One Determined Man: How Wyman Westberry Beat the Gilman Paper Company and Brought Big Changes to St. Marys, Georgia
This story, in somewhat different form, first appeared in The Washington Monthly, May, 1982. Used by the permission of the author and publisher.
I first met Wyman Westberry in the summer of 1970. I was straight out of college, a “Nader’s Raider” working on a project in Savannah, Georgia. Westberry was then, as he is now, a millwright at the Gilman Paper Company’s plant in St. Marys, Georgia. The project in Savannah was a study of the influence that one large company — a paper mill — had on the surrounding community. Westberry had read a newspaper story about the project and telephoned one night to say, in effect, if you’re interested in company towns, I’ve got something you’ll want to see.
He called near midnight, while I was sitting behind a broken desk in our project’s office in Savannah. That first time, and in all the hundred phone calls I have had from him since then, he called through the operator person-to-person. He’d seen my name in the newspaper, Westberry said, and he wanted to ask for my help — really, Ralph Nader’s — in his city. Then he began to tell me his story.
An older, more jaded version of myself might have dismissed the caller as a probable nuisance. We were under the gun as it was, in a rush to complete our Savannah report, and the last thing I was seeking was additional complications. But I was 20 years old, and this was the early bloom of the Nader movement. A few days after Westberry’s call, several members of the project, including me and my wife, took the three-hour drive down the Georgia coast to St. Marys. Ever afterwards, we have been glad that we did.
St. Marys sits at the very southeastern corner of Georgia, separated by a river from Florida and by a few dozen miles from the Okefenokee Swamp. Offshore is Cumberland Island, once the preserve of Rockefellers and Carnegies.
By 1970 most of the estates were ruins, and wild horses, pigs and deer ran untrammeled across the dunes. The land around St. Marys was covered with Southern pines, often planted in rows, like corn, and harvested after 20 years or so of growth to be taken to the nearby paper mills. The city itself was a settlement of small frame houses, some on paved roads and some on dirt, divided into a black and a white part of town. Along with the pine trees, there were elaborately twisted live-oak trees, with grayish-green Spanish moss dripping from their branches.
St. Marys advertised itself as the second-oldest settlement in America, after St. Augustine; in the middle of town a graceful antebellum mansion, suggesting links to the past, had been converted to a public hall. A block away, where the main street made a dead-end at the waterfront, there was a diner with a jukebox, which constituted the principal night spot in town.
The St. Marys mills, which began operation in 1941, had expanded and modernized several times since the Gilman Paper Company had moved south in search of cheaper labor. By 1970 it was a medium-sized mill, producing about 900 tons of paper a day. To Gilman, the St. Marys plant represented the company’s entire output of paper; to St. Marys, Gilman represented the only meal ticket in town. Four thousand men, women and children lived in St. Marys. The mill’s payroll varied between 1,500 and 2,000. Those who didn’t depend on the mill directly often did indirectly, as merchants and tradespeople whose major accounts lay on the other side of the mill gate. “It can be safely stated that not less than 75 percent of the economy of Camden County is directly dependent on Gilman Paper Company,” the mill’s manager said in a speech in 1967.
Physically, the symbol of the mill’s pre-eminence was its enormous smokestack, from which issued billows of steam, smoke and the many gaseous by-products of paper production. All paper mill towns have an unmistakable rotten-egg odor; the smell is nearly impossible to eliminate, since the methyl mercaptans that create it can be detected at concentrations of several parts per billion in the air. But in this, as in many other things, St. Marys displayed conditions at their extremes. The smell here was far stronger than in other pulp towns; you could almost feel the acrid particles on your face. The oak trees that stood downwind of the factory had small leaves and were bare of Spanish moss. Close to the mill, some of the oaks were skeletons with no leaves at all. A fine grit covered cars that were parked on the street; it ate at their rubber fittings and their chrome.
Psychologically, the mill’s presence was as inescapable as its odor. The company once circulated a newspaper expressing its creed: “REMEMBER THIS - IF YOU WORK FOR A MAN, in Heaven’s name, WORK for him. If he pays your wages which supply your bread and butter, work for him; speak well of him; stand by him and stand by the institution he represents.”
