Monday, February 25, 2019

Leaving Guatemala


I was in Guatemala on the top deck of a boat traveling across Lake Atitlan from San Antonio Polapo to San Lucas Toliman after the first day of I Care International’s free eye clinic when my friend Tim asked me this question;

“So what would it take for you to pack it all in and move to a warmer place?”

I was in a tee shirt and shorts.  The sun was starting to set and it was a little chilly, but I was drinking in the good weather and the beauty of the lake.
photo by Lynn Zwica
I had been complaining to Tim about our winter in Illinois.  We had a mild December and then were slammed, one snowstorm and frigid spell after another.  Tim lives in San Luis Obispo, California and finds it hard to relate.  It’s one of the more beautiful and temperate parts of our Pacific coast.  SLO has managed to avoid the wildfires and mudslides that recently have plagued that state.  I’ve visited there.  It’s lovely.  Here was my answer;

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere.  Illinois is home.  The winters are tough to take but I’m not looking to leave.”

I surprised myself in a way but I know well the place from where that quick answer comes.  My kids are here, working and succeeding in Chicago less than a hundred miles away.  I have two brothers and a sister living in Illinois, one who moved back from California to be near us among other things.

I have lived in my small community of Ottawa, off and on, mostly on, since 1973.  I attend a church here that is important to me.  I have familiarity with the area, to say nothing of my house which has been my home since 1987 and is now paid off.  I have my garden, my neighbors, and most importantly good friends.

While I designed the shack to be technically portable, able to be picked up, transported by semi with a low boy trailer, down the interstate without even a WIDE LOAD sign, and placed in another beautiful spot anywhere simply by pouring four level concrete posts and dropping it on them, I have a feeling the shack it not going anywhere either.  And I’m certainly not going anywhere without it.

Illinois’ winters are not my favorite, especially as I age, but I get a little giddy with the beauty of spring, summer, and fall in the Illinois Valley.  For me it’s a no brainer.  I was born a hundred miles downstate, grew up on a farm, as did my parents and their parents as well.  I hope to always take trips but I am fairly certain I will always come home to Illinois.

As the Guatemala trip progressed I quietly inventoried what keeps me in Illinois, pondering the reverse of that question too.  What would compel to leave my home?  Certainly not the weather, but what?  Vacations are a good time for long thinks.  I gave that question a lot of thought.

Twice a day for four days we chugged across Lake Atitlan to our eye clinic in San Antonio Polapo.  There is no road that circles the lake.  Roads that do exist are in very poor condition.  Our clinic was staged in an evangelical church halfway up the steeply sloped hillside village.  Our patients were mostly local but some traveled from nearby villages by bus, boat, or on foot.  They were primarily Mayan Indians.  About a third of those seeking eye care spoke no Spanish, but rather Pre-Columbian languages, Tz’utujil and Kaqchickel, two of the reported 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala by its Indian population.

Many of the American volunteers know enough Spanish to get by, but none of us know those ancient languages.  It slowed us down a bit, but brought us closer to local volunteers, speakers of both Spanish and the Mayan languages and sometimes English as well.  They were primarily young people able to spend days with us in the clinic.  We became close with them over the four days.  It’s one of the benefits of volunteering that surpasses the experience of most tourists.

The lake we traveled across is the deepest in Central America, over 1100 feet at its greatest depth.  It covers an area of about 50 square miles and is ringed by villages named after Christian biblical figures, the apostles, John the Baptist, etc..  However most are tagged with a Kaqchikel or Tz’utujil modifier.  I asked locals on the boat dock what the word Palopo meant, which followed Saint Anthony (San Antonio) as the name of their town.  They looked at each other, discussed it in depth in their native language, looked quizzically at each other, and then replied in Spanish that it didn’t translate.  They shrugged, looked a little sheepish, but left it at that.

The fact that the Mayans have preserved 21 separate languages, maintained their traditional dress, incorporated their ancient religion into Christianity, and kept community intact in small villages where life is hard is testament to the strength of their Mayan culture, which began in 2000 B.C, collapsed as a civilization in 900 A.D., but lives on today in the everyday lives of the rural indigenous people of Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.    
The separateness of Guatemala’s Indian peoples has been aided, unfortunately, by a Guatemalan national government which has always excluded them.  The government is dominated by Mestizos, those of mixed European and Indian ancestry, who are the oligarchs of Guatemala, the rich ruling class which controls both elected officials and the military.  55% of Guatemala’s nearly 17 million citizens are indigenous, the vast majority of those Mayan Indian, yet the indigenous have never been in control.

