Mike Hutton: Thomas Powell was a hero for oppressed Gary coaches
By Mike Hutton firstname.lastname@example.org March 27, 2013 8:06PM
Tom Powell, Jr. is photographed in his Gary home April 25, 2003. Powell, a teacher and coach at Lew Wallace STEM Academy died at the school Wednesday. | File Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 29, 2013 12:24PM
Anna Hearn, Thomas Powell’s favorite attorney, received a phone call from him just last week.
Powell wanted to know about her kids and about how she was doing. He wanted to just say, “Hi,” it turns out for one last time.
Powell, the football coach for Lew Wallace for one short, painful season, died suddenly at school Wednesday.
News of his death spread through the Gary schools like a raging forest fire.
The wise-cracking, low-key Powell was a reluctant yet necessary hero for any coach in Gary (and there are many ) who was hearded off unmercifully by city athletic director Earl Smith.
He was also the little guy, who had bucked the system and kicked Goliath’s butt.
He won. They lost.
Powell was right and they were wrong.
Really, really wrong when he won a judgment for $220,000 against the Gary Community School System in 2009 for violating the Family Medical Leave Act.
Rarely are such stark terms appropriate and necessary but, in this instance, they are. Powell’s victory revealed what everyone knew: That Smith could be ruthless and domineering and just plain incompetent.
“What he had was a lot of heart and soul and we got every dime we asked for,” Hearn said of Powell.
Powell’s eight-year odyssey against the Gary Community School Corp. started after he tripped in a hole outside the football field at Lew Wallace and developed a blood clot. When he was well enough to return to his job six weeks later, his assistant, John Hoover, had been promoted to head coach. He never did return as coach.
For two years, Powell tried to get GCS to do the right thing and give him his job back, but he was way laid off by the intractable Smith, who blatantly and callously disregarded the law in his haste to get rid of Powell. In any other school district, that kind of mistake is a career killer but Gary has standards all its own. Smith is retiring this year, mostly on his own terms.
Powell’s fight for justice was long and torturous. He went through two lawyers before Hearn took the case, which she believed to be a slam dunk after reading through all the facts.
He won the initial verdict against GCS and then lost on appeal. The Indiana Supreme Court then overturned the appeal, which hinged on the supposition that Powell, as a football coach, was really a part-timer, who wasn’t eligible for Family and Medical Leave Act. He got everything he asked for, including money for retaliation. Smith had essentially written in a memo that Powell was being punished for going to the media.
For any working journalist who is still slightly romantic about comforting the afflicted, Powell was a gift.
He took fastidious, meticulous notes and he kept track of every ridiculous e-mail and memo that GCS sent out.
He let me write his stories, unconditionally, without strings attached, always going on the record, never once backing down from the long reach of the GCS.
I was hungry for everything he wanted to throw my way and he kept feeding me, over and over again.
He never once was afraid. That was his legacy. People are afraid to speak out against injustice. They want to but they can’t. They stop right before they are about to jump in the water. And most of the time, I can’t blame them. It can be exhausting and there are real risks involved in telling your story. Jobs are at stake. It’s stressful. Your health can be affected. It’s way easier to forget about it and move on.
Powell just trucked on, always answering the same way when I asked him why he wanted to keep going: “Because it’s not right, Mike. It’s not right.”
He was right. It wasn’t right and he proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt, casting a light on the difficult, sometimes impossible conditions that a coach in Gary has to work under.
Hearn was sad. He was one of her favorite clients, too.
We should all grieve a little today for Powell, a father and teacher who didn’t think it would be right if he didn’t take a stand against injustice.