|Mark Doehne & Patrick Davis|
The pole snapped. It fell on the car roof. And Davis — an all-district wide receiver at school — suffered permanent brain damage.
This is the story of an irrevocably injured young man who made headlines in the 1980s, but was quickly forgotten by the media and most San Antonians.
It’s also a story about a former classmate who stood by Davis and became his legal guardian — but then was accused of rarely visiting him, even as the guardian earned fees from Davis’ estate.
The early chapters of Davis’ struggles were widely covered by the San Antonio media in the early 1980s. Davis’ lawyers sued General Motors for $50 million, claiming the Trans Am was unsafe and had been marketed as a stunt vehicle seen in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” starring Burt Reynolds as a wisecracking cowboy.
One of Davis’ lawyers, the flamboyant Pat Maloney Sr., threatened to subpoena Reynolds. Fans deluged the Bexar County Courthouse with phone calls, wanting to know when the movie star would testify — he never did.
Davis’ 15 minutes of fame soon faded. His lawyers reached a settlement with General Motors in August 1984. While the terms were secret, Davis’ lawyers said he received enough money to guarantee a life of rehabilitation and independence.
At the time, Davis seemed happy about his prospects. Able to speak slowly after his injury, he told the media he planned to become an architect.
A photograph from his last news conference shows him with a wisp of a mustache, shaggy hair and mutton-chop sideburns.
“I have my whole life to live,” a hopeful Davis told reporters.
What did life have in store for him?
Friends drift away
Mission Road Developmental Center is a pleasant, tree-lined campus of homes near Stinson Municipal Airport. The nonprofit organization serves people with mental retardation and other disabilities.
For the past 13 years, this tranquil setting has been Davis’ home.
The reality for Davis — and many people who suffer traumatic brain injuries — was not a life of independence.
The injury to Davis’ brain stem left him unable to take care of himself. He was coherent but suffered from seizures, and he was paralyzed on the left side of his body. He mostly stayed in a wheelchair.
After the wreck, classmates rallied behind Davis, who was hospitalized for nearly a year. But as time passed, it became clear the strapping athlete wasn’t going to fully recover. Many people drifted away. Friends and family visited sporadically or moved on with their lives.
For many years, Davis had no legal guardian — someone who visited, made sure he had new clothes and made important decisions on his behalf.
A few people remained in Davis’ life. A former classmate named Mark Doehne and his family visited Davis and did what they could to help. It was a difficult time for Doehne, who watched his friend waste away from 190 to 95 pounds.
“He was my best friend,” a soft-spoken Doehne said when asked why he stuck around when most people moved on. Coming close to tears as he reflected on those hard days, he said: “I guess somebody had to do something.”
The Doehne family is well known in Texas political circles. Doehne’s mother, Dorothy, once served as vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas. In 1996, then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed Doehne’s sister, Diane Rath, as a commissioner of the Texas Workforce Commission. Rath served as chairwoman from 1998 until she stepped down in 2008.
“Overall, there’s been one family that’s been there for (Davis),” said lawyer Pat Maloney Jr. “It says a lot about that family. Very few people hang around long when you’re injured that seriously.”
Fending for himself
While the Doehne family members stayed close to Davis, they weren’t responsible for making decisions on his behalf. Davis’ father, Ellsworth, also had no say in where his adult son lived.
Ellsworth Davis said Pat8rick had been declared a competent adult as part of the court settlement, so he did not ask a judge to appoint him as a legal guardian.
Father and son had been close — Ellsworth Davis enjoyed watching his son play football and went to all the games he could. But after the wreck, it was heart-wrenching every time he visited his shattered boy.
“To lose an 18-year-old son like that, it’s quite traumatic,” said Davis, 78.
Davis still talks to his son by phone, but he can’t remember the last time he visited in person. Doehne said he understood why the visits were so painful.
“It was like peeling the scab off,” Doehne said. “I’m in no position to judge the father.”
With no one ultimately responsible for Davis, he mostly lived in nursing homes throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. He was rarely challenged or living with people his own age.
Davis’ situation hardly was an anomaly. Nursing homes are brimming with vulnerable residents who can’t speak for themselves — and have no one to speak for them.
“It’s a very dysfunctional system,” said Lora Butler, executive director of Mission Road.
In the mid-1990s, Doehne said Davis moved to a group home, where Davis essentially was left to “fend for himself.” Doehne said Davis was hospitalized after becoming dehydrated. When Doehne visited Davis at the hospital and tried to find out how his friend was doing, hospital staffers were reluctant to give out that information to Doehne.
Doehne thought to himself, “I gotta do something about this.”
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Years later, wreck victim forgotten by most