated.

In keeping with his legendary reputation "for getting," as Victoria Rivizzigno put it, "a great deal of bang for the bucks he spends" (Mobile Register 4/21/96)), Dr. Whiddon has not only conceived a facility that has more than just one use but also has planned to make the arena pay for additional costs. So the question that begs an answer is: Why did some of the trustees buy into the attack mounted in the Mobile Register's editorial dated December 7, 1997? It's also very apparent from comments quoted above that Mayer Mitchell believes the whole concept of an arena on campus is a winner and a money-maker. The money-wise Mitchell said: "I think that this [the arena] is going to be a great vehicle to promote this university to corporate Mobile. We need to expose corporate Mobile to this university. I think the secret has been too well kept" (Ibid.). The "arena" is really a multi-purpose facility which will provide a huge amount of badly needed office and classroom space (60,000 square feet) and auditorium/arena space (79,800 square feet) -- all at a ridiculously low cost when the cost of building separate classroom facilities is taken into consideration, and the arena itself will be second in size to only the 15,043-seat Coleman Coliseum at the University of Alabama.

The second charge against Dr. Whiddon in December-7 editorial is that Dr. Whiddon "routinely stifles administrators who thwart his wishes," and the evidence offered is the alleged "behind-the-scenes intrigue accompanying the governor's appointment of five board members." Now I ask you just what is our editorialist referring to? Was he/she "behind-the-scenes" and thus privy to what went on or is he/she simply repeating what someone else wants him/her to say? That is very likely the case given what emerges next when our editorialist claims that Dr. Whiddon "actively and shamelessly lobbied the governor to get rid of Chairman Pro Tem Mayer Mitchell of Mobile; Fairhope Mayor James Nix . . . and the board's vice chairman, Jack Brunson of Elba." Though I don't claim to know what transpired with regard to appointments to the Board of Trustees, the editorialist is certain that Whiddon did what the editorialist says he did. This is the crux of the matter. Claiming to know about Dr. Whiddon's "behind-the-scenes" "machination," the editorialist scripts a fanciful scenario which makes the Mobile Register appear as the defender of honest dealings and demonizes Dr. Whiddon, making him into a scheming Machiavel who did the dastardly deed of seeking to remove honorable, high-minded men, especially the noble Mayer Mitchell, from the lofty Board of Trustees.

Who are they kidding? Several of the players in this script are far from being innocent babes. What we're witnessing is a game of power-jockey with several jockeys jockeying for more power. The job of our editorialist is not just to make Dr. Whiddon out to be an "iron-fisted" oppressor of weaker men but to make his boss, Bronson, out to be a knight in shining armor, valiantly protecting the saintly Mayer Mitchell from the evil warlock Whiddon. What is pretty clear from Clark's December-5 article in the Mobile Register is that Mayer Mitchell somehow got his feelings hurt because after the Board meeting, according to Clark, "Whiddon and Mitchell had a tense confrontation," and "Whiddon was overheard saying to Mitchell: "'I didn't attack your character or your family.'" This is open to two interpretations: it could mean Mitchell attacked Whiddon's character and family or it could mean that Mitchell believes Whiddon attacked Mitchell's character an family. The editorial staff of The Harbinger, prefers the latter interpretation; we speculate that Mitchell's feelings might be hurt because he assumes Dr. Whiddon had something to do with putting the stories about the MBI (Mitchell Brothers, Inc.) fiasco on The Harbinger website, thus making those stories available to the entire planet covered by the internet. Dr. Whiddon has absolutely no say about what The Harbinger publishes. Anyone who knows Harbinger editor Edmund Tsang knows that no one dictates to him. In any event, with his nose out of joint, it's quite possible that Mayer Mitchell decided to strike at Whiddon through his mouthpiece Howard Bronson. It's Mitchell who's calling some of the shots from behind the proverbial scenes. Farfetched? Not at all. Mitchell has made himself scarce; Ronni Patriquin Clark could not contact him for her Christmas Eve article to get his views on increased spending for the University Center. Perhaps, he doesn't want to have to contradict himself, and perhaps he doesn't want to be quizzed about the charges that Dr. Whiddon "shamelessly" tried to unseat him from the Board of Trustees.

