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Shuttle Disaster

Obscurity may change, old values remain

Amid tragedy and sudden fame, simple values in Nacogdoches, Texas, shine through.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003


NACOGDOCHES -- For the last 224 years, this little town deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas has pretty much loped along, unnoticed by the world.

No dramatic 19th-century cattle drives. No big oil rigs pumping liquid money from the ground.

Nacogdoches' only distinction came from its motto, "The oldest town in Texas." And even that, it seems, may be a little presumptuous.

"It's a proud claim," said Dr. Archie McDonald, professor of history at the state university and author of several books on the area's history. "But it depends on your definition of oldest, town and Texas."

Last weekend, Nacogdoches made history.

What's left of the shuttle Columbia poured from white-streaked skies onto cattle pastures and parking lots. There have been 1,200 reports of debris within the 902 square miles of Nacogdoches County, more than anywhere else. Body parts have landed in 15 places here, along with parts of the shuttle's cabin.

With all of this detritus has come fame -- in the shape of 23 satellite news trucks lined up in the town square to air news of the rippled metal sheet that narrowly missed the old Masonic temple.

"Nacogdoches wasn't even on the map 'til this happened," said Amanda Curbow, 21, a clerk at the Exxon station, where old men come to drink coffee and boast about their gardens.

TV crews have arrived by the dozens. Hotels are booked solid. Reporters, from English, Italian and Japanese news outlets, are raising dust on dirt roads. Local officials, used to fielding complaints about traffic on Main Street, are being interrogated about the removal of hazardous materials.

And now that Nacogdoches has an international reputation, residents wonder, what sort of reputation is it?

Sure, Nacogdoches is a notch in the Texas Bible Belt, with strong Baptist ties and country twangs. But residents here repeat that this town isn't like others in this region.

Nacogdoches is to east Texas, they intimate, as Manhattan is to New York.

"Not all of us are rednecks and boobs," said Gregg Fort, associate athletic director at the Stephen F. Austin State University, which enrolls more than 10,000 students.

"This really is a white-collar, educated town because of the university," said Fort, 32, standing near a memorial of flowers in historic downtown.

Nacogdoches (pronounced: nack-uh-DOH-chuz) was named, the story goes, after an Indian tribe. But the running joke is that its real name is Naco-nowhere.

Now, everyone knows someone who had something strange land in the back yard.

"It's like a major treasure hunt around here," said Arrie Brown, 51, who also works at the Exxon station and was a momentary celebrity when a reporter put her on national TV Saturday.

"I never did think I'd be interviewed by CNN," Brown said.

This is the biggest thing to happen here in ages, unless you count occasional fires and floods.

"I think everybody's in such shock because it happened in such a small town," said Cathy Sanders, 45, a secretary for a cattle and timber ranching company housed in one of the old brick buildings. "Everything always happens elsewhere."

What happens in Nacogdoches is basically what always has happened in Nacogdoches. Farmers raise livestock -- poultry now more than anything. Loggers eke out a living mowing down pines and hardwoods. The county, now home to about 60,000, was settled mainly by people from South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, and has a certain southern flavor, said McDonald, the history professor.

"This never was the Old West," he said. "It was farming country."

And now, with the county's major employer being the state university, Nacogdoches has its fair share of intellect, he said.

But that is not the image conveyed on nightly broadcasts.

"I don't know if they deliberately go out and find people with bad grammar, but they sure have been lucky," McDonald said.

Gary Aiken owns the Smokehouse, a grocery store that also grills beef so fresh, ranchers come for lunch. Aiken, himself, is not one to fret over his grammar, but he doesn't want Nacogdoches lumped in with other "Podunk" towns.

"It's kind of a country town but it's not as bad as say, San Augustine," said Aiken, 46. "There's some people down there don't even know what a space shuttle is."

A certain earthiness pervades in Nacogdoches. After the weekend, when residents across the region came out to snap pictures of the debris, gawkers were scant by Monday.

Tony Dawson, a farrier, shrugged off the notion that noxious debris will likely burp from the earth for years to come.

"There's a lot of things you don't want to pick up -- fire ants, bull nettles, hawthorns," said Dawson, 53.

Locals have rallied around their public officials, singing their praises in the local paper for doing the town proud. Nacogdoches County Judge Sue Kennedy has become the de facto spokesperson, confidently responding to questions during press conferences several times a day.

Before dozens of reporters Monday, she quipped, "I hope you've enjoyed your stay here so much you come back to Nacogdoches to live with us."

She gave the perfunctory update on body parts and strange objects found.

But Kennedy closed on a personal note.

"Never, ever do we forget the true heart of this tragedy," she said, holding up a multi-pastel colored legal pad with the names of the seven dead astronauts.

"We start every day with a prayer," she said, "we end every day with a prayer."

It was a Nacogdoches moment: homey, Christian, heartfelt. Those are the qualities that residents say keep them here. And they insist they have nothing to do with being backward.

"When someone dies, people you don't even know show up, bringing you flowers and food," said Ronnie Stanaland, a retired chicken farmer. "If you need some friends, this is the place."

Might Nacogdoches change from all the attention?

Billy Smith, a cowboy in a black felt hat, paused over his hamburger at Smokehouse. "People's good," he said.

He took another bite of red meat.

"How could it change?"

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