ANNAPOLIS – Joan Vinson was a distraught woman when she first met Ross Perot in 1969.
Her husband, Air Force Col. Bobby Vinson, had been shot down over North Vietnam the year before. Perot flew family members of missing U.S. servicemen to Paris, where they hoped to learn the fate of their loved ones from diplomats. Vinson, then 38, traveled with the delegation, her four young children in tow.
She didn’t learn that her husband had died until four years later, when Hanoi released prisoners and Bobby Vinson was not among them. But she never forgot the wealthy Texas businessman.
Now she leads Perot’s political organization in Maryland, trying to collect 10,000 signatures to put his new Reform Party on the state ballot for the presidential election. Perot has not declared his candidacy.
“I really do believe Ross Perot has got a vision for this country whereby we can experience the very best of times to come,” Vinson said in her second-floor office near the city dock. She sat in streaming sunlight beside an American flag, not far from a life-sized cutout of Perot.
“He’s like a magnet. He’s filled with energy and dynamism. He’s so focused on what he’s doing. He’s not distracted by countervailing forces.”
Born in Tupelo, Miss., Vinson was reared in various states during the Depression and World War II. Her father, an engineer, built dams along the Mississippi River, then worked at the federal nuclear facility in Hanford, Wash., and elsewhere. Her mother was a homemaker.
Vinson said her generation saw government as a force for good. But her outlook changed after her husband was shot down. When the Air Force brushed aside her requests for details, she became disillusioned.
“The whole policy of Vietnam was one of obfuscation and not letting people know what was happening. When my husband was first shot down, the admonition we got was, `Don’t talk about it.’ And I said, `What am I supposed to do? Just say he went to the store and didn’t come back?’ ”
She turned to activism. Her presidency of a national organization for families of MIAs and POWs put her in the spotlight from 1970 to 1973.
She moved to Annapolis in 1977, lured by the “great books” education at St. John’s College, where she received a master’s degree in classical studies in 1981.
She is guarded about personal details – and resisted a reporter’s efforts to gather them.
How old is she?
“I get Social Security,” she responded curtly.
Does she have a photograph of her first husband?
“I do, but … I have re-married and I don’t really want to dwell on this.”
Like Perot, Vinson dismisses the Washington establishment as a discredited political class pursuing its own interests at the expense of the common good.
“I think we’ve got one party, the inside-the-Beltway party,” she said.
Yet Vinson has insider attributes herself.
In addition to her St. John’s degree, her education includes all the course work toward a doctorate in political science at George Washington University.
She’s volunteered for six presidential campaigns since 1960, four Democratic and two Republican.
President Ford appointed her to the Presidential Clemency Board, where she helped decide appeals of military discharges.
Her days are filled with events at which she represents the Reform Party or its sister organization, United We Stand America. She gets paid for her full-time activism.
Her motivation, she said, is to leave her eight grandchildren a nation as great as the one she has known.
“My contribution, I believe, is this movement at this point in time.”
Acquaintances say her patriotism is genuine.
“She is one of the most consistent people I’ve ever known,” said Anne Parker, a Perot volunteer who has known Vinson for four years. “What you see is what you get, all the time.”
Vinson said she occasionally encountered Perot in the years following the Paris trip but did not stay in close contact. She remembers writing a letter or two, urging him to run for president.
When he finally did, Vinson was working for Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, who quit the 1992 White House race the very day Perot announced on the Larry King Show that he would run if supporters put his name on all 50 state ballots.
She signed up to be Perot’s Maryland coordinator and has worked for him ever since.
Vinson has collected but 1,000 to 1,500 of the signatures needed to put the Reform Party on Maryland’s ballot. But she said the campaign should pick up next month when volunteers begin appearing at community events.
And she’s confident of the party’s ultimate triumph. After four years in the Perot movement, she remains a true believer. “It’s back to the field of dreams, build it and they will come,” Vinson said. The party “will have the principles, the ideas, the dynamism to be the major party in the next century.” -30-