The Gilman headquarters were in Manhattan, where the Gilman brothers — Charles and Howard — presided over the company and led a cosmopolitan life as patrons of the arts. But since the late ’40s, the Gilman family had delegated nearly all authority for local operations to the resident manager in St. Marys, one George W. Brumley. Brumley had been a colonel in the army during World War II, and he retained command presence in St. Marys. There he was known by such names as “the big man” and “the king.” He had become a major landowner and was the largest single shareholder in the St. Marys State Bank. His greatest tactical advantage was that nearly everyone else in St. Marys stood in a position of dependence upon him. The result was a climate of suspicion and fear. Wyman Westberry drew all the shades in his house before he would talk with us — and this was a marvel of courage.
Wyman Westberry is a shortish man, quite powerfully built. At the time I met him in 1970, his dark hair was already receding, even though he was only 28 years old. Westberry had grown up in Jesup, Georgia, the sixth child out of 10 and the youngest son. His father was a dealer for Sinclair Oil who later went to work for the state department of agriculture. It was a tight but not impoverished setting, and one strong on basic right/wrong religious values. Westberry was always industrious. He took jobs and saved money from the time he was young. In high school, he says, he concentrated on girls and football. “I was normal then.”
After high school, Westberry moved from here to there, attending college briefly in Savannah, taking night courses at the City College of New York while working construction during the day. In 1964 he was drafted, and while in the army he demonstrated some of the literal-mindedness about questions of honesty that was later to have such an impact on St. Marys.
Near the end of his service, Westberry was assigned a short tour to his engineering company’s headquarters at Fort Belvoir, outside Washington, DC. There he found that his company had been substantially beefed up, in preparation for dispatch to Vietnam. But of the 100-plus men in the company, only 10 or 12 were eating in the mess hall. “I asked the question, ‘Why is this?”’ Westberry says. “Some of the guys said, ‘Just eat over there and you’ll find out why.’ So I did. They were serving hot dogs twice a day, for lunch and at the evening meal, and for the morning it was what we called S-O-S [same old shit]. The good quality of meat and food was just not there.”
One evening a short time later, a soldier named Marshall came running into the barracks saying, “Wyman, Wyman, come here with me!” Marshall had been working KP. The officers in charge of the mess hall had told him to put the steaks and other top-grade food off to the side, and then they had dismissed him. He, Westberry and another soldier (a one-time law student) went back to the mess hall, where they saw a lieutenant and two sergeants loading the food into the trunk of a car.
Several days later Westberry and the former law student went to the U.S. Capitol and found the office of Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who was then chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They were told by his assistant that they would have to file a formal complaint against the food services of the U.S. army, which they did.
“The first part of the next week I was singled out of formation,” Westberry says. “The captain told me that he did not appreciate any such complaint, and that I would be restricted to the company area until further notice.
“I told him, ‘You may keep me here a week, you may keep me here a month, or you may keep me here for the balance of my military service. But one day you are going to have to let me go, and at that time I am going to tell Senator Russell that I’ve been penalized for speaking out about wrongdoings.’ That was in the morning time. At lunch time, when I went through the mess hall, the mess sergeants said, there’s the goddam squealer, there’s the guy who complained about our food.
“That afternoon, I was singled out of formation and told to report to battalion headquarters. I went down there and was waiting to see the major. I started to salute when I saw him, but he reached out to shake my hand. He said, ‘I want to thank you for being conscientious enough to bring to attention any wrongdoing you see. We would have liked for you to bring it to our attention first, but we know about it now and we’ll make the change.’ He gave me a three-day pass, and when I got back, I noticed that 75 percent of the company was eating in the mess hall. The major also required the officers to eat there so they’d see what kind of food we were having. All the mess cooks were gone, too — not a single one of the old ones was there.
“That was when I realized that you could buck the system, if you were right, and if you stuck to your guns.”
That lesson was put to the test in St. Marys.