Something else Mayer Mitchell doesn't want known is that he played a leading role in bringing Bronson to Mobile. One of the witnesses in the housing-discrimination lawsuit that cost MBI $1.8 million, including a fine by the U.S. Justice Department, told The Harbinger that she showed an MBI property, Maison de Ville Imperial, to Bronson when he first arrived in Mobile. Is it possible, is it just possible that Bronson has all the acceptable characteristics -- mainly a media mouth with a breathtakingly manipulative tongue -- required for a long-term lease in the Mitchell Brothers' establishment.

If respect for Dr. Whiddon is lapsing, it's because power-obsessed people like Howard Bronson have decided that licking the hands of those who feed them takes precedence over the truth and over whatever remnants of conscience they may have. Just as it was decided that Dr. Doug Magann, the former school superintendent, had to go, so now Dr. Whiddon must go to placate the ire of Bronson's masters. Obviously certain members of the Board of Trustees are itching to seize every opportunity to take full control of the university in order to get their hands on all that USA-Foundation money Dr. Whiddon has amassed. We leave you to decide about the wisdom of such a take- over considering some of the parties involved.

Moreover, Bronson takes great pride in fancying himself a power broker even though at the same time he fancies himself as "breaking the backs of the power-brokers." But Bronson's attempts at power-brokering have been rather inept and would be laughable if he weren't attempting to wreck careers and exercise considerable control over the opinions of a large segment of the electorate. Bronson has finally succeeded in driving Mobile County School Superintendent, Paul Sousa, into retirement, something he has relentlessly sought to do since Sousa took over the job when Magann's contract was bought out six years ago. As he left office, Sousa had some bitter words for Bronson: "'I suggest they start the search (for a new superintendent) with Howard Bronson, he's been trying to run it [the county school system] for six years. I suggest he apply for the position and run the sucker.'" (Mobile Register, 1/10/98)

Bronson's first attempt at slaying the great dragon Whiddon was when the Mobile Register, in a blizzard of aggrieved rhetoric, published an editorial accusing Dr. Whiddon of using a student's problems with the USA Board of Student Communication, as an "obvious retaliation" against the Press Register "which dared to write the truth about President Fred Whiddon's management." In the absurd scenario of that editorial Dr. Whiddon "has besmirched the good name of the university and tainted by association many fine faculty and staff members who surely want no part in this Machiavellian ploy." As I said then, I say again, "If there's any taint, it's the putrefied aroma of a vendetta tainting the air worse than the rotten-egg odor of sulphur fumes from the paper factories."

But let me not conclude without a few good words for Mayer Mitchell and his brother Abraham. We have them to thank for a very important new kid on the block. I'm speaking of Nancy Bunin who heads the Mobile Fair Housing Center, located in Suite 824 at 951 Government St.

As the Mobile Register correctly observed, "the center can credit its existence to $250,000 of a $1.8 million out-of-court settlement of a race discrimination lawsuit filed against the philanthropic Mitchell Brothers, Inc. in 1996." (1/5/1998) Should anyone wish to examine the details of that lawsuit, The Harbinger articles covering it can be found on the Harbinger website:

Since it seems very clear to us that there is no bona fide reason to remove Dr. Whiddon as President of USA, we wonder about the motives of the several players seeking to unseat Dr. Whiddon. While we may not entirely understand those motives, The Harbinger, nonetheless believes that avarice is the root of all evil and that these power hungry people would dearly love to get their hands on the $300 million USA-Foundation money. Well, as the great 17th-century English poet John Milton said in Paradise Lost: "evil back recoils on itself." And that's exactly what happened in the MBI fiasco.

-- Tom Brennan

Life Forms by Dan Silver

Read more comics in the Life Forms Archive!

Letters to the Editor

Dear Sir/Madam:

If The Harbinger had taken the time to contact me or others associated with the Dumas Wesley Community Center, perhaps Tom Brennan would not have commented that the Family Village project was being proposed "for reasons that are not yet clear." He says we are trading on our philanthropic image. I say we are relying on our humanitarian image. You see, we are in our 94th year. Our mission is to serve the low income area known as Crichton. We have 150 children in our day care; we feed senior citizens; we provide emergency assistance; we have educational and recreational programs. We do much more.

Hyland Avenue is relatively affluent compared to the rest of Crichton. Of course, the residents have a right to question our project and to make sure its concerns are addressed. And we are addressing those concerns.

But it serves no useful purpose to characterize the single women and their children, who will reside in the Family Village, as "self-absorbed socially dysfunctional people." It is patently offensive and degrading. It is 1990's -- speak for what other like-minded people used to call "lazy and shiftless." The semantics may have changed, but the bigotry against poor people is still there. It implies that if these people would have their act together, why, they would not be in this mess. The reality is that sometimes people are found in circumstances beyond their control. Very few of us do not need a helping hand at some point.

