Feature

Hog Heaven: A Test of Faith

How one school leader overcame the most unlikely of controversies and personal doubts to regain his passion for education. by THOMAS W. HARVEY JR.

The sharing of this true story is personal. I was a member of the staff at a small school in east Texas at the time. As principal of Woodville High School, I was thrust into a yearlong public relations nightmare.

 

The nightmare began when a young student in our Future Farmers of America club discovered that his project for the county fair, a hog carefully and proudly groomed, did not qualify for competition. With his animal a few pounds shy of the required 200-lb. mark, the student was advised by a bystander at the weigh-in to "drench" the animal. Drenching is a procedure where fluid is forced down an animal’s esophagus with an instrument made for this purpose. Normally, the procedure allows medicine to be administered to sick animals, although it also is permitted in some livestock shows as a way to add body shape and physical line to an animal.

The hapless student, following the ill advice, forced water down the hog with neither training nor proper equipment. He simply hoped the weight of the water would help him meet the weight requirement. The hog met the standard at the second weigh-in. Unfortunately, the distraught animal died about one hour later, probably due to stress.

While tragic, the story had only just begun. A letter to the editor by a concerned local resident criticizing the situation was published a few weeks later in the Tyler County Booster, the local weekly newspaper, in October 1994. The following February, it was picked up in Ann Landers’ syndicated advice column. Landers paraphrased the letter, which accused us of negligence, and she added her own editorial comments in a second column one month later. This had an immediate reaction, which turned my life upside down.

Now the world knew of this unfortunate episode. Looking back, I concede I learned a lot about myself, about the role of school administrators and about mass communication in the modern era.

It’s a Small World
Changes in society, sparked by technology, have roared into our lives in recent years. Nowhere does this seem more dramatic than how news and information is shared instantaneously and globally. I recall the news media coverage during Desert Storm as a turning point. Throughout the war, Americans found themselves on the 50-yard line, instantly informed of every major development, in a sort of play-by-play commentary on every Scud missile rocketing through the sky.

Time and space between events disappeared, and news coverage of the war was constant.

In this new world of rapid-fire electronic and broadcast media, the line between fact and opinion often becomes blurred. Web sites run by anyone with a high-speed modem and a desire to be an "expert" pass along unconfirmed and spurious information as fact. Melodramatic talk shows thrive on TV and radio. The more bizarre the tale and more explosive the emotions, the bigger the audience and the higher the ratings.
Being aware of this cultural dynamic, I anticipated a swift and harsh reaction, fueled by the media’s portrayal of our role in the hog’s death. The day after the fair I contacted the superintendent to make her aware of the circumstances. We initiated steps to assist our agricultural science teachers (one in her second year of teaching, the other a rookie), as well as the fair officials, that would ensure this type of accident never happened again. This included formulating acceptable practices for Future Farmers of America members competing in livestock shows.

Predictably, within a few days of the incident, the first letter to the editor appeared in the local paper. Although the letter writer embellished the facts and added erroneous details, we took great care in our response not to challenge the author. While we could have debated issues one by one, we believed the best approach was to address the hog’s death with a description of how we would guarantee no recurrence of this tragedy. We feared a public refutation could create an atmosphere in which others in our small community would be reluctant to discuss problems related to our schools.

On a personal level, I was disappointed and embarrassed to see my name in print in this manner. The letter presented me as a callous, indifferent school administrator. Yes, I was at the fair on the day of the incident. I was there to support our students and staff and as the father of a young participant who had his own project. I did not witness the drenching incident or weigh-in.

Even with my ego jarred, I ignored the comments and took it on the chin for my staff and the student involved. The student needed no punishment for his action nor did the faculty members who were involved in the fair. Humiliation of an adolescent was the farthest thing from my mind.

Professional growth was the first item on my agenda. As principal, I wanted to help teachers through this ordeal and focus on preventing similar problems. I felt confident the community knew the real me. The public knew the teachers and student. They also knew the complainant. Because of the close-knit nature of the community, many residents had been at the fair or heard about the happenings from someone who was there.

Little criticism came from community members. A local politician purchased the pig posthumously to help the student pay his bills to the local feed store. The largest newspaper in the region, the Beaumont Enterprise, carried a very supportive editorial about the handling of the unfortunate event.

A Wayward Columnist
The passage of time seemed to be allowing the school district to handle the situation with little fanfare. Several months passed. Then came Ann Landers. Suddenly, Woodville, Texas, the Tyler County Fair and Tom Harvey were thrust again into the spotlight. Her republication of the original letter to the editor and subsequent commentary on the situation evoked hundreds of knee-jerk comments from her readers, some of whom compared the student, teacher and me to the likes of mass murderer Jeffery Dahmer, Adolph Hitler and other notoriously evil figures in history.

Our school received hundreds of phone calls and even more letters from nearly every state and many foreign countries. City leaders, county leaders, even Texas Gov. George W. Bush, received mountains of mail and calls concerning "the hog." The Tyler County Booster carried letters from people across the country for weeks.