The original object of Westberry’s complaint — the reason he called me in Savannah in 1970 — was the Gilman mill’s pollution of the nearby waters of the St. Marys and North rivers. In the late 1960s, paper mills all over the country were beginning what was to be a long and very expensive process of reducing air and water pollution. Gilman was several steps behind the pack. The 18 million gallons of waste water the plant generated daily were discharged into the river with no treatment at all. Although the Gilman plant produced only one third as much paper as did the Union Camp mill in Savannah (which was the focus of the Nader project), the two plants released roughly the same amount of organic pollutants into the water.
The water pollution showed up as a dirty white foam that scudded along the river. At the water’s edge, the marsh grass had been burned from its normal deep green to a dead gray. The recreational life of St. Marys focuses on the water, and when people took their motorboats across to Fernandina Beach, Florida, they could see the foam being churned up by their wakes.
When he moved to St. Marys, Westberry took up waterskiing and started to notice the pollution. “At first I wondered why I was the only person doing any waterskiing,” he says. “When I came out of the water, I found out. I’d try to rub that foam and chemicals off my body.” It was after one such waterskiing session that Westberry made his call to Savannah.
At the same time that Westberry was taking his first steps towards outside assistance, he was also attempting to alter the balance of local political power. The state elections held in 1970 provided an opportunity, one Westberry was quick to exploit. Carl Drury was a 30-year-old physician who had grown up elsewhere in Camden County and moved to St. Marys in 1967. In 1970 he decided to run for a seat in the state legislature. As a doctor, he was one of the few people in the town not completely dependent on the mill; as the product of a well-established local family, he had an independent political, base.
The two men had quite different personalities — Westberry careful and deliberate, Drury ebullient and given to grand gestures — but at the time they had a shared political purpose. Dr. Drury’s campaign provided a vehicle for Westberry’s challenge to the established order in St. Marys, and Westberry, with his bulldog tenacity, kept turning up information ^ that Dr. Drury could use.
Dr. Drury’s opponent, the incumbent state legislator, was Robert Harrison, whose personal history told a lot about the way St. Marys worked. Harrison was a lawyer, but it would be more accurate to say that he was the lawyer in St. Marys. In addition to serving in the legislature, he was the attorney for Gilman’s St. Marys mill, attorney for the cities of St. Marys, Folkston and Kingsland, for the local school board and the hospital authority, and for Camden and Charlton Counties. In other words, he had it all wrapped up. If a dispute arose over the mill’s obligation for city or county taxes, Robert Harrison would speak for the mill — and for the city and for the county. His brother, Kenneth Harrison, published the major local paper.
In running against Robert Harrison, Carl Drury made the Gilman Paper Company’s influence, as personified by Robert Harrison, the issue in the campaign. He concentrated on the advantages the company enjoyed as a local taxpayer. Like so many companies that had moved their mills to the South during the Depression, Gilman had negotiated for favorable tax treatment from St. Marys. Under an agreement with the city signed in 1958, the mill was guaranteed that the valuation placed on its assets for property tax purposes would be permanently frozen at its 1958 level. If the mill built new facilities, 10 percent of their actual cost would be added to the valuation. The same agreement provided that if the company bought any new land, the land would be totally exempt from city tax. (Wyman Westberry later discovered that George Brumley had exploited this provision, by placing parcels of his own land in the company’s name, to shield them from taxation.)
Because of these agreements, in the early 1970s the mill’s value was listed on the city tax digest as $3 million. On the Camden County digest — which had to be approved by the state of Georgia and was less directly under Gilman’s control — the value was $15.4 million.
On September 9, 1970, the day of the primary election, Drury lost in St. Marys but had enough support elsewhere in the district, largely because of family ties, to take the Democratic nomination away from Harrison. In normal cases that would mean that the seat was his. But this case was far from normal. In the middle of October, just 10 days before the general election in which his victory would be ratified, Dr. Drury was approached by the company doctor for the Gilman plant, who presented Dr. Drury with a choice: he could leave town and withdraw from the election, or he could face an ugly scandal.
