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Life Lessons: Scott Woltze
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Susan HerefordScott Woltze has been a high school dropout, a car thief, a bank robber, a convicted felon. Now he is on his way to begin a doctorate at one of the top institutions in the country. Where he is today and where he was 10 years ago are miles and miles apart. No one, including Woltze himself, would have thought he’d be heading to the University of Michigan, earning one of two full-ride spots in the political theory department. Woltze walked into his first college class at age 22 at Portland Community College. It was 1995 and he was keen to learn. He’d been out of school five years. During his time at PCC, he developed friendships with professors and studied Hobbes, Thucydides, Machiavelli and others. He also earned straight A’s. But he spent his teen years in an escalating agenda of violence, bad choices and bad relationships that ultimately led to criminal acts and a stint in a maximum-security prison. "I had a tumultuous high school experience,"said Woltze. "Actually, I was an honor student in junior high, but then my family life, which had been awry since third grade, began to blow up."His father had become physically and emotionally abusive and in response, "I just stopped doing what he wanted me to do,"Woltze said. He lost interest in school and focused on boxing and weightlifting, rugby and other aggressive sports, barely cracking a book, much less showing up for class. The abuse at home stopped but Woltze, at 6 feet 2 inches and 195 pounds, had become a bruiser. "I had learned to protect myself by the time I was 14 ? in retrospect, I was trying to make sure I was never going to get beat up again,"he admitted. He fought kids on campus, challenged fighters at rival schools and earned a tough-guy reputation. "I’m not excusing it,"he said, "but I was careful not to victimize (people) since I’d been beaten down."He also started showing up drunk for class. Beaverton High School suspended him seven times. "They kept giving me chance after chance,"he added, shaking his head.When his parents divorced, life only got worse for the troubled 17-year-old. He dropped out of school and began stealing car stereos for kicks. At 18, he joined an auto theft ring. The gang stripped down the cars and left the shell, which they then bought back at the auction to put them back together. An avid reader, Woltze inhaled "Crime and Punishment."The Dostoevsky novel fascinated him, but for the wrong reasons. "One would think it would move me away from crime, but it had the opposite effect. I missed the actual moral of the story, and that seemed to happen quite a bit to me ? I didn’t embrace faith and innocence. Instead nihilism,"he said.Bored with the car thefts, he began to think banks. Up in Washington, he scoped out locations and selected Olympia and Tacoma, away from his hometown. His mother had no idea the wild danger her son was contemplating. The first time out, he made off with $2,200, then doubled the loot the second and third robberies. During his third robbery, Woltze, who had never robbed with an armed weapon, presented a fake bomb.Did the money go for drugs? He shrugged. "I spent it on designer suits. I was the most unlikely bank robber. I enjoyed the adrenaline, the money, the first couple of times, but I had grown worried about getting caught,"he said. He wasn’t worried about surviving prison. His size and fighting had made him cocky. March 19, 1992, five squad cars and more than a dozen cops bore down on his mother’s home with pistols, shotguns and bulletproof vests. Tipped off by another kid who was in his own trouble, the police were coming for Woltze. There was a brief moment when he thought of arming himself but talked himself out it. "I said to myself, ?I’m 18. Is this worth it?’ So I threw the gun under the door and ran out the back door in my boxer shorts. They broke the door down and I was running but then I heard their police dog,"he said. Woltze sat on the ground, put his hands in the air and felt immense relief, even elation. It was over. It was time to fully cooperate.Wolze got extradited to Washington and in less than a month he was tried and sentenced to a three- to five-year term at Clallam Bay, one of two maximum-security facilities in the remote Strait of Juan de Fuca in northwestern Washington. He was 18, one of the youngest there. In prison, the first survival test came immediately. "You somehow have to find a place to sit when you eat,"he said. He sat down at a spot that was reserved for an inmate in detention and got challenged, but Woltze didn’t budge. "The tough part in prison,"he said, "is the dilemma about fighting. If you back down, you won’t survive, but if you get caught by guards, you get more time."He says he got lucky when he fell in with the guys who ran the rackets, the food, drugs, and inks for tattoos. Their leader, in jail for 11 counts of contract murder, was a mobster from Atlanta. "He had a soft spot for me,"said Woltze, who became his public muscle. But he also kept reading – T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Camus, Sartre and Kirkegaard – and one year later got transferred for good behavior to Coyote Ridge, a minimum-security prison in Connell, Wash. Woltze was released in February 1995 and headed to Portland Community College that fall, ready to share ideas and learn. However, he was nervous about his ability. "I was wracked with self doubt,"he said. Although he’d earned a GED in prison and built a stack of notes three feet high from his readings, he knew his academic foundation was very shaky. Fortunately, desire matched discipline and he flourished at PCC. "I never had one bad teacher,"he said. "Every single one honestly cared."The straight-A status at PCC and recommendations from several instructors led to a full scholarship to Reed College. Woltze graduated from Reed last year and has been working for the Archdiocese of Portland. He is laying the groundwork for a career in higher education as a professor. Chris Cayton, his philosophy instructor at PCC, believes it’s a good match. "Scott really helped my class,"he said. "Not only did he add to the dialogue, but he did it in a way that was not pretentious or pedantic. He really helped other students understand the concepts and helped pull the other students into the discussion ? we are all thrilled for him." Woltze’s troubled past led him to a new life. "I developed a great love for academics when I was in prison,"he said. "I want to give value to teaching. When I was in prison, I wanted someone to share my ideas with, but I didn’t have anybody."