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Judicial CP - September 2005

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Orange County Register, Santa Ana, California, 28 September 2005

More than one side to Conroy

By Gordon Dillow
Register columnist


It was sad news that former Orange County Assemblyman Mickey Conroy died last week of a heart attack at age 77. And it was interesting to note that he was best remembered – in the news media, at least – not so much for his years of service to the country and the community, but rather for his advocacy for a practice that many people supported but others condemned as archaic and barbaric.

That practice was the spanking of juvenile miscreants. And I still wonder whether California would be a better or worse place if Mickey had gotten his way.

I knew Mickey Conroy slightly, mostly because of his tireless work on behalf of military veterans. A longtime director of Orange County Veterans Charities, he was himself a veteran of three wars and three branches of service, having served as a teenage sailor in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II and later in the Navy and the Marines during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In fact, years ago I attended a veterans event, and he was the only one there who knew the words to not only the Navy and Marine Corps songs, but also the lesser-known lyrics of the Merchant Marine song: "Heave ho! My lads! Heave ho! It's a long, long way to go ..."

Anyway, he was elected to the state Assembly as a Republican in 1991 and worked on legislation ranging from domestic violence to illegal immigration to adoption. But it was his corporal punishment bills that received by far the most attention – and, as I said, still do.

It started in 1994, when America's attention was riveted on the case of an 18-year-old Ohio youth who was caught painting graffiti on cars during a visit to Singapore. The Singapore judge didn't fool around; the kid was sentenced not only to four months in jail but also to getting six whacks on the behind with a rattan cane, a traditional form of punishment in that country.

Well, judging from the reaction from some people, you would have thought the young delinquent was going to be hanged and drawn and quartered. Even President Bill Clinton tried to intervene, although he succeeded only in getting the number of whacks reduced from six to four.

But this was at the height of the graffiti craze – no wall or freeway overpass in America was safe – and a time of high crime in general. So millions of other Americans cheered the Singaporeans for treating vandalism and other crimes swiftly and harshly.

And one of them was Mickey Conroy.

After the Singapore caning case broke, Conroy introduced a bill to permit California juveniles convicted of graffiti crimes to receive up to 10 whacks on the behind with a 16-inch-long, -inch-thick hardwood paddle, the paddling to be performed in a courtroom by either the offender's parent or, if the parent declined, a court bailiff. Conroy said then that he wanted to give judges "tools they could use" to deflect youthful offenders from further and more serious crimes.

Later Conroy introduced another bill to return corporal punishment to California public schools, where it had been banned since 1987 – after which, Conroy said, "everything just got worse."

Conroy said then that he was trying to help kids, not hurt them, adding that he had benefited from being spanked when he was a kid. He also said early on that his mail was running 30-to-1 in favor of the paddling proposals.

Nevertheless, both bills eventually failed to pass, with Democrats calling them "mean-spirited" and "cruel" and even Conroy's fellow Republicans shying away from being identified as the spanking party. Conroy left the Legislature in 1996, and the paddling issue left with him.

So was Mickey wrong?

Well, maybe it's a generational thing, but frankly I don't think so.

Of course, no one wants to see kids beaten with a club or flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails. But there was spanking in the schools when I was a kid – and in our loving home, too – and the fear of it kept me straight as no threat of a "timeout" ever could have. Like Mickey Conroy, I benefited from the strict discipline, and I suspect a lot of kids these days would, too.

On the other hand, I don't have any kids, so maybe I don't have a clue about the realities of child-rearing in this day and age. If you're a parent or a teacher, I'd be interested to hear what you think.

In the meantime, my condolences to Mickey Conroy's family and friends. Those of us in the news media may concentrate on the controversial and the negative, and ignore the uplifting and the positive, but those who knew Mickey Conroy best know better.

And they'll remember him as far more than just a man with a paddle in his hand.

Copyright 2005 The Orange County Register

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