B.T. Collins: A reminiscence

It’s been just over 20 years since B. T. Collins died but his integrity, gritty character and good cheer in the face of adversity set an example for all of us. He was a Green Beret captain who lost his right hand and right leg in a grenade attack in Viet Nam and joked about it. A “man’s man” whose favorite charity was WEAVE, Women Escaping A Violent Environment. A man dead serious about governmental policy who never took himself too seriously. A man who once took off his steel hook and tossed it across the table at a Land Park dinner party after the host’s young son asked to see it.

California is a state whose size, population, diversity, and economy has had and continues to have an immense impact on the nation and the world. Shepherding that impact have been a host of political leaders whose knowledge, savvy, and personal style have made them unique. Few have left a more indelible memory than Collins.

He was a self-described “Kill a Commie for Christ Republican” who was appointed by a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, to run the California Conservation Corps, and soon turned the troubled agency into a national model.

When Collins died in March 1993, the memorial service in Capitol Park was attended by thousands of mourners and three governors, while Red Cross helicopters and Cobra gunships flew the missing-man formation overhead.

Gov. Pete Wilson, who had appointed Collins as Director of the California Youth Authority and later urged him to run for the Assembly, reportedly choked up during his eulogy and said “If B. T. were here, he’d call me a candy-assed Marine and tell me to pull myself together.”

Blogger “Doc” who worked for Collins recalled BT’s classic Irish wake and “the sight of two men staggering drunk down the hallway of the hotel together, arm in arm, each one holding the other upright. One was a scruffy bearded vet, with a POW/MIA hat, jump boots and cutoff jean jacket loaded with unit patches. The other wore a $1,500 suit and $500 shoes. Both men were crying their eyes out and laughing heartily at the same time. I thought, Yup that’s BT in a nutshell right there.”

Outrageous, courageous, irreverent, bawdy, tough, heavy drinker, profane, sensitive — all of those adjectives and more applied to Collins who seemed to have a regular seat at David’s Brass Rail, a long-gone bar on 12th Street near the Capitol. He drank, ate rich food and caroused with prodigious abandon, and often stayed out much of the night.

But he was a man who believed in involvement and total commitment. After winning election to the State Assembly, he complained that it was “an adult day care center” and said, according to Maureen Collins Baker’s book about her brother, “It’s downright awful. The rooms are full of ego-driven people who do nothing but talk. The problems are enormous, the phone calls nasty, and nobody is in charge of anything.” He was clearly appalled by what he found and was determined to change it or, at the very least, shake it up. When he died, he had a number of bills waiting to be introduced to the Assembly floor, many as provocative as the man himself.

Phil Isenberg, the ex-mayor of Sacramento, veteran of the Legislature and currently chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, remembered Collins well.

“How do you describe someone who’s bigger than life? The loss of a hand and a leg helped define B. T. and the outrageous personality he put on top of it all kind of blended into the man he became. We had offices near each other in the Capitol and I stopped often to lecture him on booze and all the other stuff, which he paid no attention to,” Isenberg said.

“B. T. consciously developed his personality into this amazing kind of guy who appeared to say and do almost anything. He was loyal to the people he worked for and worked with, even if he thought they were dead wrong on politics. As he told Jerry Brown many times,” Isenberg added.

Columnist Debra Saunders reported that Collins, when interviewed by then first-term Gov. Brown who wanted to know if Collins had voted for him, had replied, “I never vote for short ex-Jesuits.”

Collins got the job and later, in a stunning move, became Brown’s chief of staff in spite of his unalterable Republican standing. Saunders also quoted him as saying , “I don’t believe in single-issue politics. I have to vote my conscience whether you agree with me or not. I will not tell you what you want to hear. I’m nobody’s boy.”

That was always clear. He was nobody’s boy. And he believed in service. Baker’s book, Outrageous Hero: The B. T, Collins Story, describes his relentless work for causes he believed in. When Brown appointed him to run the California Conservation Corps, he set about religiously to reinvigorate the organization and greeted its members with the motto: Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions.

