Sunday, March 23, 2014

"I don't like bank robbers who kill moms in banks"


    The God of Daily Newspapering must have wanted me to feel crummy about what I do last week. First I uncovered a story where an 11-year-old student who won a big science prize might not have done anything extraordinary after all. Not wanting to rush to slur a kid, I set that aside to think about it, and promptly this pail of slime fell into my lap. I thought of just ignoring it.  I hate the dredge-up-the-ugly-past-of-some-schleb-trying-to-get-through-the-day story. It had already in the papers, down in Champaign, nobody had picked it up, and it isn't as if this guy were Eichmann. Plus I wasn't a big fan of the Javert who was dropping a dime on this guy—he had the gimlet-eyed intensity of a fanatic, and reminded me of the people who say I shouldn't be allowed to hold my job either. But I took the long stroll to the city editor's desk, ran it all by him, and he said we should go for it, which is the right call, in that this is something people don't know about that touches on important issues. 

     The phone rings. David Thomas, formerly of Orland Park, now of Honolulu. Do I know that the University of Illinois is employing a 1960s radical and terrorist as a teacher?
     What, another one? I wonder. No, Bill Ayers was at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This one is at Urbana-Champaign. Different schools entirely.
     James Kilgore is at the University of Illinois Center for African Studies. Forty years ago he was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that, most famously, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst but also was involved in a series of crimes — the assassination of a school superintendent, several bank robberies, including one, that    Kilgore participated in, where a housewife, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed.
     “I don’t like bank robbers who kill moms in banks,” Thomas said. “I was a student at Champaign. I love the University of Illinois. I think it’s one of the top universities in the world, and it’s shocking that anybody would hire somebody like this. He has no place at a world-class university.”
     Kilgore’s presence is no secret. A News-Gazette column by Jim Dey last month detailed Kilgore’s history, sparking several indignant letters and tipping off Thomas. Go to the Illinois website and there, under the Center for African Studies, with its kente cloth header, is “James William Kilgore,” author of “We-Are-All-Zimbabweans Now,” in African Arguments and “After Marikana: A Luta Continua,” in Dissent.
     His African expertise came after Kilgore fled the country to evade arrest in 1975. For a quarter century he was Charles William Pape, a University of Cape Town professor, writing a textbook and three novels.
     Kilgore was arrested in South Africa in 2002 after 27 years on the run, extradited to California, where he served six and half years in High Desert State Prison for Opsahl’s murder during the bank robbery.
     Kilgore is 66 years old now. He declined a request to talk about this.
     After his release, he went to Urbana-Champaign because his wife, Teresa Barnes, is on the history faculty there. He started as an affiliate researcher — a volunteer. He was hired five years ago, as an adjunct instructor, and works part time on an hourly basis.
     “He’s a partner hire,” Thomas said. “They’ll hire someone’s spouse to keep everyone happy.”
     “That’s not correct,” said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs. “If you are a spousal hire, there’s a fund where it would come from.”
     The school stands behind Kilgore.
     “He does a great job,” Kaler said. “He’s very well-respected among students. He served his time in prison. He is very remorseful. He didn’t do the shooting. He is a good example of someone who has been rehabilitated, if you believe in second chances and redemption, he’s someone who helps prove that’s the human thing to do. A child of the victim said he has served his time and should be allowed to go on with his life.”
     That would be Jon Opsahl, who told the Associated Press in 2009 that Kilgore is an idealist who “got in with the wrong crowd” and, “I wish him well and I’m glad he served his time.”
     This is the part where I show my hand. We have no death penalty in Illinois; most everyone who goes into prison comes out; and while we demand they turn their lives around, we seem to also resent the ones who do. I asked Thomas, did he feel that Kilgore shouldn’t be allowed to work anywhere?
     “He can do a lot of things,” Thomas said. “He can be a janitor. He can join a volunteer organization that repents against murdering. . . . I agree he served his time, the court has spoken and I respect that. However, we don’t have to hire him at a state university.”
     Thomas and I spoke for over half an hour. He made perfect sense, but there was a moral outrage that struck me as punitive and seemed based more on speculation.
     “This is out of control,” he said. “This bank-robbing murderer is now teaching. I’m worried about 2034, this out-of-control maniac with a license to teach affecting [life in] 2034.”
     Were that true, it would be an issue whether Kilgore were a felon or not. But there is no evidence that anyone complained about his teaching. To me, digging up past misdeeds, no matter how grave, and using them to denounce strangers is vindictive.    
     “I don’t want someone who once owned a pipe bomb and was convicted of it in a federal courtroom teaching 18-year-olds from Schaumburg and Arlington Heights,” Thomas said. “That’s wrong.”
     Wouldn’t that all depend on what he’s teaching? Life is a long time, and people change.


5 comments:

  1. He was and remains a freedom fighter. Right on!

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  2. Adult Richard (fka Baby Richard)March 23, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    A single rabble rouser who white flighted even from Orland to Hawaii and he dictates state university policy? Get the F out of here

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    1. In general, complainers have undue influence. I thought of ignoring him, but then I'd be letting my own bias squash a good story. More importantly, "fka Baby Richard"?!?! Really??? I've LOVE to talk to YOU one of these days...

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  3. A somewhat similar story from last year alarmed many also. Millikin University professor James St. James killed his parents and sister when he was a teenager. He was declared insane and served his time and was released and went on to be a productive person. He has been employed for 27 years at the university.

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