By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
On a cool spring morning, Sheree Tullos, a University of Houston political science major, came on the main campus carrying a bomb. It didn't take long for her to be discovered.
A mob of outraged students cornered her in Butler Plaza, hurling insults. One guy with baggy skater pants and a shaggy blond ponytail emerged from the crowd, barking, "Do you believe this? You know, do you really believe this?" She stood her ground with her stomach tumbling and her mind going blank. The skater guy called her a bitch and spit in her face.
She got away from the crowd, away from the campus security guard who'd been summoned to restore order, but a woman stalked her, following her to class, where she tried to jump Tullos.
She didn't find sanctuary in the classroom either. Former friends and classmates turned on her, chewing her out and giving her the cold shoulder. It was as though she'd suddenly contracted social leprosy.
The day before, they'd had a theoretical discussion, calm and rational. But they didn't know what she was planning to do in the middle of campus, and as the abstract became reality, emotions surged and opinions hardened. Tullos was now the enemy.
They may not have known Sheree Tullos, but they knew exactly where she stood on March 26, 2001: behind the barricades, directly beneath a ghastly, 18-foot-high display of dead fetuses glazed in blood.
The Pro-Life Cougars repeat quite often that their goal with the fetus display is to pry open debate on campus.
In 2000, Tullos founded the group (originally known as the Free Speech Coalition) with the sole purpose of bringing to school the three-sided photo exhibit of dead fetuses.
Their mission hasn't changed.
The group remains very small, intense and dedicated. Though its leaders share conservative views -- and say they are ostracized because of them -- they come from very different backgrounds.
Tullos, a white 28-year-old who is one-quarter Mexican, grew up in a poor home in Houston where she says they "barely had enough food sometimes." Her dad took off when she was two, remarrying several times and fathering other children, which left her single mom to care for the family. Although raised in a religious vacuum, she was touched by the abortion issue at age five, when her mother, active in the 1970s feminist movement and also the pro-life cause, got pregnant and chose to have the baby and give it up for adoption. They later moved to California.
"I've been sort of out on my own since I was real young. I was 16 when I moved out," Tullos says. She worked and paid her way through community colleges before arriving at UH in fall 1999. A few years before that, though, she found God. Or, more accurately, He woke her up.
"God yelled at me when I was asleep one night," she says. At around 4:30 one morning, a loud voice summoned her. "I'm going, 'I'm hearing things, who is in here?' you know. I went back to sleep and at like six o'clock in the morning, a loud voice shook my bed and was like, 'You need to get up!' " When she went to church that day, she heard a sermon about forgiveness and fell to the floor in a baroque moment of conversion. Although her life had changed, her situation hadn't.
"I still was alone," she says. "I still didn't have many friends. I just read the Bible instead of watching TV or whatever." By the time she arrived on campus at UH, her politics had crystallized and her passion had been unleashed. And she knew, from the very moment she first heard about the fetus display -- owned and operated by the Kansas-based Justice For All group that travels to colleges mostly in Texas and the Midwest -- that she had to bring it to campus. "I'm not the type of person to just give up. I'm the type of person that will carry it out no matter if it kills me until I do it," she says. "And that's what happened."
Jonathan Saenz, 30, is last year's group president, a law-and-order kind of guy with a crisp, lawyerly style -- shirts always tucked in and ironed; charcoal hair trimmed short and parted neatly to the side; careful in choosing his words and steady in maintaining eye contact when he speaks.
"The whole thing is, if, through the things that we've done, if we've saved one life, it's worth it," says Saenz, who finished at the UH Law Center last May. "Because you're going to have people, 'Well, I don't like the way you do it and I don't like this' -- I would rather have those people upset with me, because my mission. Our mission -- is not to be popular and people liking us and 'Those guys are so nice' -- our mission is to educate people and save lives.
"Here's what it gets to: There are some things you can talk about over and over, but if you see them visually, the truth of it is undeniable."
Amanda Strassner, the new co-chair of the Pro-Life Cougars this year, doesn't drink. She doesn't do drugs. She doesn't even date, calling it "practice for divorce." She lays it all out, a self-assured Sandra Dee telling Rizzo what's what: "You're starting when you're like eight years old, you know, getting really close to someone, giving them all your secrets, sharing your life, and then breaking up," she says, catching her breath. "You get in this heartbreak -- you break up with this person -- and, oh, it's so bad, but you get better at it."