August 2016 postcard hawkins jesus sign

Signs of God

How a mayor’s campaign to keep a Jesus sign brought discord to a God-fearing East Texas town.

Signs of God

How a mayor’s campaign to keep a Jesus sign brought discord to a God-fearing East Texas town.

If it hadn’t been for Will Rogers, the East Texas town of Hawkins might still be best known for its annual “Good Ol’ Days Celebration” or the 1995 legislative proclamation that named it the Pancake Capital of Texas. (Lillian Richard, who spent decades portraying Aunt Jemima in Quaker Oats ads, was born here in 1891). Those and other modest distinctions are listed in the town’s promotional brochures that promise “Tranquility… In East Texas.” But in the past few years, since Rogers arrived, tranquility isn’t what has put Hawkins on the map.

No relation to the beloved humorist and moralist of the same name, Rogers is a troubadour from downstate Illinois via Nashville, who once opened for such ’90s country music stars as Lonestar, Emerson Drive and John Michael Montgomery. In East Texas, Rogers began his second act as a sandwich purveyor, landlord and populist crusader. He and his wife were hardly settled in Hawkins before he decided what his new town needed most was a sign.

Rogers says the town’s faith community seemed splintered when he arrived; a First Baptist Church billboard stood near his cafe, the Will Rogers Coffee Company, and he envisioned replacing it with one sponsored by multiple churches, bearing a message that would speak to all of the town’s Christians. He took up a collection, enlisted a high school shop class to do the sawing and painting, and in 2011 planted the 18-foot-long sign in the grass along Highway 80. On kingly purple, gold letters spell out “Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins.” Not “Welcome to Hawkins” or “Hawkins ♥ Jesus.” But Jesus welcomes you. To Hawkins. Because, apparently, he’s been waiting here all this time.

Even if you’ve never seen the sign, you may know it as one of many targets of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization in Wisconsin that defends the legal separation of church and state by suing or, more often, threatening to sue public officials who grant a privileged position to a particular religion, usually Christianity. Texas towns have kept the foundation especially busy lately, now that it’s popular to adorn police cars with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Recently the town of Hondo, west of San Antonio, got a disapproving note from the group regarding a beloved, historic roadside sign reading, “This Is God’s Country. Please Don’t Drive Through It Like Hell.”

Hawkins was last year’s Hondo, the subject of brief outside fascination from national media that more or less ended in September, when the City Council voted to take down the sign and the Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed victory.

Despite the vote, the Jesus sign is still standing a year later. Its legs are bound in red caution tape and a smaller sign sits at its feet, warning, in somewhat of a contradiction, “NO TRESPASSING.” Beside the sign, Rogers’ coffee shop is temporarily shuttered for repairs after a fire that he claims was set intentionally. The sign, which Rogers hoped would be a symbol of Christian unity, instead became a lightning rod for discord over city politics and questions of religion — like whether the measure of a Christian ought to lie in one’s deeds or one’s words.

August 2016 postcard hawkins jesus sign
Andrew D. Brosig/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP
Will Rogers, who masterminded the Jesus sign shortly after his arrival in Hawkins, vowed that as its mayor, he would clean up corruption and crime.

Less than a year after he had the Jesus sign built and erected, Rogers parlayed his local fame as its progenitor into a run for Hawkins’ mayor. “When I used to drive through here, I thought, ‘Man, these people don’t care about their town,’” he told residents at one forum. “I would never have thought in a million years to move here.” But he felt called to run, he said, by God and by old folks who remembered Hawkins in better times. “Our nation is in trouble right now,” he said. “And it’s all pieces of these small cities that make up our entire nation. And if we could just take care of our backyard first and get together and see what our problems are and fix them, we can just come together in Jesus’ name and make things happen.”

