To the man who appeared in my home tonight, the present show at the Memphis Academy of Arts will be removed. Nudes will not be used at the academy."
Most Memphians who tuned in to WHBQ radio on the evening of March 25, 1971, were puzzled by this cryptic message, read over the air by Dr. Richard Batey, a humanities professor at Southwestern (now Rhodes College). But the terse announcement — expressly designed for the ears of one listener in particular — freed Batey's son from the hands of an armed lunatic. It also ended months of deadly threats directed towards the art academy by at least one fellow (and maybe more), upset because the school used nude models and displayed nude photos. Here's a look back at the bizarre events 40 years ago that, as academy director Ted Rust put it, "really kept us on our toes."
"I just become an object"
It all started innocently enough. Commercial Appeal reporter William Thomas wandered over to the Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art) one December evening in 1968 and watched a life-drawing class sketching a nude model. He wrote a two-page story about it, "They Look at Me as They Would a Pop Bottle," published in the January 5, 1969, issue of Mid-South, the newspaper's Sunday magazine.
There was nothing remotely sexy about the article, which was buried towards the back of the publication. Thomas noted that the academy was one of the few schools in the South that used nude models, but "in reality, there is nothing more clinical than being in a classroom with a nude girl and a dozen toiling artists."
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The models themselves aren't particularly beautiful, he wrote ("certainly there is nothing approaching Racquel Welch here") and even the class instructor that evening, photographer Murray Riss, said, "The girl with the 36-22-36 figure may be nice to look at, but she doesn't offer much challenge to the artist. The model I remember most weighed 300 pounds. Now therewas something to get excited about."
One of the models told Thomas, "I just become an object — a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. They are artists, and their purpose is not to enjoy me, but to draw me. Instead of thinking about what's immoral, they are thinking about what's beautiful."
Well, some readers didn't see it that way.
"We started getting phone calls the night that story appeared," said Riss, "telling us we'd better get out of Memphis or we were going to be killed."
Such a reaction was a shock to Riss, who had just moved to Memphis that year: "Coming from the Rhode Island College of Design and the City College of New York, using models was natural. Nobody gave it a second thought. Art school, models, fine."
Riss consulted with Rust, and when the threats continued, they called the police. "The police came and interviewed me," said Riss, "sort of chuckling all along, like it was one big joke."
A few months later, everyone stopped laughing.
"So he went into action."
On the morning of January 1, 1970, Dolph Smith, an instructor at the art academy, was eating breakfast at his home in Central Gardens. "My son, who was about 6 or 7, came running in and said, 'Dad, there's a bomb under the car!" said Smith. "And sure enough, there was."
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The police rushed to the house and discovered a wooden box tucked beneath the gas tank of Smith's car, which was parked under the carport. Inside the box were two open bottles of lighter fluid, and a burning cigarette lighter.
"It was amazing," said Smith. "There was a string attached to the bottles that trailed out of our yard and then went down the street. They were going to pull that, and it would have spilled the lighter fluid onto the cigarette lighter, and the whole thing would go up."
Just one problem. "Lighter fluid is not that combustible, thank God, and apparently they didn't know that," said Smith. "When the police came out, they said what happened was that the lighter fluid actually put the flame out."
Police assumed the erstwhile bomber was one of the many cranks who had complained about the nude models.
"There had been phone calls and letters to the school from someone who never signed himself," said Burton Callicott, a longtime professor at the art academy. "I never saw those letters myself so can't say much about them. But this was some crank, worked up about the fact that we used nude models. Apparently he kept trying to get some pronouncement from the school that we would discontinue nude models, and of course we didn't, so he went into action."
Months passed. The next target was Callicott himself.
On the morning of December 4, 1970, Callicott had picked up fellow artist Ted Faiers and driven to the art academy. He parked in the lot behind the building and, as he got out of his car, another staff member called out and said he must have lost his gas cap.
"I had one of those cars with the gas cap in the back, behind the license plate that hinged down," said Callicott. "Well, it was pushed down, and sitting on it was a clock with a wire that went down into the gas tank."
Callicott and Faiers found Ted Rust, who summoned the police.
"Before they got there," said Callicott, "a young assistant of Ted's did a very foolish thing. He was thinking about saving my car, I guess, so he pulled that wire out, and on the end was a pipe bomb. He threw it on the ground, but nothing happened."
The police told him later they knew why the bomb didn't explode, but they didn't want to tell reporters, because they didn't want the bomber to know what he'd done wrong.