Dr. Drury was told that Henry Bloodworth, another Gilman employee, was prepared to accuse him of rape. Bloodworth would be willing to forget his charges if Dr. Drury disappeared. Carl Drury refused the offer. Henry Bloodworth thereupon presented an affidavit from his 16- year-old daughter, Suzanne, saying that Dr. Drury had tried to rape her when she was in the hospital recovering from a tonsillectomy.
For a moment it looked as if the counterattack might succeed. Dr. Drury’s medical license was immediately suspended. A grand jury was convened to look into the charges. Nonetheless, he managed to survive the general election, and in February, 1971, as he took office as a legislator, the grand jury issued a report that cleared him of the charges. The report pointed out that Suzanne Bloodworth’s friend, a supposed eyewitness to the attack, had been taken to Robert Harrison’s office by Mr. Bloodworth and asked to sign an affidavit she had never read. The Camden County juvenile judge said that “a majority of the people in this county think this was a framed-up political deal.”
From his seat in the legislature Carl Drury was able to ask for investigations of Gilman’s affairs, from taxes to pollution control. The director of the state water-quality agency, a gruff figure named Rock Howard, ordered Gilman to speed up its anti-pollution efforts. Georgia’s attorney general ruled that the tax agreement between Gilman and St. Marys was unconstitutional. Then the legislature passed a law requiring that cities use the county tax valuations, which were approved by the state, in determining city taxes. This meant that Gilman’s annual taxes in St. Marys would rise from about $45,000 to $227,000. A federal grand jury was convened to look into various irregularities in Camden County politics.
While these political challenges were proceeding, Westberry continued to attract outside attention to St. Marys. Stories about the situation, with titles like “The Mill that Runs a County,” kept appearing in the Atlanta and Jacksonville papers. In the summer of 1971, Ralph Nader released a report called The Water Lords, of which I was the principal author, that made an unflattering comparison between Gilman’s position in St. Marys and the way other companies behaved in other mill towns. In May, 1972, Harrison Wellford and Peter Schuck, two of Ralph Nader’s associates who had overseen the Water Lords project, published an article in Harper’s called “Democracy and the Good Life in a Company Town.” That same spring, Mike Wallace and CBS’s “60 Minutes” descended on St. Marys, and Newsweek also carried a column describing the situation. With these doses of national publicity, the stakes went up. The news of St. Marys reached Manhattan, where the Gilman brothers, known for their refinement, found their family name identified with a squalid company town.
It was at this point that those who had enjoyed dominion in St. Marys for so many years apparently decided that something must be done. They could see regulators attacking, tax assessments soaring, reporters crawling over their backs. They may have realized that, for all the election-time publicity about Drury, Westberry had been at the center of it all. The rape charge had not stopped Drury; stronger measures were necessary. According to evidence later presented to a federal jury, that meant killing Westberry.
In the spring of 1972, when activity in the legislature was at its peak, Tommy Thomas spoke to Lawrence Brown at the Gilman plant. Thomas was a supervisor at the plant; Brown was a towering black man who weighed 260 pounds. Thomas said he would pay Brown $1,500 if Brown would kill Wyman Westberry.
Brown replied that he was worried and could not rest easy until he got assurances of protection from the top. He’d have to hear it from the “big man.” A few days later, Brown was told to show up in the parking lot of a high school in a neighboring town. There he saw George Brumley, plus Tommy Thomas and Robert Harrison. He asked if he’d be protected if things went wrong. He got a nod of assent from the big man, George Brumley himself.
According to his later testimony, Brown never intended to go through with the deal at all. He was interested only in the money; once he got it, he’d skip town. Soon after his conversation with Thomas and Brumley, he approached George Beaver, who worked in the same “lab” as Brown did at Gilman Paper. Beaver was a friend of Wyman Westberry, and Brown told him that he should let Westberry know that certain people wished him ill.
Beaver immediately told Westberry, who confronted Brown himself and then drove with Brown across the state line to Florida. Once there, he called ' the FBI from a pay phone to tell them that he had a federal case to report, and a man standing alongside him who’d been hired to kill him. The FBI and its state counterpart, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, swooped into St. Marys. They suited Brown up with body bugs to record his later conversations with Tommy Thomas. They started tapping phones.
