In the early
1800s, a small village called Boggy was settled in the panhandle of
Florida. It was named after the Boggy Bayou, the sandy-bottomed bay where
mullet, the soil-sucking economic foundation of this town, thrives. In
1915, citizens renamed it Niceville, because they felt "Boggy"
was an unflattering name.
Niceville hasn't been able to shake "Boggy", though. It's used as a noun these days. In high school, "Boggies" were a subgroup, like preps or hippies. The girl with big, red hair who wore a jacket with a confederate flag printed on it, above the words, "They'll take my guns from me when they pry them from my cold, dead hands." — she's a "Boggy."
On weekends, they go four-wheeling in pick-ups with deer lights, gun racks, Playboy bunny mud flaps and bumper stickers with "I Love Boggy" written on them. They drink a lot of Budweiser and wear camouflaged baseball caps.
Today, the flower-crowded, white cinder block sign welcoming out-of-towners boasts about being the home of the "Famous Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival," where if you're real purty, and your hair is real big, you might get crowned Miss Mullet. I hazarded going in 1992 to sell sodas to raise money for the high school chorus. R.V.s crowded the town days in advance, and Billy Ray Cyrus crooned about his Achey Breaky Heart. Drunk rednecks, with haircuts also called mullets, yelled, "Billy Ray Syphilis!" and threw eggs at Barney the Dinosaur. The sign also reads "Nice Town, Nice Folks, Have a Nice Time."
The sign faces John Sims Parkway, the four-lane road through the middle of town, where all the fast-food joints, gas stations, tax offices, and other commodities of small-town America can be found. Half a mile up this road is perhaps a better illustration of at least one alter-ego of what Nicevillians call on their web site "a paradise for people of all ages and interests." On what passes in Florida for a hill sit huge, pampered hedges trimmed to form the letters CITY OF NICEVILLE. In the past, during Christmas time, when colorful lights adorned the greenery, kids broke or unscrewed the bulbs illuminating the NIC and the LE. Some Christmas Eves, the bushes burned with a new proclamation: CITY OF EVIL.
At 8 a.m. on an early September Sunday, I am back in my hometown, the City of Evil, preparing for an outing with my former vice-principal. I always liked Dr. Chip Woolwine. He was my older brothers' science teacher, before he became an administrator. When I was seven, he helped my sister raise the baby owls we found dying in our backyard. I never dealt much with Woolwine at Niceville High School — skipping was my poison, and Assistant Principal and disciplinarian Thomas Shipp dealt with that. About a dozen times a year, I was called up to Mr. Shipp's office, where the prominent decoration was a large, mounted deer head. Mostly, I managed to talk my way out of any serious punishment. I was a good student and made the school look good, which was more important than whether I was getting a good education. In my 1996 senior yearbook, I'm pictured between "Most Spirited" and "Best Physique," above the caption, "Most Likely to Start a Student Revolution." I was never Miss Mullet.
Donning baggy khakis and a plain T-shirt, no makeup or perfume, as instructed by Woolwine, I get into my Honda Civic. We're going to visit those whose own private revolutions were quelled — juvenile jail.
Within a couple miles of driving, I pass a small, brown brick Pentecostal church, an intimidating, white, high-steepled Baptist church, and a modest, medium-sized, red brick Methodist Church. Well-coiffured women, men and boys in crisp-looking slacks, and prim girls with shiny ponytails greet each other in the parking lots.
I turn onto John Sims Parkway and drive past Niceville High School, where a three-year-old sign boasts the status of a Blue Ribbon School. It was my senior year when the school received that honor, and Woolwine was still cruising the hallways, his hands in his pockets, almost always whistling, and greeting students exuberantly, "Good MORN-ing, Miss Gardner!" The next year, the school board agreed with the Superintendent at a well-attended and televised school board meeting that he be "removed to a location with limited or no contact with students."
Even before ABCs 20/20 aired Oct. 9, 1997, and reporter Lynn Sherr stood in front of NHS declaring that "an ugly controversy has arisen in this town, ironically named Niceville," rumors were rampant. Students gossiped that Woolwine told a Catholic student he was going to hell, while others said he was checking students out of school to baptize them in the Boggy Bayou or to attend services at the Brownsville revival an hour away. Conferences were held, the school board had an investigation, and his dismissal was announced over mournful cries from students carrying signs advocating prayer in school. It wasn't clear exactly what had happened, except many in the town thought Woolwine had gone too far.
Separation of church and state were already hot topics at NHS when I went there. My junior year, a "moment of silence" was added to the morning ritual of standing and saying the "Pledge of Allegiance." Some students objected, saying it was a step away from prayer in school. When a classmate got suspended for refusing to stand, George Dickey, a teacher, pointed out that our county, Okaloosa County, was the second to last in the country to end prayer in school.
This small, religious community is full of contradictions. Situated in the part of Florida called L.A., or Lower Alabama, where deer hunting is the most debated issue at the 24-hour Coffee Shoppe, this town also claims a community college with one of the most acclaimed Fine Arts divisions in the East. Health food stores and massage parlors interrupt the churches and bait shops. One of the reasons for this mélange of cultural differences is the fact that just fifteen minutes from Niceville is the country's largest air force base, Eglin. This episode of publicized heavy issues could be just another clash of the good ol' boys and those from abroad, not used to the Southern ways.
I turn on a shady street of houses with porch swings and well-kept gardens. The Boggy Bayou glistening in the morning sun almost looks inviting. I know better, though, having memorized the No Swimming signs as well as the sewage stink on days when beige froth laps the few docks that Hurricane Opal didn't claim.
