Throwing Chairs at Phil Donahue
Looking back, the felicity with which the media tracked down victims in a pre-internet world was unsettling. After my Dad’s assassination on March 10, 1993, my mom, sister, friends, and I huddled around the television watching news coverage of the killing, and it did not strike me as significantly odd when the phone started ringing with reporters on the other end. After all, there were phone books and news reports indicating Dad had family in Birmingham—how they knew our location is another mystery as they thought and reported, incorrectly, that we were from Pensacola for some time—and Gunn is a fairly uncommon name. So some persistent wrong dialing would eventually result in a match right?
Yet, when we finally worked out the details of the funeral and opted to bury Dad in Tennessee next to my matriarchal grandfather, we headed out to Winchester on March 11, and I assumed that moving northward would lessen the phone’s incessant din and give us an opportunity to grieve before having to face any media additional media blitz.
The visitation was on Friday, March 12, and the funeral was scheduled for Saturday, March 13. Our planning was complicated by a familial dispute over where the actual funeral and burial would take place. Dad’s family wanted him moved to Benton, Kentucky so he could be close to them; however, after the apocalyptic Thanksgiving just four months prior when Dad cut all ties with his patriarchal family, my sister and I a) did not envision an occasion that would bring us to Benton so a burial there meant we would not be able to visit dad in the future, and b) we felt it best to keep him with the family that did not abandon him and Winchester, we felt, was the best location.
Secondarily, but no less importantly, getting the body from Pensacola, Florida to Winchester, Tennessee while simultaneously getting us and our friends from Birmingham to Winchester proved hazardous given an approaching winter storm unlike any experienced in the South. In fact, were it not for the blizzard in Alabama and southern Tennessee, the funeral would have truly become a national media circus.
Alas, just as they did in Birmingham, the national media found us in Tennessee. People magazine had reporters on the ground asking for interviews as we tried to organize visitation and funeral services. In fact, they caught us on the steps of the funeral home, wanted to interview us on the spot, and quickly snapped some photos outside the picturesque antebellum home converted to funeral parlor and chapel. Similarly, the visitation was punctuated by reporters from everywhere, looking to talk with one or more of us family to get our personal reaction to recent events. In fact, I have vivid memories of talking with a reporter in the funeral home’s basement breakroom while the visitation was ongoing. Having never experienced anything even remotely close to these requests, I tried to be accommodating and polite while silently wishing for some peace. I just wanted to be with my Dad.
The snow hit Winchester the night of the visitation after everyone staying with us made it back to my grandmother’s house. We wondered if the funeral service could continue given the weather developments, and for a few moments the incessant phone ringing abated. While my friends and I toasted my Dad with bourbon and Coors Light we shared stories, laughed, and forgot about the real for a few moments.
On Saturday, March 13 we buried Dad in a snow covered cemetery in Winchester, Tennessee. Of course, media were on hand and they obtained a number of grieving money shots to litter their pages the next day. Some reporters wanted to talk and asked for comments, but it was cold, we were listless, tired, and veritable emotional vegetables so we finished at the graveside, said goodbyes, and huddled back to my grandmother’s to eat, drink, and blunt ourselves so we could get some much needed mental and physical rest.
I’ve never attended anything but a Southern funeral so I do not know if the food avalanche which follows the graveside service is a regional thing or something which is region neutral, but we had a houseful of guests who all brought comfort food for the family. As on the previous night, my friends and I ate and then retired downstairs and engaged in some subdued grief laden mild debauchery. As the day progressed, alcohol flowed, pipes glowed, and I finally relaxed to an extent thinking the gadfly reporter circus moved on to the next American tragedy when the phone rang again.
Mimi’s downstairs phone was one of those old Ma Bell wall mounted affairs with the eight foot spiraled cord and rotary dial. Someone yelled from upstairs where the adults had congregated since I was six and told me the phone was for me. I hesitated before answering, not wanting to answer another question about how it felt, how it feels, what would you say to Griffin, and other questions designed to draw a tear or presage a breakdown.
I answered the phone, leashed myself to the receiver, and walked into an adjoining bedroom closing the door which remained slightly ajar due to the umbilical tying the hand piece to the base. On the other end of the line was a warm sounding woman with a familiar southernish drawl. She introduced herself as Susan Hill and told me she knew Dad. She owned a number of abortion clinics and my father had worked at one or two of them over the years. Though we had never met, I had been in her clinics since I was 14.
