GETTING OUTThe scene was set for a dizzying courtroom confrontation. The suspended students had sued SCAD for defamation; SCAD had sued SVA and its fellow "conspirators," and had countersued the students; the "conspirators" had sued back under RICO.
As the litigants scrambled to extract themselves from the mountain of legal bills, SCAD saw an opportunity to divide its enemies. The suspended students' lawsuit, in particular, was faltering. Lacking the zeal of the previous spring, the students looked demoralized and weary in their depositions. In late September 1993, SCAD made an unusual offer. The school would drop its conspiracy countersuit against the students if they each admitted a conspiracy and agreed to testify against SVA in the other trial. The settlement also required students to "contribute" $100 a month for 100 months to Richard Rowan; not to discuss SCAD ever again; and to take out roughly $20,000 worth of ads in The New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Savannah News-Press, in which they would apologize for "wrongful acts" and their "malicious, orchestrated campaign...to overthrow the founders of the college, without whom there would be no college." Despite these humiliating terms, the students seriously considered the proposal. At least one, Marissa Magaz, was willing to acquiesce to get out of the ordeal.
Lansaw called Magaz in a panic. "You're not going to sign it, are you?" she asked.
"We're tired," Magaz said. "You don't know what we've been through."
"You can't give up," Lansaw urged. It wasn't, after all, just the students who stood to lose from the settlement: If they admitted a conspiracy, the students could seriously jeopardize the other defendants' chances in the $103-million conspiracy suit. Soon the students resolved to stay in the fight. They fired their lackluster attorney and, with guidance from Beth Minsky, rejected the settlement. (The students expect their case to go to trial next year.)
David Rhodes, meanwhile, was forging ahead with his new school, undaunted by the troubles building around him. He hired a director of studies, Roger Williams, who moved from Ohio to Savannah and, oblivious to the extreme tensions in his new hometown, bought a house at 203 West Charlton-right next door to the offices of Richard and Paula Rowan. On September 6, 1994, the School of Visual Arts welcomed its first freshman class-thirty-one students-to the Savannah campus. In total, Rhodes hired eleven professors, several of them former faculty members at SCAD. At the time, Rhodes told a Savannah News-Press reporter, "Everything is going to go well for us here."
WATERLOO, GEORGIAThe great conspiracy suit was at last headed to court. In October 1995, Judge Charles Mikell told SCAD and the remaining "conspirators"-SVA, David Rhodes, Gordon Varnedoe, Joyce Maynard, and four former SCAD professors-"to put up or shut up." (Pat Conroy had earlier extricated himself from the case.) Mikell set a trial date for February 1996. Savannahians prepared themselves for a showdown. Then, nine days before trial, as attorneys were polishing their opening statements and jury selection was under way, an unexpected development occurred: SCAD and SVA settled their lawsuit. The other defendants were stunned.
As part of the settlement, neither side may discuss the terms or the case, but that very night there were ominous signs: The Rowans held a party at SCAD, serving champagne and showing an edited version of Rick Fisher's videotape to drive home the depth of the "conspiracy." Rhodes was silent, but an exhibit of work by SVA students in the Savannah airport came down that evening.
Several days later, David Rhodes called a meeting in a third-floor classroom of SVA's headquarters on East President Street. First he broke the bad news to the faculty and staff: SVA-Savannah was going to close its doors in 1999. When they walked out, distraught, a line of puzzled students filed in. Until that moment, SVA freshman Nick Bilton said, the lawsuit had "seemed like just a big joke." But Rhodes told them "there weren't enough students and there's not enough money," Bilton recalled, and that SVA-Savannah wouldn't enroll any more students. Students understood the coded message; although some legal agreement with SCAD prevented Rhodes from coming right out with it, he was telling them that he had agreed to shut down their school.
Though Rhodes cannot discuss the settlement (or even that one exists), other defendants and attorneys say his decision was an obvious if difficult choice. He was risking millions of dollars, and perhaps even the solvency of his New York school, to save a fledgling, eighty-nine-student campus in Savannah. Jury trials are always a crapshoot, and in this one, SVA could easily be painted as the upstart, Yankee interloper. Leonard Minsky explained: "David saw the sunny side of the South, but his lawyers saw lynch mobs. They advised him to get out." Some of Rhodes's colleagues called his decision "despicable," but they understood: He had been entrusted with his father's success and faced losing it over what, in retrospect, might have looked like a harebrained scheme. He cut his losses.
BATMAN RETURNSWith the Rowans' chief rival, SVA, out of the suit and soon to be out of the city, SCAD was eager to finish up the business. In a series of late-night negotiating sessions, SCAD reached settlements with Joyce Maynard and the former professors, who only had to drop their RICO claims to get out of the suit. Batman Varnedoe was the sole holdout-he wanted his $125,000 legal bill covered. "They kept saying, 'Talk to us. We want to settle the case,'" said Stanley Karsman, Varnedoe's attorney. "I kept saying, 'Fuck y'all.'"