History plays a part in the now of every country.   On the surface Guatemala is filled with bright colors, friendly people, and wonderful weather.   But Guatemala’s history has a dark side.

 During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), Lake Atitlan was the scene of terrible human rights abuses, as the government pursued a scorched earth policy.  Indigenous people were assumed to be universally supportive of the guerillas fighting against the government, and were targeted for brutal reprisals. At least 300 Maya from Santiago Atitlán, a large town on the lake near our clinic, are believed to have disappeared during the conflict.

That conflict was fueled in the early 1980’s by the rise of Daniel Ortega’s leftist Sandinista  government in Nicaragua, and the U.S. government’s support and funding of the “Contras” a reactionary force organized to quash the guerilla movement.  In Guatemala that resistance took the form of death squads, vigilante groups aiding the army which acted with impunity against native villagers.

Two events of this era made international news. One was the assassination of Stanley Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, in the church at Santiago Atitlán in 1981. In 1990, a spontaneous protest march to the army base on the edge of town was met by gunfire, resulting in the death of 11 unarmed civilians.

But the bulk of the resistance, and subsequent killings by the death squads, was away from the lake, in a mountainous triangle defined by the towns of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, and Santa Cruz del Quiche.  No one knows how many people throughout Guatemala died in that conflict, but all agree the overwhelming majority were indigenous people.  Estimates put the number at 200,000 souls.  Mass graves were discovered, but many of that number simply disappeared, never to be heard from or seen again.
That is the quiet backdrop against which life in the rural highlands of Guatemala plays out.  Families and communities recovering, with individual traumas still being overcome.  Older people remembering the reality, young people hearing their stories. 

And so we brought the rural people of Guatemala glasses.  Because of the difficulty of local travel, the time and expense required of patients to travel to the clinic, we served but 950 people in four days.  That is below our capacity.  But those that made it to us needed help substantially. 
They were infinitely patient.  We Americans are always impressed at how kind the individuals in the clinic are to each other, and to us, during the long wait.  Family members accompany the elderly.  Mothers bring their babies and toddlers.  Amazingly few of those children cry or act out.

Our intake form, a vital piece of paper that gives us a snapshot of each patient’s life and vision problems, asks if the patient can read.  A fair number, mostly older, said no.  Most never had an eye exam or had worn glasses, even those with the most extensive visual problems. 
We brought about 6,000 pairs of glasses given to us by the Lion’s Club, which were cleaned, evaluated, and sorted into boxes  back home.  They formed a catalog of prescriptions we matched as closely as possible to the one suggested by one of our eight eye doctors.  It works amazingly well.  We provide substantial help, if not a near perfect script, for what their eyes require.  Let me tell you about just three patients I served, all in one morning.

I called the name of a woman, Maria, without looking at her age.  A quiet 7-year-old girl rose up from those waiting on folding chairs in response, her head bobbing barely above those still sitting.  She was dressed in the colorful and intricate embroidered woven cloth that is used to make traditional skirts and blouses worn by the indigenous in Guatemala.  We served a lot of children in this clinic, but few that were alone.  I bid her good morning, asked how she was doing, and shook her hand.  She smiled and spoke Spanish in return.  I looked at her intake sheet.
Maria had fairly bad eyes for someone so young.  She was myopic, without astigmatism, but a fairly strong prescription, -3.50 sphere, was needed.  A lot of correction for a 7-year-old.  We had what she needed.  I adjusted the glasses to her small face, and she was quickly done.

A little later I was sitting across from a tiny elderly woman accompanied by her daughter.  She was an Indian woman with a scarf covering her head and part of her face.  I had her intake sheet and glasses selected by our volunteer pickers.  She did not read or speak Spanish.  They had selected a fairly standard bifocal prescription for her.  She seemed shy.
I unfolded the glasses, and reached to place them on her face.  When she pulled back her scarf she revealed a large port-wine birthmark nearly covering the right half her face.  The eye on that side appeared lifeless and blank.  I checked the intake form.  There was no prescription for the right eye.  I looked at her daughter, and asked, just to make sure.  


