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Meridian painter, legend honored

10/16/19
By Arthur DeVitalis
    George Hallmark’s work is representative of the artistic quality of the Meridian Community. He was born in Cleburne in 1949 and grew up in Joshua. Today, he lives just outside Meridian with his wife Lisa, on a ridge with full view of the mountainous hills of Bosque County.
    Hallmark worked his way into a draftsman position by word-of-mouth and jumping headfirst into the job. He took a look at the plans on Friday, realized he was in over his head and bought two books on delineation from the TCU bookstore. A weekend binge-study of delineation and work, and Hallmark was hired.
    He worked under two architects that help him along the way and began painting on the side. He left the firm but began doing freelance work in drafting and painting. He gradually began painting more and more as the 80s began, with commissions spanning the 1970s to recent years.
    He started with Americana but moved quickly into  From there he became a successful commercial artist and designer, continuing to become a well-renowned oil painter His work is structured with an astonishing amount of realism in walls and landscapes. He painted the “Blue Bell Girl” for the ice cream company’s advertising series. Hallmark even drafted the logo for Billy Bob’s Texas rodeo, still in use today.
    “They took one look at what I brought and sent away two high-dollar design firms,” he says. Billy Bob’s was looking for a new label for its in-house beer at the time.
    Hallmark sketched the logo last minute for an approaching meeting deadline and the rest is history. “The logo went on everything,” he said. “From cow patties to cokes, they had it on there. You can still see my line variations because they’ve replicated it so well.
    He was voted the Official Texas State Artist in 1988 and his distinctive architectural style has earned recent accolades, including the upcoming Haley Memorial Library’s Retrospective in Midland and the Eiteljorg Museum’s Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase award during the Quest for the West in Indianapolis.
    He also won the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Frederic Reminton Painting Award at the Prix de West in Oklahoma City. He bought the Meridian property in the mid-eighties and built the house in 1988.
    He collects Mexican folk masks and clearly has an eye assembling interior collages of incredible works. A picture of Nolan Ryan was requested by the baseball player himself, but the painting had already been acquired for a museum collection. Calm strokes and scenery fill Hallmark’s work with serene beauty and natural appeal. “Stucco walls and painted tiles” fill the canvas.
    He paints structures, Western Art, and much more, although he doesn’t fall into the “Cowboy Art” category. “I always wanted to be different from that,” he says, though the nature of what he painted brought him close to several artists that focused on cowboys.
    He loves painting the southwest, including missions in New Mexico, Colorado and along the coast of California.  He’s painted structures in France and Spain, giving his work an international feel as perfect lighting accompany structural lines. Even the visual appeal of his studio guides the eye, with a fantastic work-in-progress sits along razor sharp lines of brushes and paints. A real Royal Canadian Mount Police uniform sits in one corner, which snowshoes and horned skulls in another. He’s stood behind the gate at the Calgary Stampede.

Stories of his works and the behind the art featured in his house filled the conversation. He’s spent time in Indianapolis and Canada with patrons of his work, traveling internationally to Europe and elsewhere.  When his entire collection was to an Indianapolis gallery and looked at everything together, it was an emotional moment.
    “It was like seeing your mother again after 20 years,” he smiled. “The Longer I paint, the more I enjoy this wonderful blessing of creation. The good Lord gave me this incredible desire to be an artist; the rest has been just plain, hard work.”
    Hallmark’s Retrospective will be featured at the Haley Memorial Library in Midland, the same place his career began. He was gradually transitioning from Americana to architecture and remembers seeing a crowd during a competition there. His work was selected to be acquired by the museum.
    “What’s going on over there?” Hallmark asked museum director. He smiled, “They’re here to see who gets your painting, George.”


Hillsboro Welcomes New Director Of Athletics And Recreation 

3/21/2019
By Arthur DeVitalis
    At the first city council meeting of March, Hillsboro council members welcomed Samantha Montes as the new Athletics and Recreation Director of Hillsboro. She is the second person to hold this position.
    Montes began playing softball at age four. She recalls backyard training from her father and brother, learning the discipline and continual effort that would be key to her success on the field and off.
    "It was the only way I was going to be able to go to school," she says.
    Her parents were straighforward about this. "Either you get a full-ride, or you don't go or get into a community college and start paying yourself," she says they told her. "Softball gave me that platform to get my education."
    Her brother, 11 years her senior, played his own part in helping raise Montes.
    He drove her to basketball practice each morning while their parents worked. He would spent up to five hours working with Montes on the basketball court.
    That type of mentorship made her look up to her brother.
    She attended Burleson High School and is the single-season record holder for strikeouts in a season at Burleson High School for 2013.
    During high school, she played four years of varsity softball, earning four consecutive District Championships, the three time All-County MVP, the 2011 Under Armour All-American and the two-time Dallas Morning News All-Area Team.
    She went on to attend Baylor University in Waco on a sports scholarship.
    "Softball gave me that platform to get my education."
    She went to the NCAA World Series National Championship in Women's College Softball in Oklahoma City. The team placed third, although making the cut is an achievement in itself.
    "You're talking about the one percent of softball players that make it to the World Series,"she states. "When you play Division One softball, most people consider that the highest level."
    There is a professional league, although athletes who compete in it must work in addition to playing. Athletes are paid but the income must be supplemented to provide for themselves.
    She was asked to travel to Spain for its Olympic Team tryouts. She refused, since most of the travel and board expenses would have to be out of pocket for just the opportunity to qualify for Team Spain.    
    Montes compiled a 128-15 record from the circle with 998 strikeouts in four seasons, helping her team compile an overall record of 137-12 in her four seasons with the team.
    After Baylor University, she finished her season at the University of Texas in Arlington. She appeared in 15 games there, making eight starts.
    In her sophomore year, she won 13 games, throwing 13 complete games. She threw 159.2 innings with a 4.56 ERA.
    She threw her first career no-hitter on April 8 against Central Arkansas Montes made her first career save in Game 2. She was also named two-time Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of the Week March 30 and April 13, 2015.
    She returned to the Hill County area to head the Hillsboro Athletics and Recreation Department within the Hillsboro Department of Public Safety.
    Montes is running the facebook pages for the Hillsboro Department of Public Safety, City of Hillsboro Recreation Department, the Hillsboro Animal Control Services and Cars and Coffee in Hillsboro.
    On Instagram, Montes is the person behind @hillsborotx_life and @cars_and_coffee_hillsboro pages. She also manages the Hillsboro Department of Public Safety's Snapchat page.
    One of Montes's goals is to bring the Athletics and Recreation Department up to snuff. This starts with social media.
    Montes wants to bring organized activities and community sports leagues for all age groups in the Hillsboro community.
    Softball in Wallace Park, flag football, skeet shoots, soccer, kickball, cornhole and even competitive fishing are sports that Montes intends to organize leagues for in Hillsboro.
    Her first event set for May 11 is a cornhole tournament and tailgate with a cash prize. The tourney is open to all ages.
    Following the cornhole tournament, Montes is working on acquiring more sand for a volleyball tournament. Water events are currently being planned for the summer.
    These activities will include co-ed adult leagues, although Montes will not manage children's leagues.
    In several years, she wants to start working with The Boys and Girls Club mentoring young athletes. Coaching full teams is not her goal, although one-on-one mentorship is exemplified in her own experience.
    Continuing in program management and community organization is something Montes wants to keep doing.
    She currently enjoys giving sports lessons on the side to younger children.
    She wants to work towards her own house and continue to work while enjoying each day. She wants to travel and take a "real" vacation one day.
    "I've never taken a vacation," she says. "I've traveled across the country, although it was always for sports."
    Time management was difficult as balancing life as a student athlete at major universities can be difficult.
    "For four years, my life was: this time, this time, this time." The rigidity of a tightly set schedule means constant movement, although solace can be taken in time well spent.
    Being a student athlete takes much dedication. Everything is scheduled for you, which may seem convenient at first. After a blocked schedule and sleep, the process repeats all over again.
    Being an athlete begins to define you but you can't let it, says Montes. "Who I am does not lie in a sport that I play," says Montes.
    "You get people that surround you only because you're a student athlete," she continues. "You get friends that only want free tickets. People look at you like that. But I was more than just an athlete."
    Her parents reminded her of her faith and the importance it carried with everything she did. "You have to stay grounded. You need to go to church. You need to do this," she says her mother said.
    She's had her share of the spotlight and talks about the negativity that fans and renown can bring. She didn't dignify angry messages or opinions with a response.    
    Even after winning some games, her parent's house got egged. Her family endured much due to the belligerence of fans and rivals alike.
    Here parents used to tell her, "Just go play and you'll speak for yourself. Public and community relations have been part of Montes's repertoire since high school.
    Montes is extremely grateful for the opportunities that she's been blessed with in the past. Now, as head of the the Athletics and Recreation Department, she's ready to play ball.
    Her parents used to tell her, "Go play and you'll speak for yourself." Public and community relations have been part of Montes' repertoire since high school.
    Montes is grateful for the opportunities that she's been blessed with in the past. Now, as head of the Athletics and Recreation Department, she's ready to play ball.


