What Haunts Us
By STUART H. COLEMAN Published: Jul 01, 2018
On Alumni Weekend in April, my old prep school in Charleston, South Carolina hosted its annual reunion party. It should have been a fun occasion to booze, schmooze and reminisce with old classmates. But a dark secret haunted our past and overshadowed our reunion parties. For months, many of my classmates had been anxiously talking, texting and posting about a sex scandal that took place at Porter-Gaud School in the early 80’s. Their concern: those disturbing events have been recently resurrected in a documentary called “What Haunts Us.”
Paige Goldberg Tolmach, an alumna of Porter-Gaud, decided to make the documentary after our mutual friend “Paul” (not his real name) committed suicide in 2004. During her research and interviews, she discovered that there were at least ten other students who had committed suicide or died in self-destructive circumstances over the last three decades.
The documentary tells the story of a serial pedophile and the school administrators who harbored him even after several students reported stories of abusive behavior. A graduate of the Citadel, Eddie Fischer was a popular teacher at Porter-Gaud from 1972 to 1982; one class dedicated the high school yearbook to him. A handsome bachelor with silver hair, Fischer taught science and worked as a sports trainer. Like Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, he helped coach the football team and worked with students who were having trouble at school or at home. He used to tell his students to come to him with any questions about drinking, sex or drugs. He even invited them to his townhouse if they ever needed a “safe place” to experiment with any of these things. We saw Fischer as a cool teacher who was looking out for us. He drove an orange Porsche and came to be known as “Fast Eddie.” [The documentary is on STARZ. To stream it, click here.]
I vividly remember him picking up a classmate of mine named Guerry Glover after school and whisking him away in a cloud of exhaust. Guerry’s father was a farmer who lived way out in the country, and Fischer was a family friend who had volunteered to look after his son, help him with this studies and even let stay at his place on occasion.
In middle school, Guerry was a carefree kid who liked to goof around and play the class clown. In high school, he became a serious stoner who often had a scowl on his face. Guerry and a few others came to be known as “Fischer’s boys,” though we didn’t really know what that meant. After a series of drunken car crashes and disciplinary problems, he was caught cheating and kicked out of Porter-Gaud. He transferred to a school called College Prep.
A few months later, my friend “Paul” told his parents that Fischer had abused him, and they demanded action from the school’s administrators. But instead of firing him and reporting the abuse, the headmaster wrote Fischer a recommendation letter and just quietly shuffled him off to another school. After Fischer resigned, we heard rumors that he might have been forced out, but we didn’t know why.
In the film, Guerry talks about intentionally cheating to get kicked out of Porter-Gaud so he could get away from Fisher. But in a sick twist of fate, Porter-Gaud’s administrators referred the abusive teacher to the same school. At College Prep, Fischer continued abusing Guerry and lured new students into his lair.
Years later, Guerry wrote and met with Porter-Gaud officials, asking them to help expose Fischer’s ongoing abuse at other schools. When they declined, he realized they played an integral part in the cover-up. He tried to bring a lawsuit against the school as a way to spur the administrators into action, but no local lawyer was willing to take on the prestigious private school. One attorney shrugged him off and said, “You are going to need a brass-balled mother-fucker.”
Eventually, Gregg Meyers took the case. He wrote to the school, saying, “This is the worst case of child sex abuse I’ve ever seen. Work with us, and we will help you put the best face on this as possible.” Instead, the school went to the solicitor’s office and asked to have Guerry arrested for extortion.
At that point, “Paul” stepped forward and told the solicitor’s office that Guerry’s story was true because he too had been a victim. Paul’s testimony turned everything around. More victims came forward. Fischer was arrested, convicted and imprisoned. In a deposition in a civil suit, he admitted to abusing more than 40 boys during his decade at Porter-Gaud. He referred to it as a “minor epidemic.”
At one point in a deposition, Berkeley Grimball, the headmaster, said he didn’t fire Fischer or report his abuse because “I didn’t want to ruin his career.” When asked if he would be bothered if there was abuse at his son’s school, the old headmaster paused and said, “Not unless he was bothering my children.”
People in the courtroom gasped, and his callous comment helped persuade the jury to award Guerry and the other victims a $115 million settlement, one of the largest of its kind at the time. But Guerry was never in it for the money. He just wanted to stop Fischer from abusing more kids — and make sure the school officials took responsibility for what happened under their watch. After all, WATCH was the school’s motto and was written on the bell tower. WATCH stood for Words, Actions, Thoughts, Character, Habits.
The long, drawn-out court case took its toll on the school’s administrators. Before his deposition, our principal James Bishop Alexander drove his car to the backwoods and shot himself in the chest. Berkeley Grimball passed away during the trial. Fischer died in prison. Afterward, the school issued a half-hearted apology to the media but not to any of the victims directly. Guerry Glover’s response: “I will always say that what Porter-Gaud did was much worse than what Fischer did.”
The school’s new administrators tried to put the ugly episode behind them, saying it happened long ago. Many alums supported the school’s efforts to move on. After all, why dwell on such painful memories from the past, especially when those involved were deceased? That is a question many people are still asking. But two more students have committed suicide in the last few years. The cause is unclear, yet there are allegations that they may have been abused by another teacher. Like cancer, the cycle of sex abuse will keep coming back until it is properly dealt with and treated.
Before our reunion, a group of classmates sent a letter to the school’s administrators, demanding more reforms and stronger leadership in promoting child sex abuse prevention. Recently, the school board members voted to remove former Headmaster Berkeley Grimball’s name from two buildings. They also announced Porter-Gaud would expand its partnership with the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center and Darkness to Light.
As students, we once thought our teachers and administrators had all the answers and all the power. As alumni, we’re finally learning how to question authority and demand honest answers. Better late than never. But better never again.