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President George W. Bush to speak in Longview in December to kick off new East Texas series

Former President George W. Bush is set to speak in Longview in December as the inaugural program in a regional speaker series being launched by the News-Journal and other leading institutions across East Texas.

The East Texas Speakers Forum, a new nonprofit organization, will present “An Evening with President George W. Bush” on Dec. 3 at the Belcher Center at LeTourneau University.

Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday through the Belcher Center box office. Seat prices are $65 and $100. For more information or to buy tickets, visit belchercenter.com and click “tickets,” call (903) 233-3080 or go to the box office.

“We were inspired by enthusiasm in our communities after other recent speaker events, by hearing President Bush at another Texas fundraiser, and especially by the possibility of furthering a sense of regionalism and encouraging East Texas communities and organizations to pull together on this project,” said Ric Brack, president of the Speakers Forum.

Representatives of presenting sponsors Christus Health, LeTourneau University, Longview News-Journal, Texas Bank and Trust, Tyler Morning Telegraph and the University of Texas at Tyler have been working on the project since early this year.

According to a mission statement developed by the regional partners, other goals include increasing civic engagement and community education by “providing a platform for interesting people to talk about topics that inspire, challenge and concern our communities.”

Bush, who served as the 43rd president of the United States from 2001 to 2009 and was the 46th governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, will share stories from his life in business and politics in a Q-and-A format.

The board-led nonprofit has commitments of financial support from individuals and corporations across East Texas and fundraising efforts are under way, said Sam Forester, a founding director of the Speakers Forum.

“Our initial focus is to gain participation from Gregg, Harrison, Panola, Rusk, Smith, Titus and Upshur counties, which will include fundraising and future events in all these counties,” he said, adding that state and local officials also are pledging support. Future efforts would include other East Texas communities.

Forester said that any individual or business interested in being a founding sponsor may contact the Speakers Forum via email to info@etxsf.com or by calling (903) 237-7755.

Along with Forester and Brack, who is editor of the News-Journal, other founding directors are: Mary Elizabeth Jackson, vice president, government affairs at Christus Health; Cynthia Hellen, senior director of the Belcher Center at LeTourneau University; Jennifer Harris, senior vice president at Texas Bank and Trust; Gai Bennett, director of events at Tyler Morning Telegraph; Laura Jackson, assistant vice president at The University of Texas at Tyler, and Amy McHaney of News-Journal parent company M. Roberts Media.

Visit easttexasspeakersforum.com for more information.


Local
Family of woman formerly known only as Lavender Doe shows appreciation to Longview 'family'

Siblings of a woman whose identity was unknown for more than a dozen years after her body was found in Gregg County said Saturday that her remains will stay here “because she is part of Longview’s family.”

“It means so much to us that so many people took her and embraced her before she knew who she was,” Amanda Gadd, sister of Dana Lynn Dodd, said during a memorial service at White Cemetery.

Dodd was known for years only as Lavender Doe, and her cemetery marker identified her as “Jane Doe” along with the date she was buried — Dec. 23, 2006.

A new stone was placed at Dodd’s grave Friday, which would have been her 34th birthday.

Dodd was 21 when last seen on parking lot video at the Walmart on Fourth Street in Longview. It took 12 years for that image to be confirmed as Dodd, whose identity was a mystery when her body was found facedown on a burning woodpile in October 2006 by two men on an oil lease off Fritz Swanson Road.

Through those years, Dodd’s family didn’t know what had become of their baby sister, who left her Duval County, Florida, home in 2000 with a boyfriend. Starting in 2003, family members began filing missing persons reports in multiple states knowing only that Dodd had gone to Ohio.

After learning of her fate almost a year ago, Dodd’s family also came to know of the outpouring of love and support shown by East Texans — including flowers placed graveside.

“For us to know that somebody took the time out of their day to come and care for her, put flowers on her grave and say, ‘Hey, we don’t know who you are but we care for you,’ that was our definitive decision of why Dana needed to be here,” Gadd said, “because she is part of Longview’s family, and she is part of so many people in this town and in Texas that we decided this is where she belongs.

“We can come here and visit her,” Gadd added. “We didn’t want to take her away from y’all.”

Gregg County sheriff’s Lt. Eddie Hope, a longtime investigator in the case who was among several sheriff’s officers at Saturday’s service, said the family’s decision is touching.

“It touched my heart to know that they would leave her with us and not take her home where she came from,” Hope said, “so it’s very humbling.”

Family members also placed a metal golden-and-black owl at Dodd’s grave.

“Owls to me are always keeping watch,” Gadd said. “They’re always there as a protector.”

