Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mourning the Passing of a Great Man

Dateline: 08/17/10

“Mourning the Passing of a Great Man”

The first time I read a newspaper column by James J. “Jack” Kilpatrick, I was locked up in a solitary confinement cell. It was 1992. It was the first time I’d been locked up “on the house,” as a result of my prison writings. It wouldn’t be the last.

Jack Kilpatrick’s column concerned the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, focusing on freedom of speech and the press, inviolate freedoms that separated us from our colonial oppressor, England, and made us strong. Since I felt I was being wrongly punished for exercising my First Amendment rights, as a result of publishing an award-winning essay in “The Insider,” a prison literary journal I edited, paid for and sponsored by the Department of Corrections, I was compelled to write Mr. Kilpatrick and tell him what had happened to me. I did not expect a reply.

A week or so later, after my lawyer, Gary Smigiel, made phone calls to Tallahassee, exposed the lie, and got me sprung from lockup without charges, lo and behold, at mail call I was handed a letter from the famous man.

I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was to the effect that in the annals of the First Amendment, what had happened to me was a new chapter in that book. He went on to say that few editors or writers in America are privileged to go to jail for their writings, that I was in a select group now, singled out by the government for oppression, that it takes a special person to provoke such actions. He had referred my letter to the “Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression” in Charlottesville, Virginia. I beamed with pride. So began an unlikely friendship that continued for the next eighteen years, through thick and thin, an exchange of letters and correspondence that ended this week with my dear friend Jack Kilpatrick’s death at eighty-nine. It is a week of sadness and mourning for me as I reflect on my relationship with this kind, generous man.

I remember Jack (“don’t call me James”) Kilpatrick from “60 Minutes,” 1975 or so, face-to-face with Shana Alexander, debating, later supplanted by Andy Rooney. They called him a “conservative columnist and wordsmith,” but he called himself the last of the Whigs, a throwback to an earlier time in our nation.

He wrote a weekly column about the English language, and another one covering the U.S. Supreme Court, to whom he coined the term, “The Supremes.” Every letter I sent him, he answered, and he became a mentor, coach, and encourager to me. He said he wouldn’t edit anything anymore, except for his family, but for years he patiently read and edited everything I sent him, adopting me under his strong wing.

I learned a lot from Jack Kilpatrick. He wrote me a letter once, stating, “I want to introduce you to something that is very useful.” He proceeded to type three lines of periods…………….., and so on, telling me that particular literary effort, comprising long paragraphs and long sentences, should be broken down into shorter sentences. He was right. He rewrote part of the offending paragraph with much shorter sentences with more punch, illustrating his point. I took his advice to heart, rewrote the piece, sent it back for his approval. The piece wound up winning a national writing award. I owed it to him, and told him so. His praise gave me the confidence I needed to progress.

Jack Kilpatrick had a fine legal mind, became interested in my case, and investigated it on his own. He felt so strongly about my innocence that he wrote a newspaper column specifically directed to then-Governor Lawton Chiles in 1998, urging him to grant me clemency before he left office. The column was placed on Governor Chiles’ desk, and he read it. He was convinced. Sadly for all of us, before the Governor took action, he dropped dead of a heart attack in the exercise room of the Governor’s Mansion, ending that opportunity for release. (Click here http://www.freecharlienow.com/files/entire_Kilpatrick_article.doc to go to the article.)

Undeterred, Jack wrote new Governor Jeb Bush, recounted his friendship with Jeb’s mom and dad, how he’d flown in “Air Force One” with the Bush family, and told him about my case. Didn’t do any good. Jeb Bush “was not inclined to grant clemencies,” as one of his aides said.

Even though his congestive heart failure worsened, and he struggled to care for his incapacitated wife, Jack never stopped trying to help me. We kept up our correspondence almost to the end, even as his vision failed and he could hardly see to type. Expecting the end did not make it any easier.

One of the worst things about serving—and surviving—decades of imprisonment is the aging and death of loved ones. The attrition rate rises as the long years mount up. With only a few exceptions, those family, loved ones, and friends who were with me when this nightmare began have fallen by the wayside, gone to their just rewards, given up the ghost. The prisons are filled with thousands of lonely old men who have lost virtually everyone who cared about them, and they are just waiting to die.

I have suffered the same losses, but have been fortunately blessed to have encountered and been befriended by new people over the years, kind, decent, souls who saw something in me that caused them to walk alongside me on this long journey, sometimes for short times, others for long years. Like Jack.

Jack Kilpatrick was a good man who loved his wife, children, and grandchildren, retaining enough goodness in his soul to share some of that love with me. He became an old friend to me. I’m sorry, Jack, that I haven’t been able to get out yet, despite our best efforts, to come see you, as I promised, to shake your hand and thank you in gratitude for all you did for me. I will pray that the Lord will bless you and keep you close as you go to a better place. I will never forget you.

Charles Patrick Norman


Vox Populi said...

oooohhh charlie, I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend and this good man. I had not realized until this moment that he had passed on. Am I really that busy? How sad. I'm so sorry. For us and for you. You know I think Lawton was murdered. One of those "heart attacks". My sister had one of those too. Funny the same people living in her house now are the same scumbags trying to steal this one. Heart attack, MY ASS.I've almost figured out for sure what happened.

Anonymous said...

I owe my present life to JJK; I hope he knew how much he did for me; thanks, Jack