Saturday, July 22, 2006
Bill Childs is on vacation this week. Filling in for him is author Andrea Peacock, telling the story of the W.R. Grace corporation’s tragic legacy in the small town of Libby, Montana. This is the final installment.
On September 11, 2006, five current and former executives from the W.R. Grace & Co. will face criminal charges for their actions in Libby (two others will have their trials next year). Among the counts in the indictment are charges of conspiracy, violations of the Clean Air Act, and obstruction of justice. (Portions of the conspiracy counts were originally dismissed by federal judge Donald Molloy for missing the statute of limitations, but have since been revised by the grand jury). These charges carry punishments of up to 15 years in prison, and in that, I venture, represent more justice than all the successful lawsuits in the world.
The big headline corporate criminal trials in recent years have been about money: stocks, pensions, retirement and health care funds. In Missoula, Montana, these men will be held accountable for stealing something much more valuable: years of people’s lives.
In honor of this occasion, I present to you today a more personal story; this one about an English teacher from Ohio.
Bruce Waite worked at Mansfield Senior High School his entire career. Though his degree was in history, he went to work in 1959 teaching English at this blue-collar school. During the course of 30 years, he taught adult education, practical reading, writing, history, poetry and speech. I took his classes in Great Books and Advanced Composition, where he taught classics to kids who, for the most part, weren’t expected to go to college. On his chalkboard every single day was this motto: “The road to mediocrity is heavily traveled, the path to excellence is seldom traversed.”
Waite started out in a classroom next to the boiler room in the school’s basement, and moved into the English annex after it was built in 1962. When Senior High was torn down in the summer of 2004, contractors surveyed and found the place was full of asbestos containing materials, including 644 square feet of asbestos floor tiles and “associated mastic” in Waite’s former classroom. These are not uncommon materials, and in Waite’s case, they were not safe materials either.
Bruce Waite died of mesothelioma on March 23, 2003 at age 66. Worker’s compensation reviewed his case, and found the disease sufficiently linked to exposure at the school to award benefits to his family. “He died the next day after my 63rd birthday,” his widow, Nancy, tells me. “I really think he held on for that because he was so sick. I remember the last thing he said to me. He looked at me and grinned and said, ‘Happy Birthday.’ He never spoke to me after that. He died the next night. Knowing him, he hung on just for my birthday.”
R.I.P., Mr. Waite.