Where did Mr. Brennan get the quote attributed to Carlton Caruthers, who has been the director of Dumas Wesley for 27 years? He never said it. He would not have said it. The facts are there are extremely few reported acts of vandalism and crime associated with persons using the Dumas Wesley premises. As to the sex acts, isn't it strange that these were not reported? What if they were incidents of rape? What kind of good citizenry is that?

In any event, the back of Dumas Wesley, which abuts Hyland Avenue, will be restricted to access. This will greatly reduce the potential for persons to use the premises after-hours to encroach upon the Hyland Avenue area.

As to the Franklin Memorial Primary Health Service, it should be noted that Franklin serves patients on a sliding scale. It is one of the very few clinics that low income residents can turn to for medical care. The residents of Crichton deserve access to medical care. Mr. Brennan portends a horrific scenario of the clinic turning into a topless bar. I daresay there is a better chance of that happening at the bar already on the corner of Hyland Avenue and Old Shell Road.

Mr. Brennan erred once more when he cited that I sent a letter "that went to only a few local residents." I sent a letter to everyone who owned property within a 300 foot radius of the proposed zoning change. There is widespread community support. Hyland Avenue is not a barometer by which to gauge this.

This project encompasses the cooperation of the city and numerous private agencies. It is a wonderful recognition of the humanity of the Mobile community. It will serve the needs of less fortunate vulnerable women and their children and help them acquire self-sufficient skills to become sufficient citizens.

Yours truly,
Gilbert B. Laden
Dumas Wesley Community Center

Changed Lives, Changed Neighborhoods- Changed Communities

Dear Editor,

In a recent Harbinger editorial, Tom Brennan denounced the proposed rezoning of the Mobile St/Hyland Avenue area for a "Family Village" complex, saying "all threats to the communities that embody our sacred values and traditions must be vigorously and uncompromisingly repelled." What values and traditions are we upholding in this situation?

At the heart of every successful community is a commitment of its citizens to help each other. Brennan commented that "the health of the entire City of Mobile depends vitally on the health of its neighborhoods." A more effective argument might read, "...depends vitally on the cooperation of its neighborhoods to help those in need."

Newly presented with the opportunity to model this life-giving principle is the Hyland Avenue/Mobile Street neighborhood -- the Crichton community. Unfortunately, there have been many misconceptions and concerns about the project which may hinder its effectiveness.

One misconception is the belief that the Dumas Wesley Community Center, a local United Way agency, is "foisting an invasive project on the surrounding neighborhood." The Center was approached by the Sybil H. Smith Charitable Trust to house the proposed facility because it was the most qualified location and match for those services in the city. With the approval of its volunteer Board of Directors, Dumas Wesley agreed to house the project and make all property renovations consistent with the terms of the agreement, including the installation of a privacy fence as required by city ordinance.

The Family Village would consist of apartment housing and a full range of social and support services within the complex, including a medical facility run by Frankin Memorial, a non-profit organization which serves low-income families. Past needs assessments show Crichton as a medically-underserved neighborhood in Mobile. A clinic for this area has been a Franklin objective for several years, and this venture provides an opportunity to meet that need. Members of the family village and the other 12,000 residents of the Crichton community will have ready access to all available services, thus enhancing the quality of life for the entire area.

In addition, research done in the winter of 1997 discovered that many clients at both The Salvation Army Women and Children's Shelter and Penelope House were "repeat" customers, forced to re-enter these programs to survive the crisis of the moment with no promise of permanent stability. Some are concerned that the village will amount to no more than another transient shelter for these victims; residents won't have a valid stake in the community or any concern for its well-being. However, the goal of the proposed program is not to meet the need of the moment, but to transition these women from shelters to self-sufficiency in a neighborhood setting over a period of three months to two years. A careful screening and evaluation process will insure that residents are committed to this goal and are not just "self-absorbed socially dysfunctional people."

The list of benefits to Mobile is endless -- increased shelter capacity, newly self-sufficient families, increased economic development and growth in the Crichton area, changed lives -- and changed community. But first we've got to be willing to make in the initial investment and be committed to its success. Dumas Wesley should be commended for its continued commitment over the last 16 years to improve the quality of life for residents in the Crichton area. Now it's our turn to join them.

Mark S. Johnson
Executive Director
United Way of Southwest
Alabama, Inc.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL