Mascotte, Florida — Tom Chapman, Lake County school board chair, is a character. In fact, over the years Chapman, a full-time actor has played numerous characters. His roles have included eclectic individuals in films such as "Miracle Child" and "Passenger 57"; television shows, including, "Dragnet," "Perry Mason," "Second Noah," "America's Most Wanted," "Unsolved Mysteries"; and in numerous television commercials.
Chapman, who has been acting for 44 years, developed an attraction to the profession while working at a local radio station in Birmingham, Alabama. His radio career was suspended by a 30-month stint in the U.S. Air Force. After the service he majored in radio and TV at the University of Alabama — the alma mater of famed radio broadcaster Mel Allen. "We all tried to imitate Mel Allen, our idol," Chapman said.
From there he took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Chapman likes to tell the story of one of his classmates, Chuck Buchinski. Buchinski came from a coal mining family in Pennsylvania. Chuck's dad died of black lung disease. At his mother's urging to find a career other than coal mining, he tried acting. Later, Chuck changed his name to the name he is known by today, Charles Bronson.
While Tom Chapman seems an unlikely member of a school board, it is a role he takes seriously. "In 1992," he told Freedom Writer, "I was working in Gainesville, playing opposite Cloris Leachman in Disney's NBC production of "Miracle Child." We had Sunday morning off, and I was sitting in the hotel reading the Sunday paper when I saw the headline, "American Culture Superior." It was about Christian fundamentalists who took over a Florida school board and then initiated a policy stating that American culture, values and political institutions are inherently "superior to other foreign or historic cultures."
"My initial shock was extended when I learned that the story was about the school board where I live in Lake County."
"Whose culture did they mean? Was it the Seminole, Irish, English, Hispanic, African American culture? The policy was totally elitist; they were saying 'We're better than everyone else.'"
The newspaper story that caught Tom's eye was about school board member Pat Hart — who described herself as patriot, a Christian, and a Republican. Responding to the state's multicultural policy, Hart introduced a radical new curriculum. She and the other radical religious right candidates who took control of the Lake County School Board in 1992 voted 3 to 2 to adopt the policy requiring teachers to promote "America first."
"I had a few days off from filming, so I was able to attend the next school board meeting. Over 650 people attended that meeting, and I saw the biggest gathering of ineptness I've ever seen in my life."
That's when Tom Chapman decided to run for school board. Including Chapman, the 1994 primary brought out six candidates, with three of them from the Christian Coalition.
"I ran head-on into the Christian Coalition," Chapman told Freedom Writer. "It was a vicious race. Because I'm an actor, they accused me of being a homosexual — a charge my wife dismisses. Then someone started a rumor that the National Education Association gave me $60,000 towards my campaign! But I fought back, and got 68% of the vote in the primary, and won by 72% to 28% in the general election, winning a four-year term."
"They think I'm going go hell!" Chapman said, "But, I was born and raised as a Methodist; I'm a Christian."
Tom told Freedom Writer that the top priority in his campaign was ridding the school system of radical organizations. He also wanted to replace a school attorney hired by the Christian Coalition members of the school board, because the attorney was working for the board, and not for the school superintendent, as he was supposed to. Finally, he wanted to build new schools and hire more teachers to relieve over-crowding.
Chapman calls the religious political extremists "a sick group of radical people." "They're pushing for charter schools, vouchers, prayer in schools; the bottom line is that they're trying to destroy the public school system and replace it with private religious schools. It started with Pat Robertson, and like cancer, it has spread into schools across the country."
Since his election, Lake County Schools have added four new schools, with a fifth opening in February. In the next three years they plan a new high school, a middle school, and two elementary schools.
"The former board wanted to ban library books that talked about sex," Chapman said. "We now have a good, positive sexuality education course in our system."
"Now," Tom said, "we're working on obtaining all the books our students need; we can only buy books every three years."
When asked to describe the leading factor that contributed to his success, Chapman said, "It was by personally working my ass off! Campaigning is an exhausting thing, but I think people were fed up with the garbage in this campaign from people calling themselves Christian. They were far from being Christian."
Tom's advice for other activists is to first, as the saying goes, "know thy enemy." "Find out all about this radical movement. They crawled under the rocks like the snakes they are, but they'll be back. Know the movement you're dealing with, and deal with it in a very positive manner. Offer realistic solutions to complex problems. Be constructive for the benefit of all the students, as well as the teachers and administrators."
As running for school board can be exhausting, Tom urges activists to get enough rest and exercise to prevent burnout. "Personally, I average four-and-a-half to five hours sleep a night. I take a nap in the afternoon if I have to go out in the evening. Then I take a deep breath and start all over again." For recreation, this 68 year-old heads for the golf course, where, with his ten handicap, he'll give anyone a run for their money.
Some people in Lake County have recently encouraged Tom to run for county commissioner, but he's not interested. "My love is education," he said. Chapman plans to run for re-election in 1998.