On the strength of the evidence gathered, a federal grand jury was convened to take testimony about the murder plot in May, 1972. But at this point Lawrence Brown pulled a second switch. When his turn came to testify, Brown said that it had all been a mistake. There had never been a plot to kill Wyman Westberry. The only plotting had been done by Westberry and Drury, who had offered him $10,000 to tell ugly lies about Brumley, Harrison and Thomas. Then, after the grand jury had finished with him, Brown returned to his original story. There had been a plot, he said, and the only reason he denied it before the grand jury was that the same men who hired him to do the killing threatened to kill him if he talked.
Federal and state investigators wrestled with the case through the summer but took no definite action. But in late summer, Jeff Nesmith of the Atlanta Constitution ferreted out news about the investigation. On September 19, 1972, the Constitution ran a story about Lawrence Brown and Wyman Westberry at the top of page one, headlined “Offered $1500 to Kill — Now He’s Missing.” The “he” referred to Brown, who could no longer be found.
To those who had been bedeviled by Wyman Westberry, this must have seemed the final straw. They had tried to shut him up permanently, and the plans fell apart. Surely they could at least do something to drive him away. Would it be so difficult to find grounds on which to fire him? On September 26, 1972, seven days after the story in the Atlanta Constitution, Westberry lost his job:
“Dear Mr Westberry:
“This is to advise you that effective immediately, you are terminated from your employment with the Gilman Paper Company. The reason for your discharge is that evidence has come to our attention that on or about March 21, 1970, you poured a substantial amount of toxic or acid-type liquid on a black construction employee who was then using what, until that date, had been a sanitary facility utilized exclusively by white employees. The black employee suffered first- and second-degree burns.
“The evidence of your culpability in this matter has just been brought to our attention.
“As you know, your general conduct has been a matter of grave concern to us, not the least of which is the controversy concerning Lawrence Brown. I understand that this and other matters are presently being investigated by appropriate government agencies, and I am confident that your involvement in these other matters ultimately will be resolved by the government agencies. I mention this to make it clear that you are being terminated only for the offense noted in paragraph one above and that we have not taken any other matter into consideration in our decision.”
This was slightly too clever an approach. It was clever in attempting to besmirch Westberry in the one way surest to scare off his outside allies — the accusation that he was a violent racist. Someone in the Gilman plant was a violent racist, for two-and-a-half years earlier someone had poured “white liquor” on a black man named Amos Rawls as he sat on a toilet, leaving Rawls with serious burns on his head and groin. But over the previous two-and-a-half years no one had identified Westberry as a likely suspect. The government investigators had taken evidence and had given up; the company had closed the books. Then, the day after the Atlanta Constitution made the St. Marys murder plot front-page news, new evidence came to light.
On that day, September 20, three letters were written, all of them accusing Westberry of the crime. One, sent to George Brumley, was from the mayor of St. Marys, the improbably named Richard Daley. Daley was a good-looking, ambitious young man, the labor movement’s equivalent of a Jaycee. In addition to his civic duties, he was president of the electrician’s union, traditionally the most docile of the three unions representing workers at the plant. Daley said in his letter that another member of his union, L.N. “Buddy” McGhin, Jr., had just come up with evidence that Wyman Westberry was the person who had burned Amos Rawls.
The second letter, also to Brumley, came from a second union president, Jerry Ridenour of the Pulp and Sulfite Paper Mill Workers. Ridenour had also heard from McGhin. In his letter Ridenour enclosed letter number three, a statement from McGhin himself, saying that he’d heard black workers voice suspicions about Westberry.
The charges were obviously concocted, but for the moment that didn’t matter: Westberry was out of a job. At this point, he began a third offensive. He had worked first with outside allies and second with local politicians; now he turned to the courts. There he began a protracted legal struggle for survival, and revenge, that stretched over the next four years.
