IN 1888 THE VOTERS OF MURPHYVILLE, in an early display of Texans’ tendency to exaggerate the size of their natural endowments, changed the name of their town, which sat at 4,481 feet above sea level, to Alpine. Now in Switzerland, home of the Alps, 4,481 feet is a mere hillock, but this was Texas, and this was the middle of the Trans-Pecos desert. Alpine was positively Himalayan, and with its gorgeous mountain vistas and mild climate, it was something of a West Texas anomaly. It later became home to Sul Ross State Normal College, the only four-year university in the region, and later still to scores of federal agents from the DEA and the Border Patrol. Then came artists and writers, some all the way from New York.
In other words, Alpine is a strange little town, and I mean that in a good way. Unlike most West Texas communities, it’s thriving. The normal college is now Sul Ross State University, a full-scale yet still small (enrollment: 2,100) redbrick campus that sits on a slope overlooking the town. There’s a new hospital, the Big Bend Regional Medical Center, and a new federal building is being raised, which will hold a courthouse. There are about a dozen art galleries downtown. You can take a creative-writing class at Front Street Books or surf the Web all night long at the 6th Street Coffeeshop. Alpine is full of cowboy conservatives but also desert-rat liberals; a group of left-wing curmudgeons holds court every Friday afternoon at the popular local bar Railroad Blues, drinking beer and talking loud, while just down the street, a sign at Alpine Auto Parts reads “We are Bush supporters.” It is the kind of town where, if you stop in at the small city hall to pay a visit to the mayor without an appointment, as I did, you just might wind up talking with the receptionist when the mayor phones in and then have the receptionist hand you the phone to talk with Her Honor.
Gossip and bad news travel fast here. In January bad news became big news after Sul Ross economics professor Larry Sechrest wrote an article for Liberty, a 10,000-subscriber libertarian magazine based in Washington state, called “A Strange Little Town in Texas.” For most of the first half, Sechrest wrote of Alpine’s pleasant climate, low crime rate, beautiful scenery, and friendly residents. But something was rotten in paradise. “The secret problem,” wrote Sechrest, “is that the students of Sul Ross, and more generally the long-term residents of the entire area, are appallingly ignorant, irrational, anti-intellectual, and, well . . . just plain stupid. . . . Many of the kids in the Big Bend area are only a notch above retardation. Some are below that.” Sechrest quoted statistics: Two in five Sul Ross freshmen have to take remedial classes to get up to speed; only one in six freshmen ever graduate. Most Sul Ross grads were functioning as tenth graders, wrote the author, who gave anecdotes of classroom ignorance—kids who didn’t know, for example, that 0.75, 75 percent, and three fourths were the same thing. Yes, the problems of public education were nationwide, he wrote, yet “Sul Ross, and this area of Texas more generally, is the proud home of some of the dumbest clods on the planet.”
Sechrest didn’t stop there. He wrote of Alpine natives being “inbred to a disturbingly high degree,” referring to their tendency to live there until they died, yet he used that concept as a springboard to write of “poor white trash and poor Mexican trash socializing with, even marrying, each other. Here the lowest common denominators get together to procreate.”
The magazine came out in late December, and it wasn’t long before the issue found its way into the hands of curious citizens. Copies were made, then copies of copies. Soon after, someone broke the windows of a car parked in front of Sechrest’s house. Then came two death threats, plus dozens of obscene e-mails and phone calls. Sechrest’s home was egged. “He pushed everybody’s buttons,” Sam Conn, an Odessa TV reporter, told me. “Artists, Hispanics, conservative cowboys.”
Angry students spoke of boycotting his classes. Sechrest was tenured, and there was nothing the administration could do about him, though R. Vic Morgan, the university president, disavowed the professor’s views. Alpine civic leaders were furious too. The mayor decided to fight back and declared the week of February 6 “We Love Alpine Week.” The next day a rally was held at the county courthouse. People held signs saying things like “Proud to Be Dumb Clods from Alpine.” A band played a song in which the singer sang, “If ignorance is bliss/We’ll tell you what to kiss.” Citizens held a parade, and marchers wore dunce caps and carried toilet plungers as scepters, walking next to cars and trucks that sported banners proclaiming “White Trash” and “Dumb Clods in Alpine . . . by Choice!”