Coast To Coast Journey To Honor Fallen Workers

1/3/2019
By Arthur DeVitalis
    Curtis Helms, known as the Bull Grunt to online followers, has completed a walk from the East to West coast to honor and raise awareness for fallen utility line workers.
    Helms attended Hillsboro ISD and currently lives in Whitney. He works for Elite Line Training Institute out of Beaumont, a line safety and training company.
    Constructing new power lines or repairing existing ones can mean that line workers are away from their families for months at a time.
    The possibility of electrocution from day to day increases the likelihood that line workers won't return home.
    Utility line work is one of the most dangerous professions in America. Between 30 and 50 line workers in every 100,000 are killed each year. The National Traumautic Occupational Fatalities system (NTOF) estimated an average of 56.3 deaths every year per 100,000 line workers in 1994.
    This year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 146 workers have died from electrocution from the beginning of 2017 to today. Fifty-four were in direct relation to power lines. The average across the last two years has been roughly 50 utility workers per year.
    A total of 1,891 workers have died from other causes, although this number includes line worker and construction fatalities including electrocution.
    Electrocution occurs from direct electrical contact with a live wire or arcing electricity discharging from lines.         Causation as to why incidents continue to happen is attributed to lack of experience, a lack of an experienced enough talent pool to pull from and lack of preparation due to inclement weather or rapidly changing conditions. Human error can be fatal in these instances.
    When man-made or natural disasters occur, first responders and line operators are first to the head in the opposite direction of evacuations.
    "Along the journey, I decided I wanted to help line workers become first responders," Helms said. "When a hurricane is blowing in, line crews are going in while everyone else is evacuating."    
    Helms remembers line workers helping with body recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He helped restore power to pumps and neighborhoods following the storm.
    Helms's idea was to walk from coast to coast in honor of fallen workers, raising awareness of the risk and obligation industry employees and family take when the job starts.
    He received a sponsorship from Bevens company, a line worker safety equipment manufacturer. The company agreed to sponsor the walk in the form of donation to charities that support the industry.
    Curtis completed the journey on behalf of the National Sisterhood of United Journeyman Lineman (NSUJL) and the Fallen Lineman Organization (FLO). Both organizations reach out when serious injury or death affect families and line workers.
    Helms chose to represent all power line workers, both non-union and union. The main difference is pay, retirement benefits and dues owed on a monthly basis. He has worked within the non-union portion of the industry for 23 years.
    Helms started his journey on the east coast in Charleston, South Carolina. He decided to sleep overnight at the city's aquarium and gave himself to the industry at midnight October 15.
    Food and water from those within the line industry would be the only means to sustain himself for his trip.
    He carried little more than a roller backpack with water, a coffee cup and a sign worn on his back as homage to fallen line workers.
    Helm's plan for the I Am My Brothers' Keeper Walk Across America (IAMBKWAA) was to walk and only accept rides limited to 30 miles as long as drivers were industry workers or directly related to a line worker living or deceased.
    Curtis accepted a total of 94 rides and met countless more along the way. What started as a single worker's journey became closer to the definition a relay race as people across the line industry hurried to help Helms.
    One driver drove over 1,000 miles for the chance to play her part in getting him to the west coast. She drove from Pennsylvania to Georgia to give Helms a 30 mile ride.
    Others drove over three hours to meet Helms for a 30 mile ride. Out of all drivers, one had experienced the loss of a loved one on the job and the other knew a lineman that, while badly burned, continued to work in the industry.
    He often chatted through video with workers whose wives or other family members were giving rides.
    Once he strung his hammock between the elevator buckets of tree trimmer trucks parked back-to-back. Helms woke up to utility workers needing their trucks at 6 a.m. the next morning.
    In Georgia and Arizona, his feet barely touched the ground. Unbeknowst to Helms, a Facebook page had been created with a tracking app to see where drivers were getting the Bull Grunt.
    Industry workers who discovered Helms, what he was doing and why he was doing it jumped to set up rides.
    The line work industry seems familial in nature as the outpour of support assisted Helms get across the country.    
    Families continue in the profession as it provides for families well and sometimes look at it as tradition; a risky, necessary duty.
    Community outreach in Helms's walk exemplifies this type of familial connection that line families across the United States have.
    That connection's nature is not unlike first responders and those who have served in the military together.
    Although Helms had the support of people across the industry, the trip was not without its challenges.
    Managing what little resources he was given proved to be a difficult task. Helms ran out of water on the first day.
    This continued throughout the trip, although those who helped him get across the U.S. arrived in the nick of time on several occasions.
    When he traveled through New Mexico, workers drove him farther north because of concerns about human trafficking in the southern half of the state.
    As a result, Helms had to travel through the desert and the Navajo reservation to get through the state.
    Temperature extremes and the lack of civilization on this leg of the journey were difficult to manage.
    When employees from Power New Mexico heard about Helms's goal, they invited him to their union meeting to speak about safety in line work. Company workers relayed him across part of the state.
    The journey was catalouged via Facebook and the #IAMBKWAA hashtag. Video appearances from ride-givers and Curtis along the journey still grace the page. Many who gave Helms 30 mile rides offered to take him the whole rest of the trip. Helms refused. "Because it's that next ride. It's that next life, the next interaction, the next journey."
    Over the course of 20 days, Helms made it to Huntington Beach, California from South Carolina November 3.
    A friend from the line industry paid to fly his wife out to the beach to surprise Helms at the end of the trip.
    In the video, he falls to one knee before a long overdue embrace.    
    Recording his first steps in the Pacific Ocean, he smiles. "That's the power of the power line industry," he said, before thanking everyone for the help along the journey.    

