The Washington Post’s gifted columnist Theresa Vargas wrote a moving and informative piece in its October 1 (Sunday) edition that explores the Tucker family’s ongoing efforts to get Virginia Commonwealth University to honor Bruce Tucker's contributions to heart transplantation – and much more.
Her column features an interview with family representative Gayle Turner – a cousin of Bruce who knew him well. “What happened 55 years ago shattered and changed the trajectory of our family’s life,” Gayle says. “These are things that trouble the soul. They haunt and traumatize the mind.”
Read more to learn some of the ideas she shared for addressing the family’s concerns, including adding Bruce Tucker’s name “everywhere that the university [mentions] the surgeons who performed the transplant.”
Vargas also included my views on the topic and other efforts to flip the “official” script of the 1968 heart transplant and the 1972 civil trial which left the family with nothing -- as revealed in THE ORGAN THIEVES.
Please SAVE THE DATE: On Monday, November 6 at 6 p.m. I’ll deliver a free, public lecture at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland in the Dollar Tree Community Room of Brock Commons on the college’s campus. There'll be time for your questions, too.
Thanks for your continued interest and support!
(This is my copy of a slightly-edited version of my column, "Are airlines suffering from terminal chaos?" first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch's Commentary page Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023)
After standing overnight for 11 straight hours in an interminably long line at United Airlines’ Terminal B in Denver, my wife and I had ample time to ponder the underlying causes of America’s ailing air transport system. But all we really wanted was to get back home to Richmond – a sleep-deprived journey that wound up taking more than three days stuck in or around Denver International Airport (cancellations there appear to be so commonplace that Coleman camping cots were available near the gates and upstairs seating).
Like thousands of other traumatized travelers in late June – whose ranks stretched from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Chicago’s O’Hare to our own group of Colorado travel hostages -- we suffered more than our share of physical and mental trauma due to United’s ham-handed response to weather-related flight cancellations.
Yet, with the likelihood of extreme weather leading to more air-travel meltdowns, there’s probably no point in crying over spilt Ibuprofen. Instead, I’d like to offer some lessons for fellow travelers and constructive suggestions for policymakers, including President Biden.
First, I should note one high-profile exec who managed to avoid the seemingly endless lines and sore feet of summer: United CEO Scott Kirby. In late June, he reportedly took a private jet from Newark out to Denver to see what all the fuss was about. Kirby, whose total 2022 compensation reportedly topped $10 million in 2022, later apologized, calling his privileged behavior “insensitive to our customers who were waiting to get home.”
You can say that again, Mr. Kirby – and you probably will—until United and all major airlines quit treating such systemic chaos as rare, one-time events.
Of course, it didn’t help the collective morale in our all-night forced march to an understaffed “customer service” desk (two reps for a rotating line that was at least 150 yards long) when a United rep announced after sunrise, “If you are a 1K member, you can go through this line.”
In other words, after a night of shared suffering, the airline gave preferred customers first-class treatment (with special agents in two lines) while the rest of us were left to shuffle in silence. (Full confession: I started booing, but my wife shushed me up.)
I could share many other dark tales from the travel crypt, starting with the panic attack I witnessed on UA Flight 757 from Denver to Washington-Dulles International Airport when the plane’s air-conditioning faltered and the cabin temperature climbed.
“I’ve taken all of my medications!” a young woman cried. “I must get off – now!”
Then there was the courageous woman with a leg injury who held onto a wheelchair as a United employee tried to yank it away.
But what would be the point? Maybe you’ve seen worse or even saw us on CNN ( “It’s never good when you’re on CNN,” my son wryly noted).
Instead, allow me to offer some possible solutions to this serious problem that’s bound to get worse, especially during holiday travel:
Look – as Biden might say – I don’t expect a complete overhaul of our troubled aviation system -- especially when United can tout earnings of $1 billion during the second quarter of this year despite cancelling flights like ours. According to the Associated Press, we were hardly alone: 3,800 flights were scrubbed during the last two weeks of June.
Still, in an industry that prides itself on safety and preparation, why not prepare for what’s becoming the new normal? Unless United and its peers become more proactive, you can expect to endure a post-modern version of Dante’s inscription, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Only instead of entering the gates of hell, you’ll find yourself in something far worse: a “customer service” line that seems to stretch into eternity.
Chip Jones is a former Richmond Times-Dispatch business reporter who covered airports and airlines. He’s the author of four works of historical nonfiction, including his latest work, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.” He can reached at email@example.com.
A Washington Post retrospective about Muhammad Ali prompted me to share my own experiences with the Champ outside of Charlottesville in the early 1980s. Since I know newspaper firewalls often block access to stories, I’ll take the liberty of copying my letter which led the Post’s May 18 letters page:
The May 8 "Retropolis" (“A day after winning a title fight in Maryland, Ali went to prom”) sparked fond memories of another visit Muhammad Ali made to a school in the region. It happened in June 1982, not far from where the Champ had recently purchased a horse farm west of Charlottesville.
