This week marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of B.T. Collins.
Julie Gallaher and B.T. Collins, Election Night 1991
Julie Gallagher, the face behind The California Irish Lass, talks about the late politician who garnered respect from both sides of the aisle.
"No whining! No crying! We are the fortunate ones. We lived when so many better men all around us gave up their lives for us. We owe them an obligation to live every day to its maximum potential; to work every day to make this country and this world a better place for our children, and their children."
- B.T. Collins
I've Never Liked Any Politician More
Washington Post April 3, 1993
As a Green Beret captain during his second tour in Vietnam, B.T. lost his right arm and right leg to a grenade. He spent 22 months in seven military hospitals. I never heard him complain about the pain that was his daily fate. Instead, he would cancel his schedule to drive hours to comfort and counsel someone he had never met who had just lost a limb.Loud, brash, irreverent and funny, B.T. (he was baptized Brien Thomas, named for an uncle killed at Tarawa in 1943) first won press attention - which he candidly and thouroughly enjoyed - for his controversial and successful 1979 leadership of the California Conservation Corps.
Appointed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, Collins enlisted high school dropouts for his boot camp, where every recruit was required to rise at 5 a.m., run two miles, work eight hours and take classes three nights a week. He even gave it a slogan: Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions.B.T. touched and changed hundreds of lives. One of them, John Banuelos, a reform school graduate, told the Sacramento Bee's John Jacobs, "He taught me how to live. He became and uncle to my children and a brother to me. I have tried to model my life after his."A mostly conservative Republican who believed passionately in public service, B.T. was an old fashioned pol who knew all the cops and elevator operators and waitresses and secretaries by their first names.
In 1991, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Collins to head the California Youth Authority, the ex-Green Beret demanded that the young prisoners put any complaints to him in writing and in English. Aware that some would see this policy as discriminating against the many Spanish-speaking prisoners, B.T. challenged, "I hope the ACLU sues me for depriving these people of their right to be ignorant."He practically built the breathtakingly beautiful California Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the state capitol grounds, where, last week. a crowd of 5,000 including Democrat Brown and Republican Wilson, turned out for B.T.'s memorial service. Earlier that morning, 1,000 people had attended a Mass at Blessed Sacramento Cathedral in Sacramento for Collins, who called himself an atheist but who throughout his working life gave 10 percent of his gross income to the Catholic college of Santa Clara from which he graduated.
Only after constant urging by Gov. Wilson did B.T. run for and win a California assembly seat, defeating the organized right wing to do so. At the memorial service, ex-leatherneck Pete Wilson cried openly and remarked afterward that for such an emotional display, B.T. would have labeled him a "candy-ass Marine."In a business where "on deep background" and "not for attribution" are the only conditions under which so many timid public figures will even comment on the NCAA basketball tournament, Collins was blunt, candid, quotable and honest.
He never trimmed, and he never truckled.B.T. dunned me and everybody else on his bulging Rolodex to help WEAVE (Women Escaping a Violent Environment), a center to shelter and counsel battered women. Because he needed 39 pints of blood after his Vietnam wounds, he became the Sacramento Valley blood bank chairman and a regular donor. His charges at the California Conservation Corps were "encouraged" to become donors by their director who told them, "You will give blood because there's no black blood, no white blood, no Mexican-American blood. There's only red blood."
One day over lunch, B.T. gave me his basic rules: You stand up for your people. You dig your own foxhole. You take the heat. Don't tell your best friend who to marry. Never argue with a cop. Always send handwritten thank-you notes. The best friends you're ever going to make are the ones you don't like in the beginning. The best friend that will never let you down is integrity."
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento, somebody last week left his own medals and a note for B.T.: "You more than anybody made us proud to have worn these."B.T. Collins was 52, and when he died he left thousands much better for having known him. The world is a better, more humane and more fun place for his having been here.