Quite a few personal letters threatened bodily harm to the student, teachers, my family and me. Some contained graphic plans for revenge. My personal phone line received calls day and night. Eventually, I did not allow my children to answer the phone. Many were obscene or originating from emotionally disturbed individuals.

Ann Landers had made no effort to ask for our response before putting the critical letter in her internationally syndicated column. Obviously, this threw down the gauntlet. But I was adamant I would not respond unless addressed directly. I long have appreciated the fact that the news media has more ink than I have time and usually has the final say on all matters.

With great anxiety, I realized just how small the world was. I began to understand why people in California, New York, Oregon and Washington were furious about an incident in a rural Texas community. Mark Gerzon, author of A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America’s Soul and a presenter at last fall’s joint conference of the Texas Association of School Boards/Texas Association of School Administrators, called this type of action "the Jerry Springer" form of democracy. This is where a citizen feels he or she is obligated to express heartfelt opinions with public blasts, which may or may not be true, through print, airwave and electronic transmission. With little regard to facts, these people promote idiosyncratic social causes or beliefs. Little matters, other than the promotion of the single "right" direction.

The county fair incident became a public flogging for those involved. Sadly, by the end of the school year, owing in part to undue harassment and public humiliation, the student dropped out of school and the school’s agricultural science teachers left to teach elsewhere.

I guess I’ve learned two things about the smallness of the world. First, I am cautious now when I hear accounts of unusual events and I’m slower to form opinions. Second, I am more aware of the global impact of decisions I make each day. Wherever I go, I can never lay down my professional hat, as those who recognize me will judge the circumstances in which I operate, form opinions based on their belief system and can and will write to Ann Landers or worse.

A Tour de Faith
I’ve never much understood bicycle racing and neither would I easily fit on the seat of a bike, but I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of the Tour de France, the world’s most famous road race on bicycles, in 1999 and 2000. I have found great symbolic meaning in the exploits of fellow Texan Lance Armstrong as he prepared for and won the event both years. His personal circumstances inspired me.

The Tour de France is 2,287 miles long. When I consider that the race encircles the country of France, I am amazed. I’ve been to France. I remember the high peaks and the sometimes inhospitable weather. It is apparent that only the fittest could endure the challenge of this ultimate marathon.

To Armstrong, the importance of the race may have seemed secondary. Having been diagnosed with testicular cancer, this man endured the agony of cancer treatments and survived, not to exist, but to excel. Training his body into that of a premiere athlete and climbing both the personal and true-to-life mountains, Armstrong set an example for all.

I understand why some have called the Tour de France a tour de faith. The race is a test of faith in preparation, faith in oneself and tenacity to see the job completed. Educators are seldom called to meet Armstrong’s extreme Tour de France challenge. Yet all of us face smaller mountains on the personal and professional fronts. While I’ve never had to overcome comparable hurdles, I have had to persuade myself that the end does justify the means.

The hog incident nearly did me in. Without the support of my superintendent, my staff and the local school board, I would have resigned and left education. As the events surrounding the hog’s death unfolded, it appeared the entire district’s time and all of mine was being spent (and wasted) answering obscene calls and letters. One day I was dealing with a student who was hit by a vehicle in our school parking lot. Staff members assisted the seriously injured student as I ran to my office. I yelled to my secretary to call for an ambulance, but she was tied up on the phone with a "hog caller." She reacted by telling the caller that we needed to tend to an emergency and that the caller could go straight to … a place we’ve all heard of.

Wildly irrational reactions were getting in the way of progress. School business was being impeded, and personal attacks that put everyone, including my family, in precarious positions forced me to question the career I had selected.

Late one sleepless night I concluded I would leave education. As I attempted to articulate my decision the next morning to my boss, she interrupted me, red-faced and firm of jaw. Superintendent Carol Moffett reminded me I had a job to do. She said it was time for us to focus on the task at hand--leading the staff and students of our school. She left her office immediately and informed the central-office staff that all incoming mail would pass her desk prior to going to the high school. She brought on extra clerical and phone assistance. Attorneys were hired and given an official statement from the school. I was told that the hog incident no longer was to take up any of my time.

I never read another letter about the hog. I did see the enormous mounds of mail and the staff responding to calls and letters. Moffett and the central office moved this mountain out of the way and gave me the opportunity to do my job.

Several days after my attempt to resign, I was again in a meeting with the superintendent. She brought up the subject. She said that as professionals, trials are often attached to one’s sleeve like stripes in the military, likening them to badges of honor, a sign of success. "You’ll be a better leader by having dealt with the Woodville pig," she said. We both laughed. But she was right.

Quitting would have been the easy way out. I had to be reminded to keep my eyes on the mountains right in front of me--the vision and the goals set by the school district and by me--and to keep pedaling. Enduring the present would allow for future success. This set of tragic circumstances was merely a test. While others in education may endure greater obstacles, this was my test of faith, my test of preparation, my test of tenacity, my tour de faith.

Thomas Harvey, who served as principal of Woodville High School for seven years, is superintendent of Sabine Pass Independent School District, P.O. Box 1148, Sabine Pass, TX 77655. E-mail: docharv@swbell.net