The family learned Dodd’s fate in October when the California-based DNA Doe Project notified Gadd and her brother, John Dodd, that the sister with whom they share a father might be Lavender Doe, identity unknown.

John Dodd said that spending this past week talking with investigators and holding the memorial service brought the family closure.

“Talking to the detective, he’s told me some things that, you know — you hear things out in the media that’s not all true,” he said, “but coming here and face-to-face talking with detectives, it made me get closure big time.”

Joining the family in Longview were John Dodd’s son, Cameron, and Gadd’s husband, Joel Gadd.

Dana Dodd was 12 when she came from Arizona to live with Amanda Gadd and her husband, and she immediately became part of the family, bringing an open, laughing spirit that loved to travel, go to parks or play cards or football in the front yard with her nephews, her sister said.

She also spent time teaching math to the Gadds’ son, who was a first-grader at the time.

“We always sat down at the dinner table, and she loved that we always asked, ‘How was your day?’ She looked forward to that, and she told me that she looked forward to that time as family because she never had that living in Arizona, so that meant a lot to her – was family,” Amanda Gadd said. “That’s also why it’s such a big thing for her to be (in Longview) with...”

“True family,” John Dodd said to complete her sentence.

The siblings plan to return to Texas to attend the murder trial of Joseph Wayne Burnette, whom authorities say confessed to killing Dodd and Felisha Pearson.

The 28-year-old Pearson was found slain in July 2018 in Gregg County, and Burnette has been jailed since on $2.5 million bond. He is under indictment for the deaths of both women, along with a charge of failing to register as a sex offender. That last charge led Gregg County authorities to Burnette and was the subject of the warrant for his arrest.

A representative of the Gregg County District Attorney’s Office also attended Saturday’s graveside service.

“It’s an honor to be here with them,” Hope said, “to see that Dana did get her name badge, and that’s something we worked for.”

Unlike most cases, investigators worked backward to learn their victim’s identity after learning who “the bad guy” was, Hope said.

The family’s graciousness has helped in what is now the prosecution stage of the case.

“They were easy to get in touch with. They were going through a time with a personal family matter when we first contacted them, and we were able to lay back to give them a little time to put the closure on that before we delved in to another family member,” Hope said. “They’ve been nothing but gracious, and thankfulness goes out to them.”

The family paid their appreciation Saturday to law enforcement and East Texas.

“That’s why we chose to leave her here,” Gadd said, “because we feel that she’s part of y’all, and we’re so eternally grateful that you have been here and done this and fought hard to get her name back, and I know that she knows that we’re here and that she was never forgotten.”

“Thank you,” John Dodd added. “Just, thank you.”


Local
Tatum ISD parents say hair rules in dress code discriminate

Editor's note: This story has been corrected.

Parents at Tatum ISD are fighting a dress code they say is racially discriminatory.

Kambry Cox, whose son Kellan is in kindergarten, said the district’s hair guidelines, which are part of the dress code, discriminate against black boys.

According to the Tatum ISD dress code posted online, “student’s hair shall be clean and well groomed at all times and shall not obstruct vision. No extreme style or color (neon,etc…) Only natural hair color shall be allowed. No symbols, letters, or extreme designs cut in the hair shall be permitted. No ponytails, ducktails, rat-tails, male bun or puffballs shall be allowed on male students. All male hair of any type shall not extend below the top of a t-shirt collar, as it lays naturally.”

Cox said the styles prohibited, such as “puffballs,” are ways that black children specifically wear their hair.

“That’s saying black kids cannot wear their hair up period, because I’ve never seen a white kid have puffballs,” she said. “(Not obstructing vision) becomes a problem for me because my son has dreadlocks, and they kind of fall in his eyes, so sometimes we might do a ponytail or a braid. But that’s a problem also because it states they can’t have man buns or ponytails.”

Cox said her son wanted to grow his hair out and wear dreadlocks, and letting children decide how to wear their hair helps their self esteem.

Black people developed ways to wear their hair to fit European beauty standards decades ago, Cox said, adding that the dress code at Tatum ISD feels like it is going back to that.

Edwina “Randi” Woodley has legal custody of her grandson, Michael Trimble, 4, who is in Tatum ISD’s Head Start program.

Woodley said she was called to the principal’s office during a meet the teacher event before school started where she was told to either cut her grandson’s hair or braid it and pin it up.

She then met with Superintendent J.P. Richardson, who Woodley said told her if she was so passionate about her grandson wearing his natural hair that he could put on a dress and say he is a girl because transgender students are protected by the law.

Attempts to contact district officials for comment were unsuccessful.

