31 years later, Westlake High's Son's Club goes public
Michael Barnes, Out & About
At 7:45 a.m. on a late winter morning in 1981, they struck for the first time.
In the calm, gleaming halls of Westlake High School, young men wearing track suits and ski masks — they had parked a mile away to help conceal their identities — released 50 white mice from shoe boxes at key choke points.
Pandemonium broke out. One adult screamed. Others scurried about, trying to corner the mice.
The Son's Club — a group protesting the anti-drug campaign of the school's newly formed Dad's Club — had just made the first of several public declarations. In a move that would serve as a clue to their origins, the club issued formal press releases and even exaggerated the number of mice so that school leaders would be forced to search longer for the fugitive rodents.
"We'd be tased or shot today," says Steven Phenix, one, it turns out, of the club's only two members in the more innocent pre-Columbine era. "The school would be shut down. People would start tweeting."
"It was not done to be malicious," insists Allen Spelce, coming clean publicly for the first time, 31 years after the series of stunts that made headlines in the Westlake Picayune and American-Statesman. "It was meant to make a statement."
So how did two incognito students, one something of a social rebel, the other an Eagle Scout, translate a series of youthful stunts into news?
Consider that Phenix, now 48, is the son of journalist George Phenix, former editor of Texas Weekly magazine and former publisher of the Westlake Picayune — he also shot the film of Jack Rubykilling Lee Harvey Oswald — and Jann Phenix, former columnist for the American-Statesman. And Spelce, 48, is the son of Neal Spelce, reporter and TV anchor who filed from the scene of the Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas Tower, and Sheila Spelce, a prominent arts backer, now deceased.
"Look at what families we grew up in," Spelce says. "We knew a little bit about promoting ourselves."
Nowadays, the two Austin natives pursue upright professions. Phenix is the public relations director for Medigap 360.com, which provides supplemental Medicare insurance, and Spelce works for the office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
To complicate matters, Spelce has two children, ages 8 and 5. Following their father, they progress through the Eanes school district and someday will likely join the student body that remembers — and sometimes emulates — the infamous Son's Club.
‘It's a John Hughes film," says Phenix of the episodes that still foment gossip and admiration at class reunions.
Spelce and Phenix had been friends since fourth grade. They were social outliers, not jocks or freaks or kickers, in the parlance of the day. What they shared in their senior year was a sense of outrage.
It was an era when national concern about teen drug use sometimes escalated into hysteria.
"We were not bad kids," says Spelce, a soft-spoken scoutmaster with a gee-whiz smile. "So why we did have to bring IDs to school? Why did parents have to attend our parties?"
"Why did they have drug dogs sniffing our lockers?" says Phenix, who sports a flattop and wears a leather jacket atop his motorcycle. "Nancy Reagan was saying ‘Just Say No.' We started something to say ‘yes' to."
"Not to drugs," Spelce clarifies. "Just to say ‘yes.' "
A budding civil libertarian, Phenix, seems to have been the idea man. Spelce provided muscle and money from this lawn-mowing business.
To throw off authorities, the pranking duo pretended to be a group of eight or 10 students. When hauled into the principal's office, Phenix denied culpability and pointed fingers at other social groups.
Yet they hit again the very next night. During a school board meeting, they chained the doors shut and stuffed their demands into the portals. A stern coach was guarding the doors.
"It was the most daring thing we did," Spelce says. "I saw my life pass before my eyes."
"Everything was in slow motion," Phenix remembers.
An Eanes administrator was forced to escape through the ceiling and return with bolt cutters. The pair came up with complicated alibis and escape routes for each stunt — piling rocks on the bus drop-off driveway, dumping big piles of leaves in public spaces and scaling walls to chain doors from the inside to stop classes for hours — always accompanied by taunting Son's Club notes to authorities.
"It is illegal to belong to a secret society at a Texas high school," one supervisor announced over the PA system, according to the duo. "If you are caught, you will not go to college."
Naturally, American-Statesman columnist John Kelso wrote about them. Television news crews covered the incidents.
"I thought we were making progress, although the copy-cat vandalism was getting to us," Spelce says. "We decided to turn ourselves in, but we hired two strippers to dress up in sweats, strip and turn themselves in."
"The whole school just lost it," Phenix says. "We had put up a big sign: ‘9:20 in the commons area, the Son's Club will strike again.' "
When they finally surrendered for good, the young men were suspended for two days. That's it. Turns out they had plenty of admirers among the faculty and student body.
At graduation, classmates chanted "Son's Club" as they crossed the stage. Spelce says: "In the end, it was all good fun."