Interview with Chip Bach
Chip Bach is a member of the Friends Meeting of Austin, which is a Texas-Based Quaker Community. Quaker beliefs hold that all people are worthy of care, and that anything that causes harm to or threatens someone—including the death penalty—is a violation of that obligation to care for one another.
In this interview, Chip discusses the Quaker practice of writing to and visiting with people who are currently incarcerated on death row, and specifically discusses the friendship he developed with Gary Green, who was executed by the state of Texas on March 7, 2023. Chip discusses the difficulties and joys of visiting and corresponding with people who are on death row, the process of holding vigil on execution day, and the roles that friendship and faith play in overcoming grief.
Throughout the interview, Chip’s fellow Quaker’s are referred to as “friends,” as are the people with whom they correspond with or visit on death row. He refers throughout the interview to the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, Texas, which is where people on death row in Texas are held.
Bach: Well, thank you for taking the time to do this. It’s important work. Well, I’ll start with who I am. I moved to Austin about five, six years ago, in 2017. I’m a member here of Friends Meeting of Austin. I say I'm retired but I still get calls every week from various places and, I retired, I worked public utilities. I was an engineer—environmental manager, chemistry manager. And I still get calls from former workers pretty much every week, you know, checking in, which is nice.
Yeah, we're here in the Friends Meeting of Austin—- the Quaker Meeting House. And that goes with why this interview is happening, because we have a death row ministry here that started several years ago. I don't know all of the history of it, but it did start with the federal prison over in Bastrop, and then it migrated to death row. And I would say there's oh, I don't know, there's probably a dozen [Quaker] Friends who make that trip back and forth to Livingston, Texas, to visit with our friends who we write with. And so that's, that's an important part of my experience with knowing Gary. Yeah, I think that's probably about it.
Whelan: Thank you. And how did you come to be led to this space and to interact with friends?
Bach: Well, let's see, I am not a lifelong Quaker. But, periodically through the years, I would attend a Friends Meeting in Denver, North Carolina, and then in Florida, and then I’d seem to come back to it. After retirement, I did have more Sundays free and maybe a little bit more drive to delve a little deeper into my own spirituality. So that's when I came here [the Austin Quaker Community], and I’ve just really enjoyed being a part of this community.
Whelan: And you mentioned Gary, who you met after being led here. Can you tell us a little bit about Gary?
Bach: Yeah—I could tell you a lot about Gary. Let’s see, Gary and I started writing...we actually as a community—I believe it was in 2020, we sent letters to, at that point in time, the two-hundred-plus men and women who are incarcerated on death row. A number of people were already corresponding and already visiting, but we got a lot of responses, so that was kind of how I got started in it. And of course, different [Quaker] Friends will talk about the ministry, and we've had forums where people talk about their experience and it just felt very powerful to me to recognize that somebody incarcerated on death row, socially and culturally is looked at as being kind of on the bottom of the rung. Yet, you know, my own beliefs are that each and every one of us has that of the divine within them. And it became important to me to develop a relationship with Gary and my other friends—he wasn’t my only friend. So, I don’t know if that answers that.
Whelan: Thank you. Can you share with us what those initial interactions with Gary were like, and what it felt like for you to start forging that relationship?
Bach: Yeah, you know, the first thing that I noticed was Gary's handwriting, and that was in the very first letter that he had written back to the meeting saying, “yes, I am interested in having another pen pal.” And his handwriting is not sloppy, it's just very, very ornate, and has a very individual style. So, it probably took me an hour to read that first two-page letter, to get through it. But I got better as we went. I think the first thing I noticed about Gary was that he was always upbeat, and he would start his letters typically talking about it. And he would say things like “I hope you're doing well,” and then he would ask a question or two and say “I'm doing well, not just because I think I am or I believe I need to, but because I know I am.” And many, many of his letters were that way.
