Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jobs at any cost drive chicken deal

The jobs-at-any-cost crowd is celebrating today because Sanderson Farms has followed through on its purchase of land on the Nash-Wilson border to build a monstrous poultry processing plant. Once built, the plant will employ around 1,100 people, but those will be some of the costliest jobs in North Carolina.

Rocky Mount and Nash County officials have salivated over the prospect of these jobs, insisting that a job is a job is a job. What kind of work it involves, how much it pays and what impact it has on the environment and the larger population doesn't matter. Rocky Mount lost hundreds of jobs when PNC Bank bought RBC and gutted the Rocky Mount banking center. But a thousand people killing chickens won't replace a hundred crunching numbers for a bank.

Nash County's determined courting of the nation's fourth largest chicken processor may be the most short-sighted economic development strategy in North Carolina history.

The plant would be built near the intersection of N.C. 58 and N.C. 97 near the Tar River Reservoir, where expensive homes line the shore. Those houses will lose value, and the reservoir's recreational value will decline when chicken processing effluent leaks into the Tar River and the foul odor of eviscerated chickens permeates the air. Sanderson proposes building a six-mile pipeline to a spray field to rid the area around the plant of its waste water. That spray field is in the watershed for Wilson's expanded Buckhorn Reservoir. Thus, the Sanderson plant could damage the water supply of both Rocky Mount and Wilson.

When Rocky Mount ran short of water during a drought a few years ago, Wilson provided water through an emergency pipeline to keep Rocky Mount from running dry. Wilson sold the water at a bargain rate. Do you think Wilson will be so generous when the next drought comes around? Or perhaps both cities will be surviving on bottled water then if chicken entrails pollution has ruined both water supplies.

Wilson County has worked hard in recent years to attract clean, upscale industries. Its emphasis on pharmaceutical plants has paid off. Merck, Sandoz and Purdue are industry leaders, which pay high salaries and attract educated workers — just the opposite of Nash County's kowtowing to slaughterhouses. Wilson County officials logically worry that a chicken slaughterhouse and a threat to the water supply will make Wilson less appealing to pharmaceutical prospects and might even drive away existing companies.

Property owners and the city of Wilson will continue the fight against Sanderson's plans, but their success is doubtful. This saga will not end until the day when area residents, facing water contamination and the loss of quality jobs, turn to Nash County officials and ask, "How could you be so stupid?"

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

High school years live on

An imminent high school reunion prompted me to call a high school classmate last night and tell him the good news. We had talked perhaps a half dozen or so times in the past 45 years, since we marched out of the school gymnasium and on to different lives. He had called me a week or so ago to ask if I had something he had been searching for.

The good news: My wife found the Class Prophecy in a storage bin in the attic. She brought it down, all yellow with age and growing brittle, its typewriter font looking odd in this word-processing age. But it was intact, a five-page, single-spaced document stapled into a graduation edition of the school newspaper, along with a class history, a class Last Will and Testament and a few other (shall we admit it?) sophomoric writings.

It speaks to the limited foresight of an 18-year-old that the class prophecy is set 20 years after graduation — now 25 years before this year. In it, I imagined a world so far removed from today's reality that I might as well have set it upon some extra-terrestrial colony in some other galaxy. It conjured the popular trends of that long-ago day, of James Bond, fancy cars, and quickly vanished fascinations of 1967. It pains me to read it now.

Next month, I will spend an evening mingling with people whose names I barely remember, and we will speak of old times, nearly forgotten, and try to wedge our present lives into the stiffened molds of our teenage years. Twenty-two of our class of 125 are already gone. Of the remainder, fewer than half will show up for this event. A handful of us have attended each of the five reunions we've held. We gather, renew acquaintances, talk about our current lives and depart. Until the next time.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Karl Fleming, reporter, began career in Wilson

I met Karl Fleming when he dropped by the newsroom at The Wilson Daily Times sometime back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. He was tall and handsome beneath a shock of silver hair and wore a gnarly, chiseled face that showed years of experience. He had flown into Wilson from Los Angeles to visit his mother and had dropped by the newspaper because that's where he got his start in the late 1940s. He introduced himself and talked journalism and old times with me, and I was warmed by the glow of his personality. Just for fun, he decided to accompany a young reporter to a town board meeting, and he gave her some coaching in the craft of reporting.

More than a decade later, Karl resumed his on-and-off correspondence with me to announce that he had written a memoir, and he sent me a pre-publication copy. "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir" did not portray Wilson in the late 1940s and early 1950s in a positive light. There was plenty of racism and plenty of poverty, and the racism seeped into the newspaper, where he was told to never refer to black residents by their surname, only by their first name.