“No Sirve?  El Ojo derecho?” (Not working, the right eye?)

“No.”

I placed the glasses on her face and they were much too big.  Old style goggles from the 70’s that rode way down on her cheeks.  Hopeless.

Then I thought of my friend’s glasses.  He had given them to me late, and we were not able to include them in the boxes.  I was carrying them in my backpack.  They were small and light.  When we arrived I asked a one of the eye doctors to determine their prescription on the portable lensometer.  If I was right, that script was close to the one contained in the heavy pair of glasses currently sliding down that poor woman’s nose.

I retrieved my friend’s donated glasses and it was the same prescription.  I put them on her face and they fit perfectly.  Small and sturdy, they had belonged to my friend’s mother, recently passed away.  He asked me to give them to someone who needed them.  I promised to both complete that task and take a picture.

But I couldn’t.  When I looked at her tiny face with the birthmark I just couldn’t request a photo.  She was too self-conscious.  I don’t take as many pictures of people as I used to for that reason.

The little woman smiled, looked across the room, through her first pair of glasses ever, and began to speak rapidly in Kaqchickel, pointing to the sky, then pointing to me.  I looked again to her daughter.

“Que Pasa?”  (What’s happening?)

“Un Bendiga. (A blessing.)

“Catolica?” (Catholic?)

“No.  Un Bendiga del Maya.  Mucho mas Viejo.”  (A Mayan blessing.  Much older.)

We get a lot of bendigas or blessings in fitting.  It’s where the process ends, where glasses are finally received, and  improved vision is realized.  It’s not fair really.  All of the I Care volunteers work together to improve our patients’ vision.  So do the people who give us glasses.  I want to share that Mayan blessing with all of them, including my friend who gave I Care the gift of his mother’s glasses.  It was my pleasure to put them to continued use, and put them on that poor woman’s face, on everyone’s behalf. 

The last patient showed up with Maria, my previous seven-year-old patient with the serious myopia.  It was her father, who had been delayed in clinic due to having his eyes dilated.  I was surprised to see her, but glad to see she was wearing her glasses.  She smiled.
Maria’s father, not unexpectedly, was also myopic.  But his myopia was more advanced.  His prescription was -6.00 sphere.  The pickers had wrapped two strong pairs of glasses in his intake sheet.  I read it.  Day laborer.  Lived in a nearby village.  32 years of age. 

He was wearing the kind of bedraggled glasses we often see in these clinics.  Broken, scratched, held together with wire.  This pair had a string in the back, tied to the temples, to hold them on his head.  I asked if I could see them and he handed them to me.  They were a wreck.  Holding them up to the light and looking through them, I could tell they were not nearly as strong as the ones we had picked for him.  I set them aside on a table, unfolded one of the new pair, and put them on him, hooking them over his ears.  They fit him well.
Without waiting to be asked he immediately exclaimed

“Oh, mucho mas claro.” (Much clearer.)

He looked around the room.  He looked at Maria and they smiled at each other.

Quantos anos tienes estos?” I asked, pointing to the old glasses he had worn in.  (How many years have you had these?)

“Ocho.  Yo pago much in Antigua.  Creo que me robaron. “  (Eight years.  I paid too much in Antigua.  Maybe I was robbed.)

“Quanto costaron?” (What was the cost?)
“$600 dollars US.  Mi padre me ayudó a pagar. Pero se ha ido ahora.  ($600 U.S. dollars.  My father helped me pay.  But he is gone now.)

I whistled and shook my head.  That’s a hell of a lot of money for a day laborer in Guatemala.  It’s a lot of money for anyone.  Maybe he was robbed.
“Como esta tu familia por dinero?”  (How is your family for money?)

I hoped that wasn’t rude, but I wanted to know.  He seemed eager to answer.

“Malo.  No tenemos dinero para meter a María en la escuela. Los libros, los uniformes. (Bad.  We don’t have money to put Maria in school.  The books, the uniforms.)