So that was, that was kind of the first thing I suppose that I noticed. He was very—he would respond quickly. So, we started writing in January of 2021. And I think it was May of that year when we started talking about—you have to be on the visitation list to visit with incarcerated people. So yes, I got on the list, and I started visiting with him. And I would visit him every month. We would drive down. And it's worth talking about that drive too, because only once or twice did I drive alone. But we typically will try to fill a car with three or four people, and having that connection with other people who understand a bit about what it feels like to sit across Plexiglass from somebody who was accused of—or who was convicted of—murder. I mean, the other other part of that too, that's worth mentioning and talking about—and it may go to some of the heart of what Texas After Violence Project is about. Those of us who...I know for me the people that I can talk about my relationship with Gary, or with Eric, or with Jerry, or with Aaron, is very limited. It's not something that you talk about over the coffee table with your friends. So having that four-hour drive to and from Polunsky, from Livingston, and being able to talk about it and sit together, is really, really important.
Whelan: That sounds incredibly important to have that kind of collective care built into the process.
Bach: Yeah, there's even some [Quaker] Friends who have the same incarcerated friend. The same friend who's at Polunsky. And in fact, one of them, there's a poetry circle for Tee [name of another incarcerated friend]. And I think I’ve seen Tee , a lot of times we’ll try and acknowledge. When you're visiting, you're not allowed to pick up the phone to somebody that you're not on their visitation list. I learned that the hard way, and the hard way wasn't that hard, I just got scolded by the people there. But we do try to acknowledge our friends’ friends while we’re there, but I've never spoken with Tee, but he sends out poetry to a poetry circle. So, I just think that's pretty neat, too.
Whelan: And do you have—when recalling those trips to and from in the van, do you have any specific recollections on the way there or when visiting that stand out?
Bach: Yeah, um, and this gets to Gary. Usually, in the past, prior to Gary's execution, I would go and visit two friends. I would visit Gary and I'm going to, I'm going to use the name, John, because he’s still incarcerated, and that’s just a pseudonym. But, it was like night and day between the two of them. Gary was always so upbeat and positive and it, you know, I would walk away feeling enriched from talking to him typically, although saddened sometimes—a lot of times. But then with John, with my second visit, it was never quite so easy, and not to go into the details of that. But, being able to go into the details of that with [Quaker] Friends during the drive is kind of therapeutic and helpful.
I think, you know, we talk more about the night or the days—the Monday or Tuesday, the day prior to and the day of Gary's execution. But I think the strength of the community for me was very strongly demonstrated that night of Gary's execution. Because there were five people that drove to Huntsville, where we stood in protest and in vigil for Gary, and having them there made a huge difference to me. I'm not sure we talked about this before, but maybe a little detail on that.
When I first got over to Huntsville, after visiting with Gary all morning, I stayed—there’s a hospitality house there that I think the Baptist Church runs, and they allow people to stay, so I stayed there, and so I wanted to find that and also to see where the vigil was going to be. But, when I got to the wall, to the Huntsville Unit, the sensation was as physical as it could have been for me. I mean, it was, you know, knowing what was going to happen there and seeing this structure—I think that if the people, the [Quaker] Friends who came up had not been there, I would have had a really hard time coming back that night. Yeah. Huntsville—the Huntsville Unit looks like every...for me, it looked like every horrible image that I could ever have imagined for the outside of the prison, at that point. So, yeah...
Whelan: And you are in communication with Gary up until his execution date, correct? Bach: Correct.
Whelan: Would you mind sharing with us about how those communications evolved? Or, if they did, whether they became procedurally more difficult?
Bach: Well, there were a couple things. I mean, there were two transitions that occurred in the January, December time frame. The TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] was moving towards tablets for the incarcerated folks. And I'll tell you, that was a time that I'd see Gary—I’d get these letters from Gary and he would be elated, talk about it, and everything. And I subscribed to The Echo, which is the TDCJ newspaper, and it was apparent to me early on that they weren’t coming as fast as he thought. But, you know, they did ultimately come. And when they did, our communication changed somewhat. We went from writing letters that would be a couple pages, to then Gary would type out in all bold, and he was kind of stream of thought, and I might get three e-messages in a day. And they weren’t like emails, because they still could take as long as postal mail. Postal mail going to and from Polunsky—I had to count on five days to get mail, and that was minimum, it was probably more like seven. But even electronically, there would be—in fact, the morning of his execution, they came in with a stack of letters, which included some that I had written a week prior that he had never seen, and that just about made me cry. That was very, very hard to see.