But Karl learned the ropes of reporting and honed his writing skills here before bouncing about to other papers in Durham, Asheville and, eventually, Atlanta, where he was picked to be the Newsweek civil rights reporter just as the protests, demonstrations, violence and murders were beginning in the early 1960s. He got to know many of the prime players in the movement and in the establishment white opposition, and there were times when he feared for his life. He was one of many outstanding young reporters, including Claude Sitton (later Raleigh N&O editor) and David Halberstam, who brought the civil rights struggle into the homes of Americans. (Read this eulogy by Susan Estrich.)

When his book came out, I wrote an extensive article for the paper about Karl and his book. I talked to a few people who knew him and knew the paper during the time he was a reporter here, and some facts were in dispute, but no one could doubt Karl's sincerity and compassion. The book also told his compelling story about being placed in an orphanage when his mother, the same one he was visiting 50 years later, decided she could no longer care for him and his sister. He and I arranged for him to give a talk and promote his book at Barton College. That Christmas, my gift to my staff members was a hardback copy (the paperback had not come out yet) of Karl's book for each of them. I hoped it would help them understand Wilson's history and inspire them to aspire to the journalistic heights Karl reached.

Karl's "rough" life ended last weekend, and I got the news belatedly from an NPR broadcast that called him one of the last of the great civil rights reporters. I would have thought that his passing would have warranted bigger play, a longer obituary, maybe some heartfelt eulogies. But despite his courageous and unselfish reporting about a seminal era in American history, Karl never won a Pulitzer and never became widely known outside journalistic circles. His highly readable and historically important book never became a bestseller, and that is the saddest thing of all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

UNC: Give yourself the 'death penalty'

The news — and the embarrassment — just keeps getting worse at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today's News & Observer reports on a leaked transcript of football superstar Julius Peppers' days at Chapel Hill. The transcript shows that Peppers was, to say the least, a marginal student who was bailed out by a series of classes he took in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. Peppers majored in African and Afro-American Studies, a major that qualifies you for two kinds of jobs — teaching African and Afro-American Studies or professional athlete. (The latter pays better.)

The implication of this leaked transcript — beyond the fact that the university might be in violation of a federal law requiring that student academic records be kept top secret — is that the academic embarrassment of non-existent courses, special consideration for athletes, tutors and advisers who kept athletes' heads above the academic flood, and a disconnect between the university's academic mission and its athletic practices have existed for at least a decade in Chapel Hill. The withdrawal of football wins, the firing of a coach, the banishment of football players and the post-season ban by the NCAA are minor annoyances compared to the shame of subverting a great university into a football factory.

UNC does not seem to have grasped just how discrediting these athletic misdemeanors are. More drastic action is needed to put the whole episode (however far back it goes) into context.

Here's my suggestion: UNC should give itself the "death penalty." It should shut down the football program for one year, maybe two, and if the basketball, baseball, soccer or other sports programs are shown to be involved in these transgressions, shut them down, too. Spend that year or two examining the university's priorities and studying the ways academics were subjugated by intercollegiate athletics. Establish a protocol to ensure that never again will unqualified students be admitted because they can dunk a basketball or catch a football, never again will student athletes be given a pass on academic standards and never again will an academic department be established for the apparent purpose of keeping athletes in school with inflated grades. Television contracts and coaches' exorbitant salaries should also be examined. While football is suspended, the African and Afro-American Studies program should be examined and either absorbed into other disciplines or re-established as a genuine academic pursuit.

The football fans will scream, as they did when Coach Butch Davis was fired, but more is at stake here than a dozen football games; the university's entire reputation and qualifications are in jeopardy because sometime in the past, some university officials decided winning ball games was more important than educating North Carolina's students.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Romney's choice for vice president

Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate gives the GOP ticket a policy wonk, a young rising star in Congress and a politician willing to take on more difficult issues. But it also gives Democrats an easy target for campaign criticism.

Ryan is best known for his budget plan, which seeks to reduce the size of the federal government and tackle the intractable problems of deficit spending, national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare. Democrats have already gone after the Ryan plan, accusing the Republicans of proposing to eliminate Medicare and Social Security. It's the same old criticism heard whenever anyone proposes changes that will make the two programs viable for the long term. (Note: an Associated Press story today warns that Social Security is already dipping into its three-decade-long surplus, and that surplus will run out in 2033.)

