Garden City Alex Heard didn’t realize until many years later how much he learned while attending high school in Garden City.
“I didn’t think I realized this at the time, but we had really good teachers, and they still do,” Heard said.
Now, Heard is the author of two books — 1999’s “Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America,” a book that documents cults and religious groups around the country, and the recently released “The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South.”
The book explores Heard’s investigation into the case of McGee, a young black man from Mississippi who was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman.
Heard said the teachers at Garden City High School helped lay the foundation of his education and his interest in continuing his career in writing and journalism.
“To the extent that I’ve been able to do anything in journalism — the groundwork was started right there,” he said.
Now, Heard, 52, is working at Outside, an outdoor magazine, and is based in Santa Fe, N.M.
Heard moved to Garden City in 1972 when his father, Dr. Kenneth M. Heard, took a job as a pathologist at St. Catherine Hospital.
Heard attended GCHS, then went to college at Fort Hays State University and later attended Vanderbilt University.
Heard has had many jobs in writing and journalism including work for Washington Post Magazine and The New York Times. He also was senior editor for Wired Magazine.
Prior to the release of his latest book, Heard spent years finding court documents, tracking down relatives of the victim and of McGee, and finding anyone with information about the case.
Heard said the text isn’t so much about finding out whether McGee was guilty or innocent, but about exploring various themes such as interracial sex, the fairness of court proceedings of black-on-white crime cases in the pre-civil rights movement south, the role of the Communist Party within early civil rights movements and the risks a team of white lawyers took in defending a black man in the Jim Crow South.
He said the experience of the white lawyers is often compared to the character of Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. His family is threatened and ridiculed because Finch defends the man.
Heard said in some ways Bella Abzug, who was hired by the Civil Rights Congress, a part of the Communist Party in the U.S., and the team of white lawyers who defended McGee went through similar danger and were more at risk for violence than Lee depicts through Finch’s character, but said the struggles were similar.
“It’s a good depiction of what dangers fell on the shoulders of white men who defended a black man,” Heard said.
Through his work and travels, Heard attributes his success to Garden City and the education and work ethic he acquired while living in rural Kansas.
Heard had summer jobs in Garden City while attending college. He worked at Ward’s Garden Center, taught tennis and did manual labor.
“I didn’t have much of work ethic when I arrived there,” he said. “I carried that everywhere — the good work ethic.”