She expressed her sympathy and explained how she and many others wanted to be at the funeral but were kept away by weather. She asked how I was holding up and I told her I was okay (lie) and waited to see what came next. In three days I learned when someone called to talk about the “tragic event” it typically meant some quid pro quo was coming. She then explained that a producer from the Donahue Show, a national talk show, had contacted her, requesting that she appear as a clinic owner, and asked if she knew how to reach someone from my family. She and I talked for quite some time about the benefits of going on the show, and I wondered privately and out loud if I would do my Dad, my family, and myself a disservice by continuing to publicize the event. She gave me the number for the producer, and I asked her to give me some time to think things over. Time, she explained, was an issue as they wanted to broadcast the show Monday—it was now Saturday night.
I spent the next few hours thinking and talking things through with friends and family. By this time, I heard my Dad’s brother was booked on another morning talk show which caused considerable angst since I assuredly did not want him speaking on my Dad’s behalf, or using his appearance to mystify and blur the lines about Dad’s death.
I believe I spoke with Susan again later Saturday night and told her I was leaning toward attending the show. She seemed pleased and told me to call her if I wavered. I then tried to reach the producer to talk through the details.
When I reached her, I did not think to ask why they wanted me on the show, I asked who would be the other guests, and I almost said no when they said an anti-abortion representative would be on hand. I was angry. I blamed the entire anti-abortion community for what happened, was sick of hearing—what would ultimately become a mantra for the antis—“well, he wasn’t a Christian,” or “I’m pro-life and I don’t support what he did,” and “Michael Griffin doesn’t represent all of us.” As far as I was concerned, they could fuck all with their qualifying apologies and excuses, and I wondered if I had the emotional readiness and/or intelligence to appear on a nationally broadcast TV show with sensationalistic tendencies, five days after the worst day in my 22 year old life. Add to that the fact that I would have to sit beside someone whose beliefs I felt contributed to my father’s death—even if in some small way. Had I known that Paul Hill was slated to be the anti-abortion co-guest, I would have turned down the invitation, but the producer was shrewd to withhold details of his ideology and plan prior to the show’s taping two days later. You see, Paul Hill felt my father’s murder was “justifiable homicide.”
Ignorant as I was of the kick in the face to come, I agreed to do the show, and they made arrangements for me to fly from Nashville to New York on Sunday, March 14 to attend the show’s taping/broadcast on Monday. I packed what I had, said goodbyes to my family, and headed out to Nashville to make my plane. Snow covered and lined the roads from Winchester to Nashville. What is typically at two and a half to three hour trip, seemed to take forever. While I drove, I wondered if I was doing the right thing, and I thought hard about what I would or could accomplish. From my perspective, few knew the absurd grief of politically motivated assassination, even fewer understood anti-abortion intolerance, hatred, and moral superiority, and slightly less knew the extent to which these people went to terrorize providers and their families. Ultimately, on that long snowy drive, I decided putting my personal grief on hold, to become the symbolic open wound, and to take advantage of the platform this tragic event proffered, I might actually help others like my Dad and our family. I knew Donahue reached a wide audience, and I thought perhaps we could reach some folks and change this insanity for the better.
On the other hand, though, I seriously wondered if I could maintain my composure, keep the tears and emotions at bay, and refrain from throwing chairs at Phil Donahue or the other guests. I certainly did not want to re-create the infamous Geraldo moment, and I seriously worried whether appearing on a daytime talk show would lessen the impact of Dad’s assassination; moreover, given it was a mere five days after his murder, I felt guilty about the performance as though I was doing a disservice to Dad and taking advantage of his death. Finally, I valued my privacy. Having recently left a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone, I was selfishly reluctant to give that privacy up even if was only for 15 minutes of fame.
With all that in mind, I continued on to Nashville, then New York, and made my television debut on March 15, 1993 two days after saying my final goodbyes to my Dad and friend who died too early. I felt confident I could make some small contribution by telling his story, as long as I could restrain myself from tossing a chair Donahue’s or Hill’s way.
David Gunn, Jr. is the son of David Gunn, Sr., the first abortion doctor to be assassinated by an anti-abortion gunman.
Photo by moppet65535 released under Creative Commons Share Alike licenses.