Unlike most of the Guatemalans in the clinic he seemed angry and anxious. 
I adjusted the new glasses which he would wear out of the clinic.  Then I carefully cleaned and folded up his old glasses and returned them to him.  After that I gave him the second pair of glasses we had picked for him also.  We usually only dispense one pair to a patient.  I decided on the spot he needed a backup pair.

“Por usted, dos.”  (For you, two.)
I also gave Maria a Pez dispenser, and pressed three packs of extra candies into her father’s hand.  It was one of the princess Pez figures.  Maria lit up like a candle. The father didn’t give me a blessing, instead we exchanged that cool handshake, the regular grip, the one where you hook thumbs, then back to the regular.  You know it.  The old hippie handshake.  I wished him luck. 

“Buena suerta por usted y tu familia.” (Good luck for you and your family.)


Allow me to go back to the beginning.  What would compel me to leave my home?  I decided it would be one or a combination of these three things.

o   The inability to feed or otherwise support my family.

o   Living in fearing for my own safety or that of my family.

o   Genuinely believing the future held no hope.

If I was Maria’s Dad I would leave Guatemala.  Some McClure at some point left Scotland (we think), and sometime later my great grandfather left Northern Ireland to come to America.  It’s very likely those same criteria played into their decisions.  People are compelled seek opportunity and a better life.  Should we blame them?

The majority of legal asylum seekers that approach our country’s southern border are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  The U.S. long ago stopped helping in their economic development in any material way, opting instead to invest in wars in the Middle East.  Maria’s Dad, and possibly Maria herself, might well make that long journey out of desperation.  I don’t think the man I gave two pairs of glasses will any day soon afford an airplane ticket and manage to obtain a visa.

 If you were convinced you must leave your home and your way of life where would you go?  You would go where there is opportunity and hope.   No country symbolizes those qualities more than ours.

It’s one thing to think of immigration and the problems it presents as a matter of law and policy, but it is quite another to look  poverty and despair in the face, while dispensing glasses, and judge those who seek a better life.  Immigration, particularly in regard to our southern border and our Central American neighbors, will continue to be on the front burner of American politics.

I ask you consider Maria and her Dad when you are confronted with talking points from both sides of our immigration debate.  There’s a reality there that we cannot dodge.  Our country has in the past, and continues now even if by default, to play a major role in the lives of our neighbors in this hemisphere.  We have an obligation to think more deeply about what we are doing, and how it affects the lives of real people.  I’ve seen them, talked to them, and shaken their hands.  They are like you and I.  Please remember that.




Friday, February 8, 2019

Chickens on Trial


On July 25, 20126 Dave Giuliani covered the opening day of Village of Ransom vs. Randy Stillwell in LaSalle County civil court, otherwise known as “The Chicken Trial,” It opened with a surprising argument.  Attorney Cara Luckey, representing the village, offered this, as written by Giuliani.
In her opening statement, the village's attorney, Cara Luckey, said Stillwell had no evidence showing the village board intended to exempt Stillwell's chickens. Even if it did, she said, Stillwell's chickens in 1997 would no longer be alive.

It seemed odd to argue an exemption for which there was no record, no evidence that it ever existed, but it must have been considered compelling to the jury.  The exemption that never existed, Atty. Luckey claimed, was not granted to Randy Stillwell as a chicken owner, but was limited to the lifetimes of the chickens living in 1997 when the ordinance was adopted.  Using that logic, those birds, even if they were but downy yellow chicks in 1997, would have died by 2004 or 2005, given that the average span of a chicken’s life of a chicken’s life  was and still is 7-8 years.
“He would only be allowed to keep the chickens he had at the time the ordinance passed,” Ms. Luckey claimed.

That was the first point Randy Stillwell, acting as his own attorney, had to counter.  But counter it he did, albeit in a more roundabout way, in his opening statement.  He began slowly, appealing to the jury in this way.   
"I'm a simple man growing my own food, and I don't bother anyone.  If the village meant to keep out my chickens they would have been in court two decades ago.”

And to the opposing attorney’s theoretical chicken exemption argument he pointed out that his chickens today have the same bloodlines as those in 1997.  Having descended from the chickens alive at the time of the ordinance, they would be allowed under the verbal agreement, he contended , even if it did exempt only his chickens.
Point-Counterpoint.

