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Herman: 35 years later, A+ for Austinite who got Constitution amended?


Looks like we’re heading for a happier new ending on a happy old story that some of you might not know about. Gregory Watson seems headed for an upgrade.

We begin back in spring 1982 when Watson, then a University of Texas student, signed up for Sharon Waite’s GOV 310 course on American Government. For his term paper, young Watson researched the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a hot topic of the day.

But Watson diverted when he came upon a book that listed other proposed constitutional amendments proposed but never ratified by the required three-fourths of the states.

“And this one instantly jumped out at me,” he recalled.

“This one” was proposed in 1789 and concerned congressional pay raises. At the time Watson believed six states had ratified it, with the most recent being Virginia in 1791. (This turned out to be wrong; two others later did.)

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Another key year here is 1917. Before that, Congress did not put expiration dates on proposed constitutional amendments. That meant the 1789 one was still in play, and this gave birth to a term paper Watson recalls he titled, “Can a proposed constitutional amendment to the U.S. Constitution offered by Congress in 1789 still be ratified by the state legislatures after all these years?”

OK, not a title that smoothly rolls off the tongue, but on point.

The amendment says any pay hike members of Congress OK for themselves can’t take effect until after the subsequent U.S. House election. The topic was hot in the early 1980s because in 1981 Congress had, in Watson’s words, “slipped itself a sneaky pay raise” by tucking it into a coal miner health care bill.

So Watson turned his paper in to the course teaching assistant, who gave it a C-. Watson, a persistent fellow, appealed to Waite.

“She said she’d take a look at it. So I gave it to her,” Watson told me. “And then the next class period, she kind of physically tossed it back at me and said, ‘No change.’ ”

He got a C in the course and says he was “kind of, sort of” angry at Waite and the T.A.

“So I said, ‘I will not let this disappoint me. I will go out and get that thing ratified,’ ” Watson said.

He did, starting by contacting lawmakers in Maine in 1983. Watson’s thing became the 27th (and most recent) amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1992.

And that was that. The U.S. Constitution had a new amendment. And Watson still had a C in GOV 310.

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About a year ago, UT government professor Zach Elkins and KUT Managing Editor Matt Largey contacted Watson and expressed interest in his story, but Watson didn’t know what they were up to.

He found out March 4, live and on stage at the Paramount Theatre, where he had been invited for what he thought was to be a Q&A about his involvement in amending the U.S. Constitution. His story was one of several told at something called Pop-Up Magazine, which is kind of a live newsmagazine. Several other topics came up before Largey’s telling of Watson’s story, who then was invited on stage.

“It was at that point that professor Elkins handed me the envelope,” Watson said.

The envelope contained an Update of Student Academic Record form requesting that his 1982 grade in the government course be changed from C to A+. It was signed by Waite.

In the space for “Explanation of error, delay or special circumstances,” Waite wrote, “In light of the student’s heroic efforts to prove the professor and T.A. wrong in their assessment of his term paper, Mr. Watson deserves an A+.”

(FYI, UT doesn’t do plus or minus grades so, if the form is approved, Watson’s grade in the course will become an A.)

Waite, who was a lecturer at UT from 1981 to 1983, now works on a Mission citrus farm that’s been in her family since 1922. Thanks to Watson’s achievement, she proudly calls herself “a footnote to a footnote of history.”

But she says C was the proper course grade at the time because she thought his theory about getting the constitutional amendment ratified was far-fetched. “I thought it couldn’t be done,” she said. “So he just proceeded to prove me wrong.”

“Hey, a lowly lecturer has had more effect on the Constitution than anybody in the professorial ranks,” Waite said with a laugh.

Elkins said he teaches about Watson’s effort as an inspiring example of “heroic citizenship.”

“We just need the dean’s signature, and it’s done,” Elkins said of the grade change effort.

If this gets rejected, nobody should ever wear burnt orange again.

Largey remains understandably fascinated by Watson’s story, which he has told at Pop-Up Magazine events in San Francisco; Washington; New York; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.

“He is one of a kind,” he said of Watson.

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Largey’s KUT story about Watson is scheduled to air at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Tuesday. You also should be able to find it at KUT.org.

Happier ending upcoming, indeed. And you might have a chance to make it even happier. Watson, 54, long has struggled financially as he worked in the government world, where jobs come and go.

Watson never graduated from college. He’s been pretty much a constant presence at the Texas Capitol since 1982, where he’s worked for 15 different lawmakers. He moved to Austin City Hall in 2015 to work for then-Council Member Don Zimmerman. When Zimmerman was defeated last year, Watson was out of work. He’s now an aide to Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.

In addition to the government jobs, Watson has moonlighted in retail and has bused tables at a downtown restaurant. His current legislative job ends when the legislative session ends in May. He needs a job after that. Maybe you know of something.

I can tell you Watson knows his way around government and got the U.S. Constitution amended.

And, assuming the change gets OK’d, he got an A in GOV 310.

One more thing: Yes, Watson still has his 1982 term paper — somewhere.

“I have tried and tried and tried to find that thing,” he said. “I don’t know where I put it. It’s not the type of thing I would have thrown in the garbage. So it’s somewhere. And I’m one of these funny people that keeps everything, so I’ve got storage unit after storage unit. It’s somewhere in a box in a storage unit.

“Hopefully, the termites haven’t gotten to it.”

They wouldn’t dare.



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