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Documentary on life of Allegheny alum screens on 24th anniversary of his suicide


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BY KATRINA TULLOCH
tullock@allegheny.edu

Budd Dwyer, an Allegheny alum and former Pa. State Treasurer, is the main focus of a YouTube video with 268,060 views at this time. The video, titled “Budd Dwyer – Suicidal Senator, pwns himself in a Gun in Mouth traditional An Hero,” is flagged by the YouTube community as one with explicit content. It shows Dwyer taking his own life.

Photo credit: EIGHTY FOUR FILMS

On Jan. 22, 1987, Dwyer arranged a televised press conference with the purported intent to announce his resignation from office following accusations of bribery. Attendees and viewers were horrified when he pulled a .357 Magnum revolver out of a manila envelope and fired a single shot into his mouth. The cameras kept rolling. It was a snow day and hundreds of children were home from school, watching it on TV.

Exactly 24 years later to the day, filmmaker James Dirschberger will travel to Dwyer’s hometown to screen his documentary “Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer” at Dwyer’s alma mater.

Dirschberger was about 19 years old when he first viewed a video of Budd Dwyer’s suicide online. His first reaction of shock melted quickly into fervent curiosity. After finding no documentary had yet been made on Dwyer’s life, he contacted the Dwyer family to propose a project with his independent production company Eighty Four Films.

“When I finally approached his family, I told them I planned to make the movie with or without their involvement but that their help would certainly be a huge bonus,” he said.

Budd Dwyer attended Allegheny College in the 1960s and went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts before entering politics as a Republican, first elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He and Allegheny College’s historian Jonathan Helmreich were friends, often sharing lunch during the time Dwyer worked in the alumni office.

“I remember our lunches as filled with good humor and laughter,” Helmreich said.

Ironically, the only political issue Helmreich ever pushed Dwyer on was gun control. Helmreich thought gun purchases should be registered. Dwyer remained stagnant in his belief that in this county, and the state of Pennsylvania, such legislation was a non-starter.

“I last saw Budd in the Quality parking lot (where Walgreens is now) only a few weeks or days before his death,” said Helmreich in an e-mail. “I told him I hoped matters would work out favorably for him in his trial. He said not to worry, he would really have something to say that would make everything all right.”

Photo credit: EIGHTY FOUR FILMS

Dwyer committed suicide one day before his federal court sentencing hearing after a jury found him guilty of taking $300,000 in campaign donations from a computer company in exchange for a $4 million state contract. Dwyer was also accused of mail fraud, aiding racketeering and conspiracy to commit bribery. Dwyer faced a maximum of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine. He persistently claimed to be innocent.

Helmreich said Dwyer’s suicide had a shocking and saddening effect on those members of the Allegheny faculty and administrative staff who worked with him. A common assertion made by those who know him well, including Helmreich, is that pressure to resign after accusations of bribery drove Dwyer to the breaking point.

“To this day I believe that a completely clear story [about] Budd has not come out,” Helmreich said in an e-mail.

Helmreich believes that, as an idealist from a small town, Budd could never come to terms with how he had been treated, with his own failure and how he had let his family and friends down by a momentary lapse.

“This drove him to distraction and ultimately suicide,” Helmreich said. “Of course his political enemies had no expectation that Budd would shoot himself. They probably just wanted to give him a good rap on the knuckles and get him in line.”

Dirschberger navigates speculation of Dwyer’s motives using interviews with Dwyer’s family, friends and colleagues. He described his frequent interactions with the Dwyer family throughout the filmmaking process as very intense and emotional.

“I didn’t want to offend or make anyone upset,” he said, “but I was walking that line between telling a story and being respectful, but still having to ask those hard questions.”

The title “Honest Man” came from an emerging theme in the filmmaker’s interviews.

“Every single person I talked to called him honest,” Dirschberger said. “I found people who disagreed with his legal case, but I couldn’t really find anyone that didn’t like Budd Dwyer.”

Dirschberger hopes students will come away from the documentary with a better understanding of the man’s life before the suicide. He sees Dwyer’s rags-to-riches political experience as proof the “American Dream” still exists.

Director James Dirschberger (above) will screen "Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer" in the Vukovich Center on Jan. 22. (Photo credit: EIGHTY FOUR FILMS)

“He grew up on a farm, he didn’t come from a wealthy family, but he still made something of himself,” Dirschberger said. “I think it’s inspiring, whether you’re from a small town or sprawling city, hard work still equals success in this country.”

Hundreds more grainy videos exist on YouTube slowing down the press conference footage or showing the reactions of people viewing the grisly suicide for the first time. Dirschberger offers a different, rare perspective outside of the viral fad: a look at Dwyer’s life before the political controversy with interviews from people who knew him as a person, not as an internet meme.

The documentary “Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer” will screen twice on Jan. 22, once at 5 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. in the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts. Director James Dirschberger and Budd Dwyer’s son, Rob, will be available to answer questions.

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2 Comments

2 Responses to “Documentary on life of Allegheny alum screens on 24th anniversary of his suicide”

  1. Brian Geldin on January 15th, 2011 8:56 am

    Great article, Katrina! Tickets for the screenings of “Honest Man” at Allegheny College on January 22 can be purchased in advance online at http://tinyurl.com/filmtix.

    [Reply]

  2. James Strickler on January 24th, 2011 3:14 pm

    Katrina…Your article is well written and details the events accurately.
    I am a staunch believer that he was framed.

    [Reply]

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Documentary on life of Allegheny alum screens on 24th anniversary of his suicide