Longform

Where Angels Fear to Tread

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Brint felt torn. He believed Kilgore College should be responsive to its community, but he also believed the school was obliged to give performing arts majors a chance to act in challenging new works. After all, he thought, Kilgore College has an unbeatable reputation as a drama school among north Texas high schools. It houses the professionally run Texas Shakespeare Festival, it allows its freshmen to act in school productions, and it built the fan-shaped Van Cliburn theater, whose architectural plans were later borrowed by designers of the Iden B. Payne theater at the University of Texas at Austin and other community theaters.

Although Caldwell was often forced to defend himself and his departments during Angels rehearsals, no one took as much heat as college president William Holda. An Indiana transplant and an ordained Catholic deacon, Holda is an intellectual and something of an anomaly in a town where religion and politics often lean toward the right. Growing up in Lafayette, Indiana, he turned an early love for music into his life's work, getting a bachelor's degree in voice and music theory from St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer. Graduate studies yielded a master's in music from Indiana University. Soon after starting his doctorate in 1975, he accepted a position teaching music at Kilgore College and permanently moved south.

After Holda had taught one year, most of his music department colleagues quit, and he soon found himself in the job of acting director of the fine arts division. Named director in 1976, Holda over the next five years transformed the college's art, music and theater divisions and founded its program in classical dance. He missed teaching, though, so he went back to the classroom. His work earned him a promotion to dean of admissions in 1990 and then into the president's office in 1996.

Although he plays organ at Christ the King Catholic Church, he also leads the choir at First Presbyterian Church and has busily volunteered to help a number of local Protestant churches over the years. He admits his core religious principles fly in the face of the area's bumper sticker theology and politics.

Pummeled daily with complaints and threats to cut Kilgore College's funding before Angels opened, Holda saw no choice but to defend Caldwell's First Amendment rights and the academic freedoms set forth in the college's accreditation criteria and Policy and Personnel Manual. If he stopped the play, he would go against higher education's bedrock principle and jeopardize the college's future accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Holda told the Tyler Morning Telegraph a week before the play opened, "I don't want to sacrifice our principle of academic freedom for money."

Holda's attitude toward the controversy was important. He was one of only two people who could call a special board of trustees meeting to reconsider Angels. The other was board president Fred Parsons. Neither man decided to make that call, even though Parsons, after attending a rehearsal, couldn't condone the play's sex and profanity. "The right of one of our professionals to do it had to be defended," he said. Holda and Parsons made their decision in the face of some board pressure. On October 8 The Flare reported that three trustees, Gary Burton, Jean McLaurin and Marion Turner, stated they favored a special meeting to discuss a vote to suspend the play.

Randall Brint told the Press he felt that if the board had called a meeting, the trustees would have voted unanimously to halt the production. But in the final days before the board issued its public support for Holda's decision, the trustees learned that Caldwell had enlisted the help of a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who was prepared to seek an injunction should the board ask him to stop the play. Fearing the college would be damaged by legal controversy, the board backed down. In the end, as Holda and the faculty senate voiced wholehearted support for Caldwell, the trustees grudgingly got behind him.

wDifferent factions opposed Angels for different reasons. Kilgore trustees feared the college pledge campaign would suffer, and the commissioners had their constituents to please. But members of the religious community opposed it on moral grounds and felt they answered to a higher authority. A few days after Bebee's first rumblings, David Bishop, pastor of Faith Baptist Church, posed next to his church marquee. It said, "Say no way to the Gay Play at KC!" On October 8 The Flare ran the photo and a story that quoted Bishop: "According to the word of God, homosexuality is wrong. Parents of kids that go to Kilgore don't pay money to have their young people educated in that lifestyle." Mark McClelland, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kilgore, taped a sermon denouncing the play and placed copies for sale.

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Cynthia Greenwood