In the spring of 2010, George Malvaney was on the coast as the man in charge of part of what would be the biggest environmental clean-up in U.S. history.
Malvaney’s job was to run the clean-up operations in Mississippi after the Deepwater Horizon explosion had dumped millions of tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to overseeing the work, Malvaney met regularly with state and local elected officials.
One day, Malvaney got a call from Anita Lee, a reporter for The Sun Herald in Biloxi.
“She said, ‘We hear you have a colorful past and would like to tell your story,'” Malvaney recalled. “That was not what I wanted to hear. I didn’t need the distractions. It was not good. How could it be good?”
Malvaney said he’ll never forget the headline: “Former Klansman plays lead role in Gulf clean-up.”
The headline wasn’t even the half of it. The news story laid it all out there. The man BP, state and local officials were relying on during a massive environmental disaster isn’t just a former Klansman. He is also a high school drop-out who had been “encouraged” to leave the Navy, and a man who became immersed in a white supremacist plot to overthrow a tiny Caribbean nation by force — a coup that was interrupted by an FBI informant, sending Malvaney to federal prison.
When The Sun Herald’s story was published, Malvaney braced himself.
“I thought I was going to get lots of push-back,” he said. “But I never got a single negative comment. What I did hear, over and over, was: ‘How did you go from that to this?'”
It is a question people never seem to tire of asking and Malvaney never seems to mind answering.
Tuesday, Malvaney told his story at the Columbus Rotary Club luncheon at Lion Hills Center. Next week, he’ll speak at the Rotary Club in Slidell, Louisiana, which is where he was arrested in April 1981 trying to board a boat with nine others bound for the tiny island nation of Dominica, in an almost comical episode that would soon be referred to as the “Bayou of Pigs.”
In addition to his regular speaking engagements, Malvaney’s story was published in book form in May. The title: “Cups up: How I organized a Klavern, Plotted a Coup, Survived Prison, Graduated College, Fought Polluters and Started A Business.”
It took Malvaney 21 minutes to tell his story Tuesday — Malvaney kept track of the time, detailing his long journey from a mixed-up, foolish child to Klansman and criminal and ex-convict and, over years, a responsible adult and family man whose work led him to a lucrative career in environmental emergency response.
“Thirty-seven years ago, I began serving my sentence for conspiracy to invade a country and here I am telling that story before a respected group of citizens,” he said. “I would never have believed that would happen back then.”
Chronologically, the “bad stuff” in Malvaney’s life story all occurred within a few years’ time in his late teens and early 20s. He said he still doesn’t quite understand those early decisions.
“I was from a good background, a good home,” he said. “I never remember being around racist talk or people like that growing up. Joining the Klan, getting involved in a conspiracy to overthrow a country. It doesn’t make sense. It’s something I’ve been trying to understand for years, something I’m still trying to understand.”
Malvaney said he began to turn his life around upon arriving at the prison in Tallahassee, Florida, soon after he pleaded guilt to the conspiracy charge.
“I got there at night and I woke up the next morning asking myself how the hell did I get here?” he said.
Down the cellblock, a call echoed along the long corridor: “Cups Up!”
Malvaney said he didn’t understand it.
“It continued for five, 10 minutes and I’m thinking the whole time, ‘How did I get here?’ Finally, a prison orderly appeared in front of my cell,” Malvaney said. “He looks in and yells ‘Cups up!” I had no idea what he meant. I just sat there looking at him until he finally said, ‘Do you want any (expletive) coffee or not?’ That’s when I realized they have given me this plastic cup. So I stuck it the cup out and he splashed some coffee in it and went on down the cellblock.
“It was a time of real awakening. I was 20 years old and this was not how I wanted to live my life,” he added. “I made a commitment that day that I was going to be a better person. ‘Cups up’ has stuck with me all through the years.”
Malvaney’s sentence was shortened from four years to 18 months, and his conviction was set aside after six years as part of a federal rehabilitation program.
Clearly, Malvaney made the most of his second chance.
“I remember walking out the front doors of prison and I’m muttering aloud, ‘Cups up. Cups up.’ I didn’t know where it was going to lead me – an ex-con, felon, high school drop out. I didn’t know where I was going or how I was going to do it,” he said. “Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years. I’m still working on it.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.