Westberry made the gesture of appealing through Gilman’s in-house complaint system to get his job back. Once that appeal had been denied, he appealed to authorities outside St. Marys. Westberry’s union, Local 1128 of the International Association of Machinists, traditionally had been the most independent of the unions that operated at the mill. At a meeting where Westberry explained his case, the union voted to take his case before a federal arbitrator. Westberry hired his own lawyer, a 30-year-old labor specialist named Fletcher Farrington, to represent him at the hearing — and also to file a $2,225,000 damage suit in federal court against the hierarchy of St. Marys. The suit was directed against the Gilman company and the three familiar figures — George Brumley, Robert Harrison and Tommy Thomas. It asked damages on grounds that they had “conspired among themselves to deprive plaintiff of his life.”
The “white liquor” arbitration didn’t begin until May, 1973, eight months after Westberry had lost his job. Three months later, the federal arbitrator came down resoundingly on Westberry’s side. There was not one bit of evidence, he said, that the company had ever considered Westberry the culprit before the fateful day, September 20. It was clear to the arbitrator that Wyman Westberry had been “unjustly dismissed.” In compensation, the company was ordered not only to give him his job back but also to restore his benefits and seniority and to make up for all his lost pay.
Two months passed. The first anniversary of Westberry’s dismissal came and went, and still Gilman made no move to put Westberry back on the job. On October 1, 1973, Farrington went to the U.S. District Court in Savannah and asked that Gilman be ordered to comply with the arbitrator’s order within 24 hours. That afternoon, Westberry’s phone started ringing; would it be convenient for him to begin work the next day? Westberry said it would, and on October 2 he walked back onto the job.
To those who had followed the case, this outcome was simply astonishing. Someone had challenged the gods — and won. When he was fired, his enemies might have considered it good riddance to a traitor; his friends saw him as a heroic martyr, but a martyr all the same. Now he had come back from his martyrdom, demonstrating that it was possible to fight back and survive.
“It was a good feeling, to come back here,” Westberry said. “A lot of people had felt there’s no way under the sun you can beat those people, with all the power they’ve got.”
That was not the end of Westberry’s legal assault. His suit charging Brumley et al. with conspiracy to kill him had been thrown out by the district court judge in Savannah, on grounds that federal courts did not have jurisdiction in such a case. On January 22, 1975, a little more than a year after Westberry returned to his job, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision; let the conspiracy suit proceed, it said. One week later, the impact of this ruling was registered in a notice posted inside the Gilman plant.
“It is with deep regret that the Board of Directors announces that George W. Brumley has decided to take early retirement, effective February 1, 1975.”
Robert Harrison also resigned as counsel for Gilman Paper. When the conspiracy case went to court, he and Brumley would not be appearing as official representatives of the company. As it happened, their day in court never came. The company’s attorneys — who by now were dealing directly from Manhattan, no longer leaving the Westberry negotiations to the local talent — offered to settle the case. Westberry accepted, for a sum that has never been publicly disclosed. But even though the trial was aborted, it had done what mattered: the person most responsible for the set-up in St. Marys, George Brumley, and the one in position to help him most, Robert Harrison, had been driven from their positions. Whatever else happened in St. Marys, they would never again have the tools with which to dominate the town.
If Brumley and Harrison thought they had tasted the worst of Wyman Westberry’s medicine, they soon discovered that they were wrong. In October, 1975, eight months after George Brumley’s resignation, Brumley and Robert Harrison were indicted by a federal grand jury. Along with Tommy Thomas, they were ordered to stand trial on federal charges that arose from the alleged conspiracy to murder Wyman Westberry.
The reason for this development was that Wyman Westberry’s influence, direct and indirect, had reached even into the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department had looked into allegations about the murder plot once before, in 1972, and had decided to do nothing, mainly because the star witness, Brown, kept changing his story every week. But Westberry kept sending documents to attorneys general John Mitchell and Edward Levi, assistant attorney general Henry Peterson and J. Stanley Pottinger, head of the civil-rights division of the Justice Department. He made repeated late-night calls to (among others) Harrison Wellford, co-author of the Harper's article, who on leaving Nader had become an aide to Senator Philip Hart.
