Breaking Ranks

Will Clark was a reluctant Aggie until 12 people died in last year's Bonfire collapse. Now his desire to keep the tradition alive continues to make him an outsider in College Station.

The report hit A&M students hard. After all, it indicted their entire culture. On the day of its release, Clark met a friend from his dorm at the site of the collapse. "This guy, a tough guy, you'd never see him emotional at all," Clark recalls. "And he's just in tears saying how everything he'd ever done was for nothing, that it would never go on. And I said, "Somehow, someway, I was gonna' It was gonna be my way of giving back here to all these people. It was gonna go on somehow."

Clark kept working on the petition. He received e-mails from alumni all over the country, recounting their own poignant Bonfire stories: how they met their husbands or wives working on the stack, how they wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. The Bryan-College Station Eagle ran a heartwarming photo of a five-year-old in a knee-length "Keep the Fire Burning" T-shirt printing his name on Clark's petition. Aggies may not have known Clark, but they respected him. He was supporting Bonfire, and he was giving them a united voice. Even the administration was unfazed by the movement; a spokesperson indicated that it was only natural for A&M students to join together in support of the university and its traditions. In just a few months Clark gathered 12,000 signatures.

But on June 16, A&M President Ray Bowen announced his decision on the future of Bonfire. It was a compromise: Bonfire would continue but only after two years of review and restructuring. In 2002 Bonfire would revert to the smaller tepee-style structure of its early incarnations. Students would no longer chop down trees for the event; lumber would be shipped in. Professional engineers would oversee both design and construction. Construction time would be limited to two weeks. Far fewer students would be allowed to participate. Drinking and hazing would not be tolerated. Certainly it would take time to redesign a 90-year-old student tradition. But there was an unstated benefit to the moratorium: By 2002 troublesome Bonfire leadership will have graduated.

Keep the Fire Burning's Web site attracted the support of attorneys and engineers.
Keep the Fire Burning's Web site attracted the support of attorneys and engineers.

Aggies were disappointed that they would have to wait two years to see Bonfire burn again, but they closed ranks around their leader. Group think was at work. Students publicly admired Bowen's professionalism in making a difficult decision. Parents of the Bonfire victims said the president deserved the full support and respect of all Aggies. The football coach noted that this was yet another opportunity to "demonstrate how special the loyalty is that Aggies hold for one another and Texas A&M."

Even within this illusion of unanimity, however, there were some dissenters. Clark, who had become known as a Bonfire supporter from his petition campaign, began receiving e-mails from students and alumni. Do something, they pleaded.

"You look at these people in the eye and tell them no?" he asks. "I couldn't do it." He and Reidel sat down one night and mapped out what they might need to build a Bonfire without the university. He had little experience, so the ideas were basic: an engineer, workers, lumber, land, money. Some of the e-mails were from attorneys and engineers offering their services. It just might work.

It looks like a typical dorm room. The mattresses are hoisted up on a makeshift loft, creating just enough room underneath for a couch and a desk. There's a mini-fridge in the corner, a Britney Spears poster on the ceiling, shouting in the hallway. The seven young men inside could have been crowded around a keg, but instead they're talking intently about public relations, work schedules, safety training and liability issues. The oldest among them wears Wranglers and boots and spits tobacco-colored saliva into a cup.

Will Clark has formed an uneasy alliance with these boys of Walton Hall, one of the most "spirited" dorms on campus. They were selected to be Bonfire leaders this year before the event was canceled. If he is the brains of this operation, they are the brawn. But Clark needs them for more than their craftsmanship; he needs them for their credibility. If he were one of them instead of an unknown, he realizes, he might get more support for his cause. "I'm like the last leadership-type person," he says. "I'm the last person in the world people want to follow."

Still, he is the guy who gets stuff done. By this meeting in October, Keep the Fire Burning has gotten a lot accomplished. It is now a fully incorporated nonprofit organization with a student board. They have set the event date for November 22. Brazos County landowners have donated property for both cut and stack sites. Alumni have donated funds and some equipment. A risk-management company in Houston has helped the group lower its insurance premium. A private security company has agreed to prevent hazing and drinking on the site. Professional engineers have approved the design.

In fact, Keep the Fire Burning's plan is, in many ways, similar to the one advocated by Bowen for 2002. The center pole will be 60 feet tall but buried 20 feet in the ground, making the stack significantly shorter than those of the recent past. Four other base poles also will be buried for support. The structure will be built in the shape of a tepee, with all logs touching the ground. The tiered effect that A&M students are used to will be created simply by using various lengths of log. Pulleys and bucket cranes will prevent the need for students to be on the stack, even though both systems are mostly extra precautions. Clark says that the engineers who approved the design told him that it had no theoretical "hoop stress," the outward force that caused last year's first-tier logs to collapse. "It's just gonna burn," they told him. "It's not gonna fall. It's gonna stand there until it turns to ashes."

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