I arrive at a one-story, brown wooden house at the end of Azalea Circle. Potted plants bloom and the front window curtains' simple frills surround a Christian fish sun catcher and embroidered biblical proverbs. I ring the chiming doorbell and am greeted by Woolwine.
Woolwine guides me into his dining room where, on a dark wooden table, sits a large, dog-eared Bible with gold-gilded page edges, next to a stack of notes. He sits down, and gestures that I should do the same.
"Let me tell you what we're up against," Woolwine discloses in a pleasant booming voice, with a slight Southern lilt.
He tells me we're going to a juvenile prison for 14- to 18-year-old boys, something he does every Sunday morning. He goes to tell these boys about the Bible, he declares, tapping the open book with his wire-rimmed glasses, which he then puts in the breast pocket of his dark blue, button-up shirt, tucked into a pair of Levi's. He runs his large hands through his slightly receding, curly gray hair. His shirt sleeves are rolled up and on each wrist is a black elastic bracelet with WWJD printed on it, the Christian question, "What Would Jesus Do?"
The Okaloosa Youth Development Center is 30 minutes away, in Crestview. We get into Woolwine's blue pick-up truck, which has two bumper stickers on its rear. "Yes, Lord, We Will Ride With You," is the first one, familiar in this Bible Belt town. The other bears a more controversial message: "Congress Begins With a Prayer, Why Can't School?"
On the way to Crestview, Woolwine talks about his wife and two children in a calm, friendly voice. He laughs a lot, a deep-bellied, even laugh that crinkles the creases around his grandfatherly blue-grey eyes. His face is more lined than when I last saw him, and he has gained 15 to 20 pounds.
I ask Woolwine about his new job, a desk job at the Carver Hill Administrative Complex in Management Information Services, where he processes all the transcripts coming into and leaving the county. He admits he misses the high school and wants to go back.
"Some of the things they accused me of doing, I simply never did," he asserts emphatically.
The false accusation that Woolwine says "captured the imagination of the media and the community" claimed he distributed anti-Catholic tracts. In a June 6, 1997 petition that stated the conditions of Woolwine's dismissal, the District's Investigative Report found that Woolwine "did not engage in, encourage or support the distribution of anti-Catholic religious materials by students at school."
However, the same document also found that Woolwine violated School Board Policy E-32, which requires religious neutrality by District employees while acting in an official capacity.
Lisa Rierson was one of the students who has seen Woolwine in the hallways of NHS, reading Bibles and discussing scripture. She said he mentioned Catholicism in the context of "false worship." Rierson, a Catholic, felt offended and confronted Woolwine.
"He quickly apologized and tried to backpedal," Rierson said. "But I heard what he said."
Before the investigation, on May 28, 1998, Woolwine was sent a letter of reprimand concerning his conduct in the 1996-97 school year. In the letter, he was accused of promoting religion and specific religious beliefs to students in school, reading the Bible with students during the school day, conducting prayer with students in school, promoting religion and a particular church program during a counseling session, and actively participating in a baptism of students.
Woolwine admits to having done many of these things, including baptizing about 150 members of the school-sponsored Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the Boggy Bayou. He claims the students involved all had parent-signed permission slips approved by the school principal.
Sabrina Partin, another NHS student, shown on CBN's "The 700 Club," a Christian broadcast, maintains that Woolwine did nothing wrong.
"Maybe it's our fault," she said. "I don't know, because we would come up to him with our Bibles open and ask him questions, and people would see him with his Bible open."
Woolwine tells me that he would do nothing different, because he wouldn't send any of the "miserable lives" he saved back to how they were before. He asks, where would they be now, on the track some of them were headed? He gestures at the stark buildings surrounded by gates topped with vicious razor wire — the detention center.
We are guided through several locked doors and finally come to a large room with cornered televisions, metal-backed chairs and about 30 boys, mostly black or Hispanic. They all wear gray sweatshirts, blue sweat pants and plastic slippers with numbers on them.
A scowling black man bellows, "CHURCH! CHURCH!" and a few boys scuffle forward, some clutching Bibles.
Seven boys follow Woolwine into a small room with shelved books and school desks.
Woolwine orates eloquently in the charismatic manner that helped earn him the nickname the Pied Piper of Brownsville. Brownsville, a church in nearby Pensacola, is what 20/20 called the biggest revival in the country in over a century.
He attests that he knows the secret to happiness, love and peace.
"The devil has a plan for you, man," Woolwine preaches, one foot propped up on the wooden desk, his Bible open on his knee. "To keep you in jail!"
The boys don't respond much. Some look terrified, and a few just look bored. At one point Woolwine mentions the school board and what he feels is their erroneous interpretation on the First Amendment.
"It says that CONGRESS shall make no law establishing a religion," he challenges. "If what I did was illegal, we could get together and say, let's declare war, and we could make the country go to war. We can't do that. We are not Congress. I am not Congress."
After "church," we drive through the neighborhood where Woolwine works, a predominantly black, government-housing development. Pigtailed girls wave at Woolwine, and he explains that he conducts a Bible study here every Monday afternoon.
As we drive back past the detention center, I think of a friend of mine from high school, Jonathan. He went to the same facility, for nearly a year. He showed up at my doorstep one day, shortly after his release.
Instead of greeting me with his customary hug, he asked me, with a feverish glint in his eyes, "Jennifer, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"
I just looked at him, with his short hair and clean-cut demeanor and wondered if he really was better off. He was still passionate, but about "saving" his friends, not saving the environment or ending oppression, or any of his old idealistic endeavors.
A few of my other friends jumped on the bandwagon to Brownsville, and I couldn't help but wonder if they hadn't just traded in their leather jackets and mohawks and booze for Bible Study and prayer sessions. It's always seemed like youth in this "paradise for people of all ages and interest" are searching for anything just to pass time.