Savannahians were eager to see Varnedoe have his day in court-they wanted to see their local hero vindicated. On February 13, the jury arrived at the courthouse for the trial. Spectators sat impatiently in the courtroom; Pat Conroy was there to lend support to his friend Batman. But the judge told them they'd have to wait a bit longer. The Rowans, it seemed, had offered to pay Varnedoe's legal fees in exchange for his signature on a letter of apology, and Varnedoe was considering it. While the jury waited, he and his wife haggled with the Rowans and SCAD's lawyers over the phrasing of the letter, and sent drafts back and forth. Meanwhile, Stanley Karsman was back at his office, honing his opening statements. When SCAD's lawyers faxed a proposal for the letter, Karsman told them, "We won't sign it. I plan to try this case. Good-bye." SCAD attorneys hastily rewrote the letter, almost to Varnedoe's satisfaction. In the end, the whole dispute between SCAD and SVA came down to choosing what single word could judiciously describe Varnedoe's feelings for the Rowans. SCAD's lawyers got out a thesaurus and proposed "admire." Varnedoe accepted the word-reasoning to himself that one definition of "admire" is "to regard with wonder"-and signed the letter. This decision bitterly disappointed his attorney, who later explained his contempt for the Rowans by invoking Sherman. "They marched through Georgia, leaving people bloodied and beaten by the roadside, ruining people's lives," Karsman declared. Once again, a trial was over before it began.
That night, some of the defendants and their attorneys gathered at a friend's house to decompress. Leonard Minsky called Julie Lansaw to let her know about the disappointing settlements. The group sat around the dining room table drinking wine and discussing the case until about midnight. The same evening, Gordon Varnedoe was seen in his tuxedo, careening around the squares of downtown Savannah in a stretch limousine.
MARDI GRASIn the following weeks, reality set in for SVA students, the most immediate victims of the settlement. On St. Patrick's Day weekend, Savannah's Mardi Gras, the city was rollicking and full of honking cars with green tassels on the antennas and SAVANNAH BOUND! written in white shoe polish on the rear windshields. But SVA students were not down with the crowds on River Street, drinking beer and dancing; instead, they were sitting around the student association headquarters, moping. I asked what was wrong.
The students said that with financial help from some wealthy, sympathetic Savannahians, they had printed thousands of flyers that proclaimed: room for two art schools. The students had blanketed Savannah with the circulars, but said they were followed by SCAD security guards who "took them down faster than we could put them up," according to freshman Nick Bilton. I called SCAD's Avis Coleman to ask about the report. She said security guards only took down flyers on SCAD's property, but did call the flyer campaign a form of "harassment."
Across the hall from the moping students, an SVA staffer named Hollis Koons was in a fury. She'd just read Batman Varnedoe's settlement letter in SCAD's paper, the Georgia Guardian, and was shocked. Koons-who had the unpleasant job of calling next year's enrollees and breaking the bad news-laid into Varnedoe for saying he "admired" the couple. Varnedoe was obviously hurt. Dejectedly, he shuffled back to his office, where his wife was waiting. There he found a note on his desk, written by a freshman named Jodi, who had witnessed the confrontation. The note was meant as a morale booster: "Dear Gordon," it read, "I respect you very much."
"Would you look at that," he said almost choking up. He handed the note to his wife. "I mean, these kids!" I asked Varnedoe's wife, Catharine, if she was happy it was all over. She looked toward the note, and said gravely, "I'm not sure it'll ever be over."
That same week, I had lunch at the SCAD administration building, the elegant old town house where the first bomb had gone off, with a dozen or so faculty members and staffers who agreed to discuss the dispute-even though one professor told me, "We don't want to talk about it. We don't want to relive it." I was seated at the head of the giant dining room table, and we ate on the good china. I asked what SCAD might have done wrong over the past few years, and a young woman directly opposite me snapped, "We didn't do anything wrong."
I tried a different tack, asking them to tell me how it all started. The staffers said they thought the unrest had been exported from embittered-and underperforming-faculty to vulnerable students. They praised the Rowans for their stalwart support of SCAD during the difficult period, "those awkward adolescent years," as one put it. When I asked them if they felt free to criticize the school if the situation warranted, they said yes, but Darrell Johnson, a painting professor, pointed out, "If you work for Motorola and you try to take your ideas to Zenith, it's not going to work out for you." The overarching mood was relief, and it didn't hurt, someone pointed out, that "we've won the war." To the remaining SCAD faculty, the future looks bright. Richard Rowan has predicted that by the year 2000, the college will have expanded to five thousand students.
After the prolonged battle, it's understandable that the participants feel they've been involved in something grandiose and historical. "This was a confrontation of the profit-making motive of education in the Nineties and the idealism of the Sixties," said Leonard Minsky. "The students and the faculty at SCAD completely and unself-consciously took up the mantle of Sixties activism." He added: "The Rowans were just greedy hyenas."
For her part, Paula Rowan spoke of the battle in Biblical terms. "When people found they could not continue in an environment which is so vital, so innovative, so exciting, they became angry and resentful," she mused. "They focused their anger and resentment on Richard and me because they thought that only by ridding the SCAD world of its founders could the banished ones remain to enjoy the fruits of the founders' labors."
During the St. Patrick's Day parade, I followed the SVA float around, to see Savannah's reaction towards its brief resident. The whole city showed up for the parade and, decked in green, lined the streets like a series of giant hedges. The parade route was a tour of the SCADSVA battle; it wended its way past Esther Shaver's bookstore, the old armory, and the synagogue, then headed toward the Civic Center, the courthouse, and the home where Julie Lansaw lived and found the body of Juan Bertotto. A few ROOM FOR TWO banners hung from the balconies of old Savannah town houses. Some SCAD students booed as the SVA float passed, but mostly there were cheers for the burly, smiling fellow out front.
The people yelled, "Batman! Batman!"
Warren St. John has written for The New Yorker, The New York Observer, and other publications. His article "Vanity's Fare" appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Lingua Franca.
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