Westberry’s badgering could be a nuisance — as those interested in his case have learned over the years. (His lawyer, Fletcher Farrington, even called him “pestiferous.”) But his persistence was also one of the secrets of his success. During a chance encounter in Washington early in 1975, Wellford buttonholed Stanley Pottinger and asked whatever became of the St. Marys case. Pottinger sent a “tickler” down through the channels of his organization, asking the same question. At the other end of the tickler was Steven Horn, a 28-year-old attorney who eventually put the pieces of the case together in convincing enough fashion to win an indictment from a grand jury.
At the trial, the defense lawyers did everything possible to discredit Lawrence Brown’s credibility as a witness. “He could tell 45 lies to 45 people and keep them straight,” Westberry’s friend George Beaver said privately of Brown — and he was on Brown’s side. The clinching evidence seemed to be the recording made by Lawrence Brown’s “body bug.” It captured a meeting between Brown and Tommy Thomas, in which Brown said, “I’m ready, I’m ready for him,” and Thomas replied that he had to “cool it” because the FBI was in town.
The case was sent to the jury on the morning of January 21, 1976. That same afternoon the jurors filed back into the courtroom to announce their verdict: all defendants guilty on all counts.
In St. Marys, the effect was comparable to the impeachment of a president, the dethroning of a king. “There was a sense of shock,” said one resident who had moved there to work for one of the utility companies. “And then almost dancing in the street when the idea sunk in that he [Brumley] was going to jail.”
Once again, there was a legal anti-climax. Brumley, Harrison and Thomas appealed their convictions, and the start of their year-and-a-day prison sentences was postponed until the appeal was decided. In October, 1977, three judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the conviction and directed that all three defendants be acquitted. Their ruling was based mainly on reinspection of the evidence; after reading through the trial transcript, they found Lawrence Brown’s testimony too weak to support conviction.
By the time the news reached St. Marys, though, it no longer really mattered. George Brumley was not going to jail, but neither was he coming back to St. Marys. His days as the big man were finished, and in the town he had once dominated some fundamental changes were beginning.
Brumley returned to his retirement home in Sea Island, Georgia, a resort up the coast from St. Marys. His place at the mill was taken by William Davis, long his assistant, who practiced a more conventional version of company civic relations. Robert Harrison quietly resumed his law practice but kept his distance from local politics. Lawrence Brown became a deputy sheriff in another Georgia town.
In 1976 when Richard Daley ran for re-election as mayor, he won by fewer than 100 votes. In 1978, he lost to Alvin Dickey, a rawboned, salt-of-the-earth character who, as a shrimper, had always been independent of the mill and aggrieved about its water pollution. A new city council came in with him, of which Westberry’s buddy Russell Tyre was a member. The council voided the previous tax agreements the city had made with Gilman, including a contract drawn up under Mayor Daley’s auspices in 1975 after the state had ruled the previous tax agreements unconstitutional. The council started out asking Gilman for $900,000 in back tax payments; it finally agreed to accept $300,000. Under constant pressure from the state, the company has greatly reduced its air and water pollution.
“There’s a far more relaxed atmosphere in the town, and at work,” Tyre said while he was on the council. “If people have gripes, they’re not afraid to stand up and gripe. In the last two years, we’ve circulated a petition to do something about pollution. Two hundred people signed it, including some salaried supervisors. Ten years ago, you could have held a gun on a salaried supervisor and not get him to sign.”
There was one other change in St. Marys which guaranteed that all the other changes could never be reversed. Through the early 1970s, the U.S. navy laid plans for its fleet of enormous Trident submarines, each one of which would carry 24 nuclear missiles. The navy planned to base some of the Tridents on the West Coast, in Puget Sound; in December, 1976, it announced that Tridents also would be based at King’s Bay, Georgia, just outside St. Marys. New facilities were built — the largest peacetime construction project in the Navy’s history, a 16,000-acre, $1.5 billion-plus project. By mid-1982, 3,500 people worked on the base. The first Tridents are due in November, 1989, and growth will continue until about 1998. Eventually as many as 30,000 new people might come into the area.
“There’s competition in the labor market now,” Carroll Myers, who spent his working life with Gilman until he retired with a disability, said in 1980. “Now you can go to work for the navy if all you need’s a job. Before, they could tell you, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ They let Brumley run things, and there was so much power I think he got obsessed with it. They can’t do that anymore.”