Local Painter Finds Success With Her Passion

8/1/2019
By Arthur DeVitalis
    Tashita Bibles grew up in Hillsboro and found her passion for painting while attending school at Hillsboro ISD.
    Now, Bibles owns and operates Artist N-U, a business with a unique model that focuses on God and art.
    The business is designed to create an environment that allows others to explore their own talents, network, and form new bonds through creating art.
    This can take the form of instructed painting, paint parties, face-painting and more during events.
    Her mother, father and grandparents all hailed from Hillsboro.
    Her grandfather owned Bell's Bedding, located at 221 Sycamore Street. Before that however, he left Hillsboro on foot at age 15, with 50 cents in his pocket.
    He traveled north, eventually getting a job at Sealy Posturpedic. He gained sales, customer service and mattress design experience, utilizing that knowledge to return to Hillsboro and open Bell's Bedding.
    "There are still people who have the mattresses that my grandpa made," she says.
    "He used to say, 'Be your own. If you want something, work for it.'"
    He would rise at 4 or 5 a.m. to begin work in his shop behind the house.
    Bibles remembers she, her cousins and siblings answering the home phone with "Bell's Bedding!"
    She is the youngest of her brother and sister, all of whom helped with the family business as soon as they could talk.
    Her grandmother sewed, cut wood, and more to take care of whatever business needed on a daily basis.
    Her grandparents made sure they could all do something within the business.
    Bibles was taught to sew when she was young, cutting covers for the box springs she made.
    Her favorite painter is Georgia O'Keefe, but the first teacher that inspired her was Jann Sutton, who still works at Hillsboro Junior High School.
    "She took my gift and gave me knowledge," says Bibles.
    The school had a mentor program and Bibles remembers an artist, Lois Beene, that had a gallery in Hillsboro.
    Beene would do landscapes and portraits. She visited Hillsboro ISD and taught Bibles directly about oil painting.
    She completed her first oil painting in eighth grade and was invited to Beene's gallery.
    She moved from Hillsboro in 10th grade. Bibles says that she begged her parents not to move when they did.
    Waco High was nothing like Hillsboro. Nevertheless, Bibles continued to pursue her passion.
    She remembers the principal there when she attended, Mr. Jacobs, telling her, "'Little Bibles, don't let life pass you by."
    And that echoed in her head for years to come. She doesn't hear that anymore. Bibles hasn't heard it in a long time.
    When she first graduated high school, she focused on her children.
    She returned in 1997 to live for three years in Hillsboro. Her children attended Franklin Elementary during this time.
    She also reconnected with a significant other that she barely missed by transferring to Waco High.
    Bibles lives in Lacy Lakeview now, although is never far from Hillsboro.
    She remembers a painting class that she did at her cousin's baby shower, where she and her cousin kept rotating easels amongst a party of 40, barely having enough to keep the art going.
    Her cousin, an activity director at a nursing home, also brings Bibles over to volunteer.
    The two are people persons and are used to working together. They task manage to handle an entire room. Sometimes, the paint parties will be held with the face-painting sessions.
    "We'll pull double-duty," says Bibles. "I'll work on face painting while she sets up the party."
    Once patrons get comfortable, they can even hold their own parties or mentor other painters.
    "My grandfather was always big on customer service, so I've carried that on in my business," says Bibles.
    One of the aspects she gets complimented most on is the way the business caters to a room full of people.
    She and her cousin work the room, keeping eyes out for anyone that needs help or assistance, while trading off to continue to assist others when necessary.
    Her daughters help her work too, with face painting and more. She remembers doing face-painting during a Sanderson Farms' 5K run event.
    Bibles covered the first hour, her daughter handled the second so that she could paint at a comic book store event.
    Bibles is now consulted by other companies not only for her art expertise but also her presence.
    She worked the EOAC TSTC Head Start retreat recently, utilizing painting to team build and brainstorm cooperative strategies.
    Working with a room full of painters can be difficult. To loosen up the crowd, Bibles would say "Paint!" and the room would reply "Talk!"
    This helped painters stay on task while reminding them to enjoy the experience and have fun.    
    "I tried to make every experience like someone was coming over to my house [for a visit]," she says. " It's just awesome, the bonding. It's so therapeutic."
    She says that there were people who thought that they couldn't do certain things anymore due to physical disabilities.
    "On more than one occasion, I've had a client with a disability that believed they couldn't create anymore."
    She watched the revelation of possibility lighten their faces when they realized that this was not true.
    "When I started back in the nursing home...that's how I knew it was the definite direction that God wanted me to go in," she said.
    Sometimes, they would sit back and accept the idea that they could not participate.
    Then, when she would return to the facilities, they would be ready.
    "When they hold a big brush, it doesn't matter anymore," she says. "I bring out the artist in you."
    She's able to share positivity through her work. "Our responsibility as children of God is...you're my brother, my sister, so I should make you feel good when you're with me."
    Over 150 residents at that nursing home felt and continued to feel the positivity. "If you grin, I'm in," she smiles.
    She returned to her art and Artist N U came to fruition, bringing the joy of connecting to people and creating painted art into one focus.
    "Life has definitely changed. I may never be rich. I don't care about that. I already feel like I am," she says.
    Then, dropping to a near whisper, she says, "I'm so happy, so grateful."
Her art has been exhibited at Cultivate 712 and Creative Waco has spotlighted Bibles and her work several times.
    When she hosts these parties, part of the process is getting painters involved and to get them to let loose creatively.
    "I love bright colors that fill the entire canvas," she says.         She loves to paint family-oriented painting, up-close and emotionally intimate.
    Bibles designs stencils for work in painting that she makes by hand from her own designs.
    Today, she returns to Hillsboro to see family, friends and host paint parties at Wrangler's Cafe and Entertainment.
    Her paint parties have been ongoing for the last year. "My children, cousins and friends help me make Artist N-U successful," she says. Her only regret?
    "Not doing this sooner," she smiles.
Featured Writing

