Jerry Davich: ‘Caged’ man out to help animals behind bars
Jerry Davich email@example.com November 15, 2012 8:56PM
Valparaiso restaurateur Suzie Bigott stands with a copy of her brother's recent book of poetry and prose and two original paintings. Her brother, Robert Hodson, created the works, along with other paintings and jewelry while serving a life-sentence in a Texas prison. Funds raised by sales of the items will go to the Porter County Animal Shelter and a similar shelter in Texas. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 19, 2012 11:57AM
The handcrafted artwork, fanciful jewelry, and intriguing new book greet customers as soon as they walk in the door at Suzie’s Café.
Inside the Valparaiso eatery’s gift shop are painted portraits of Hollywood stars John Wayne and Liz Taylor, but the one of a puppy dog — not caged, unlike its creator — best illustrates this column.
It’s the dark story behind the upbeat creativity that captivated me when I visited the popular restaurant earlier this week.
The artwork’s creator is a talented but tortured artist named Robert Hodson. He’s been incarcerated since he killed a man 18 years ago. There, in a Texas prison, the 53-year-old convicted capital murderer is labeled as No. 00701880.
Hodson shot and killed a man while under the influence of alcohol, along with other psychological demons that have chased him into prison.
But here, at his older sister’s bright and bubbly restaurant, the blond-haired, blue-eyed artist, poet and new author is simply known as Bobby.
“Bobby has such a warm heart for animals, especially caged ones that can be released,” explained his sister, owner Suzie Bigott. “His goal is to free animals from their cages like he hopes that someday he may be released from his cage.”
That’s unlikely, though. To avoid execution, Hodson agreed to a plea deal and he’s serving a life sentence without parole. Texas is notorious for its strict criminal justice system and no-breaks correctional facilities, including his prison in Amarillo.
Hodson has been clean and sober for almost 18 years, “thanks in large part to a successful program called maximum security prison,” according to the back cover of his newly released book, “Postcards from My Lai.”
It’s an eclectic collection of prose, poetry and painful reflections from Hodson’s life, which reads in part like a wreckage of lifelong regrets. His “intimate love affair with alcohol,” as he writes, led to his own self-destruction.
“This book is written from the depth of his heart and the hell that he lives every day knowing full well he messed up his life,” said Bigott, who’s been helping her little brother since he was imprisoned.
Hence the book’s dedication to his sister, “For Suzie, my sister, my champion.”
‘I hope you hate this book’
Hodson, a Kokomo native, associates his hometown during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s with My Lai, the “luckless” Vietnam village and site of the infamous massacre by U.S. troops in March 1968.
“When I escaped Kokomo at age 15, I thought I’d gotten out alive. I was mistaken; it’s just that some people bleed out slower than others,” he writes in his book’s foreword. “My death would take years, and I would wreak a wide path of heartbreak and destruction all along the way.”
Hodson and his sister were raised in hellish circumstances, they say. Bigott managed to flee her parents’ home at age 14 to live with her out-of-state grandparents. Hodson, however, never fully escaped from his childhood.
“I will always be haunted by the Kokomo of my childhood, but it’s to there I’ll always return, if only to find the boy,” he writes.
“Cornfield or rice paddy ... Kokomo or My Lai — hell is hell. Choose your poison. No, no, don’t set the cup down. Drink up and join me ... if only for a few hours.”
The 81-page book (Outskirts Press, $22.95) is intriguing, if not disturbing. One poem is titled “A Lesson in Seasons (a daydream in lockdown).” Another is called “The Years are Terrible Things.”
The most appropriate poem, at least for this column, is titled, “How to Spell goD.” (Yes, with a capital D.)
“It’s been said that God is what your dog thinks you are,” Hodson writes. “I’m inclined to believe the reverse is true. For what man can measure their loyalty or claim even a lion’s share of their courage, their honesty?”
“What mortal man can hold your eye as level ... as straightforward? Has any man been so willing to do battle and die under your capricious flag, not for gold or other vain medals. Nor for footnotes in history, but only for your touch?”
“What man can lay claim to even an ounce of the nobility that so defines his furry character? Hell, even when I was a young boy — and even a bit dyslexic, I knew how to spell goD.”
Hodson initially asked if he could donate all proceeds from his artwork and book to the family of the man he killed nearly 20 years ago. He was told he is not allowed to contact the man’s family in any way.
So Hodson, an animal lover since childhood, is donating all proceeds to the Porter County Animal Shelter, and a rescue dog shelter in Texas.
Over the past year, Bigott has donated roughly $1,000 from her brother’s artwork sales to the Porter County Animal Shelter, according to its director, Jon Thomas.
“Things are going incredibly well these days, and this money sure helps the cause,” he told me.
Although Hodson admittedly screwed up his life and also committed the cardinal sin of taking someone else’s life, he has still found a way to salvage the remnants of his dreams. He is doing it through art, through crafts, and through a book he admittedly loathes.
“I hope you will hate this book as much as I do,” he writes in the foreword.
Regardless of your opinion of his book, his artwork or his life, Hodson’s cause is now a noble one, especially for animal lovers and pet owners.
Keep that in mind the next time you dine at Suzie’s Café, peruse its gift shop, and ponder the societal differences between caged animals and caged humans.
Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show each Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.thelakeshorefm.com.