Then he told them, “I’m going to work you to death.” Later, he was a driving force behind the passage of a bill by Assemblyman Richard Floyd, working tirelessly for the creation of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Capitol Park. The Memorial, built entirely through donations, contains the names of 5,822 Californians, dead or missing in action.

Brien Thomas Collins grew up in a family atmosphere described by his sister as ideal. But World War II resulted in the death of a cousin at Normandy and their father’s enlistment in the Navy at age 35 and service in the Pacific. She describes her father’s return from the Pacific war and the resumption of family dinner table discussions where they were all encouraged to speak their minds and subsequently learn about devotion to service and country through their father’s words and daily behavior.

Collins went off to college but Vietnam intervened and while many men his age safely stayed in school or went north to Canada, he enlisted in the Army and went to Officer Candidate School. Initially drawing stateside duty, he asked to be sent to Viet Nam and was assigned to the First Air Cavalry there. He completed a one-year tour and promptly requested a second, returning to Viet Nam as an executive officer with a Special Forces Mobile Unit in the Mekong Delta, an area controlled by the Viet Cong.

It was there, in 1967, that he was wounded, came close to death, and was sent home with a seriously altered body and three Bronze Stars. Months of rehabilitation followed.

He enrolled at Santa Clara University and quickly won a reputation as a friend, a self-deprecating humorist and wise beyond his years. On off days, he went to San Francisco where he visited with wounded vets at the Presidio and in winter to the ski slopes where he broke the remnants of his right arm. By acclamation of the student body, he was selected to give the commencement address.

Collins first stop in Sacramento was as Deputy Legislative Secretary to Brown where he served as the Governor’s interface to Assembly Republicans. His sister’s book relates that he called himself the “House Nazi” and quipped that he was selected because “nobody’s going to hit a one-armed man.” She reported that he decried the governor’s lack of office wall furnishings and that he personally hung framed, ludicrous items on the walls, but that Brown never blinked an eye.

First viewed as a joke, Collins soon impressed his Republican colleagues with his candor and honesty and refusal to accept the status quo. When the budget failed to pass, he refused to take his salary. As the Los Angeles Times’ Pete King reported, he is an “old fashioned pol, he knows all the operators and busboys, and they all know B. T.” He quickly won them over along with colleagues. King reported that “Besides his toothbrush, a wad of tissue sticks out of his back pocket and he seems almost insulted when a more fastidious colleague attempts to tidy him up. He talks like a trooper, taking care to spell certain unprintables.”

A Times story by the late reporter Bella Stumbo – who excelled at personality profiles — quoted some of those “unprintables” at length, such as Collins’ characterization of Brown as “out in Uranus half the time” and his description of Brown’s hair oil as “disgusting.” After the story ran, Collins offered to resign, but Brown refused. Collins, who never challenged the accuracy of the quotes, later told the Washington Post that Stumbo “totally destroyed me. But it was nobody’s fault but my own…. She’s an incredibly charming person.”

When Brown’s loss in a 1982 U.S. Senate left him out of work, Collins turned to Wall Street where he was an immediate success. But State Treasurer Tom Hayes asked him to return to public service as Deputy Treasurer and he did so, sacrificing 70 percent of his income.

Isenberg says, “Whatever B. T. was, conservative, ex-army guy, he was also loyal to the people he worked for but more important he gave a lot of himself. For example, both of us were involved in WEAVE, and the first emergency shelter was called the B. T. Collins Emergency Shelter. He was on the Board for years and reportedly named WEAVE in his estate. I know he contributed heavily to it.”

B. T.’s final curtain call before a heart attack took his life was in response to a request by Wilson to run for the Legislature where he won a seat in a runoff, then won again. He was just 52.

His stool at David’s Brass Rail Bar was vacant.

Ed’s Note: Jim Cameron is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly

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