Hillsboro Mayor Edith Omberg To Retire After Eight Years

5/16/2019
By Arthur DeVitalis
    The year was 1993. The Hill County Courthouse was burning. David Karesh and company were under seige by the FBI in Waco.
    Hillsboro Mayor Edith Turner Omberg was dying at Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, as current events were described to her over the phone.
    Fresh from a round of chemo for leukemia, Omberg was often left with no blood or bone marrow count. Doctors said she that had a month to live.
    Her daughter dropped everything and asked the dean at Texas A&M in Bryan/College Station if she could take off for one semester in order to return to Hillsboro and be with her mother.
    It has been 26 years since that time. She recovered and continued working at HISD after about a year of intensive chemotherapy.
    "I held on for my family, my kids," she says.
    Her work in public service has included the Hill County Criminal Justice Council, Hillsboro United Way Board of Directors, Texas High Speed Rail Corporation Board of Directors and Vice Chair of Tex-21 Transit Task Force.
    Governor George W. Bush appointed Omberg onto the Grant Regional Review Committee for the Heart of Texas Council of Governments (HOTCOG). She was appointed to the HOTCOG Executive Committee Board and served as President in 2017.
    But before that, Omberg was born to a poor family of six that lived in Hillsboro. She is a native Texan and Hillsboro resident. She is the first woman in the history of the city to hold the mayor's seat.
    She is married to Max Omberg. She is the mother of three children and one grandchild.
    After-school life mainly consisted of her taking care of her siblings, two sisters and a brother.
    Omberg was in charge of the house and meals in her parent's absence.
    She went to school at three different schools in Hillsboro. Harris Elementary, junior high on Walnut Street and high school in the now boarded up building next intermediate school. She lived through
    She helped create Camp Rebel, a summer camp that worked "hand-in-hand" with Hill College that featured instructed classes of archery, cheer leading, ceramics, karate, fishing, blacksmithing, drama, canoeing and other topics kids suggested. The drama group would put on a play at the end of the camp.
    "I just taught whatever I had the patience to teach," she says. "It was just a good thing all the way around."
    The summer camp was for children aged five to 12. Grandparents loved it. There were four classes held a day.
    It started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., always beginning with the American flag's rise and the Pledge of Allegiance.
    The camp ended in the 90s, about when Omberg was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The nurses asked her if she was a TV personality at the hospital because she received more mail than the rest of the hospital combined.
    She remembers the celebration of the first cotton bales each season and the street dances that followed.
    She and her mother went to Waco with a $100 scholarship from Omberg's trumpet skills in band after high school graduation.
    They went to the 4C Business College and found that tuition was $35 per month for a six-month certification.
    She asked the dean there if it would be possible to complete the courses in less time.
    The dean said it was possible and that another student had completed the degree in four months.
    Omberg said, "If she can do it in four, I can do it in three." And she did.
    Upon graduation, Omberg applied for a job working for C. Stubblefield & Company which was located in the west portion of the courthouse square.
    "Two pay scales existed then. One was for women and one was for men," says Omberg.
    Women were considered more temporary in hire than men then.
    The Hillsboro State bank provided her permanent job. The building can still be seen in the Courthouse Square, although the bank has since closed. Frenkie's is located there now.
    She noted that the gap has lessened but still remains.             When she first started at the bank, she made $175 a month. If she had been a man, it would have been $250 a month, made a more significant gap today by inflation.
    She was called "a little girl" that interview and resented that. Looking back now, she says they were right. "I was so dumb, I was so green," she murmurs, lost in thought.
    She saw her boss sign a $100,000 check at that position, which was very impressive to the little girl at the time.
    She worked a series of administrative and clerical jobs.
    "Everything I've done in my life, everything I've received...I just got in there and worked," she says of perseverance through less than ideal circumstances.
    She was pregnant and worked throughout, bearing four children.
    Due to her children being born, she job-hopped when necessary for maternity.
    She went to work for Lone Star Gas company and started over, caring for her children throughout.
    Then, she left Hillsboro for the only time in her life. She and her husband moved to Hubbard in 1971.
    Omberg liked Hubbard, but her husband wanted to be back in Hillsboro. She mainly took care of the children during that period. They moved back after only living there for three years.
    She worked for 25 years for Hillsboro ISD as an administrator, retiring in 2000. She remembers that first interview for a teacher's aide position.
    The superintendent at the time asked her why she didn't tell how much she weighed on the application. She thought that was none of anyone's business.
    "If I have to put down how much I weigh, I'm not taking the job," she said. She told her husband when she got home and put the interview behind her.
    In less than a week, she received a call back from the administration office and she was hired in as an assistant superintendent's secretary.
    She had more responsibility than in previous position, juggling tasks between departments and superintendent. She ended up attending a teacher's conference at Texas A&M. Despite having never taught, she wrote on the board and began signing certificates for the rest of her working career.
    Of Hillsboro ISD, she says, "The school belongs to all of us." She helped organize a mechanical class to address basic car repair for women who had never been taught. Without phone calls encouraging her to take up a role in civic advocacy and eventually leadership, she may never have run for city council.
    "Art Mann was always 'Johnny on the spot' and kept asking, "Are you going to run again?" that January said Omberg. Dr. Erwin, the mayor at the time, said that he was planning on running again.
    A couple weeks later, Dr. Erwin made the decision to not run again under extenuating circumstances.   
    He stepped down and Omberg, being Mayor Pro-Tem, was next in line to take the seat.
    Finally, her husband Max asked her, "Do you want to do this?"
    She said she would only serve two terms. Next week, she's ending it on her fourth term.
    She served as the Precinct #2 seat from 2000 to 2011, becoming Mayor Pro Tem for years 2007, 2008 and 2010. She has also served on the Hill County Tax Appraisal District Board since 2000.
    She is secretary at her church, First Baptist Mertens.
    Her term will wrap up formally at the next city council meeting.
    A reception will be held Thursday, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The reception will be held at Historic City Hall. A presentation will begin at 5:15 p.m.
    Omberg's world nearly fell apart after her diagnosis. She got a second chance and continued to serve her community.
    Many argue about how women must make a choice between a career and motherhood. A testament to her own will and perseverance, Omberg did both at the same time. And did them well.

Hillsboro Photographer Captures Public’s Imagination, State Awards

By Arthur DeVitalis
3/21/2019
    Hillsboro resident Sheri Hemrick first started shooting photographs out of boredom.
    Before Tom Hemrick was the Hill County Emergency Services coordinator, he participated in go cart racing in Waco, then became the chief mechanic for a drag racing team then a drag boat racing team.
    Oftentimes, Sheri would be stuck for two or more hours while the races were ongoing.    
    She brought a camera to a rally to the shoot the race and the rest is history; Hemrick had the eye.
    She's shot photography professionally over the last 20 years. She dabbles in sports photography and still does some portrait work although emergency services photography is her expertise.
    "Photos are history," she says, citing the nature of moments in time as a big part of the reason why she continues to pursue the next shot.
    She's considered teaching others, but is not ready to quit her own pursuit. She's worked with other photographers in building their skills.
    When Hemrick attended a game for the Babe Ruth World Series League, she noticed a photographer was positioned behind the foul line where he could capture photos of each child swinging the bat.
    When the game was over, he returned to a portable building and proceeded to sell parents potraits of their children at the game. The line stretched far beyond his makeshift office
    Sheri starting taking pictures at youth baseball games to sell to parents.
    The transition to digital photography served Hemrick's photography better. She remembers taking a trip to Hawaii and hauling 10 rolls of film with her equipment. With 24 shots on a roll, this equated to 240 pictures total.
    The time for photo development and cost of the film rolls led to much more work in the process compared to working with digital. She prefers Photoshop for editing but utilizes other add-ons within the program.
    Today, Sheri is the official photographer for the Cameron Park Zoo and her work can be seen on the zoo's billboards. She can be found on-scene when disaster strikes and first responders rush to aid civilians.
    She has been published in Waco Today, the Wacoan, Texas Highways, Bosque Living, Connect, Connections, Texas DPS News, 1st Responder Magazine, multiple newspapers, the Yellow Book, Fort Worth Zoo News and of course, the Reporter Newspaper and the Lakelander.
    She is also the photographer for Lake Whitney State Park, Church on the Hill, Hillsboro Main Street and multiple fire departments. She graduated from the New York Institute of Photography in 2003.
    She loves shooting landscape, animals and fire. "Fire can be hard to get right," she says. The contrast of flames between fires at night and during the day can be difficult to capture.
    When asked if any family members have picked up the passion by proxy, she noted that she and her daughter used to go on photography trips together. In order to photograph bald eagles, day trips are often necessary.
    She doesn't think that cell phones will overtake Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR)cameras in terms of effectiveness and quality.
    According to Hemrick, "a professional needs to know their equipment and how to use it in all modes and situations."
    DSLRs have a big advantage in variability and picture quality, although cell phones typically work in a pinch.
    "The thing about social media and photography is that everyone wants a photo to post," she says. With a camera in every pocket, either every one is a photographer or no one is.
    One thing Hemrick has found beneficial in social media for her photography is the aggregation of potential clients.
    Networks like Facebook allow her to reach more people to sell canvas prints or reach out for contract work. Her work is featured on the Hillsboro Main Street site as well.
    Depending on what she is trying to capture, she can sink minutes into photography or in the case of the bald eagles, hours.
    She's shot indoors plenty of times but prefers outdoor shooting. She has a mobile studio setup if she is photographing people. The closest thing to the studio would be a section of her home.
    She recently entered and won first prize in the Texas Division of Emergency Management Conference 2018. Her photos also placed second, fourth and fifth at the conference. She plans to re-enter this year as the conference date nears next month.
    For more of Sheri's work, visit her Facebook or her corner at Overflow Coffee. Words don't do her work justice, although 1,000 at a time just may.    