Village President Matt Hauser, on the witness stand under oath, responding to questions from Ransom’s attorney, testified that he had received complaints about Stillwell's chickens.
In cross-examination, Randy Stillwell asked whether the complaints were official or whether Hauser picked up the information by talking to others in a bar.

"I don't hang out at the bar., I consider input from all constituents," the mayor replied.
Dave Giuliani was too ethical a journalist to use an adverb following the mayor’s statement.  I can imagine any one of a number of words which I wished he had given us describing how the mayor replied.  Angrily?  Curtly?  Loudly?  Or maybe calmly.  It could well have been a flash point kind of moment, the exchange between the new mayor and veteran city councilman.  We’ll never know.

Hauser also described the process of trying to get Stillwell to remove the chickens, issuing a letter to the board member. He never mentioned any direct contact with Stillwell, who belongs to the village board over which Hauser presides.
Enter the judge.  Many of us in LaSalle County we were pleased to learn that Judge Daniel Bute, local kid from Streator still thought of as Danny, long employed as LaSalle County’s Public Defender, a good one, who represented his lowly clients well, pulling no punches in court, regularly challenging the status quo, was picked to preside over the chicken trial.

I imagine some in the community were surprised when he was promoted to the bench after years of being known as something of a raconteur around town.  Those surprised would have known little of the local bar’s respect for his knowledge and application of the law coupled with plain talk and common sense.
Judge Bute interrupted and went on the court record when Mayor Hauser reported no direct contact with Stillwell regarding the chickens in question.

"All this time you haven't had a conversation with Mr. Stillwell about these damn chickens?" Judge Daniel Bute asked.
In reply the mayor said he had not in hopes of creating no further division between himself and the village board.  I can see Danny, upon hearing that response, shaking his head.  Dave Giuliani reported no such head shaking reaction by the judge and again offering no adverb.  In the written record of the Ransom Chicken Wars created by local journalists, you had to be there to witness the judge’s reaction.  I think “incredulously”, as in “the judge shook his head incredulously” would have been perfect and possibly very accurate.  But it was not to be.

The prosecution called real and actual complainants who testified to being bothered by Randy’s crowing rooster alarmed that his chickens may be drawing coyotes into town.
 Randy Stillwell called to the stand Dale Johnson, the Village Clerk in 1997 when the ordinance was passed.  Mr. Johnson said he remembered Stillwell saying in a meeting that year he wanted his chickens grandfathered in and that no one objected.

Under cross examination Johnson acknowledged nothing in the meeting minutes indicated any discussion about grandfathering anyone's animals.  The trial was continued to the next day.
Court proceedings, being adversarial, create winners and losers.  After closing arguments the next day the three man, three woman jury deliberated for two hours before finding Randy Stillwell guilty of keeping chickens in violation of a city ordinance.  Judge Bute ordered the chickens removed.  Randy Stillwell lost.

During sentencing, the village's attorney, Cara Luckey, suggested fining Stillwell $3,000, which Randy considered excessive, given his fixed income.  Judge Bute apparently agreed, and decided he would assess no fines if Stillwell removed the chickens by August 31.  Randy thought that was fair. 
Judge Bute concluded the proceedings by praising the trial's participants.

"It was a very well-done trial," Bute said. "You did a good job, Randy."
Dave Giuliani could well have ended his coverage there, but he went on to speak with a couple jurors who called themselves the last holdouts during deliberations.

A woman from the small town of Leland said it seemed as if the village government had something against Stillwell.
"The chickens weren't a problem.   I like chickens. They are intelligent."

Another juror from Somonauk criticized the village's decision to submit photos of Stillwell's property to the jury. The village maintained during the trial Stillwell's property was in violation of village ordinances, saying there was debris in his front yard.
"That wasn't relevant.  The trial was about chickens.”

Yes it was about chickens.  But that verdict did not end the saga.  Judge Bute later threw out the jury’s verdict when it was discovered a juror drove to the Stillwell house during the trial, violating Judge Bute’s order against private investigation.  A second jury found Stillwell didn’t violate the ordinance and noted he had been allowed the keep the chickens for an extended amount of time after the ordinance was enacted. The village wound up spending more than $6,000 in an effort to force Stillwell to rid his property of chickens.  Randy Stillwell spent nothing, and gained a certain measure of fame in Ransom and the surrounding area.
Matt Hauser later remarked, while defending his record as mayor of Ransom in an article written by Brent Bader, yet another Times reporter involved in the Ransom Chicken coverage (still employed by the way) that despite retiring a large amount of debt, fixing streets, and redoing a well, all anyone talks about in connection with Ransom is chickens.  He learned something the hard way I believe about the power of local press applied to a good story. That lesson is best expressed by the mayor in his own words.

"You touch a feather on (Stillwell's) chickens, and he has newspapers coming after us.”
Actually, it was not newspapers coming after Ransom village government, it was public opinion.   The Times reporters were careful to let the facts do the talking, and when they did interest in the story of that small town grew, and opinions were formed.  Randy Stillwell and his chickens may have split a double header so to speak, lost one trial but won another, but the questions of whether Ransom should be the kind of town that prohibits its citizens from keeping chickens was decidedly settled in a local election. 

The conflict in Ransom subsided considerably when Randy Stillwell decided not to run for mayor the following April.  His reasoning was this.
"You have five people on the board who don't agree with me. I wouldn't be able to get anything done. If I stay on the board, at least I get a vote," he said. "No one else in town is interested in being on the board."

Mayor Hauser, to his credit, suggested putting a two questions advisory referendum on the ballot . One asking the citizenry if they favored allowing residents to keep hens in the city limits, the other asking whether rooster be allowed.  Nothing like voting to settle matters on any government level. 
Here’s the results.

                In support of allowing hens to be kept within Ransom city limits                             81

                Against allowing hens to be kept……………………………………..                            29

                In support of allowing roosters to be kept within Ransom city limits      59

                Against allowing roosters to be kept………………………………..                           51

Pretty decisive.  Although if I were a Ransom rooster, I wouldn’t crow about it too loudly.  They won by a slim majority.   Too much noise and they could suffer the fate of Randy Stillwell’s rooster when the story first broke.
I loved this story because it’s small town.  I grew up on a farm where chickens lived and roosters crowed.  I know how it feels living in a small town community where everyone knows everyone else and their brother.  Almost everything ends up being personal.  We all operate on that level if we’re honest.  You want to be an objective and data driven citizen when it comes to politics but it is hard if not impossible to keep emotion out of it.  That’s where local newspapers and radio stations come in.

They ascribe to the ethics of journalism.  Without objective reporting on local issues we’re doomed to rumor if not outright lies.  You can’t believe everything, sometimes anything, on the internet but you should be able to trust your local paper.  America outside its big cities will be screwed if they lose good professional news people who understand the communities they serve and report clearly and honestly about the people and places who live there.   

We may be screwed anyway if business dynamics keep driving traditional media in the direction it is headed.  I’m going to support them in any way I can.  I hope you consider doing the same.  

Monday, February 4, 2019

All Politics are Local


I’ve never had an editor, a censor, oversight for my writing in any way.   Memo, letters, press releases, grant applications, stories, and poems have always been what I wanted and how I wanted them for good or ill.  I think of editors mostly in regard to newspapers.  Plenty of good writers were born from the discipline of writing the tight, to the point, factual copy for which newspapers are known.  I’ve always admired good print reporting by writers who churn out words every day for a living.  
I subscribe to two newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and my local paper The Times, which primarily covers the Ottawa and Streator communities.   They are both still delivered to my house in addition to my email inbox.  It’s a luxurious expense, most likely unnecessary, especially the print editions, but I hesitate to end them.  Newspapers are being squeezed by a business model which every day favors ink and paper less and digital distribution more.  The problem is financing both in order to pay the writers.  Ads and subscriptions create the money behind newspapers and somehow we all now expect content for free.

I am guilty as anyone else.  I have a wooden wine crate by my kitchen door in which I shuck all the inserts and ads first thing upon bringing the newspaper in the house.  Screw the commerce, give me the news.  And yet I think newspapers, especially local papers, are part of what defines the character and integrity of the places we live. I want to support their coverage of my community, because at times it is damn good.  As an example I give you the well written coverage of a colorful story that played out in Ransom Illinois in the not too distant past.   
That story chronicles a great debate over keeping chickens in town.  Many of my out of town readers would not be familiar with the Ransom chicken debate.  It didn’t break into mainstream media.   But it really captured the attention of us here in the Illinois Valley.  Tip O’Neill of Watergate fame taught me all politics is local.  I want to believe him.  If that’s true, we may be able to right the ship of state after all. 

