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.

Keep the Fire Burning is making it a point to maintain student involvement in the felling of trees -- something the administration wants to eliminate because it is so dangerous. To minimize risks, Clark says, chain-saw operators will be trained by industry professionals. And they will wear Kevlar chaps, steel-toed boots, safety goggles and helmets.

"If we can make it safe," he says, "then what's wrong with it? What's wrong with some students going out and burning some wood in the country somewhere? It's not really that big a deal. It doesn't have to be a holy war."

Clark has formed an uneasy alliance with the boys who would be Bonfire leaders.
Deron Neblett
Clark has formed an uneasy alliance with the boys who would be Bonfire leaders.

To put it in the terms of A&M's military history, Clark was like a soldier who stayed in his foxhole, fighting bravely on after his commander has called for a retreat. He was bound to get shelled. What he didn't realize is that the mortars would be coming from his own ranks. The one thing more important to Aggies than Bonfire is obedience.

Students wrote letters to The Battalion, A&M's student newspaper, condemning Keep the Fire Burning. Others asked that their names be removed from Clark's petition. Last year's Bonfire leaders announced to the Eagle that they felt KTFB was hurting the parents of those who died. Janice and Tim Kerlee Sr. held an open meeting on campus where they pleaded with the organization to abandon its misguided efforts. "Unity is the Aggie spirit," Kerlee Sr. said. "If this Bonfire, off-campus, goes off this year, it will do more harm to this university in the eyes of this country among non-Aggies than anything we could do." The student senate passed a resolution commending Bowen's decision and strongly discouraging any "student initiatives not in 100 percent accordance with Texas A&M University's official Bonfire position, including construction of or participation in any outside activities that could endanger the lives of present or future Aggies or in any way damage Aggie Unity."

Clark was flabbergasted. These people had wanted a Bonfire, and he was giving them a Bonfire. "We never expected opposition from the campus at all," he says. "So it was never our goal to be rebels or outcasts or anything like that."

The administration applied a more direct form of pressure to the group. Clark claims the school warned participants of impending disciplinary action and threatened to remove board members from hall councils and campus jobs. "That's illegal discrimination," Clark says. "They knew that they're a big enough organization that they can blur the lines of the law, and they've done it for years. When you'd call them on something, they'd back off, but they just kept continually doing it, giving us small battles to fight that just bogged us down a lot."

The battles were waged off-campus as well. KTFB members say that local business owners were discouraged from selling them chain saws and other materials. They also say that administrators asked the Texas Board of Professional Engineers to crack down on the group by seeking a court injunction against the off-campus Bonfire. Last month KTFB was selling T-shirts at a Shell gas station on a corner near campus. The owner had given the students permission to be there, but one day before a home football game, he asked them to leave. Clark says that the university, which buys a lot of fuel from Shell, had called the distributor and threatened to sever ties to the company if it continued to allow Keep the Fire Burning to operate at its station. The distributor, in turn, called the station owner and threatened to stop selling him gas. "He was like, "Well, as much as I like having you here, without gas I don't run a station,' " Clark recalls. KTFB packed up its T-shirts.

Cynthia Lawson, executive director of university relations, denies all the allegations. "These are not the type of activities that the university would engage in," she adds. While the university has done what it can do to discourage students from building an off-campus Bonfire, Lawson says, the school's approach has been to meet with KTFB members to repeatedly urge them to respect Bowen's decision to postpone the event for two years.

In any case, Will Clark is spooked. He refuses to reveal the names of the engineers helping him on the Bonfire. He doesn't even want to reveal his area of study to the media. There are seven Will Clarks at A&M, he says, and the university distinguishes them by their majors. He worries about pressure coming from within his department or from his academic advisers. His roommate Reidel doesn't talk to the press at all. Though she graduated last year, she still works for the university as a lab researcher and fears retribution for her involvement with Keep the Fire Burning.

Instead of bringing Clark and his group back into the fold, the university further alienated them. "I disagree with immoral-type leadership like that," he says, in the equivalent of Aggie sacrilege. "They're not the quality of person that I want in charge of this university, special as it is to me."

Clark is much less secretive sitting at a picnic table behind the Dixie Chicken at the end of October. It's all over now. The majority has prevailed. Bonfire will not be built or burned this year.

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