The controversy settled down some as the semester wore on. There was no boycott after all, and life returned to normal. Yet underneath the daily rhythms of Alpine’s laid-back atmosphere, there was still rage. “Alpine will probably be hurt and angry for another year or so,” Roy Hamric, the editor of the Desert-Mountain Times, told me. The professor was less than repentant, too. “The only thing I’d change,” he said, “is I’d say I’m not trying to single out this town or this university. But we’re doing a lousy job here and the school districts are doing a lousy job. And I really do believe nothing will happen unless you kick them in the butts. If you don’t hurt their feelings, you won’t wake them up. I hope it will lead people to think, ‘He may be mean-spirited, but what if he’s right?'”
ON A WARM MARCH AFTERNOON, two young Sul Ross students stood on a campus sidewalk and talked to me about Sechrest. “Sally” is Anglo, “Marta” is Mexican American (neither wanted her actual name used); both are business administration students, and both have to take and pass several of Sechrest’s classes to get their degree. He’s tough, they said; maybe half his students will pass his courses. “In class,” said Marta, “he’s very particular. Students are too intimidated to say, ‘Can you explain it again?'”
When I asked about the things he had written, Sally got angry. “I don’t feel he should be here at all. He’s saying people coming to Sul Ross aren’t worth his time. When I first heard that, I thought, ‘Why am I here?’ I pay ten thousand dollars a year to come here.” “It’s insulting,” added Marta. “Both of us commute three times a week, from almost ninety miles away. Both of us have kids.”
“I’m considered white trash,” said Sally with a snort.
“And I’m an inbred,” said Marta.
Sul Ross is not like UT or A&M or Baylor or Tech. It opened in 1920 as a teaching school; these days it’s known for its biology and geology departments, as well as its graduate education programs. Tuition is low, yet 70 percent of its students get some kind of financial aid. About half are Hispanic. Sul Ross is an open-enrollment school, meaning that it takes most applicants; even if they don’t get in, said President Morgan, if they appeal, they will usually be accepted: “We interpret that as motivation.”
But desire can go only so far, and many students need help. About half of the incoming freshmen are the first in their family to attend college. Morgan acknowledged the low graduation rate and said that one reason for it is that there is no community college in the area (the closest is 147 miles away, in Odessa). “Many of our students use us like a community college,” he said. Others transfer to other schools to graduate.
The university goes out of its way for working people, offering fifteen classes on weekends, for example. Once a month, Matt Branstine, a junior high school principal in Gruver, a Panhandle town 32 miles from Oklahoma, drives his wife and two kids 490 miles south to Alpine so he can take weekend classes for his superintendent certification and his wife can do the same to become a licensed professional counselor. “I could go to OU or even KU,” he told me, “but Sul Ross does a better job preparing administrators than anybody else. Yes, it’s a small, open-enrollment school, and the average student will score a little lower on tests than at other schools. But Sul Ross is also set up to give a lot of service, like smaller classes, with Ph.D.’s instead of grad students teaching them.”
I went to one of Sechrest’s classes, macroeconomics. There were thirteen students—five Hispanic and eight Anglo. “Let’s talk about money,” the professor said at the outset. He was a surprisingly engaging and sometimes funny teacher, even as he wrote words like “fungibility” and “marginal utility” on the board. And about half of the kids actively engaged him with questions and answers; they were no better or worse, I thought, than the teenagers in the UT classes of my youth. The big difference: They really wanted to be there.
Both Marta and Sally told me they were disappointed that the university hadn’t done anything about the man who essentially thinks they’re morons. But they were determined to do something on their own. As Marta said, “I’m going to prove him wrong.”
“IT WAS REALLY TENSE FOR a month or so,” said Sechrest, sitting in his office. “But I never discussed it in class. It was never brought up. In fact, with one exception—one of the professors—not a single human being has walked up to me and said anything negative.” Sechrest is big and burly, with a gray beard and hair that just touches his shoulders. He wears thick glasses that are out of style. He looks, in short, like a wacky college professor. His office is jammed with books, from The Bell Curve to The Fountainhead. He said that, except for the hateful e-mails, most letters had been positive; some agreed with his comments about education but didn’t like the way he put them. Some of the faculty wouldn’t talk to him, but that suited him just fine.
Sechrest was born in Detroit, and his family moved to Dallas when he was eleven. He went to UT-Arlington, where he got his bachelor’s in history and philosophy and his master’s and Ph.D. in economics. He got married, taught at his alma mater for five years, and came to Sul Ross in 1990. He has written much about economics (including a book called Free Banking), as well as politics and morality for various small publications. He’s a libertarian, supersmart and full of the idealism of Ayn Rand, who believed in the brainy, determined individual above all else—especially the weak and the stupid. “What is the thread that runs through all of the moral problems we see around us?” Sechrest asks in one of his articles. “It is the failure to put the individual and his rights at the core of our thinking.”