As we got closer, Gary knew of his execution before he told people, and he kind of hinted at it to me, in, I want to say August of 2022. He said something along the lines of “my attorney thinks that I might be getting a date soon.” And that bothered me, because it was actually—how did I end up finding out for sure? I think I found out the morning of the visit. I think we just checked and it was a complete surprise because I—I guess I didn't really pay attention when he said that, “my lawyer thinks...” I didn't see that that could be reality. But after that, there were some things that he wanted done. And there were things that had to be taken care of. Once he had a date, I was in communication probably every other week, or at least monthly with his mother. And so we would, you know, talk about Gary's remains. She had made arrangements for that. And their communication was spotty. And then there were other things too. I mean I —you know, I wanted to see him. As we got really close, I wanted to see him on the Monday and Tuesday. His spiritual advisor also wanted to see him, so we arranged that, and I know his spiritual advisor. And there were things like disposition of his remains and ashes. Who wants...? And I’ve got that list of names. I’m still working on that. So yeah, there was— it changed a little bit. There was a little bit more—he was more open about legal stuff towards the end, and that surprised me. He would talk about what his lawyer was doing and was not doing. Yeah.
And I think, you know, one of the hardest parts with Gary is recognizing that his guilt for the crime that he was convicted of is....there's no doubt. I mean he was guilty of the crime, he confessed to the crime. Very clearly. And the crime was horrific. But I really never saw anything that indicated that that person that I was on the other side of the plexiglass from was capable of...I couldn't understand how that could be. I'm rambling a little bit, but the other thing along those lines: Gary, the morning of his execution, he hadn't had breakfast, nor had he had his medications, and boy oh boy, could I see a difference in his behavior. He was on edge and of course, obviously it’s the day of his execution, but he calmed down as we spoke. And the other part that just tore me up to see was, on both Monday and Tuesday, the day before his execution and the day of his execution, as we're talking and visiting, we had nice visits, we sang songs together, but the impersonalness of it was demonstrated. There had to have been probably half a dozen times that somebody came up and needed his signature on something, including the morning of his execution. And showing the character of the person, he never got short with anybody. “Do I sign here?” And it just amazed me. I know that the world is certainly no better off or safer today. No.
Yeah, I did want to read one of his poems that he sent me, and this is pretty dark, but he made a point of sending this to me. I forget when he sent it to me. It wasn’t early on. But it may shed some light on the dark side that he had. When I say a dark side...he had dark clouds that overcame him often. He called this Death to Insanity:
“Death to Insanity.
Each day, I battle insanity.
Today, I am losing the battle.
Yesterday, I won the battle, only to fight the fight again today.
This fight one can't praise oneself when you do win, due to the fight
and struggle only appears again to battle you all over again each day. Yes, I dwell in an environment which pulls at your sanity
because of its design.
Is the system broke? No. It is doing all it is supposed to do.
Rob you of your sanity, to reduce you into less than human. A subhuman, an animal by design.
I can't control the environment I’m located in/at.
But I can try to control the environment within.
The fight I am up against daily is much bigger than me.
It is why we need you to cheer us on and help us continue
to battle the daily fight. To put to death insanity.
If only for that day, because it's a daily battle.
So many days I lose my mind.
Such as now. In hope the start of tomorrow, I can find what I lost the day before.
So please help me call death to insanity...
death to insanity...
death to insanity...
death to insanity...
death to insanity...
death to insanity...
death to insanity...
death to insanity...
Twenty-two to twenty-four hours per day is insanity. When confined without human contact.
This is much bigger than me.
But together we can make an impact....”
Bach: And then he signs it Texas death row prisoner Gary R. Green, and he was TDCJ # 999561. So, pretty powerful. And there were times where he would show frustration in letters and in our face-to-face. But this was, this was as dark as he got. This was as dark as he got. So, I've kept this just to see that side.
Whelan: Thank you so much for sharing that—to both you and Gary. It sounds like he was becoming more open with some of the legal aspects of his case and was being open about his mental health. Did you find that as his execution neared he was reflecting on his life more openly or sharing aspects of who he was? And, if so, do you want to share who Gary was in your eyes?