Concealed Carry Comes To UT Austin Campus

8/3/2016
By Arthur DeVitalis
   Today marks 50 years since 16 lives and one fetus were taken in the mass shooting by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas. A new plaque acknowledges the loss of life in 1966, coinciding with the anniversary, dedication and start of concealed carry policy. Survivors from that day lament the University of Texas’ approval for concealed carry weapons on campus now.
Former graduates and present employees are uneasy at the prospect of increased gun presence. Current employee Diana Mendoza told Reuters “This could easily happen again. I am Texan born andraised and campus carry is ridiculous.”
Vice President of Campus Security & Safety notified the student and staff with bodies of guidelines that apply to legally carrying a weapon on campus.
      Open carry remains completely illegal on campus. Those with concealed permits will have to stow firearms prior to entering residence halls and other designated areas.  Concealed firearms must be holstered from the front of the barrel to cover the trigger, while owners must know the locations of weapon free areas. Accidentally discharging a firearm on campus by student or employee requires disciplinary action from the University.
      President Fenves maintains that the memorial and start of concealed carry were intended to be separate. In an email in January, he stated “I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date.” Recently, he acknowledged survivors and trauma that pervades from that day to now.  The new bill will be under watch and review to ensure concealed carriers comply with the following policies.
Firearms must be fully concealed with no exposed parts (including the butt or stock of the gun). It must be reachable at all times without shifting from present position (arms only) or moving toward the weapon. A gun can only be stored on private property like a car, although gun safes can be approved by Housing Services for age-legal concealed carriers who live on campus and in University Apartments. Safes must be made with a minimum of 16 gauge steel and have a high-powered lock design other than a key. Resident attendants and other campus groups that deal with minors will be required to leave their weapons securely locked in a safe or vehicle; never open areas. If a student or employee does not follow the guidelines for securing their firearm, this would be considered a breach of contract in housing or employment. Public areas like dining halls and lounges would be accessible to concealed carriers. License holders on staff are responsible for maintaining this policy with residents. Events involving alcohol sales, sports events, and field trips to Pre-K-12 schools, formal UT hearings and mental or physical patient care areas will remain firearm free.

Hillsboro Band Director Retires After 22 Years

5/2/2019
By Arthur DeVitalis
    Over the last 40 years, Glenn Doyle has played in major symphony orchestras across Texas in addition to teaching scores of aspiring musicians in band.
    Doyle has been teaching at Hillsboro ISD for 22 years, working through all phases of the music education process in the Hillsboro District.
    Doyle started out playing piano when he was six years old. From there, he moved to French Horn when he was ten years old.
    He received his music education degree from Baylor University. He played professionally for about 30 years. He was Lead Horn for the Temple Symphony Orchestra as Principal Horn for 23 years, played with the Waco Symphony Orchestra and the San Angelo Symphonic Orchestra. He's played Carnegie Hall in New York City, Tokyo, Japan and many more.
    He brought over 10 musicals to the Hillsboro Intermediate School over the course of 10 years. His favorite number? "The Music Man," he says with a smile.
    More than any trophy or plaque, Doyle is overwhelmed by good memories through music.
    "I knew Hillsboro was going to be home for me for the next 22 years. It all started with the performance of a group of kids who were struggling with music inititially."
    The group and Doyle received two standing ovations that night. He still remembers the energy of that.
    Seeing the kids' parents give them flowers onstage, taking a bow and being received well is what kept Doyle at Hillsboro throughout the years.
    He remembers the high school band marching down South Congress in Austin during the inaugural ceremony of then-governor George W. Bush in 1998.
    "Marching down that street, with people waving flags and cheering...it was a moment that was surreal," he says.
    Doyle also remembers the concert where it clicked. The band played at Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas for a competition in 2016, the biggest venue the band has played to date.
    "I said to the group, play one note all together and then listen," he said. The band received the Best in Class Award at that concert.
    The resonance of fine acoustics returned the sounds.
    "How many of you play baseball," he asked his students before the concert. Collective hands filled the air. He likened the performance hall to Yankee Stadium in comparison with music.
    The band took the Best in Class award that day.
    Through Doyle's time at Hillsboro ISD, either the high school or junior high band has received First in Division honors at least once per school year.
    "The challenge is finding music that your kids are going to both learn things from and enjoy playing." Both have to click equally in order to connect with students.
    Many years, he's had 90 to 100 beginners that he has had to train.
    "Another big challenge is making sure that every child gets the best music education they possibly can get from me. I want kids to have a better appreciation and understanding for music."
    He's lost count of how many students have gone on to become band directors or performing artists themselves.
    Former students come up to him talking about favorite pieces that they learned in the classroom.
    His favorite genre of music has to be classical, since he's spent the majority of his life focused on teaching and listening to it. His wife is a jazz musician.
    The school presented a final plaque for Doyle's service Thursday, April 25.
    One group has received First Division ratings in an area of music each year.
    "The kids, they listen to it. Part of my approach has been to give them a better understanding of the music that they like and new things that they can take with them the rest of their lives," says Doyle. "I want the kids to have a better appreciation for music."
    In terms of teaching, Doyle has always focused on personal musicianship as well as playing in an ensemble.
    For musical theory, Doyle doesn't teach by the book chord structure, but tries to focus on specific notes within structures to help students understand why certain notes resonate (thirds, fifths, root notes).
    If students can understand why pitch is important in playing together and identify the dissonance, finding note consonance is easy.
    He can do a little more of theoretical practice with advanced students in high school. Major, minors and the modes in between are also focused upon. Time signature is something that Doyle works intensively with each student.
    Recently, Hillsboro Junior High qualified for the Sweepstakes competition for the first time in 30 years.
    Sweepstakes consists of two contests in one. Students take the stage and play three songs. From there, the band director has seven minutes to prep the band from one stage to another band hall.
    The students are required to listen to their instructor without playing music, then head to the hall and sight read for a more impromptu performance in front of three more judges. The students received a perfect score of one for the performances.
    Thursday, April 25, was Doyle's last junior high concert. He will take the stage as conductor one more time for the Reunion Concert. The location for the final collaborative concert will be determined.
    Doyle is hard at work organizing the Hillsboro Reunion Concert, which will bring current students, ex-students and music educators together to play. The concert is slated for Monday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. Potential attendees are asked to RSVP by calling the school or emailing doyle@hillsboroisd.org.
    In addition to directing the band, Doyle has served as minister of music at First Presbyterian Church and at First Baptist Covington.
    He has released two CDs in which he composed and contributed instrumentals to entirely. He has also been featured on tape for the Temple Symphony Orchestra.
    He plans to continue teaching private lessons and tuning pianos in retirement.    
    Doyle's contribution to the music program and individual students won't be forgotten by those he taught over the years but the band will play on.



