He’s not frightened of anything

February 9, 2012

Journalist to discuss career and media at Tech

News Reporter


Dick J. Reavis isn’t scared of anything, especially when it comes to getting a good story.

Dick J. Reavis, far left, and a mine worker descend into a dangerous Mexican “pocito,” a type of coal mine not seen in industrial countries since the 18th century. After a mine like this blew up, killing a dozen people, Reavis wrote a series for the San Antonio Express-News on the dangers of these mines. The series was translated and republished by Mexico’s Newsweek, Proceso. –Submitted Photo


His approach to journalism is as fierce as a West Texas dust storm, and when he speaks, his voice is slow, yet deliberate and precise like a poet or orator.


“Hell, I would rather hang out with the poets. They can write better,” said Reavis, a professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who will speak at Tech Wednesday.


With six books under his belt and numerous articles in Texas Monthly magazine, where he was an editor, Reavis has dedicated his life to covering everything from the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, where he bought a Harley and carried a gun for protection, to faking his identity and going undercover to get a story.


Reavis does not just cover events though.


He participates.


“I think of myself as a magazine writer primarily,” Reavis said. “Magazine copy was a big jump from working in newspapers. If you talk to the novelist, they say it is easier to write a novel than a short story.”


Reavis comes from a family of small-town journalists, so he had exposure to the trade from a young age.


“I think I learned from that a certain approach to journalism, but I never wanted to do it because I had grown up in it.”


Reavis went to undergraduate school at the University of Texas at Austin from 1963-68, where he majored in English.


At age 19, Reavis moved to Alabama to work for Martin Luther King Jr.’ organization, and the experience was life-changing for him.


“It changed my whole outlook on everything,” he said. “I certainly didn’t want to be a journalist because I saw what the newspapers were saying about us.”


He worked for three years as a welfare worker and in the course of this, wrote several free-lance articles for the underground press.


“I was 28 before I ever got paid for a news story,” he said. “I still consider myself a left-wing journalist, but I consider myself critical of anyone’s opinion.”


Reavis came out of the civil rights movement mad as hell.


“In the late ‘60s, everyone was joining left wing parties. There were the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen. They were like Occupy, but with bad manners.”


The Weathermen was a radical anti-American leftist group who plotted the violent overthrow of the U.S. government starting in the late ‘60s through the mid-70s.


After working for the underground press, Reavis moved back to Texas and worked at his father’s paper for three years.


“My mother had to convince my father to let me have the job,” Reavis said. “Learning what you learn at small town papers gives you a whole look at society. You cover the school board and the Kiwanis club. You get to know how one small town operates.”


For Reavis’ first year at the paper, it was all fun and games. The second, it was easier, and then the third year, he got bored.


“Most of the events you cover, you can put on a calendar,” he said. “The harvest comes about the same time every year.”


Reavis decided to go back to graduate school, where he obtained a master’s degree in philosophy from University of Texas at Arlington.


While there, he attended a forum where he met a prominent freelance writer, Gary Cartwright, from Texas Monthly, one of the most respected publications in the nation.


“You sell stories by knowing editors,” Reavis said. “Someone at the Monthly saw a story I wrote, and then I started getting short assignments from them, and this led to longer ones.”


At that time, most of the staff at Texas Monthly had Ivy League bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees in creative writing.


“I thought to myself, what can I do that they can’t?” Reavis asked himself, and the answer: He could speak Spanish.


“From having been in the civil rights movement, I wasn’t scared of anything. I could cover the people they didn’t know how to talk to, and I could cover Mexico because they didn’t have anyone who could speak Spanish,” Reavis said.


Reavis has spoken Spanish since he was 16 years old, and it was this and his fearless approach to journalism that got him the job.


This led Reavis to his first story covering a group of guerillas in Mexico.


“You immerse yourself in the subject you are writing about for a couple of months, so you know it better than any journalist,” he said. “You do it so you can discuss the relevant factors with people.”


Reavis would go on to be senior editor at Texas Monthly and write for them for the next 10 years.


“The only reason the Texas Monthly put up with me was because I could cover Mexico,” he said.


Reavis then worked at The San Antonio Light and after 18 months, went to The Dallas Observer, where he was working in 1993 when the ATF and FBI raided the Branch-Davidian compound, Mt. Carmel near Waco.


The raid became a media spectacle.


After a 51-day stand-off, in which David Koresh and his followers refused to surrender to the FBI, the Mt. Carmel compound caught fire killing 74 people, 25 of which were children.


Nine survivors were tried on counts of aiding and abetting, the murder of federal officers and unlawful possession of firearms.


“The editor sent me there to do a story on Waco, and the only source of information were from the press conferences the ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and FBI had every day,” he said. “The press conferences reminded me of the press conferences in Mexico. They gave us coffee and doughnuts, and we weren’t allowed to talk to the other side, because they were in jail.”


Seeing that the government was not going to give a straight story, Reavis knew he would have to get a story from the Davidians themselves.


“I got a call from someone saying all the survivors were staying in a hotel in Waco,” he said.


At first, Reavis could not get the Branch Davidians to talk to him at all, but he had something they didn’t – a car.


“I sat in the lobby and eventually they would ask me for a ride,” he said. “If you hang around any group of people for five to six hours, the ice thaws.”


Reavis tried to pitch the story to his editors at The Dallas Observer, but was not granted the time to work on the story, so he quit work there and got a book deal with Simon and Schuster.


Over the course of the next year, Reavis immersed himself in the teachings of the Branch Davidians, attended trials and read 10,000 pages of transcripts.


All of his efforts resulted in the book “The Ashes of Waco,” still considered a definitive investigation into the Waco affair and the first to question the government’s involvement.


“If you really do listen to human beings, it builds friendships. You may write things about them but if you are any good in the process, you will convince them you are good and you will give them a fair break. That is pretty much true of all the underworld types I work with,” Reavis said.


Since Waco, Reavis interviewed Timothy McVeigh for a book he was under contract to write on the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, where an office building was blown up in response to Waco and the right-wing government.


Reavis has also authored seven other books including the most recent “Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers,” where Reavis went undercover as a day laborer and worked menial jobs, and is a gritty and seldom observed view of the job force.


“I am on sabbatical right now from the university and finishing up another book,” Reavis said. “Sabbaticals are good for any trade. After a number of years you are living in a tunnel and you need to get back out into the real world. It will help whenever you eventually have to return to that tunnel.”


Reavis’ goal in journalism was never to change the world.


“Changing the world has never been an objective for me though,” he said. “I needed to keep myself alive, and I had a sense of that all along.”


Email comments to gpb009@latech.edu.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *