Documentary reexamines Budd Dwyer case

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Rob Dwyer has never seen the viral footage of his father committing suicide, and he doesn’t plan to.

But traveling to Allegheny to speak after the screening premiere of “Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer” makes him nervous.

“It never gets easier,” Rob Dwyer said.

Rob Dwyer visited Allegheny College on Saturday to sit on a question and answer panel following both screenings of the documentary of his father’s life, on the 24th anniversary of his father’s death.

Katrina Tulloch/THE CAMPUS

Budd Dwyer attended Allegheny College in the 1960s, where he majored in political science and accounting and was a brother of Theta Chi fraternity.

He entered politics as a Republican and worked his way up from humble beginnings on a poor farm to being elected Pennsylvania State Treasurer.

Dwyer was found guilty of taking $300,000 in campaign donations from a computer company in exchange for a $4 million state contract.
Following additional charges of mail fraud, aiding racketeering and conspiracy to commit bribery, Dwyer faced a maximum of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine.

On Jan. 22, 1987, one day before his federal court sentencing, he shot himself in the mouth with a .357 Magnum revolver on live television.

Director of “Honest Man” James Dirschberger works professionally as an editor and independent filmmaker, but “Honest Man” is his first feature-length film.

Rob Dwyer has only seen an edited version of the documentary without the footage of his father pulling the trigger.

“I think Jim did something incredible with the few resources he had,” Rob Dwyer said. “I give him a lot of credit.”

The documentary starts with the infamous footage of Budd Dwyer’s fatal press conference. It ricochets back and forth between clips of the conference and clips from Budd’s life: a waving American flag, a yellowed photograph of his family, his inauguration as Pennsylvania State Treasurer. Every time the conference footage reappeared, the audience took a quiet, collective gasp, anticipating the gunshot.

The film is a mix of interviews with Dwyer’s family, friends and colleagues and dozens of newspaper clippings documenting the Dwyer case as it unfolded. It includes the only interview on record with William Smith, the man whose court testimony led to Dwyer’s guilty charges, according to the film. Low thumping music resembling a heartbeat leads up to the actual suicide footage.

The $8 admission price to attend the film went to an R. Budd Dwyer scholarship set up by Dwyer’s friends in Meadville. It allows students and adults in the Meadville area to get funds to attend college, vocational training, or anything that allows them to have a high quality of life and higher education, according to Dirschberger.

“If you can give people a chance, just give them an opportunity to learn and better themselves, who knows what they could do?” Dirschberger said. “If [the documentary] can change people’s lives and have some sort positive [impact,] that’s probably what Budd would have wanted.”

Both screenings were followed by a question and answer panel with Dirschberger, Rob Dwyer, Budd Dwyer’s sister Mary Kun from Seattle, Wa. and author William Kiesling, who has written about Budd Dwyer’s life and the surrounding political controversies leading up to his suicide.

Some key players from Dwyer’s case were missing from Dirschberger’s film, such as U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Muir, the prosecutor James West, Gov. Richard Thornburgh and John Torquato, Jr, who owned the computer company involved in the Dwyer case.

“Those were all people I hoped to talk to and include in the film but for obvious reasons they all declined,” Dirschberger said. “But I think their silence sort of speaks for them,”

On the panel, Dirschberger explained his futile attempts to get interviews with Torquato.
“[Torquato] said if I ever called him again, he was going [to] end me,” Dirschberger said, grinning sheepishly at the audience. “Not wanting to be ended, I didn’t call back. They had nothing to gain by telling a more accurate story.”

Dirschberger also attempted to interview seven members of the jury who found Dwyer guilty of all charges, but none of them wanted to talk unless all of them could talk.
“That was hard because I think two of them are dead,” Dirschberger said.

Julie Stavorski of Conneaut Lake had Budd Dwyer as a senior homeroom teacher when she went to Cambridge Springs High School in 1963.
“I couldn’t believe any of those allegations,” Stavorski said. “I think [Honest Man] is wonderful because those of us who know him here would never believe those things.”

Professor of Communication Arts James Strickler could not attend the screening but knew Budd Dwyer well and considered him a friend.

“I am still a supporter who refuses to believe he did anything wrong,” Strickler said in an e-mail. “[Budd] told me a year before his death that he and the Governor were at odds because he questioned expenses of the Governor’s office. My personal feeling is that he was being framed and set up by others. In desperation he took the extreme measure to kill himself.”

Allegheny College Historian Jonathan Helmreich reflects on the community’s response to Budd’s suicide.

“I would judge that there was a fair amount of suppressed anger among those who knew Budd,” Helmreich said. “Anger that a good man and a good family would be so destroyed, anger at those who pushed Budd into a no-win situation, anger and dismay that Budd chose such a drastic path of response.”

Strickler remembers one eerie event regarding George J. Barco, owner of Meadville Master Antenna, who mentored Dwyer during law school.

“I was in a meeting with [Barco] when he was interrupted by a call from Budd,” Strickler said, in an e-mail. “Mr. Barco returned to the meeting, very disturbed. He said Budd wanted to thank him for his assistance. Then Mr. Barco predicted that he would commit suicide. That was two days before he did.”