Local winery provides sustainable spirits

Bosque River Run Fall Magazine
By Arthur DeVitalis
    Sustainable new and generations-old techniques make Red Caboose Winery unique in approach to its wine production. All varieties produced are low in sulfite content and are made from estate-grown grapes in the old world tradition of winemaking.
    The red wines are never filtered. The winery uses American white oak barrels to age vinifera up to 36 months before bottling and cellaring.
    The winery takes its namesake from the red caboose that owner Gary McKibben bought and moved to the property. His son, Evan, manages and operates the facility. The father son-duo has managed the winery since 2003 (fact-check this).
    Geothermal systems are not considered renewable alone because they do use electricity. They do work with nature to provide heating and cooling elements.
    Electricity provided by solar or wind power would make the system renewable, as Red Caboose Winery is set up. By utilizing photovoltaics on its roof, the winery caaollects electricity to be reused.   
    That energy is transferred to the geothermal system. The advantage lies in the efficiency between moving hot or cool air through floors per electric unit.
    Ground and soil type can be factors in effectiveness of the ground loop, which disperses heat or cold back into the ground surrounding the system.
    In the winter, heat is absorbed by the solution as it circulates through the warmer earth. Summer brings the hot solution that cools in the ground below the aboveground air system.

A water-to-water or water-to-air heat pump is crucial to the process, before transferring through a typical duct system or water heater.     
    This split-transfer system requires separate cold and hot exchanges, relative to water and air, to function.   
Maintenance is minimal with geothermal systems, although installation is critical. The loop, which is typically buried under a lot leading horizontally or vertically to an existing structure, can last for generations or decades.
    The pump, air filter and heating coil are typically housed above ground, and serve as the main sources of periodic maintenance. Pipes belowground should be checked regularly, although proper installation
prevents future problems, barring seismic activity.
    In states like Texas, geothermal heat pumps are not widespread due to rocky land. This also applies to homes located in the vicinity of mountain ranges. System configurations are based on soil type and depth to work with, in which certain configurations can accommodate some rock.
    Soil and heat conductivity determine the cost effectiveness of the system. Soils with higher thermal transfer rates will run more efficiently with less pipes necessary. Dense or loamy clay soils are most efficient.
    A well-water configuration uses the same principles but pulls cool water from a deep-bore line into an aquifer. The water is cycled through the system and returned without any chemical changes.
    McKibben has a total of 32 wells that contribute to keeping the wine cooled.
    The winery also uses rainwater for irrigation and natural shading to cool the building. Rock from the winery’s location was also used to create the structure. 
    The venue also offers Corks and Forks each year. The winery becomes an original music venue Saturdays at mid-month and during the last weekend of each month. The concert series starts in March and ends in October, with each show lasting from 7 to 10 p.m. The DW Blues Band will play Saturday, October 12, while the Lucas Bros. Band will take the stage Saturday, October 26.















    

Hill Rural Transit Reports 6,557 Rides In 2018

2/14/2019
By Arthur DeVitalis
   The Heart of Texas Rural Transit District (HOTRTD) is one of 39 Rural Transit Districts designated by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT).
    HOTRTD provides demand response transportation to the general public, including transportation for seniors age 65 and older, and to the disabled of any age. Service is primarily provided using a fleet of 28 HOTCOG owned vans and small buses.    
    The shared ride services is considered “origin to destination,” meaning the vehicle stops at the passenger’s address instead of the passenger going to a pick-up location. Multiple riders may be on the vehicle.
    Transportation is provided Monday through Friday in Hill, Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Limestone and McLennan counties.
    The local rural transit system of vehicles, based out of the Hill County Annex's Covington Street parking lot, provided 6,557 rides to 185 passengers in 2018.
    Trip data was organized by both city of origin and destinations. Some trips started in Hill County and ended in either McLennan or Ellis, while others stayed in the county for the duration of the trip. Smaller townships saw less frequency of travel than cities such as Hillsboro, Itasca, Hubbard, Whitney and Waco.
    About 2,240 passengers were transported to Hillsboro while trips typically originated from all over Hill County and Waco.
    Travelers to Waco from Hill County locations were second at 1,778 rides. Itasca rides totaled 1,058 times as the destination of choice, with the majority of travelers originating in Waco then Hillsboro.
    Whitney saw 671 rides, with riders most commonly coming from Hillsboro.
    Hubbard had 276 rides with most riders coming from either Waco or Hillsboro.
    Rural transit vehicles traveled to Mount Calm 182 times, with most passengers hailing from Waco and Hewitt.
    Other communities such as Bynum, Carl's Corner, Blum, Milford, Abbott and more had rides between one to 100 trips.
    Rural public transportation systems serve communities outside of urban areas.
    Types of rural public transportation include demand–response public transportation (dial-a-ride), traditional and deviated fixed route services (e.g., shuttles, circulators), vanpool or reimbursement programs.
    Hill County Rural Transit is of the demand-response public transportation variety. While the service is named for the county it is based out of, the shuttles do cross county lines.
    The need for rural public transportation has historically been linked with providing mobility and accessibility to essential employment, goods, and services for older adults, persons with disabilities, low-income individuals and others. In reviewing data from 2000 to 2005, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) found that nearly nine percent of public transportation trips were for medical purposes in areas with populations less than 200,000. Access to medical care is a crucial service of rural transit.
    State and federal grants fund the program, in addition to TXDOT. The Formula Grants for Rural Areas program provides capital, planning, and operating assistance to states and federally recognized Indian tribes to support public transportation in rural areas with populations less than 50,000.
    Formula grants for rural areas (section 5311) and Enhanced Mobility of Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities (section 5310) cover the cost of rural public transit in Hill County.
    Anyone can use the rural transit service in Hill County by calling 254-292-1873.