As a local reporter, I was fortunate to have a front row seat at a fundraiser for a childcare center. The event near Skyline Drive, I wrote, “resembled a revival, a political convention and a prize fight.”
Ali – resplendent in a blue suit and striped tie -- kissed babies and not a few of their thrilled mothers. He joked around with throngs of boys in baseball caps. He shadowboxed with all comers.
Mostly, the king of the ring held court. Accepting a key to Nelson County, Va., he quipped, “I’ve never seen a city so small and a key so big.”
When the ceremony was over, the charismatic athlete asked if anyone wanted to see his magic show. “Yes!” the crowd cried out.
With that, his handlers fetched a magic kit he kept in his Jeep. Ali made his way into the school auditorium, followed by the thrilled throng. He didn’t disappointment, either. Turning a yellow scarf into a cane, the Greatest demonstrated the lightning-quick hands that felled so many opponents.
Muhammad Ali’s magic act transcended mere trickery, though. He brought everyone together and showed that – his brutal sport notwithstanding -- his greatest gift was delivering a message of peace.
“Just Like That” Beats with CompassionThanks to Henrico educator and writer Bill Pike for sharing this moving song, “Just Like That,” by the great Bonnie Raitt. As she explained in American Songwriter, Raitt was inspired by a 2018 news account about a woman who donated her late child’s heart and was about to meet the recipient for the first time.
“The man sat with her and asked if she would like to put her head on his chest so she could hear her son’s heart,” Raitt recalled. “I just lost it.” Her song was named the Grammys 2023 Song of the Year.
I also appreciated Bill’s commentary on my recent appearance at Trinity United Methodist Church in Henrico County. He reflects on another song – “Love Has Come for You” – which he ties to another story about the human heart: “The Organ Thieves.”
When Stephen Spielberg started filming “The Fabelmans” — an aptly named tale of family, marriage, art and suffering — he couldn’t have known how relevant it might be.
Or maybe he did.
After all, the creator of “Schindler’s List,” the 1993 Academy Award-winning drama about saving Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, already had plumbed the depths of the persistent historical evil of antisemitism.
But “The Fabelmans” — now playing in Richmond-area theaters — unpacks the experience of intolerance from a more personal point of view.
Sitting in a near-empty theater, it occurred to me that this film should be seen by everyone on the big screen. In its very human and often humorous portrayal of the power of art in a boy’s life, it’s a timely antidote to recent toxic headlines about an ex-president hanging out with delusional fans of Hitler and other forms of hate-mongering.
As Burt and Mitzi Fabelman return home after taking their son to his first film, it was moving to see the world from the boy's back-seat viewpoint: While his street was festooned with Christmas lights, his own home shone with menorah candles to celebrate Hanukkah.
“The Fablemans” explores the challenges Spielberg faced moving around the U.S. because of his father’s job. This reminded me of my own experience as my military father did the same.
I smiled thinking of my grade school friends in the suburbs south of Alexandria in the early 1960s. Many were Jewish and shared parts of their heritage that were news to me — from bagels to menorahs to the humor and warmth of their homes. I don’t recall anyone talking about the Holocaust, but I do remember our crossing guard was said to have survived some awful place. Later, in high school, I had classmates and teammates who grew up in Gum Springs near Mount Vernon. From them I learned about the rich history of their African American community, whose origins could be traced to descendants of people enslaved by George Washington.
Little did I know that even then, in the late 1960s, there were parts of the country where Black and white kids weren’t going to school together. Some Virginia parents had chosen to pull their kids out of public schools or sought other ways to avoid integration, such as private schools and all-white “academies.”
As I watched Sammy Fabelman face antisemitic taunts, threats and humiliations I’d never known, the film made me wonder how the lack of exposure to “others” around America continues today to leave people more susceptible to lies, stereotypes and prejudices — especially when they’re only a click away on a phone or laptop.
“The Fabelmans” also brought to mind another movie with a Richmond connection. “Kristallnacht and Beyond” tells the painful, yet uplifting story of Alexander Lebenstein, who fled to America after losing his parents and others to the Nazi genocide. He settled in Richmond, never thinking he’d return to the nation that had taken so many of his loved ones. He was often angry and bitter.
His life took a dramatic turn, though, when two students wrote him a letter in the 1990s inviting him back to his hometown, Haltern am See. After studying the Holocaust, they asked Alex — their town’s lone Jewish survivor — to come and teach them about it.