Bach: Yeah. I’m not sure he really showed much more about himself. He was pretty open to begin with. But some of the things that he did that do show his character towards the end...just some memories of the last couple weeks. He wrote asking—he never asked for money, never asked for anything. Well, I take that back, he did ask once for shoes after there was a jail break in ‘twenty-two. And after that anybody incarcerated there who had shoes with anything other than completely white, including the soles, got them taken away, and he had size thirteen and a half shoes. So he was wearing, in his all three hundred and some pounds of him, wearing shower slippers, that was all he had. So he asked for some help there, and the warden let me send some shoes. But he never asked for money. That was about the only time. But at the end, he did, he asked for some money. And that was because there's a period of time, and I forget exactly when it was, whether it was during the final two weeks, or prior to the final two weeks, prior to their execution, they are allowed to do what he called the “last spend.” They're allowed to spend more than their normal allowance in the commissary. And he asked for some money for that so he could buy ice cream for everybody who was on death row and all of the guards and all of the... and he actually wrote about that experience afterwards, it's in the digital letters that I sent because it was towards the end. But he talked about how hard it was for both him as well as the guards to hold back the tears.
And then the other thing towards the end that was kind of nice—he connected with his cousin, who I’m going to call David, who was also incarcerated at Polunsky, not on death row. And we now also correspond. But that was a real positive change. He had some three or four-hour visits where they were allowed to meet, and I think that was because he had an [execution] date. And then, the last weekend I got there Monday. I actually flew back into Austin Sunday night and drove to Livingston on Monday morning on the sixth. I'm sorry, I forgot where I was going with that. Oh yeah. So I got there on Monday and the warden had arranged for him to have a conversation with his daughter, which was nice, and Gary was just so elated. It was nice to see him on Monday. He was so happy to have that call and that visit. But, you know, I think that he was reconciled to the situation. He never said until Tuesday that he was ready, and he did on Tuesday—he said he was ready. But he didn't look on it as the end. He recognized that the trial, certainly the trials he had been through and the pain he had caused.
Whelan: Thank you. And thank you again for sharing the poem, and it makes me think about when you're thinking about Gary now, if there's a song, or an image, or a specific artifact or relic of his life that comes to mind?
Bach: Well there are a couple. Can we see them on the camera? Whelan: Yeah, we should be able to.
Bach: I’ll show a couple. I have a lot of the artwork that he shared with me, and there's some just remarkable pieces. I won't hold them all up, but he did these pencil sketches. Let’s see if I can hold that closer (Bach holds a drawing of two dogs and a heart up to the camera, and then holds up an image of a smiling face next to a crying face). This one he sent really early on, and I really liked it. This one will go back up on my wall, that he drew. So, anyway, those are just a couple. One other thing that he shared with me—how many do I have? I think I have six or seven. But in the time that I knew him, he did a lot of self-study, so I'm just going to hold them up very quickly (begins flipping through diplomas and certificates in front of the camera). He did all of these, all of these diplomas. And I was so honored that he sent them to me, you know, he sent me these diplomas, so that was kind of—and there's one more there. And let’s see—I do want to show this, and I got permission (Bach holds up a photo of Gary behind his cell window smiling while another man on the outside smiles next to him). I don't know if that's too small to see. The individual—Gary’s behind his cell there—and the individual that's in there, his name is Troop. He's one of the spiritual advisors that are there in Polunsky, and he gave permission for me to show the picture. But, this is about as much personal contact as a person on death row gets—twenty-four/seven. They never, never really get to see much of anybody. And then the other thing that happened for that particular diploma, was Gary got a pizza (holds up a photo of Gary smiling with a pizza and diploma). So I was pretty pleased with that. Those are a couple, and then I’ll read one more here. This was a card that Gary gave me (Bach holds up a hand-drawn card with a pumpkin). It was a Halloween card, and I liked what he wrote, because it kind of showed his spirituality to me. (Bach begins reading the card) “Love and compassion are the true religions to me. But to develop this, we do not need to believe in any religion.”
And that was a quote he had from the Dalai Lama. (Bach continues reading) “I love you and value you highly good brother. I pray all is well with you, as it is with me, twenty-four/seven, three hundred and sixty-five. Even as we sleep, we make choices. If it's about choices, so always choose. Allow your light to be blinking, a blinking force upon darkness—wherever and however.” His language isn't always the greatest, but his heart is in the right place. And so anyway, that meant a lot to me when he sent that.