He ran against longtime incumbent Howard Coquat, a well-liked, retired school employee who has lived in the town most of his life. Rogers lost the 2012 race by just a few votes. Rather than shake hands and congratulate Coquat on a good campaign, Rogers sued, alleging that Coquat and the city rigged the election with ineligible voters. Rogers lost the suit, but ran again in 2014, complaining that Hawkins was run by an insular bunch of good ol’ boys who just looked after their own. Without Coquat in the running — he’d decided to retire, citing health problems — Rogers narrowly won the three-way race. Riding into City Hall in May 2014 with a mandate to root out corruption and shake things up, it took him just two months to get arrested by one of his own police officers.

In July 2014, Rogers pulled in front of the home of a woman named Candy Palmertree, blocking her driveway, and threatened to fine her $500 a day until she cleaned her yard and cut the grass, according to a Hawkins police officer’s affidavit filed later that month. Then Rogers pointed to a portable concession stand in Palmertree’s driveway and threatened another $500-a-day fine until she got rid of it. Rogers was arrested, photographed and booked in the Wood County Jail on a charge of official oppression. A grand jury declined to indict him, but from then on, he wasted little time on niceties.

“There’s been no governance,” he told City Council members in February 2015, “and people have done whatever they want in this city. And now that I’m mayor, I was elected to do a job and that’s what I’m going to do.” Weeks later, he told the council that city staff needed to start showing him more deference: “As the mayor, as the chief executive officer of the city, when I say something, it needs to happen,” he said. “I don’t mean three weeks later. I mean now.” And Rogers reminded council members that he was considering suing the city over his arrest the previous summer, warning that they might need to stow away an extra $10,000 for legal fees.

In May 2015, Rogers proposed a resolution that would let him join the city fire department. When Council member Wayne Kirkpatrick argued that the move would amount to a conflict of interest, the exchange turned mean.

You’re a conflict of interest, Wayne,” Rogers huffed.

“Now why, when everybody’s talking about the business of the council, do you make those kind of statements to me?” Kirkpatrick asked wearily. “You’ve called me stupid, you say I’m a conflict of interest.”

After a brief back and forth, Rogers threw down: “Let’s get it goin’ on, Wayne!”

Hawkins, in other words, was not a particularly unified place when the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced its displeasure with Rogers’ sign in June 2015. Nobody in town knew who, exactly, had run crying to the organization, but a constituency of sign loyalists rallied for the fight. When the council met that month to consider its response, the crowd at City Hall, with a posted capacity of 38, spilled into the parking lot.

Faced with the prospect of an expensive court battle to keep the sign, some at the meeting proposed moving it or simply selling the land beneath it to a private owner. Council member Deb Rushing mentioned a charity fundraiser her son had recently joined, lamenting that it didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Jesus sign. “I cannot help but think that if this many people would have turned out for donations for that cause, we would not have poverty in this town,” Rushing admonished. “We don’t necessarily have to have a sign that says ‘I am a Christian,’ when I can show people every day that I am a Christian.”

“Easy is not always the right way out,” Rogers countered. “Why should any child be hungry in this world anywhere? It’s because of the lack of Jesus is the problem. When you don’t stand up for Jesus, and you have a lack of Jesus, then these kids go hungry.”

Rogers and his supporters embraced the idea of taking a stand, whatever the cost, against the separation of church and state. But they were still bothered by the “anonymous atheists” in their midst. Who in Hawkins would have complained about a sign celebrating Jesus? Soon they had their answer, and it couldn’t have been too surprising. Todd Eddington, a Hawkins-raised construction worker who’d mounted a popular anti-Rogers campaign online, stood to take full responsibility.

The heart of Hawkins’ godless resistance lies a bit north of downtown, in a brick ranch home with a front yard littered with children’s toys and empty beer cases. When I visit Eddington in June, he walks outside to greet me after a long morning spent framing a house in a nearby town. He is shirtless, with long brown and gray hair streaming from under a white baseball cap. The letters “H-A-T-E” are tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand. His left-hand knuckles are bare, but his left forearm sports the word “FUCK.” Dragging on Marlboro Black 100s and sipping a Keystone Light as we speak, he is a gracious host as he explains the crusade to which he has dedicated the last 18 months.

