SAN ANTONIO — A longtime adviser to Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday he was joking when he pulled out a pocketknife and said, "What are they going to do, shoot me?" while being told he was fired as deputy chancellor of the Texas A&M University System.
Jay Kimbrough said he can't imagine that two A&M attorneys felt threatened by the gesture during the meeting Wednesday, but university police say some people were "alarmed" by the knife and the department is still investigating.
"We were laughing," said Kimbrough, recounting the meeting. "I've had this pocketknife for years ... At some point, I flipped it out and said, 'What are they going to do, shoot me?' Things could be worse. Us dead men walking have an advantage."
A&M police Sgt. Allan Baron said Kimbrough did not make any direct threats and was cooperative when questioned. Two plain-clothes officers later asked Kimbrough to leave campus, but Barron said that is routine policy when employees are fired and that it wasn't prompted by the knife.
Baron said he didn't know who made the call to campus police about being concerned by the knife.
"There were some individuals that were alarmed. That's why we were contacted," Baron said.
Kimbrough said the firing came as a complete surprise. He is Perry's former chief of staff and has been used by the current Republican presidential candidate in a variety of roles. Kimbrough is widely known as Perry's clean-up man to fix troubled state agencies.
He was named interim chancellor at A&M in June after the resignation of Mike McKinney, another former Perry chief of staff. The shake-up came during a turbulent time in Texas higher education — particularly at A&M, where faculty railed against regents for their perceived support of controversial classroom reforms.
Kimbrough was never a candidate for permanent chancellor position. That was filled this month by John Sharp, a former classmate of Perry's at A&M in the 1970s. In an email to system employees Wednesday, Sharp said Kimbrough's position — which paid $300,000 annually — was no longer needed and thanked him for his service.
Kimbrough said Thursday he never heard from Sharp before being fired. He said he didn't have a relationship with Sharp but understood the new boss has a right to change the structure.
"The new person coming in has the authority and obligation to (use) what model they want. That movie I've seen before," Kimbrough said.
But there appeared to be some friction. When asked if he felt Sharp was the right man for the top job, Kimbrough declined comment.
Kimbrough said he didn't appreciate the system sending plain-clothes officers to tell him to leave campus, telling the officers, "You're kidding?" when they approached him. But Kimbrough said he understood they were simply doing their job and shook their hands.
As for his knife starting an investigation, Kimbrough said, "I don't consider it an investigation. I don't consider it that at all. That's impossible."
A&M System spokesman Jason Cook said the university had no immediate comment. A report of the incident was expected to be released later Thursday. Kimbrough said he has not spoken to Perry since being fired.
Perry's office did not immediately return a phone message and email for comment.
Kimbrough said he's used the knife "10,000 times" in jest as a prop — his way of saying he's seen tougher times and things could be worse. The motorcycle-riding, former Marine was wounded in Vietnam and carries something of a tough-guy reputation. He proudly tells the story of how he graduated early so he could enlist and has stayed in public service ever since.
He was fired on his 64th birthday.