Junior High Pupils, Teacher Plan DC Trip

12/20/2018
By Arthur DeVitalis
    Social studies teacher Ray Long and eighth-grade students from Hillsboro Junior High have cemented plans to travel to Washington, D.C. in June 2019.
    "I am excited to go on the trip because I feel like I'm going to learn a lot," said one eighth grader, Hayleigh Arellano. "I also feel like this is going to be a great experience."
    The trip will last a total of four days and include real-life experiences to learn about the day-to-day operations of democracy in the United States.
    This is part of the eighth graders' American History studies. Twelve eighth graders are taking part in this trip, with a total of 15 attending.
    Long thinks that travel and getting out of the area to see a new place is an invaluable life experience.
    Destinations include the Capitol building with the Rotunda, and House and Senate chambers where congress meets.
    Students plan to visit the White House, home to the executive branch of the U.S. government.
    The group will visit the Lincoln Memorial and read the Gettysburg Address.
    Students will have a chance to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during their visit to the Arlington National Cemetery.
    Destinations like the Eternal Flame at former President JFK's gravesite and the Challenger Memorial will be visited as tributes to the country's past history and an educational opportunity for HISD eighth graders.
    The Smithsonian Museum, located on the Mall in D.C., will be the final stop in major Washington landmarks. This includes the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History. Students will also visit Mount Vernon.
    The stops mentioned above are only a small part of a bigger outline of educational destinations. More destination plans will become available as the trip date nears in June 2019. Long says that the final schedule will be non-stop, packed with activities.
    Part of the idea behind the trip, said Long, is that the students' travel will help encourage further education on their own as adults. Eighth graders will also be tested on American history for the STAAR examination.
    The group will travel via WorldStrides, a company focused on itinerary and safety as an educational travel agency.
    The company will assist with services like chaperones and transportation to be provided for the duration of the trip. An on-call doctor will be available for the travels.
    Long says that he talked about WorldStrides and educational travel with a teacher in Killeen who has used the agency. Long did this to ensure that WorldStrides provides reliable services from a local school source.
    Trips have the option to provide educational credits for the experience. They can take concurrent online course with their travels or receive high school credit if enrolled in sixth through 12th grades.
    Long also says that parents and their children enrolled at HISD in seventh, ninth and other grades have been chomping at the bit to get involved in the next D.C. trip.
    Two parents have volunteered for the next trip, although no plans for the following year have been considered as of yet.
    Long says that keeping the group relatively small for the first year of the trip is important to ensuring everything is executed properly.
    "This is such an amazing educational experience for our kids," said one parent, Brooke Sealy. "How exciting for them to see all the history they've been learning in person."
    Each student is required to garner $2,000 in order to take the trip. Students have focused on fundraising activities with some success, and are now seeking parents or local businesses as sponsors.
    "That depends on what the school administrators say next year," he said, although support for the trip has been positive from the school officials and the community.
    Long is currently asking anyone interested in supporting the trip or students to be a financial sponsor. Specific students and portions of the trip are available for sponsorship.
    Contributions may be sent to Hillsboro Junior High - Washington D.C. Trip, 210 East Walnut Street, Hillsboro, TX 76645.

Lower Overdose Rates Reported In Hill County

3/7/2019
    Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder (OUD).
By Arthur DeVitalis
    The Opioid Crisis swept through America as early as the mid-1990s, according to an increase in overdoses as documented by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The crisis came in three waves, with the second in 2010 and the third part in 2013 to present day. 
    According to NIDA and the National Institue of Health (NIH), about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids. Opioid overdoses increased 30 percent from July 2016 through September 2017 in 52 areas in 45 states.
    The Midwest region saw opioid overdoses increase 70 percent from July 2016 through September 2017. Opioid overdoses in large cities increased by 54 percent in 16 states. Hillsboro and other smaller communities have seen overdose rates drop and stay consistently low.
    Subsequently, the use of naxolone in response has corresponded. It should be noted that this trend is not true for all rural cities, as some rural populations have been ravaged by overdose deaths.
    According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), an estimated 40% of opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid.
    Narcan, known by the generic drug name naxolone, has been heralded as a lifesaving drug. The drug works by blocking opioid receptors in the brain, which effectively stops a person from overdosing temporarily.
    HHS statistics say that roughly 130 opioid overdoses occur in the U.S. every day. Non-profit groups have started distributing clean needles and Naxolone to homeless populations in an effort to curb the overdose death rate.
    Data from CareFlite first responders on the total usage and reasoning indicates that the frequency in the use of Naxolone has remained consistently low in Hill County since 2016. Data from before that period is difficult to track due to transitions between computer hardware and software.
    In 2016, 2,815 total medical calls occurred. Naxolone was administered 20 times with five administrations with overdose as the primary impression.
    A total of 3,159 responses and 14 administrations occurred in 2017. Two administrations of naxolone were given in with overdose as the primary impression in 2017.
    2018 saw 3,190 total responses by EMTs with 17 total administrations of naxolone. Two of those 17 administrations were given with an overdose as the primary impression by medical professionals.
    Hill County sits well below the national average for opioid-related overdoses. At best, the number of administrations in recent years remains low compared to the total population, estimated at 35,852 in 2017.
    Overdoses can occur due to the use of illegal drugs such as heroin but over taking presciption medications is known to make patients comatose as well.    
    Prescription opiates are derived from the same plant as heroin, the opium poppy, although synthetic (and more potent) opioids like Fentanyl have sent overdose rates skyrocketing across the county.
    Opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016 in the US, more than any previous year on record by the HHS record.
    Addressing heroin addiction is only half the battle. The statistics suggest that prescription opioid medications are a gateway factor in opioid abuse and addiction.
    The recent increase of diagnoses of Opioid Use Disorder suggests that doctors and patients should try alternative medications without the risk of addiction.


