DATELINE The Chuckwagon Stakeout BY FELIX GILLETTE 0 n a rainy Thursday in January, I pull out my digital recording device at the Chuckwagon restaurant in Weatherford, Texas, and put it near the salt and pepper shakers at the center of the table. Merle Bull, who is sitting next to me, takes a long look. “You sure you don’t want to put that under the table?” he asks. Very funny. This past summer a crew of people in Weatherford learned the hard way what happens when you put your voice recorder underneath a table at the Chuckwagon. There was an embarrassing investigation. A grand jury. Allegations of abuse of authority. Hurt feelings. Lost jobs. Months later, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit; and the town’s 20,000 residents are still reading about the fallout on the front page of The Weatherford Democrat. Bull puts down his glass of iced-tea next to my recorder. Until he retired recently, Bull taught biology at Weatherford College, a public junior college that sits in the middle of North Texas peach country about a half-hour drive west of Fort Worth. Every Thursday, Bull comes to the Chuckwagon to meet with a handful of his former colleagues. Typically, they talk about their vacations, discuss country and western music, and gossip about the college. The group, which is The Weatherford Business and Professional Men’s Club 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 18, 2005 known as the Weatherford Business and Professional Men’s Club, came into existence more than 20 years ago when it split off from a Kiwanis Club. “Kind of the way Baptist churches do sometimes,” says Bull. On this particular Thursday, Bull is the first member to arrive. While we wait for the others, he explains how this innocuous looking table in front of usit’s round, with a tattered green tablecloth became ground zero for the scandal which Bull and his comrades refer to as Tablegate. The trouble started back in 1998 when the former president of Weatherford College retired and the board of trustees began looking to replace the top administrative spot at the town’s largest and oldest academic institution, which was founded more than a century ago. These days, approximately 5,500 students take classes at the 90-acre campus, a modest arrangement of unpretentious buildings on the southeast side of town. Eventually, the board of trustees promoted a dean by the name of Don Huff, who had recently arrived at Weatherford from Odessa College. It’s not uncommon for a new college administration to feud with the faculty. But this transition was unusually rocky. In particular, one of Bull’s colleagues in the biology department, a popular professor named Morn Hartgraves, clashed with the new president. Even before Huff was promoted, the two hadn’t gotten along. With Huff’s ascension, things got worse. In the coming years, the two disagreed on various professional matters. At one point, Hartgraves filed a report with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools alleging that the college’s biology facilities lacked adequate eyewash stations. Later Hartgraves accused the administration of discriminatory hiring practices. The mutual hostility eventually culminated in allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Finally, in February of 2002, the college’s board of trustees, acting at Huff’s behest, voted to fire Hartgraves for insubordination. \(Reached by phone at his home in Weatherford, Huff said he had no comment Until his dismissal, Hartgraves had been a regular member of the club. Back in those days, the club used to meet for lunch at the Pizza Place restaurant, which was owned by a member of the college’s board of trustees. photo: Felix Gillette During the dismissal procedures, the trustee
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