Ransom is a village of 400 or so in LaSalle County near Streator.  It began as a planned community in 1876, and was incorporated in 1885.  I have not looked at that original plan, but I have to believe it was never fully realized.  Ransom is a small burg near a railroad, on a flat plain surrounded by corn and soybean fields.  It has a post office, a Methodist church, a grain elevator and assorted businesses.  For a long time little if any news was generated by the citizens of Ransom, until the great chicken controversy popped up amidst mundane coverage of a village government meeting.  That story was written in January of 2016 by Jerrilyn Zavada, sadly no longer employed there today, caught up in downsizing after the paper changed owners.
Jerrilyn’s lead for the story was this: “After 19 years, the village of Ransom is enforcing a 1997 ordinance prohibiting the possession of chickens.”

In Ransom at that time three people keeping chickens in the village were sent letters from the village board enforcing the ordinance.  Two of them, both named Stillwell, objected and were present at the next meeting to speak to the council.  The third chicken fancier, never named, apparently gave up his or her chickens without a fight and avoided all subsequent publicity.  But the Stillwells spoke out loudly.

Denise and Randy Stillwell divorced an unreported numbers of years before, and as part of their divorce split their chickens.  Denise, at the beginning of 2016 at the start of the controversy, had five guinea hens she described as pets that also provided her with two or three eggs a day, relieving her of the need to go to town and pay for brown eggs.  In that January story she claimed she had just baked Christmas cookies using those eggs.


“I came to town in 1986, have had chickens every since, and not once in 30 years has anyone asked me to get rid of them.”
Denise did add that she had heard people in town complaining about Randy’s rooster crowing, but if that was the case why not just ask him to get rid of the rooster?

The Mayor of Ransom, Matt Hauser, who along with Randy Stillwell shaped up to be the main characters in this saga, claimed he had received complaints.  Matt had been mayor for two years, and maintained he was simply following his policy of enforcing old ordinances rather than adopting new ones.  When he became aware of other chicken owners he sent them all a letter.  

"Once we were made aware of other citizens with other chickens, we approached them too. There are ordinances. They do need to be enforced. I've asked for them to be enforced.”
Randy Stillwell wasn’t buying it.  Complicating this story is the fact that Randy was a member of the village board taking action against him.  In fact, he was a member of the village board in 1997 and voted for the ordinance.  Like Denise he had had chickens since 1986.  Randy claimed at the time of the vote his chickens were grandfathered in, although there was no mention of it in the minutes.  At that time in Ransom no discussion was included in minutes, only motions and votes.  He was pretty sure there were no complaints, and that Mayor Hauser was retaliating against him because of votes he had taken on the village board, particularly his vote to privatize the water system.

"I do have one rooster, but there is a train that blows its whistle through town every 18 minutes," Randy Stillwell said. "The bottom line is I've lived in Ransom for 30 years and never heard a complaint. Never seen a complaint. I would like to see these complaints because no one's said anything."

Though divorced years earlier, the Stillwells seemed to stick up for both their chickens and each other.  Take this statement by Denise.
"We're a farm community," she said. "You can look outside on all four sides of us there's (sic) fields of corn and beans and hay. It's not like we're downtown Chicago."

In the first article of what would be many, Jerrilyn captured the elements of the fight to come very well I think.  The village mayor, pitted against chickens and their owners, which included a rival on the village board, was locked into a power struggle over not only hens and roosters but the character of their small town. 
Jerrilyn closed the story with a quote by Mayor Hauser on what he thought were the wishes of the citizens of Ransom.

"There's a lot of things that weren't being done for many years in the village and I don't think the people that voted for me want to go back to that."

Apparently not everyone in Ransom agreed with the mayor.