After rejecting the offer, according Alex’s Wikipedia entry, “He was convinced by his family to come to his German hometown. This visit completely changed the life of Alexander Lebenstein and soon after he started publicly speaking — in churches, schools, libraries and at the Virginia Holocaust Museum about his life and his terrible experiences.”
I had the honor of meeting Alex during the making of the museum’s 2009 documentary about him. The producer, Lindsay Stone, invited my wife, Deborah Jones, to write its theme song. Its refrain drew upon Alex’s own words during a Richmond-area school appearance.
“Remember my call to reconcile,” he told the students, “or hate will turn around to hate you.”
Similarly, Spielberg struggles with his own hurts, humiliations and self-doubts. By doing so, he discovers the power of art to help with his own healing. Like so many great artists, he holds up a mirror that allows us to reflect on our own wounds from life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.
In doing so, Spielberg reminds us that when it comes to our shared experience as Americans, we’re all in this together — even when it hurts.
Happy Holidays! With so many families & friends traveling this week, I thought I’d share this column, “Moving as Metaphor.” I wrote it for “In House Warrior,” a wonderful (and free!) blog/podcast by Washington, D.C. crisis management expert Richard Levick.
The people you meet here – my Mom and Dad and sister and brothers – weren’t necessarily in crisis mode (at least not all the time). But they endured many losses, which they often kept to themselves. Thankfully, we had each other to lean on – especially crammed together in the back seat of our 1956 Buick Special.
Hope you enjoy – and in this season of light may you discover your own metaphors & illuminations!
It was a fine day & night on campus at VCU Oct. 12, conversing with bright students and instructors as part of the university’s Common Book events. If you click here, you can find lots of free resources (films, books, etc.) available to all! And click here for VCU news coverage of my keynote speech. Thanks to all of you – whether or not you came or viewed online. I'll be sure to keep you posted on any future developments!
Thanks to everyone coming to VCU this Wednesday at 6 p.m. for my Keynote talk for the university’s Common Book program at the Singleton Center for the Arts. Click here for the address and more information about the event. There's parking along Harrison Street (near the arts center), plus VCU’s parking decks on nearby Main and Cary streets.
After my talk and some questions from the audience, I’ll stick around to sign books (there will be some available to buy).
If you can’t make it, click here to watch via livestream.
Here are a couple of more links to recent news stories: VCU’s student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, coverage of the recent apology from VCU with comments from me; and the university’s news service's account of former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder’s scathing attack on VCU for its apology about for the treatment of Bruce Tucker.
It's been more than two years since the publication of The Organ Thieves, but Virginia Commonwealth University -- home of the former Medical College of Virginia -- has finally apologized for the tragic treatment of Bruce Tucker and his family. In this recent post -- today’s news from Virginia Commonwealth University -- VCU announced a “Resolution regarding the late organ donor Mr. Bruce Tucker and the East Marshall Street Well.”
The VCU Board of Visitors, along with the Board of Directors of the VCU Health System, issued a lengthy resolution admitting the university (as MCV) “engaged in medical experimentation and research that resulted in dehumanizing practices for handling the remains of primarily Black and enslaved people.” These despicable practices are well-documented in my book.
Regarding the 1968 heart transplant – long heralded as a great moment in Virginia medical history – the resolution states: “VCU acknowledges and sincerely apologizes to the late Mr. Bruce Tucker, and to his family, for the Medical College’s transplant of his heart 54 years ago.”
They also authorized the “commissioning of a plaque… to honor Mr. Tucker’s important role in the early history of heart transplantation and to place it in a location of honor at VCU Medical Center.” Here's VCU's news release about its plans.
I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at VCU on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 6.pm. Click here to learn more about this free lecture open to the public, so c’mon down! Whether or not you can make it, thanks for your interest in setting the historical record straight and – however late or inadequate it may be – in honoring Bruce Tucker and his family.
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected African-American governor in the United States, will speak on "The Organ Thieves" at his annual symposium, "Racism, Health, and Accountability." The free event is open to the public on Monday, September 19 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Singleton Center for the Performing Arts at 922 Park Ave. Click here to learn more (if you can't attend, VCU's planning a live stream).
VCU notes that Wilder served as the legal counsel for the family of Bruce Tucker, "a Black man, [who] had his heart transplanted -- without his family's consent -- into a white businessman..." in 1968. "The case exemplified a journey to fight racism and demand accountability for a gross violation of human rights. As the signature speaker, [Wilder] will discuss the complex ethical issues exposed during the case, as well as examine its lasting historic impact today."
Gov. Wilder's address is part of series of educational events tied to "The Organ Thieves" as VCU's 2022 "Common Book" for first-year students. I'll speak at the Singleton Center on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. Looking forward to seeing you!
Chip Jones is an award-winning author, journalist and former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The Organ Thieves is his fourth book.