“I don’t pay attention to most of this shit — I like to party, mostly,” he tells me. But after a friend told him how Rogers was speaking to other council members, Eddington decided to sit through a council meeting. He says he was shocked. Starting in February 2015, he started showing up at City Hall after every meeting to spend $5 on a tape of the proceedings, from which he’d cut the most outrageous excerpts to share on a new Facebook group he called, “Funny Things You Can Hear at Hawkins, Texas City Meetings.”

“I heard how he was talking to the people that have been taking care of our city business, old retired people that taught us in school, retired bankers we’ve known all our lives, good people,” Eddington recalls. “He’s up there talking down to these people, trying to bully ’em. I said, ‘That’s not happening here. We don’t do that shit.’”

August 2016 postcard hawkins jesus sign
Patrick Michels
Todd Eddington launched an intense online campaign against Will Rogers and Hawkins’ famous Jesus sign.

Armed with open records law and photo editing software on a PC in his living room, he began mercilessly trolling Rogers, whom he calls “Baby Willsus,” or sometimes just “The Idiot” in his posts. He pasted Rogers’ face, goatee and all, onto a picture of the newborn savior, and onto a marionette whose strings were held by a puppeteer with Eddington’s face. He mocked one woman, a Rogers partisan, with a string of vile epithets and fart-joke cartoons with her face pasted on the caricatures.

Eddington insists he saves his bullying for those who bully others. “That’s a red flag, if somebody moves into a town and that’s the first thing they do is put up a Jesus sign,” he says. “If it was some old man that’d lived here his whole life, I wouldn’t think anything about it. But if that’s the first thing you do when you move into a town, you’re trying to gain respect that you haven’t earned.”

By the time the Hawkins Jesus sign story became widespread news in Raw Story, Breitbart and the Associated Press, Eddington was only the most vocal of Rogers’ critics, most of whom didn’t mind the sign but hated the outside attention. To folks for whom the Jesus sign debate was a passing online curiosity, Rogers was an entertaining foil. When he suggested that atheists — if they really didn’t believe in Jesus — shouldn’t mind his sign any more than a welcome sign from Superman, one national headline read: “Mayor Compares Christ to Superman.” Rogers’ remark that “You can’t pin one religion on Jesus” earned him a place in Texas Monthly’s annual Bum Steer Awards.

But the mockery only strengthened Rogers’ resolve. And when, in late June 2015, a room attached to his coffee shop caught fire, he had no doubt it was set intentionally by a critic of the sign or of Jesus, or both. No one was ever arrested for the blaze, but Rogers used it as further evidence of his oppression when he struck back at his critics in court a month later.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, Rogers argued that the town’s leadership had been out to get him from the very start. He sued eight city officials, as well as Eddington, Coquat and Palmertree — whose complaint had led to Rogers’ arrest — and two other Hawkins residents. He described his attempts to clean up Hawkins and root out corruption, and how he’d been stymied by city officials. To silence him, he wrote, someone had firebombed his business. He noted Eddington’s threats of violence, in particular a Facebook post in which Eddington wrote that, should he see the mayor, he was “liable to slap that goofy-looking flavor saver off his bottom lip.”

Thus persecuted for defending the Jesus sign, Rogers amassed a devout following from across East Texas. A printer in Mount Vernon made miniature versions of the sign and purple T-shirts printed with gold lettering. Other supporters made signs for nearby towns that read, “Jesus welcomes you to Quitman,” or to Mineola or Gilmer or Longview, or even just, “Jesus welcomes you here!”

Rogers hosted a revival in July 2015, and Christian groups from across the state came to sing and dance in the shadow of the sign. “It’s no longer a time to just sit around and be quiet and think everything’s going to be alright,” a Houston woman named Rhonda Lane told one local newspaper. “You must get involved and take a stand.” (She also launched a website — Devotees filled a trough with water to hold baptisms near the sign, and held all-night vigils. Volunteers claiming allegiance to the Oath Keepers — a radical patriot militia group — kept watch to safeguard the sign from vandals.