He wrote a shorter yet similar version of “Strange Little Town” in 1998 (“Trafficking With the Brain-dead”) without controversy. It didn’t name the university, but he called his students some of the same things (“Most of them are worthless clods”). So he never expected the reaction he got this winter. He thought, he told a reporter in February, that he’d written “a Mark Twain sort of thing.” Besides, he never thought anyone would see the magazine. “It’s not online,” he told me, “not sold in stores, and to the best of my knowledge, only two libertarians in Alpine subscribe to it.” He said the story was never intended to be a screed. “My intention was not to foment some revolt or reform, though I’ve long thought that was necessary.”
Sechrest isn’t the first transplant to stir up the locals. In the late sixties H. Allen Smith, a New York journalist and humorist (his first novel, Rhubarb, concerned a cat that inherited a baseball team), fled the big city for the little pleasures of Alpine. Once there, though, the cantankerous Yankee who once wrote “On Monday mornings I am dedicated to the proposition that all men are created jerks” inevitably rubbed his new neighbors the wrong way. After several altercations with the construction contractors who were building his home (he accused them of cheating him), Smith told two visiting Time reporters that he’d never seen “such a goddamned bunch of bigoted, pious, lying, cheating bastards in all my life” than those in Alpine. Smith didn’t realize he was on the record, but like Sechrest, he was unapologetic once the story came out. Angry phone calls and threats of violence followed. Smith ultimately made peace with the locals and even became friendly with them. Sechrest is not so optimistic about his chances. “Until now,” he told me, “I did think these people were friendly and tolerant. I’m ready to retract some of that now.”
MAYOR MICKEY CLOUSE STOOD IN Cowboys and Cadillacs, a store owned by her son, surrounded by cowboy kitsch and high art, from bronze sculptures to life-size cutouts of Clint Eastwood. “I’m sure Sechrest has some good points about the educational system,” she said, “but it’s not only here. It’s all over.” Clouse has the steely good looks of Kay Bailey Hutchison, and she easily slips into her role as civic leader. “He’s done us a favor,” she said. “We had become complacent. We didn’t recognize what we had until someone made us. Now we intend to make We Love Alpine Week an annual affair.” But her political veneer cracked when she talked of how Sechrest had insulted her own children; her four boys went to Alpine High and then Sul Ross. “I resent him saying that about my kids,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “You’re walking on the fightin’ side of me when you talk about my kids.”
Over at Railroad Blues on a Friday afternoon, the fighting words were fueled by beer and camaraderie when a collection of journalists, lawyers, professors, businessmen, and students got together for their weekly powwow on politics, the city, and, of course, Sechrest. “What he said about Sul Ross is fair play,” offered Jack McNamara, a journalist and former Marine who was born in Alpine and raised in the area. “We say that ourselves. But the race stuff—the accusations of miscegenation—it was like reading something from the fifties. And it’s not to be tolerated.” Others around the table nodded. One of them said, “People in Midland asked me, ‘Why haven’t you shot the bastard?'”
The group usually sits at a picnic table just outside the crowded club’s front door. Professor Dale Christophersen, sitting across from McNamara, disputed Sechrest’s claim that he’s a lone voice in the educational wilderness. “Everybody from the top to the bottom at Sul Ross is aware of these kinds of challenges,” he said. Attorney Rod Ponton said, “Sechrest is like a wino who’s down on his luck, and everyone’s pissing on him and he thinks it’s a compliment.” “The whole thing is kind of sick,” added Christophersen, his voice rising above the din. “I think he’s one of those guys who read Ayn Rand when he was too young.”
A couple of drinkers quietly dissented from the rest. One said he had witnessed one of the obscene phone calls—a bunch of people at a bar calling Sechrest and screaming into the phone. “They proved him right,” he told me. Another, a Sul Ross student and a Hispanic, said, “It’s his opinion. And Alpine reacted in an ignorant manner—the parade, death threats, vandalism. It reiterated his point.”
Almost everybody hates Sechrest, and Sechrest, well, it’s not like his cup runneth over either. So why does he stay? Well, he told me, he’s a tenured professor who makes a decent salary ($72,000), and, he added, he can do whatever research he wants to, such as write inflammatory articles for obscure journals. He also loves the Alpine countryside and, as he wrote, the “seductiveness of these wide, open spaces.” Of course, there’s really no challenge in falling for the charms of nature, especially in this part of West Texas. As good teachers know, the real challenge is the wide, open spaces in the minds of their callow students. Sure, at Sul Ross the kids ain’t Ivy Leaguers. But, thank God, Alpine ain’t New Haven either. Sechrest knew, or should have known, both before he came here.