Each year I tell my eighth grade communications arts students at South Middle School the story about a foolish reporter who nearly missed out on the best story he ever wrote because he was too busy trying to be one of the crowd.
That reporter, unfortunately, has the same face I look at in the mirror every morning when I shave and that face didn't look appreciably better on that October day in 1990. At the time, I had been a general assignment reporter for The Carthage Press for six months. Mostly, I handled area assignments, going everywhere from Joplin to Sarcoxie to Lamar and everything in between. I normally was not assigned to cover hearings at the Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage, but this was the city/courthouse reporter's day off, and I became the Press reporter at a hearing of national importance, Jasper County Judge Charles Teel would hear evidence in the Nancy Cruzan right-to-die case.
I was probably the only reporter covering that hearing who had actually known Nancy Cruzan, though I had not seen her since she and I were both teenagers and my baseball team was playing games in her home town of Carterville.
The path to that Jasper County Courthouse hearing began on Jan. 11, 1983, when Nancy lost control of her car as she was headed home from working at Schreiber's in Carthage. Her car ran off the the road, and overturned several times, landing on its top. By the time CPR was administered to Nancy, her brain had already been deprived of oxygen for about 14 minutes; six is all it takes to cause permanent brain damage. She was left in what her doctors called a "persistent vegetative state." The cerebral hemisphere of her brain, which controlled her thining and her emotions, no longer functioned, the doctors said. All she had left were physical reflexes.
For five years she remained in that limbo, until her parents, Joe and Joyce Cruzan asked Judge Teel if they could remove the feeding tube, the only thing that was keeping their daughter alive.
After a hearing in Jasper County Circuit Court, in which witnesses testified Nancy had indicated she would never want to be kept alive by artificial means, Judge Teel granted permission to remove the feeding tube, but his decision was appealed by the Missouri Attorney General's office. The State Supreme Court overruled Judge Teel's decision; the case was appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it...the first time the nation's highest court had ever heard a right-to-die case.
The court ruled that a person does have the right to die, but that decision did not necessarily apply to the Cruzan case, which was sent back to Jasper County to hear evidence and determine if Nancy really had said what she would want to have happen to her under such circumstances.
That brought the case to Carthage on that October day. Eight TV vans from all of the Joplin stations, plus Springfield, Kansas City, and St. Louis were filling up the inside parking places on the square.
Though I arrived a full hour before the hearing was scheduled to begin, the third-floor courtroom was already nearly filled...mostly with reporters. Since the case was going to be heard by Judge Teel once more and not by a jury, reporters were allowed to sit in the jury box so they could be a little closer to the judge, the attorneys and the witnesses. Even though I had already been a reporter for more than 13 years, I was caught up in my opportunity to be one of the big boys.
In that jury box, seated to my left was the stringer who was covering the case for the New York Times. Right beside him, was the Times' courtroom artist and behind them were reporters for Associated Press and the Kansas City Star. To my right was a young reporter from one of the Springfield television stations, sitting by a second sketch artist, whose newspaper or TV affiliate I never did learn.
During that morning session, I listened to the same testimony from the same angle, that all of the other reporters in that jury box did, and if something critical had not happened at about 11:30 a.m. I would have written the same story that all of them did. And there would have been nothing wrong with that, except that the Press was an afternoon paper, so we would have been the last to go with a story that everyone else had already read.
Thank God for lunch.
Judge Teel dismissed everyone for lunch a little after 11:30 and said the hearing would resume at 1:30. I returned to the courtroom at 10 minutes past one and the jury box had already filled...It was the best thing that could have happened.
With the jury box filled, I took a seat directly behind Joe and Joyce Cruzan, their lawyer, William Colby of Kansas City, Nancy's sister, Christy White, and Christy's daughters...Nancy's beloved nieces...Angie Yocum, a sophomore at Webb City High School at the time; and Miranda Yocum, a freshman.
My chair was directly behind Angie and Miranda and I could see that Miranda had a sketchpad open and was drawing a courtroom scene that easily rivaled anything the other two courtroom artists were doing. She paid special attention to detail, capturing everything from the courtroom decor to the bright red suspenders being worn by Colby.
I continued taking notes about the testimony, but in the margins, I was writing everything I could about Miranda and Angie. Everyone else was going to know about the testimony before The Carthage Press hit the streets, but no one was going to have this story about the tiny sketch artist.
One of the afternoon witnesses was a man for whom Nancy had worked when she lived in Oklahoma City. The Cruzan family listened attentively as the man began his testimony, clearly answering the questions that were posed to him by Colby and by Carthage attorney Thad McCanse, who had been appointed by the court to represent "Nancy's interests."
Nancy's former boss recalled the conversation he had with her when she had said she would not want to live as a vegetable because "vegetables can't hug their nieces."
I quickly looked at the two nieces. Angie began to cry almost immediately. Miranda's face was also reddening as she put her arm around her sister's shoulder and began patting her on the back. Through the tears, the two looked at each other and smiled. Despite the circumstances, it's always good to hear how much someone loves you.
A few moments later, Joe Cruzan, Nancy's father, stepped up and quickly left the courtroom without saying a word to anyone.
At this point when I am recounting the story to my eighth graders, I always ask, "Do you know why he left the courtroom?"
They always surmise that the testimony had become too emotional for him and he had to leave to collect himself. I shake my head and get the students angry with me, when I say, "He had to go to the bathroom," and I quickly add, "And I did something that no reporter should ever do."
There is always a sound of horror among my students. "You followed him to the bathroom," they say with a mixture of shock and disgust.
I nod. "I followed him to the bathroom." I always make sure the students know that I was at least polite enough to let him finish what he needed to do, providing no further details.
As he left the restroom, I stepped in front of him, introduced myself, and asked him if I could ask him a couple of questions. I will never forget the long sigh that followed that request. "Sure," he answered, though more questions from the press was the last thing he could have wanted.
"I have been watching your granddaughter," I said. "She really has a talent for drawing."
In a split second, the worry seemed to vanish from Joe Cruzan's face and was replaced by a smile. Without me even asking a question, he spent the next 15 to 20 minutes telling me about Miranda, her artwork, and how talented she was and how proud he and the family were of her.
It wasn't long after we returned to the courtroom that the testimony ended. Miranda jumped up from her seat and nearly ran to William Colby. "I drew this for you," she said, and the lawyer was caught completely off guard.
"That's really good," he said. I jotted down a few more details then rushed back to the Press, it was one of those nights when I couldn't wait to start writing.
I had opened up the Press newsroom so reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Springfield News-Leader could type their stories and send them in. Earlier in the day, that would have seemed like a big deal, but I had learned my lesson.
What lesson is that, my eighth graders ask when I reach that portion of the story.
"You can't get ahead if all you ever do is follow."
Several weeks after the hearing, Judge Teel once again ruled that the feeding tubes could be removed. On Dec. 26, 1990, 15 years ago tomorrow, Nancy Cruzan died.