She Refused to Give Up

Until her life was cut short by TWA Flight 800, former real estate practitioner Pam Lychner was an influential crusader for victims' rights.

April 1, 1997

She helped to make the world a better place.

And then, tragically, she died.

Her name was Pam Lychner, a former REALTOR® from Houston. Last July 17, Lychner, 37, and her two daughters, Shannon, 10, and Katie, 8, boarded TWA Flight 800 in New York City, heading for a fun vacation in Paris.

A short time after takeoff, the jumbo jet exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 aboard.

Despite the emotional darkness left in the wake of the crash, the story of Pam Lychner continues to shine as a source of inspiration to others.

Earlier Trauma Touches Off Crusade

During the six years before her death, Pam evolved from a businesswoman and mother into an influential advocate for crime victims' rights.

Her motivation for getting involved was personal--she herself had narrowly escaped being a rape victim.

In the early 1980s, Pam worked as a residential salesperson for several Houston brokerages. After the birth of her two daughters, she went into business for herself, buying and renovating houses and then selling them.

One day in 1990 she received a telephone call at home from a man who expressed an interest in looking at a house. Pam asked her husband, Joe, to come along for the showing. Pam stayed in the kitchen, and Joe went to another part of the house. A laborer who worked for the company Pam had hired to clean the house entered the house at the time of the appointment, claiming he had returned to finish the job. Police later theorized that it was he who had called to make the appointment. When Pam turned her back, the laborer--apparently unaware that someone else was in the house--grabbed her from behind, put his hand over her mouth, and attempted to rape her.

Hearing noises, Joe rushed to help his wife. While Joe struggled with the assailant, Pam ran to a neighbor's house for assistance. The suspect was arrested, convicted, and eventually sent to prison for 20 years. The suspect turned out to be a convicted rapist and child molester who had been released from state prison under a mandatory early release policy designed to ease prison overcrowding.

The assault severely traumatized Pam. She stopped working and withdrew psychologically, often locking herself into her house and refusing to go out at night. "She would jump when the telephone rang," Joe says. Her fears grew worse when the assailant filed a civil lawsuit against the Lychners, seeking damages for "psychological injuries" inflicted during the apprehension.

Although the suit was eventually thrown out of court, Pam was terrified that the assailant would retaliate in other ways when he was released, maybe by harming her daughters. Two years into the assailant's prison sentence, the Lychners received a letter from the state parole board stating that the assailant was being considered for parole. The letter turned Pam's life around. Joe quotes his wife as saying, "I can't live this way anymore. I'm fighting back."

She started meeting and working with other crime victims and founded an organization called Justice for All (JFA) to support their concerns and rights. The organization received statewide publicity in 1993 when it held rallies to uphold the conviction of death row inmate Gary Graham. At the time, a group of Hollywood celebrities were campaigning for a new trial for Graham. The celebrity effort eventually fizzled.

Pam grew into a persuasive public speaker, appearing on national television and building JFA's membership to 3,500, with chapters in five cities. She became a friend and supporter of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who won election in 1994.

Pam's organization lobbied for new anticrime legislation. One of JFA's greatest victories came in 1995 when the Texas Legislature voted to end mandatory early release. Under the new law, criminals convicted after Sept. 1, 1996, became subject to review by the parole board.

Pam's husband, Joe Lychner, recently talked with Today's REALTOR® associate editor Walt Albro about Pam's meteoric rise as a victims' rights advocate. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.

How much time did Pam devote to victims' rights?

The phone never stopped ringing. She'd work all day until 10 or 11 at night. Sometimes I'd wake up at 4 a.m. and find her sitting at her workstation, typing letters or sending faxes. We had difficulty holding a conversation without being interrupted by a phone call. A couple of times, we talked about her cutting back on the time she was devoting to JFA. She'd say something like, "OK, I'll cut back. I'll work only from 10 to 2," or, "I'll work only while the kids are in school." That would last until the next time the phone rang.

What do you think Pam would have said if someone had asked her how she was able to accomplish so much?

She'd have said, "Hard work." She came from a middle-class family that understood the value of hard work. Also, she would have said, "Toughness." She was determined and relentless in pursuit of a goal. She wouldn't stop for any obstacle.

Did Pam grow as a result of her work with JFA?

When Pam started out, she was deathly afraid of public speaking. She couldn't get up in front of an audience to save her life. Once JFA got rolling, Pam was called on to do all kinds of public speaking.

I was the one with speaking experience, so she asked me, "What should I do?" I said, "You're going to have to get over your fear." She cured herself by doing the thing she feared.

By the end, she was a better speaker than I was. In fact, she was so good she was better than I'll ever be.

Did you learn any life lessons from Pam?

She taught me that nothing is impossible.

At the beginning, she was trying to come up with ways to get publicity for JFA. Some of them seemed so foolish I thought they couldn't possibly work. Yet, she was determined.

One time she came up with an idea to publicize the slogan "Lock them up and throw away the key." Her idea was to mount a drive whereby citizens who were concerned about the early release program would contribute an old key to symbolize their opposition. The idea seemed crazy. I was afraid she'd embarrass herself.

But Pam got thousands and thousands of keys. JFA took the keys and dumped them on the doorstep of the executive director of the state pardons and parole board. She generated an enormous amount of publicity. She had a knack for that.

What kept her motivated?

The issue and the crime victims themselves. Some-times when she was discouraged or felt as if she were at the end of her rope, she'd reenergize herself by talking with some new crime victim. The victim would look to her for help. That would drive her back to her leadership role.

She was an attractive and dynamic spokesperson who was able to put a human face on the issue. She was motivated by the fact that she had something unique to contribute--and she knew the movement needed her.

Her attitude was "Never give up."

Did she have any guiding principles?

Yes. Credibility is everything. She knew that if she made one mistake, she'd be crucified. Before she took a public stand on any issue, she did her homework and conducted diligent research. She never shot from the hip. Even those who opposed her respected her knowledge of the issues. No one ever succeeded in undermining her credibility.

What do you think is her enduring legacy?

Two things. First, she created the organization Justice for All, and second, she helped eliminate mandatory early release for prisoners in Texas.

Hundreds of people have avoided ending up as crime victims--including murder and rape victims--thanks to Pam's efforts to keep criminals in prison longer. Many of those people owe their lives to Pam.

That's her legacy.

For information about joining Justice for All, write to P.O. Box 55159, Houston, TX 77255. Telephone: 713/935-9300.

Walt Albro is a former senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine.

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