The News-Journal reached out to school board members, who referred question to board President Matt Crawford.

Crawford said Richardson speaks to media on behalf of the district. Tatum Primary Principal Tamara Fite also referred question to Richardson.

Richardson declined to speak with the News-Journal.

After a Facebook post started receiving attention, Woodley said a woman named Rachel Raye asked if she could start a petition for her and Trimble, which had almost 3,200 signatures as of Saturday evening.

“I didn’t know it was going to get as big as it’s gotten,” Woodley said.

The petition, which is on change.org, is called “The Civil Rights Violation of a Four Year Old African-American Tatum, Texas Boy.” The final call to action in the petition is to “tell Tatum, Texas we will not be bullied into cutting his hair.”

Woodley said she has been in conversation with the New Order National Human Rights Organization on the issue.

The group is a nonprofit organization in Marietta, Georgia, dedicated to helping people who have experienced civil rights violations, according to its website.

The organization sent a letter to the district this past week requesting a meeting with the superintendent and school board, said founding CEO Gerald Rose.

“We believe a conversation can remedy the misconception of a disruptive hairstyle and henceforth help change policy,” the letter said. “We would also like to get an understanding and have defined what exactly is a disruptive hairstyle.”

Rose said he is concerned about the climate in the school district.

“I will travel to Texas to fight for this issue,” he said. “It seems like they’re ignoring the issue.”

An attorney with the nonprofit group will look into the situation to see if there is a possible lawsuit to file against the district, Rose said.

Other Tatum residents and district alumni said this past week that they have concerns about the dress code.

LaSondra White, a Tatum resident, said if a student’s natural hair is clean and neat, it should not be a problem.

“I just don’t understand the problem with it. There are teachers that dye their hair. He’s a baby, he’s 4,” she said of Michael Trimble. “I just think it’s ridiculous. A distraction bigger than his hair could be lime green color shoelaces or the little girls with bows and feathers. There’s a lot more that can distract children than his hair.”

Tatum graduate Cashas Pollard lives in Longview and said the way the district is handling the situation is “pitiful.”

“I could understand if he had crazy color or extensions, but that’s his natural hair,” he said. “For them to say he has to have it pinned up or be transgender, that’s crazy. He’s 4 years old.”

Pollard said he was the quarterback on a state champion football team at Tatum, and he had long hair when he was in high school.

“If this kid was older and one of the main athletes at that school, I guarantee you it wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “I got nieces and nephews that go to Tatum, and the little girls come out with big bows, which are beautiful, but I feel like those are more of a distraction than this kid’s hair.”

The issue comes back to the superintendent, Pollard said.

“He’s not from around here. He doesn’t know the culture,” he said. “When I was in school, your teachers, they knew your parents and grandparents. It was a family community. It’s not like that anymore. So many people don’t know Tatum so they don’t care how they run it.”

Richardson was hired in spring 2017 as Tatum ISD superintendent after spending eight years as Gladewater ISD superintendent. However, he got his start in education at Tatum ISD, working as a principal and director of human resources and community relations.

Martin Thompson is another Tatum graduate who said when he was going to school, students had dread locks, Afros and long ponytails.

“I hope (Woodley) don’t cut this little boy’s hair,” he said. “As long as the little boy goes to school and worries about school they ... should be worried about school, not the person’s appearance.”

Woodley said she plans to continue to fight the rule.

“This is his natural, little boy hair that he’s being denied wearing,” she said. “I’m going to fight this. I’m going to fight this with everything I’ve got.”

Cox said she wants to challenge the dress code for her son’s self-esteem.

“I don’t want you making my child feel like he’s not good enough because he wears his hair a different style,” she said. “We just want the freedom for our kids, our children to wear their hair the way they want to. For people to say my son’s natural hair is a distraction, it doesn’t feel right.”


NOAA staff told not to contradict Trump

Nearly a week before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly backed President Donald Trump over its own scientists, a top NOAA official warned its staff against contradicting the president.

In an agencywide directive sent Sept. 1 to National Weather Service personnel, hours after Trump asserted, with no evidence, that Alabama “would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” staff was told to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.”

They were also told not to “provide any opinion,” according to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Post.

A NOAA meteorologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said the note, understood internally to be referring to Trump, came after the National Weather Service office in Birmingham contradicted Trump by tweeting Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

The Birmingham office sent the tweet after receiving a flurry of phone calls from concerned residents following Trump’s message.

The agency sent a similar message warning scientists and meteorologists not to speak out on Sept. 4, after Trump showed a hurricane map from Aug. 29 modified with a hand-drawn, half-circle in black Sharpie around Alabama.