Whelan: Did you find that topics of faith and spirituality were often connecting you and Gary?
Bach: Yes, we would often have prayer requests from each other, and we would talk about our spirituality. He became interested in Quakerism at one point, but his spiritual advisor and leaning was really Buddhism. So, the Rev—he has quite a few friends on death row, but he lives in Houston—he was Gary's spiritual advisor, and I know him. But yeah, we would talk about it, you know, similar to this letter, a lot of times. Yeah.
Whelan: What do you think you've learned about yourself and your own faith through this all?
Bach: Oh, good question. You know I think—because it's almost, why is this important? And certainly, outwardly it's important work to do, because many, many of the people who live at Polunsky, who are incarcerated at Polunsky, have no one, and need that connection. And I can always say, you know, if nothing else I can always go and make sure he's getting something out of the vending machines and some time out of that six by ten cell that they spend twenty-four hours a day in. Anyway, I kind of lost my train of thought there too.
Whelan: That's okay. I had asked what you feel you've learned about your faith or yourself.
Bach: Yeah, thank you. I'm sorry. So that really described the external—-the internal is more important. And I think—and it's hard to describe—-but I think that knowing Gary, and I'm going to say David, John, and Jerry, I'll use those names—it has made me recognize that there's very little difference between me and any one of those four individuals. There are differences, obviously—I'm not in prison. But the life choices that I made may have been a little bit different, but I could have very easily made some bad choices as well, and certainly you know, the color of my skin, my background, they made my life much easier than any of the people that I correspond with. And I think because of that, it really makes me recognize my own flaws and my own weaknesses, and gives me an opportunity to try to do something about those. So, I think that probably describes it. But, it’s not easy. It's like I said, you know, having friends who are on death row is not an easy topic to talk to people about. So, yeah. I think it helps make me more humble.
Whelan: Do you feel as if there are people in your life who you can speak to about the grief that exists after?
Bach: Yes. Yes. Fortunately, certainly here. This is helpful. Certainly. Yes, there are people, and Texas After Violence Project has helped a lot with that too, quite frankly. Yes, it’s been very good. This is part of the healing for me, is being able to talk about it.
Whelan: And in your communications with Gary's family recently, what are the kinds of things that now you are kind of collectively approaching as far as his legacy and ashes? You talked about his remains?
Bach: Yeah. Yeah. So Gary was pretty specific, and so he was cremated, and outside of family there were seven people that he designated that he would like to have a portion of the ashes, or some of his ashes. So, dealing with death in the family before, I've had to deal with moving of ashes, and the post office, and things like that. So, anyway, we're going to make some small jewelry and send it to the seven people, once I get up with his brother. I am in communication a little bit with his brother afterwards. I mentioned his mom—yeah, that's even harder, for family. I can't—I can't imagine that. And I do want to be careful talking about...but I can talk about my experience observing some of that pain in the family member. So, let me go ahead and talk about that just a little bit. After Gary got a date that's when I started talking—I had spoken with his mom or his stepdad Leon before or after trips. I would call and say “I’m going to see Gary, is there anything you want...” And usually those phone calls were very short. But then once Gary got a date, they became much more frequent, and much—I started to see the pain that Gary's mom was going through. The phone calls could be two hours. You know, for example, an individual in the community might come up to her and try to be kind and compassionate, but yet the constant reminder, and the fact that newspapers were picking up on the execution date... and so, she would talk about that, and how she just didn't want to even go out of the house. And Gary said towards the end, he said, “I know how my mom will be. She’ll just hole up for ninety days, she will not do anything.” So, you know, towards...I started to realize that I think I was bringing some of that pain up by calling and talking to her, because she would talk for quite a few hours and be upset at the end. So it was probably, I don't know, a month before his execution, we didn't talk much, and I haven't spoken to her since. I have spoken to Gary's brother, I spoke to him the morning of the execution actually. I called him and talked to him. And again, you know, he's a young man who's got a family, you know, the pain of that...I just can't even fathom that.