Their cause grew urgent in September, when the City Council voted to remove the sign and avoid a costly legal fight over church-state separation. But Rogers and his supporters pointed to conflicting surveys showing the sign to be not on city land but on private property, where, they argued, its owner can proclaim whatever religious message he likes. Mark McDonald, a wildlife biologist and gator wrangler, said he had recently purchased the parcel of land from a funeral home; he established a new corporation called the “Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, LLC,” and promised to safeguard the sign. In December, the council voted to sue McDonald in a bid to settle the question of ownership.

The sign’s fate remains an open question; the next hearing in the city’s lawsuit against McDonald is scheduled for October. Rogers had hoped to use his position as mayor to shepherd the sign through the legal fight. But in May, he lost his bid for a second term as mayor. Coquat returned to run again, and pummeled Rogers, 239-41.

The day of the election, someone planted a bunch of Rogers campaign signs in Eddington’s front yard. On his Facebook page, Eddington posted a photo of himself flipping the bird and urinating on them.

At City Hall one afternoon in June, I catch Coquat returning from lunch. He wears a tucked-in red plaid shirt, and his black hair swoops in front like the Bob’s Big Boy mascot. He’s tired of out-of-town reporters and wary of speaking out of turn, since Rogers’ suit against him and other city council members is still pending. He walks me outside, where he directs my attention to a far more quotidian sign. White with black lettering, the sign tells the story of oil booms, railroad tycoons and folks who’ve passed through to cross the Sabine River since 1850. He says that’s all I need to know about Hawkins.

Although he won’t discuss the Jesus sign directly, as he talks about stewardship and respect for history, it’s clear how little he thinks of the mess. Coquat tells me he came to Hawkins in high school when his family moved from Houston for refinery work. But his extended family goes back nearly 200 years in Texas. Now, as mayor again, he will pick up where he left off two years ago. When I ask what makes him proudest from his previous time in office, he gestures past Beaulah Street to the free municipal water park he helped build. It brings in kids from all over, he says, and draws their parents into the shops downtown.

A deacon at the First Baptist Church, Coquat says he’s had an easygoing manner throughout the Jesus-sign affair because he knows God is taking care of him. Then he explains why he knows: One day in 1992, he accidentally stepped on a heavy cedar branch hidden in a leaf pile. Jostled loose from the leaves and sticks, the branch whipped up and shaved off a chunk of his face and skull. He died twice that day, he tells me, once in the ambulance and again on the operating table, for a total of 14 minutes.

“All of a sudden, I was standing on translucent streets of gold,” he recalls. “People were hugging me, patting me on the back and saying, ‘We’re glad that you’re here.’” But there was, he says, one guy who was not ready to welcome him upstairs. “A light descended and a voice said, ‘It’s not your time.’”

August 2016 postcard hawkins jesus sign
Patrick Michels
Howard Coquat, who reclaimed his seat as mayor of Hawkins in May, stands beside a reminder of the town’s history outside City Hall.

Having established his born-again bona fides, he finally tells me just how he feels about the Jesus sign. “The sign is not Christ,” he says. “It’s a piece of plywood. We got things to do besides that sign.”

In July, Rogers accepted a $20,000 settlement from the Texas Municipal League and dropped his lawsuit. After his election loss, the fire at his coffee shop, and even getting his tires slashed twice, he says he’ll keep working at local reform because that’s where the country’s troubles begin. Driving around East Texas, Rogers says those little Jesus signs in yards in other towns remind him why he took up the fight. “I think it’s all worth it just to see that,” he says. “My arrest, the pain and suffering that we’ve been through, all those things make it worth it for me, that I stood my ground.”

Now that the lawuit is over, Eddington says he’ll quit his trolling. He says he’d rather treat his audience to lighter fare — like photos of folks smiling together in town or news about the high school baseball team.

“Hell, we don’t all get along but everybody’s pretty much known each other their whole lives,” Eddington says. “It’s not like we don’t like Will because he’s an outsider. People come in all the time and we embrace ’em. Like most other small towns in Texas, it’s just a small town where people are decent, hardworking people. I want to fix that reputation that he’s trying to ruin for the last two or three years.” Eddington even renamed his Facebook group: “Great Things About Hawkins, Texas.”

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

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