“This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” the meteorologist said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring — ultimately what the Alabama office did is provide a forecast with their tweet, that is what they get paid to do.”

Late Friday afternoon, NOAA officials further angered scientists within and beyond the agency by releasing a statement, attributed to an unnamed agency spokesperson, supporting Trump’s claims on Alabama and chastising the agency’s Birmingham meteorologists for speaking in absolutes.

That statement set off a firestorm among scientists, who attacked NOAA officials for bending to Trump’s will.

“This looks like classic politically motivated obfuscation to justify inaccurate statements made by the boss. It is truly sad to see political appointees undermining the superb, lifesaving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated career servant,” said Jane Lubchenco, who served as NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama.

NOAA, which oversees the National Weather Service, isn’t the first agency in the Trump administration to publicly side with the president after he has doubled down on a widely disputed claim.

But the firestorm surrounding the president’s hurricane statements is unprecedented in the organization’s history, and threatens to politicize something that most Americans take for granted as an objective, if flawed, part of daily life: the weather forecast.

A NOAA official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, disputed the suggestion that the statement took sides, saying there was “no political motivation” behind it.

The official said agency leadership had considered making a statement for “a day or two” to clear up confusion. Acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs was involved in drawing up the statement, the official said, as was the NOAA director of public affairs, Julie Kay Roberts, who has experience in emergency management and worked on the president’s campaign.

The leadership of the Commerce Department, headed by Secretary Wilbur Ross, also approved the release, though Ross was out of the country at the time.

The official said the statement called out Birmingham’s tweet because one NOAA hurricane forecast showed a 5 to 20 percent chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a small part of Alabama.

“It was nothing against Birmingham; we needed to make sure forecast products reflect probabilistic guidance,” the official said, referencing the extremely low odds for tropical storm-force winds.

Such wind speeds, between 39 and 74 mph, rarely cause much damage or require the advance preparation.

The NOAA statement made no reference of the fact that when Trump tweeted that Alabama was at risk, the state was not in the National Hurricane Center’s “cone of uncertainty,” which forecasters use to determine where the storm is most likely to hit. Alabama also had not appeared in the cone in the days before that.

The acting NOAA director briefed the president on Hurricane Dorian on Aug. 29, using the forecast cone that the White House later adapted via Sharpie marker.

The director of the National Hurricane Center briefed the president on the storm’s likely track again on Sept. 1, shortly after his tweet about the threat to Alabama.

At other times, Trump was briefed by individuals, including the White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, who lacked the meteorological expertise to interpret what they were showing.

“If the president had been briefed by someone who understands the forecast, he never would’ve mentioned Alabama,” the NOAA official said.

NOAA’s Friday statement infuriated scientists, who worry the Trump administration is corroding faith in research and data.

“It makes me speechless that the leadership would put [Trump’s] feelings and ego ahead of putting out weather information accurately,” said Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we’re politicizing the weather what is there left to politicize? We’re seeing this kind of clamp down of scientists across the government, and it’s been an escalating trend.”

In 2018, a survey of scientists at 16 federal agencies found a culture of fear and self-censorship in an administration that has sidelined scientific evidence, especially as it related to climate change, in favor of political expediency.

Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, said in a statement that “the criticism of the Birmingham forecast office is unwarranted; rather they should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama.”

One of the strongest reactions to the NOAA statement came from David Titley, an atmospheric scientist who served as the politically appointed chief operating officer of NOAA under Obama.

“Perhaps the darkest day ever for leadership. Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again. Moral cowardice,” he tweeted.

Others who weighed in on social media were also scathing in their response to NOAA’s decision to publicly defend Trump.

“I have never been so embarrassed by NOAA. What they did is just disgusting,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service’s labor union, wrote on Twitter Friday. “Let me assure you the hard working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management tonight.”

A popular television broadcast meteorologist in Birmingham also came to the defense of his city’s National Weather Service team.

“The tweet from NWS Birmingham was spot on and accurate,” James Spann tweeted. “If they are coming after them, they might as well come after me. How in the world has it come to this?”

On Saturday, the National Weather Service leadership seemingly tried to address the outcry in an all-hands letter to its employees to thank them for their hard work during the hurricane. The letter, obtained by The Washington Post, assured employees they were valued.

“We want to assure you that we stand behind our entire workforce and the integrity of the forecast process, including the incredible scientific, technical and engineering skill you demonstrated for this event,” the NWS leadership wrote. “We saw first hand that our integrated forecast process works, and we continue to embrace and uphold the essential integrity of the entire forecast process as it was applied by ALL NWS offices to ensure public safety first and foremost.”