The sign across B.T. Collins’ Sacramento office window reads: HARD WORK, LOW PAY, MISERABLE WORKING CONDITIONS—and that’s putting it mildly. A former Green Beret who lost his right arm and leg in Vietnam, B.T. (for Brien Thomas) Collins is director of the California Conservation Corps, a chain of work centers for 1,800 men and women, 18 to 23 years old, who survive initiation in B.T.’s three-week boot camps.
“This is not a job training program,” Collins barks. “I work these kids to death. Only 30 percent last the year,” he adds boastingly. “One minute late and they’re subject to termination. You get up at 5:30 and run two miles. No booze, no drugs, no violence, no refusal to work.” His recruits must “register to vote, register for the draft, give blood and learn to read and write on a sixth-grade level or they’ll be fired,” Collins explains. “They sign up for a year at the minimum wage of $580 a month, and that’s too much. I take back $135 for room and board [in spartan barracks].”
In return the kids, who register at state employment offices, get to work on projects dealing with the environment, energy conservation or making facilities accessible to the handicapped. Last Thanksgiving, for example, 300 of them were dispatched to fight fires in San Bernardino. Others have cleared streams of debris so trout and salmon can spawn, restored buildings, reforested state lands and worked on flood control.
Collins’ employees now include 680 females (“I’ll take them anytime because they’re better workers”) and 110 handicapped (“They last longer than other kids”). Some 1,500 male applicants are on the waiting list. All socioeconomic backgrounds are represented, though no one on parole or probation is accepted. Collins is beginning to place “graduates” with large corporations. The project is so successful two states are developing similar programs. “I tell the kids, ‘I don’t care about your happiness. All I care is whether you work,’ ” he says. If intimidation has only hardened his exuberant yet often critical crew (see box), it has softened the hearts of California’s legislators. They recently voted to extend the CCC for another five years, and state finance committees are seeking to increase the budget by $5.5 million, to $38.9 million. That pays for 376 staffers at 24 centers and the training site in the Sierra foothills, plus Collins’ $50,600 salary.
The CCC was established by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976, replacing an ecology corps formed by Ronald Reagan in 1970. In its first three years the CCC gained a reputation for being mismanaged and unproductive. That’s when Brown named Collins, a conservative Republican, to the job.
Collins, 40, was born in White Plains, N.Y., the son of a school principal. After a stab at three different colleges, stints with IBM and the U.S. Post Office and a few brushes with the law (“I was arrested for general hooliganism”), he joined the Army in 1963. Four years later he found himself at Long Toan, a free-fire area where he was critically wounded. He returned to the U.S. with four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. The six-foot-tall Collins spent 18 months in an Army hospital in Pennsylvania, where his weight dropped to 102 pounds. He then moved to California, where he graduated with a B.A. in history from the University of Santa Clara in 1970 and its law school in 1973. Subsequently he was hired by Brown’s legislative secretary.
A bachelor (“Warriors should never marry”), Collins lives alone in a small house with a swimming pool near his office, and jokes that he “lobbies and drinks” for relaxation. Of his boss he says, “In some weird way, Brown inspires confidence, but would I have a beer with him in a bar? No way.” In fact Collins says he took the job under one condition: that Brown “stay out of my life. Now,” he adds, “I’ve given the governor something to brag about.”