In 1982, I worked as the director of a small county museum. After its grand opening, the board decided to admit everyone free of charge for the first week or so. We wanted to be the “people’s museum” though the phrase had not yet been coined.
It was late April or early May and very warm, so I propped the front door open in the hope some fresh air would make its way into my office.
Lots of familiar faces turned up during the free admission period, and I was happy to see them, point out interesting objects, tell them what they would find on the second and third floors. One late afternoon, I was busy at my desk when I heard footsteps in the hall. I went out to make our visitor welcome.
It was a young man in cut-off blue jeans. He was either wearing his shirt unbuttoned or no shirt at all. I’m not altogether sure he had on shoes. Somehow I got close enough to notice he had “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his knuckles.
I was uneasy, but he was just the kind of guy we wanted to see in the museum so he could broaden his horizons, perhaps pique his interest in local history and help him to become the well-rounded citizen our county deserved. Our museum was for everyone, and I bid him welcome and told him he was free to browse around.
As soon as he was out of sight, though, I called my friend, Teresa.
“I’m a little scared,” I said. “Stay on the phone with me.” Then I explained what was going on.
“What am I supposed to do if he attacks you?” she asked. “My phone will be tied up and I won’t be able to call the police.” This was, of course, before households had multiple phone lines.
“I just want him to know I’m in contact with the outside world so he won’t get any ideas,” I replied.
It had not occurred to me until then how isolated I was in an old building in the middle of a college campus.
Teresa sighed and began telling me about her day. A few minutes later, the young man returned to stand at my office door. I noticed his posture was odd, but I didn’t have on my glasses. At a distance it was hard to make out details, but there for all to see was the last thing in the world I wanted to see.
“Teresa,” I said. “I think he’s exposing himself.”
“Hang up the phone and call the police,” she said. “Do it right now.”
“I can’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I don’t have on my glasses, and I’m not about to put them on now.”
While Teresa and I were arguing over what I should do, he eased out the door and left. I called the police.
They asked me to come down to the station to look at mug shots. I had no trouble picking him out; his description included the jail house tattoos. Turns out he was no more than a kid, about 19, who had just gotten out of jail. “He’s trouble,” the policeman said with a chuckle. I think he got a kick out of my predicament.
It wasn’t clear whether they were going to do anything about it, even though he had stolen purses out of campus offices.
Later, I realized he’d made off with a few small but precious relics from the museum, too. I never saw the young man again. Perhaps the police have their own version of catch and release — with a warning to stay out of the county.
When the board heard what happened (that was excruciatingly embarrassing) they reacted swiftly, making sure I had a top-of-the-line handheld device that would trigger a mighty alarm should I ever be in trouble again.
After all these years, my reaction still bothers me, and I offer this story as a how-not-to.
Basically I was too timid to act in my own self defense. Not so now. Politeness gave way to self-preservation a long time ago.
Jan Hearne can be reached at