The Ambassador of Intercultural Intellectualism

MARCH 30, 2016
By Arthur DeVitalis
        “I was always a translator,” Tony Diaz says about being an English-Spanish bilingual kid in Chicago. “Now, we’re translating for companies and our culture.”
        It was April 22, 1998 and a gathering over Latino literature is close to starting in Houston, Texas, at Chapultepec Restaurant. Diaz tries to get more chairs. “Ehhh, we’ve kinda done this thing before in the ‘80’s,” the manager protests. “There just aren’t a lot of people into the Chicano book thing.” Diaz shakes his head at the 8 chairs provided on the floor. In thirty minutes, over 100 people fill the establishment.
        In 2001, Diaz takes the group named Nuestra Palabra (Our Words) to 90.1 KPFT Houston, hosting Latino writers and their say on literature of all types. Now, it‘s his fourth show in and two of Diaz’s guests just called to cancel their seats. He frantically calls more: a Latino author could do a live book read or another can recite a poem in French about her Chicana heritage. Diaz fills the hour last minute, although connecting others through intellectual discussion becomes his forte. After months, the demand from writers becomes so high that Nuestra Palabra books guests several weeks in advance.
        A year later, Diaz’s heart races behind the desk of an executive broker from Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. His final signature is scrawled at the end of a thick paper pile, making the 2002 Latino Book and Family Festival a reality.  “He walks me to convention Hall A. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen 20,000 square feet of empty space before…” Diaz asks. “I walk in and was like, ‘I’ve gotta fill this thing.’”
        The audience’s chatter echoes in the expanse until the host takes the podium, pausing for brief silence. “Once you start taking away the literature of a people,” he begins, filling the half-empty convention center with sheer tenacity. “You take away their identity.” The voice speaks rhetorical absolutes over a celebratory crowd gone solemn. The steadfast belief in using education to unify different cultures empowers the audience. They are a part of Diaz’s story. He steps off the podium, ushering in the first lecturer. More people are fill, although the orchestrators charisma is notably absent until he calls another author.
        Diaz emcees with starry eyes as seats fill to watch lecturers like Edward James Olmos and Cheech Marin; the “cultural capital” of the Hispanic community sold out the convention center. “That book fair was 15,000 people, for Latinos,” he emphasizes. To Diaz, “cultural capital” is the perceived value of cultural identity and the core motivator for Latinos acting on these issues.
        Eight years pass and the immigration reform winds down. At midnight on Dec. 31st, 2010, the Arizona State legislature’s House Bill 2281 went into effect. Books covering topics of race, ethnicity, sexual content, and those that “promote the overthrow of the United States government” were banned in public school curriculums and libraries. Diaz speaks of weeks after the ban, mentioning school officials that “walked into classrooms and started boxing up books…in front of the students too.”
        People were angry. This was more than the fear of deportation, xenophobia, or violation of citizen’s rights. The state was weeding out institutions of cultural identity and heritage from their roots; the Mexican American humanities. Nicole Cruz documents stories of Latino veterans and protest organizers in the VOCES Oral History Project for reference and recreation. “There is a need for the historical and cultural recognition of the [Hispanic] community’s contributions in U.S. society instead of just assimilation,” Cruz believes, calling to mind breakfast tacos’ popularity or Cinco de Mayo’s alcohol-oriented focus. Diaz fights for this recognition and “anti-intellectualism” that he believes are becoming more ingrained in society. In modern America, smart technology, political rhetoric, and apathy contribute to the “pro-intellectualism” he fights for. Decreasing attention spans in the last decade complement complacency toward socio-political identity, individual impact on government, and cultural self-worth. “Some apathy existed in Latinos on the immigration debate because of politicians’ political sleight of hand, disconnected or conflicting Hispanic identity, and immigrants’ inability to fight actively without risking deportation,” thinks Chris Cantu, a University of Texas at Austin graduate in International Relations. This contributed to larger uproar sparked by Arizona’s book ruling. Until House Bill 2218 Arizona had mandated Mexican-American Studies in the public curriculum, with studies showing that MAS implementation doubled graduation rates and statewide testing scores by over 50 percent for lower-performing students. When Diaz heard the news, he called four close friends, his Nuestra Palabra crew. Librotraficante was born.
        In early 2011, Diaz got behind the wheel of a van filled with the exact books that Arizona banned. A couple of titles like “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros and “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” by Richard Delgado peeked out the tops of boxes. The books shuffled slightly before reaching their home in Tucson, in a nonprofit underground library that promoted the works by word of mouth in the Latin community  particularly via schools. Diaz’s libraries popped up as shelves filled, and groups like MAS Texas appeared to bridge the gap between long legal battle mandating MAS and Ethnic studies’ presence today in the classroom in Texas. On October 23 2013, the ban on MAS in curricula was reversed by the Tucson Unified School District, who faced a $14 million budget cut from the Supreme court if it wasn’t mandated. While MAS has been reincorporated in the classroom, 81 books are still banned in public school libraries
        Phones blew up with book donations, drivers, and people wanting to start their own libraries. “A lot of people sent in books in Spanish and we had to reject them,” says Diaz. “They’re great, but that’s not what we’re doing here. The students are citizens who speak English.” A newfound importance in building Latino identity through literature by the youth emerged. As Diaz got national attention in news media, inspired students became intellectual activists. The Mexican American Studies (MAS) and overarching Latino movement were in motion.
        In April 2013, the Texas State Board of education (SBOE) approved bipartisan Proclamation 2016, which scheduled the use of Mexican American, African American, Asian American, and Native American Studies materials in statewide classrooms by November 2015. On Aug. 6, 2014, Governor Rick Perry approved a bill that gave $144 million to send the National Guard to the Texas/Mexico border for illegal immigration. That same week, the SBOE voted against mandating MAS in Texas schools while citing overwhelming “textbook expenses” as justification. The SBOE pushed the mandate to 2016 and Diaz was tired of waiting for legal results. He created the group MAS Texas to offer a 6-hour course for teachers to incorporate MAS into public classrooms on a personal level. Instructors receive materials and a curriculum plan that allow teaching MAS alongside required Texas history. Diaz first gave it a 2014 trial run at schools in Houston. Now, the group vows to implement MAS in 200 schools by the end of 2016. MAS Texas works with Librotraficante to expand the base of Hispanics interested in greater cultural education.]
        Today, Diaz sits before me in perpetual animation over coffee and stimulating conversation. A clean-cut 48-year-old in a dark teal polo and black pants, Diaz’s appearance and enthusiasm reflect someone half his age. His presence fills the coffee shop, commanding knowledge relayed at lightning fast speeds but not domineering; a powerful charismatic force that knows its exact strength. “I grew up in Southside Chicago, where [Latino] men in the neighborhood would go door to door. They’d say, “Hey Tone! Want to grab a burger? Want to Vote?” Diaz reminisces. “They made sure you at least voted, then discussed interests of the neighborhood.” Diaz applied the same genuine interest in people that allowed Latinos to sway Chicago elections to MAS, although it took more effort to rally Texans in the beginning. As soon as I mention the widespread Hispanic pride movement that seems to be prevalent, his focused expression turns to enigmatic, inspired smile. This is his work, the work of a people, and work reminiscent of extinct tradition barely kept hanging alive: Storytelling. Both Nuestra Palabra’s congregation and commentary are the campfire, drawing people to the warm light of companionate wisdom.  “20 years ago, to think there would be a Mexican American Studies Day in Texas was unheard of,” he says.
        But that’s exactly what happens. Diaz works with Senators Sylvia Garcia and José Rodríguez to push a resolution through the Texas Legislature. The Senators successfully approve Senate Resolution 626 a week before May 2015. On May 1stLibrotraficante, MAS Texas, and student groups gather on the steps of the Texas Capitol. They wait for the announcement to designate May 1st as Mexican American Studies Day.
        San Antonio native Gyles Sonier describes MAS Day’s significance with “It’s appropriate, but not appropriat-ing. It’s nice to offer a new horizon to someone who wouldn’t have been introduced otherwise and celebrates those who already study Mexican American culture.” Although maybe only nominally significant, the acknowledgement through MAS Day reflects hope in the outcome of the ongoing battle that Diaz and others still face. For today, the announcement suffices as cheers and hands go up. Diaz is patted on the back and smiles abound.
        While some argue that legislative success with massive organized rally is impossible, Diaz counters. “Protests don’t pop up overnight. It takes so much time, charisma, and nerve to put something like Librotraficante together.” Diaz started as a professor at Lone Star College in Houston. Before Nuestra Palabra and Librotraficante, Diaz’s ongoing creative writing class was practice ground for debate, encouragement and intellectual stimulation that would become these groups. When members worried about finding guests in the early days, he’d say, “You want writers? We have a surplus of writers. I’ll make some writers before we run out.” Promising student and academic writers filled the literary playbill until reputation preceded the movements. We went from our little book-reading series where Latinos are saying “I don’t think there’s an audience” to hundreds of people that first night,” Diaz laughs. He still uses Nuestra Palabra and Librotraficante today as a voice for bestselling writers and green authors alike.
        After an hour, the rally at the capitol is almost over. A bigger rally celebrating MAS day is about to happen in Houston. Before leaving, Diaz offers this: “Today is the best time to be Mexican American, Latino, whatever you want to call it…We’ve got the power; the social media, the people, the cultural capital to change the country.” Diaz started as a bilingual translator. Today, he is closer to an intercultural ambassador of intellectualism in practice and thought. He shuts the car door, waving, as a permeable aura is absent once again.




 

Mark