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That afternoon, Callicott got another shock: "When I went home, to my horror I discovered the gas cap in my driveway. They had put that on my car while it was parked at home. The police said the bomb had been set to go off at 1 o'clock in the morning, and it would have set my house afire and the one next door, because the car was sitting in the driveway between them. And I guess the only reason was because I taught one of the life-drawing classes that used nude models."
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Rust dismissed the aborted bombings: "My mother was living with me at the time, and she would get these phone calls while I was at school, saying I was going to be done in, but nothing came of it."
Despite the threats, the art academy refused to stop its use of nude models. "Doing without them is like trying to run a school without books," Rust told reporters.
"Some kind of a prank."
On the evening of March 25, 1971, Richard Batey and his 14-year-old son Eddie were sitting in their den at 4327 Rhodes, watching the NCAA semifinals pitting Villanova against Western Kentucky. An ordained Church of Christ minister, the elder Batey taught a Western civilization course at the Memphis Academy of Arts — his only connection with that school. Sneezing and coughing from a bad cold that night, Eddie was a student at Harding Academy, a kid later described by the principal as "a straight-A student with the best Bible knowledge of any student in the eighth grade."
Richard's wife, Caroline, was away visiting friends that night. The Bateys' two daughters, 16-year-old Evon and 12-year-old Kay, were home, studying in their bedroom. Just as the game was about to go into overtime, the family's Pekingese started barking wildly, and then Evon came into the den and calmly said, "Daddy, there's a burglar in the house."
Richard Batey walked into the living room and switched on the light. It was immediately switched off by a man Batey later said was wearing a heavy coat buttoned up to his chin, a hat pulled down to his eyes, long scraggly hair, and a beard and moustache "which looked false." If this weren't shocking enough, the man had pulled his blue socks over his shoes, or was perhaps only wearing socks. Taking all this in, Batey also noticed the .45 automatic the man aimed at him.
"I thought it was some kind of prank," Batey recalled. "One of my students, with a fake gun, playing some kind of joke."
It was no joke. The man pushed Batey back into the den and commanded him to lie on the ground, along with the two girls. When he discovered Mrs. Batey wasn't home, he seemed surprised, but then switched to Plan B. Walking into the kitchen, he ripped the phone off the wall, then grabbed some dishrags and ordered Eddie to tie the hands and feet of his father and sisters. Eddie did as he was told, but thinking fast, he didn't tie his father's hands very tightly.
The gunman then lashed Eddie's hands together with the same rags and said, "You're coming with me." Then "speaking in what seemed to be an unnatural voice," according to Batey, he leaned down and ordered him, "You go on WHBQ tonight at 10 and say that those nude photos are gone, or I kill the boy."
Richard protested that his son couldn't go outside without shoes on, so Eddie was allowed to go into a bedroom and fetch some shoes.
"All I could find were my father's house shoes, which were four sizes too big for me," said Eddie. "And while I was putting them on, my hands came untied. I didn't want the guy to think I was trying to pull anything, so I yelled out, 'Hey, my hands got loose,' and the guy said, 'Oh, forget about it.'"
Then, just as the two were about to leave, Richard complained again; Eddie couldn't go outside without his coat. And again Eddie was allowed to go back into a bedroom, but all he could find was his bathrobe.
The gunman had not brought his own car, so he grabbed the family's keys, pushed Eddie facedown on the back floor of their Volkswagen squareback sedan, and hopped in the driver's seat.
"He couldn't drive a stick shift," said Eddie. "So we were just jerking, trying to get out of the driveway. He crunched the gears and we lurched forward, and he finally got the hang of it a little bit."
Where are they now?
Eddie Batey is today a seventh-grade teacher and the director of the Memphis Leaders program at Memphis University School.
Richard Batey retired from Southwestern and now lives in Nashville with his wife, Caroline.
Ted Rust retired from the Memphis College of Art in 1975, after serving 35 years as director. He is an active sculptor in Memphis and recently contributed the Ikon sculpture that stands at the school's entrance.
Burton Callicott retired from MCA in 1973 after teaching there 36 years. He passed away in 2003.
Murray Riss left MCA in 1984. A professional photographer, he is a contributor to Memphismagazine.
Dolph Smith retired from MCA in 1995 after teaching there 30 years. A very active painter and conceptual artist, he now lives in Ripley, Tennessee.
Henry Loeb served two separate terms as mayor of Memphis (1959-1963 and 1968-1971) before retiring from politics and moving to Forrest City, Arkansas, where he died in 1992.
Leslie Krims is a professional photographer and artist in Buffalo, New York, and still teaches at SUNY. He has published five books of his work:
This article appears in the November 2009 issue of Memphis Magazine
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