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The next article to appear in The Times was written by Dave Giuliani in April 2016.  Sadly Mr. Giuliani was also not retained by the by the new owners of our local paper.  Dave took a different tack on the story by filing a Freedom of Information Act request of the city of Ransom to find out how much they had spent fighting Randy Stillwell’s and his chickens.  Denise had reportedly found a new home for her hens, so the conflict narrowed to Randy Stillwell against the village.  At a January preliminary hearing Mr. Stillwell represented himself in court, while Ransom retained the services of a law firm out of Streator.  The case was set for trial on July 25.

Dave Giuliani found out that through March Ransom had paid $1,288 to its law firm, Myers, Berry, O'Connor & Churney. That made up a fraction of the village's budget.  In the previous year, Ransom received $230,000 in revenue outside of its water utility.  Still to the average Ransom citizen that probably sounded like a pretty good chunk of change.  Randy Stillwell had spent nothing but his time.


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On July 6 of that year, Dave Giuliani ventured to Ransom not to cover a village meeting, but to do a color piece on Randy Stillwell.  His trial was coming up, and interest in coverage concerning it was growing.  Used to be newspapers worked on pure faith that their material was being read, but with the advent of on line readers, they could count the clicks and thus the readers of a particular story .  The Times web page began ranking articles most read.  The battle over chickens in Ransom had caught on fairly big.  Nothing wrong with feeding the readers’ interest is there?

The reporter visited Randy at his house, viewed the chicken coop, and tried to show how the whole thing looked to Mr. Stillwell.  He did a pretty good job I think.  Imagine them standing in Randy’s yard in Ransom.   This photo may help.

 Randy says this:
"This town is four blocks wide, 10 blocks long, and they claim it’s not a farming community,"

Looking at a grain elevator on the edge of town Randy says,
 "That is not Starbucks."

It’s amazing how much punch a simple four word observation can have.  Dave Giuliani didn’t express his feelings, but I’m sure a lot of readers felt exactly the same as Randy Stillwell. 
Dave Giuliani apparently steered the conversation to village politics and Mr. Stillwell’s own political aspirations.  This quote by Randy revealed rather casually another layer of depth to the story:

"I'm on a fixed income. If I can't pay the fines for the chickens, I can't run for mayor."
Giuliani added, “And that's exactly the position he wants.”  So by attacking Randy Stillwell was the sitting mayor trying to eliminate a competitor?  The reporter left that up to the reader’s imagination.

To be thorough, the reporter set the scene.  Knowing his story in print could not squeeze out column inches for ads, he kept it brief as good journalists (and some say good writers) always do. 
 “Stillwell's home is in an old convenience store he once ran. To its side is the chicken coop. On a recent day, he threw pieces of bread on the ground for the birds. They scurried forward.”

"They are pretty calm. They don't like a lot of people," Stillwell said of his chickens. "Kids come by and feed them grass all the time."
This article revealed a swell of community support being shown for Randy Stillwell and his chickens.  A local tavern had 100 T-shirts made that read "Save Randy's Chickens 2016—Ransom Chicken Wars." On the day of his interview, Stillwell, a 63 year old Coast Guard veteran, was wearing one of them, along with a black NRA cap.  (BTW, this writer would give anything to have one of those shirts.  XXL Tall if they have it.)

Also learned from reading this article was that a few months earlier, when the court case attracted publicity, someone killed Randy’s rooster by wringing its neck.
Dave Giuliani’s visit to Ransom gave Stillwell the opportunity to express to Dave Giuliani his hunch that the village's legal action, in part, may have resulted from some residents' unhappiness with the appearance of his property at 202 E. Plumb St.  As Giuliani noted, “in the front is a pile of firewood, an old fridge, a pig roaster, milk crates and other items. He (Randy Stillwell) said he has done some cleanup, and acknowledged he had more to do.

He questioned why the village was targeting his chickens when he said plenty of others are out of compliance with various village codes. He keeps a stack of photos he has taken of houses around town. Some also contain piles of firewood on their front lawns, while many others lack address numbers. His photos, he said, also include unpermitted fences and buildings.
Good reporters ask simple questions and wait patiently for the answers.

Did Stillwell think he would prevail?
"With common sense, I will," Randy replied.  "I've had them all these years and never had a complaint."

Village President Hauser could not be reached for comment.  Rebutting nothing in that article was probably not Mr. Hauser’s best public relations decision.
Next up Part 2- CHICKENS ON TRIAL.