Whelan: Well we know that there's a lot of pain, but we also know that there's a lot of legacy, and what do you see as Gary's legacy? Whether it's on you individually, on a community, or even more broad?
Bach: So we do have in our social hall, we have a kind of a display there, that kind of comes up and goes down, about the death row ministry. And Gary will become a part of that. There's a couple of men on death row who have had a big impression on the meeting, and so the article that I wrote will go in there, and certainly some of the materials will go in there. I think to me, you know, he had such a hard life. Oh goodness, gracious. Some of the details...you know, when I look back at Gary and I think about what is his legacy for me, it's that he was able to be in a situation that is just so horrific, but yet, maintain a positive outlook. I don’t know how in the world he did, but he did do that. As a community, we are planning on—I don't know the date, I think it's going to be in May—we are going to do a memorial, and I'll reach out and see if they [Gary’s family] want to come down, but we'll do a memorial here for both Gary, as well as another friend of a Quaker who passed away. So there will be those things. But it's still a good memory. Goodness gracious. What a good memory. You know, I would always know with Gary—like I don't want to say always, but almost always I would know I would walk away from our time happy. Sad in some ways, but he was uplifting.
Whelan: And do you feel like you'll correspond with another friend in the future?
Bach: Yes, I have. I wrote a letter to one already, Gary's cousin who’s not on death row. As far as picking up another, I probably will. But I'm going to wait a little bit, you know, probably later in the year, probably later in the year. There's a group that does two visits. When you go to Livingston, to Polunsky, you can do one or two visits. It’s either—what is it? It’s one to three or three-thirty to five-thirty. And if you have two friends, you can do both visits, which can be quite tiresome with a four-hour drive, and all that visit time, and then the drive home. But there's a group that does. And I was in that group of doing two visits, and we would stop and eat dinner. We would have the traditional stop in—where was it? In Giddings. For breakfast tacos on the way, and usually buy two, so we have one for dinner on the way back while we were talking. But I'll pick up another. It's important, you know, some of the social work that we do is for broader populations, and that's important work. It really is. But we can't forget the individual work that has to be done as well, and that’s how I view this.
Whelan: I've been so struck throughout this conversation by just the guiding theme of friendship. We're sitting in the Friends Meeting Hall, talking about your friend Gary and the support your [Quaker] Friends offered you both pre and post-execution, and I'm wondering with this work, what does it teach you about friendship and love in general? Or what does it show you?
Bach: Yeah, certainly—boy. I mean right off, because we've had this discussion before with people who are involved with the ministry. Certainly you've got to lay judgment aside in any friendship. Goodness gracious. You’ve got to accept who somebody is right in front of you, at that moment in time and do the best you can to address—if you have to— any baggage that may be there. I think that's probably an important lesson for me out of it.
Whelan: Thank you so much, Chip. Is there anything else you want to share with us about Gary or about your experience?
Bach: Let’s see. I do want to play one tune. I wrote a song. It's an instrumental tune, if I can do that.
Whelan: Please. We would be delighted.
Bach: Yeah, let me just grab my mandolin here...(Bach retrieves mandolin and removes it from its case). So, this is a song that I wrote. It's a tune, I write a lot of instrumental tunes. So this is an instrumental tune that I wrote and it’s “Miss Mary’s Waltz,” so it's about Gary's mom, but I've never been able to play it for her—or for Gary for that matter.
(Chip plays “Miss Mary’s Waltz” on the mandolin)
Bach: That's “Miss Mary's, Waltz.”
Whelan: Thank you so much. That was beautiful.
Bach: You’re welcome. Actually, I have a friend who's a studio musician, who’s picked that up and turned it into a Christmas carol.
Whelan: Oh my goodness. Well, I'm waiting for the Opera. Well, thank you Chip.
Bach: Thank you, thank all of you.
Whelan: We appreciate you, and we appreciate Gary, and the relationship you guys share.
Bach: Well thank you. I sure appreciate it. It was really tough. I mean, the first week or so...it's gotten better. Still, talking with you, and having the [Quaker] Friends here to talk about it, the idea of doing a memorial—-which we've done before, but it's been a while since a Quaker Friend has lost a friend on death row. It's a little bit, several years. Well, except for Terrence. Alright.
Bach: Thank all of you.