As Wyman Westberry drives from his house to the plant each day, he can pass the house where Henry Bloodworth has lived ever since his daughter accused Carl Drury of rape. Driving by, Westberry sees the new woodwork and siding that was installed at the Bloodworth house shortly after Suzanne Bloodworth swore out her affidavit. If he turns the opposite way at the end of his street, perhaps to head towards Antoinette’s restaurant for breakfast, he can tell whether Robert Harrison is in his office by checking for the brown Cadillac parked outside.
One evening in 1980 as Westberry was preparing to put his boat into the river, I noticed a grimace cross his face. He nodded toward a person standing a few feet away and told me to take a look at him. “That’s Buddy McGhin,” he said as the man passed out of earshot — the man who had testified nearly a decade earlier that he saw Westberry throw “white liquor” onto Amos Rawls. When we reached Westberry’s home, he pulled a document from a pile next to the couch. The paper was a Gilman Paper Company announcement, dated February 24, 1977, announcing that Buddy McGhin had been promoted to “permanent salaried employee as a supervisor.” “That would have come maybe 20 years down the road, without the white liquor,” Westberry said. “I pity him for being so weak. But I also feel that if he’d been man enough to stand up to these people, a lot of this would never have happened.”
Westberry has made his peace with some of his former antagonists. In 1972, when Jerry Ridenour was president of the Pulp and Paper Workers Union, he wrote one of the letters to George Brumley accusing Westberry of throwing white liquor. “I fell into the error of believing idle gossip,” Ridenour told me eight years later. “I was told something about Wyman, and I checked it out and thought it was authentic. Later on I found out that it was all a lie.” Westberry’s reputation within his own union is such that in the fall of 1981, without opposition, he was elected president of Local 1128 of the International Association of Machinists.
Others in town seem unsure how to regard him. His position is somewhat comparable to that of a man who has beaten cancer. Everyone is impressed, but some are uneasy. “You can’t take anything away from Wyman,” one of his friends told me. “But the difference between Wyman and me is that I’ve got a family.”
This Westberry concedes. “I thank God it was me that they picked on in the labor movement. I had accumulated some money. I was in a position to fight back.”
True, Wyman Westberry was in a better position to be brave than most people in St. Marys. He had no wife and children, whose welfare might have deterred him from sticking out his neck. He had built up a savings account and was not saddled with debt. He could withstand one full year with no pay without being driven into submission.
But something more than being in the right position was involved in Wyman Westberry’s victory. No matter how well situated he might have been, he would not now be living evidence like Wyman Westberry, that one person can change a system unless he had been unusually skillful in interweaving three strategies of reform.
The first was his understanding that, when the local balance of power was stacked in favor of the other side, he had to look for help from powerful outsiders. In the army, this meant appealing to Senator Richard Russell. In St. Marys, it meant enlisting Ralph Nader, the Atlanta Constitution, CBS News and others whose base of support lay outside the influence of the Gilman Paper Company.
Westberry constantly coupled that approach with his second effort, which was to do everything possible to affect the local balance of power. Many “reformers” with the burning zeal of a Westberry lack the personality, the family history and the other ingredients that give a politician his appeal. Recognizing that they themselves stand no chance of being elected, they tend to give up on electoral politics as a means of reform. Westberry understood that the trick is to find someone who does have the politician’s gifts and then use him as a vehicle for your cause.
Finally, Wyman Westberry understood that ultimately he might have to turn to the courts. Less scrupulous “reformers” have clogged the court schedules by filing nuisance suits. The difference with Wyman Westberry is that he did not take the step toward litigation until he had endured injustice of the most extreme sort, in the form of an apparent murder plot against him and the denial of his livelihood.
Wyman Westberry draws from his struggles in St. Marys the same moral he took from the army mess hall episode: if you struggle long enough, and you are right, justice will eventually be done. Others’ experiences with life have left them with darker conclusions, but Wyman Westberry’s endurance and success cannot be dismissed.