Ryan and other Republicans should have no problem pointing out that their Democratic critics have not proposed any solutions to the Social Security/Medicare dilemma. Their strategy apparently is to ignore the problems until they go away. This is an issue that should have been addressed decades ago. Each year that goes by makes it more difficult to come to a less-painful and more sustainable solution. Ryan's proposal has its flaws, but at least he's sticking his neck out and proposing something.

But Ryan's budget plan Republicans are so enamored of is not nearly so bold as his admirers claim. He proposes reducing tax rates and making up lost revenue by closing "tax loopholes," but he never says what loopholes he's close. Without that critical detail, his tax proposals are squeamish, not bold. Ryan also proposes a flattening of tax rate, reducing the already-reduced progressive ideal of the income tax, and he has shown little willingness to compromise with Democrats on this issue.

The key to any vice presidential choice is whether the selection will help the ticket. Two days after Romney's choice, it's too early to tell whether Ryan will pass that crucial test.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Aug. 5, 1962, 50 years later

It was the worst day of my life. Fifty years ago today, my older sister died in a traffic accident eight miles from home. It was a head-on collision at twilight on a two-lane highway. She was riding in a Volkswagen Beetle in the days before seat belts and air bags. She never had a chance.

Frances Catherine Tarleton, about to begin her senior year in high school, popular, smart and happy, returned to the house where she had lived all of her 17 years in a casket. She is buried in the cemetery in the little town where she had grown up. Now her parents lie beside her. She never experienced the Beatles, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, marriage, motherhood, grandchildren and all the other events and sensations of the last 50 years as her siblings have matured, moved on and grown old without her.

My mother was 44 years old on that night and aged a century in a few hours. She would live another 44 years after that night but never get over the loss of her eldest daughter, her third of five children. Each of us would have that night etched in our souls. Each of us would wonder how different our lives might have been if Frances had turned down that invitation to go out, if she had left two minutes later or two minutes earlier, if the two teenage drivers involved had been paying more attention or had been more experienced.

That Sunday night a half century ago has also changed me in this way: I feel an affinity with any family that loses a child, especially a teenager and especially in a traffic accident. I know what it's like to lose a sibling far, far too soon. I know the tragedy of a life cut short. I empathize.

Frances, my big sister who mothered me and challenged me, is not forgotten even after 50 years. That empty spot will never be filled.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Great Recession of respect for others

This article (and the accompanying photos) tells us more than we want to know about the state of modern society.

The headline would have us believe that the "graffiti-covered mansion is a symbol of past fiscal woes," but the Great Recession does not explain the destructiveness of whoever spray-painted, broke and partially demolished a multi-million dollar mansion. An abandoned home, even one that is so over-the-top ostentatious, is a sad sight. This place is more than sad; it is frightening.

People, presumably homeless people, broke into the secluded residence and began destroying it. That has nothing to do with the fiscal downturn; it has everything to do with the low values and immoral crudeness of a sector of our society.

Gang graffiti on highway overpasses, public buildings and even statues and monuments show how little respect some people have for other people and for civilized society. One abandoned mansion has become a focal point for the obliteration of all morals, respect and dignity.

It's not the economic recession we need to worry about, it's the moral recession.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chicken fans show their support

Chick-fil-A restaurants in Wilson and around the country, apparently, were swamped by loyal fans Tuesday, which was proclaimed "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." The event was initiated by Mike Huckabee, the former governor, former presidential candidate, ordained minister and TV personality. Huckabee was reacting to criticism of comments by Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, who said in an interview with a Baptist magazine that he supported a biblical definition of marriage. The privately owned company, whose restaurants are independently owned, has contributed to groups opposing gay marriage or supporting a state ban on gay marriage. The mayors of Chicago and Boston announced that Chick-fil-A would not be allowed in their fair cities. The thousands of customers who came out Wednesday to show their appreciation of Chick-fil-A made it clear that many Americans agree with Cathy, despite all the criticism and negative press he has received.

An interesting test of gay marriage sentiment might be forthcoming in November. It has been reported that the Democratic National Convention is likely to include a gay marriage plank in the party's platform. President Obama has already endorsed gay marriage, so a platform plank will merely affirm the candidate's position. Even so, it's a risky move for the Democrats. In every state where gay marriage has been on the ballot, voters defeated a right to gay marriage.

In what promises to be a tight election, a gay marriage plank could swing enough voters to decide the election. The question for Democrats will be whether it sways more voters who are advocating for gay marriage, or will it sway more of the voters who lined up at Chick-fil-A restaurants all day Wednesday.