Getting Schooled

A legendary debate teacher has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson

Mary Crowley, now a teacher in France, has already voted by absentee ballot for Henley -- even though it triggered "Soooey" memories. "Sometimes...I think, 'Wow, did I really vote for a man who was running around like a crazy person?'" she says. "But when I think of him being completely nuts, I also think about how he is an inspiring teacher as well."

Henley, a little bulldog of a guy, freely admits his methods are unorthodox. "You're not gonna find any lesson plans, any textbooks or any test papers in my classroom," he says.

His legendary status has earned him the benign neglect of Lanier's principals through the years. ("They put me in a portable building out back and they don't even know I'm there," he says.) It doesn't hurt that the debate program is recognized nationally, regularly winning tournaments against high school teams.

Another bus ride, but this time it's to the polls, not a debate tournament.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Another bus ride, but this time it's to the polls, not a debate tournament.
Henley took to the streets to support his sister.
From The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk
Henley took to the streets to support his sister.

The team could pile up that winning record with 30 members -- in fact, it might be easier to do so -- but Henley insists that everyone in his classes participate. Why? Because the wild-guy 59-year-old teacher has more than a bit of Old Fogey in him.

Kids these days. "There's too much video games and too much text-messaging, and as far as face-to-face communication and being articulate and self-confident, they're losing that," Henley says. "They're all sounding like Valley Girls and Valley Boys -- 'Like, dude' -- and it's driving me crazy."

Still, he's had a powerful effect on a lot of Lanier grads. "Mr. Henley is the best teacher I ever had precisely because he was not a teacher," says Marc Bhargava, now a junior at Harvard University. "He never told us what to think or who to admire, but fed our excitement with questions and dreams."

Now many of those former students are on the campaign trail. When they're not calling or blockwalking, they're introducing Henley at gatherings at private homes. "It's quite amazing to hear the impact a teacher and the debate program has had on their life," Henley says.

II.

Be Stubborn as Hell

The days of Whitewater can seem like another age now, but there was a time when national reporters frantically competed for scoops about investigations into a small Arkansas land deal. The Rush Limbaughs of the land frothed mightily about how the Clintons were covering up the crime of the century, and special prosecutors relentlessly pursued every lead, usually in vain.

As it turned out, there wasn't too much to the Whitewater saga until Monica Lewinsky's oral skills entered the picture. Few people went to prison, but Susan McDougal, Henley's sister, was one of them.

She and her husband were convicted of fraud, but that's not what made her famous. She refused to answer some of Starr's questions about Clinton, saying his office was acting unethically. A judge found her in contempt, and McDougal served 18 months in jail.

"She would have died in prison, and that really scared me because I realized she was willing to do that," Henley says.

Then again, he shouldn't have been surprised. All seven of the Henleys seem to dig in their heels against authority when most people would decide it wasn't worth it.

"I know where it comes from," Henley says. "We had a father who was a master sergeant and went through the [Second World] War and the Korean War and, you know, he was a son of a bitch. And that was our authority figure, and so we've been rebelling against authority figures ever since."

McDougal, in her book The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk, describes the family dynamic as they grew up in Arkansas.

Former Master Sgt. Henley was a hardcore Republican who would rail against whatever was getting his goat at the moment, and the dinner table was a freewheeling forum, with Jim "challeng[ing] my father on virtually every one of his basic beliefs," she writes.

"Jim was a slender, thoughtful boy who loved to follow politics and, by the time he was ten, was writing earnest letters to newspapers. He also was a liberal's liberal who couldn't fathom my father's inability to see obvious truths," she adds.

A "liberal's liberal" in 1960s Arkansas was probably anyone who didn't burn Beatles records, but Henley eventually took a turn his father could approve -- he became a minister. For nine years, beginning at age 19, he served at a small church in the Ozark Mountains.

His religious calling lasted until Houston judge Paul Pressler led the move to take the Southern Baptist Convention in a hard-right direction. Henley was at Fort Worth's Southwestern Seminary at the time, getting a master's degree.

"They're taking it over, firing my professors," he says. "That purging of the professors, people who were God-fearing, Bible-believing people getting kicked out because...they weren't politically correct on all these social issues, that was it."

Henley returned to Arkansas and got in the savings and loan business with his brother, just in time for that industry's collapse. The two faced criminal charges over the bank's failure, but both were acquitted.

The prosecution was an effort to put pressure on his sister to give up dirt on Bill Clinton, Henley believes, even though the trial took place in 1990.

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