Sometimes a Shining Lie
Renowned educator Eliot Wigginton admitted last November he molested a 10-year-old boy. Now others struggle to come to terms with the legacy that the creator of Foxfire left behind.
Atlanta Magazine | March 1993
1994 Best Feature Article—Magazine Association of Georgia
And I rebel when I see people all around me giving up, and yet I want to do the same, not knowing anymore the difference between what is good and what is bad—what is right and what is wrong—what is clean and what is foul…”
— Eliot Wigginton, 1968
On the first morning of 10th grade in 1966, Tommy Wilson, a popular kid but a lazy student, strolled into homeroom thinking, Okay, another year. Many of the unpleasant details since that day have been fogged by time and anger, but he still clearly remembers the first moment he saw Eliot Wigginton. The bell rang. And Tommy sat there wondering who was this goofy kid with goggle glasses and buckteeth, wearing a white shirt and a tie, sitting at the teacher’s desk.
Tommy asked the 23-year-old rookie educator, fresh out of Cornell University, whether one of his pals would be in this homeroom. The enthusiasm with which Wig, as he would later be known, could honor even such a trivial inquiry is what Tommy remembers. When Eliot Wigginton spoke to his students in that pleasant, high-ceilinged classroom that looked out on the gumdrop hills of Appalachia—God’s Country to locals—his voice would rise with urgency, and he was often wide-eyed and animated. Talking to Wig, Tommy recalls, was like a light suddenly turned your way.
By and by, Wig became as much a friend as a teacher. One day after class, Tommy said to him how about us guys getting together sometime and doing something. You know, go out and have some fun. And there was that light, the responsiveness that made a guy feel instantly accepted, as if by an older brother or a father.
“Wig said, ‘Sure! What?’ And I was just so taken so off-guard,” says Wilson, who was 16 at the time. “You know how teenage guys are all bluster and bravado, so I said let’s go get drunk sometime. It was really just a throwaway line. But his reaction was a very definite, positive yes. He called my bluff.”
Some nights later, Wilson and a classmate showed up with a beer buzz at Wigginton’s faculty apartment, on the campus of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, the private institution where Wig taught a mixture of boarding and community students. They drank some more beer with Wig and fell asleep.
The next day, Wilson’s friend approached him with an unconscionable tale, illustrated by pumping his fist in the air above his crotch. The boy said he had awakened to find the teacher’s head bobbing between his legs, and that Wigginton had been alternately molesting Tommy, who was passed out on the adjacent bed.
“I didn’t think he was lying. But it was like if he had said this guy rode an elephant through the room while we were asleep, I couldn’t have received it any better. My mind just would not go there.”
There is much that Wilson cannot remember about the nights he later spent at Wigginton’s faculty apartment and at his log cabin on nearby Black Rock Mountain. Wilson has a conscious memory of only one incident when he was sexually molested by Eliot Wigginton. But he suspects that on the several other occasions when he slept in Wigginton’s presence, his teacher also molested him. According to investigators and sworn testimony, Eliot Wigginton abused dozens, perhaps as many as 100 boys and young men. The molestations allegedly began the year that Eliot Wigginton first stepped into the classroom, and for 25 years constituted a current of suspicion and fear that wound through Rabun County like a black creek.
BROOKS ELIOT WIGGINTON was born in West Virginia and grew up the son of a University of Georgia landscape architecture professor in Athens. He attended Chase Street Elementary School there, was nearsighted, and repeated the ninth grade. He later attended Hill School, a private preparatory facility in Pennsylvania, and eventually Cornell. He was president of his fraternity and wanted to be a writer. His senior year, he had decided the only profession that would allow him to write was teaching. And in the summer of 1966, he was hired sight unseen by the principal of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School.
What he found there was a pedantic private institution stranded in a north Georgia mountain valley; a mixed campus of twangy local kids who cared more about moonshining, deer hunting and ’56 Chevy differentials than grammar, and a core of boarding students from around the country, many of whom had childhoods scattered like bones by divorce, alcoholism or abusive parents. Most suffered the school’s black-and-white commandments—truth and goodness, daily vespers, no hand-holding or dancing—with less understanding than if they had been committed to an asylum. Vietnam was igniting campuses across the country. The South was rioting. Nations were racing to the moon. And these kids were growing bored, ignorant and disruptive.
Wig’s initiation included a group of boys who once threatened to hold him upside down and paddle him in front of the class. Others seemed duty bound to tear down his classroom at every turn of his back. One student once even tried to set fire to Mr. Wigginton’s lectern.
But by late fall of 1966, he had struggled, parried and literally arm wrestled his students to a stalemate. He walked into class one dreary morning, sat on the front of his desk with his legs crossed, and said slowly, “Look, this isn’t working. You know it isn’t and I know it isn’t. Now what are we going to do together to make it through the rest of the year?”
The answer came in the form of a student project, a high school magazine called Foxfire, named for a glowing fungus found locally in the damp mountain humus. Students interviewed community elders on the vanishing details of native Appalachian life, from superstitions and planting by the weather signs, to building log cabins and making moonshine. At the height of the back-to-nature movement of the late ’60s, the folksy magazine was an immediate success. In 1972 the best of the interviews were compiled into The Foxfire Book, which is currently in its 47th printing. Nine more student-produced volumes have followed, and Foxfire is now The Foxfire Fund Inc., a worldwide educational outreach program.
Eliot Wigginton was Georgia Teacher of the Year in 1986. He has received the John D. Rockefeller II Youth Award and numerous other accolades, and served on dozens of boards and councils, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Smithsonian Institution’s Advisory Council on Education. He has been on the Today show three times, Good Morning America once. He has been in Time magazine and was the subject of a CBS “American Portrait.” His autobiography, Sometimes A Shining Moment (Doubleday, 1985), won the Kappa Delta Pi Education Honorary Society Book-of-the-Year Award. Eliot Wigginton is even referenced in the Rabun County public schools’ eighth-grade history books.
BACK THEN IT JUST wasn’t something you went around telling people: Hey! Guess what. I woke up the other night and this guy had my hammer in his hand.”
Tommy Wilson sat in a Clayton hotel room sipping coffee, reaching back through the fog, mixing a little scripture and a little dark humor with gulping honesty now, because the truth—best as he can remember it—is all that remains.
The summer of 1970, Wilson had finished his first year at Shorter College but stayed heavily involved in Foxfire. He was one of the first three students ever paid by the organization through a stipend program that continues today. That fall, around Thanksgiving break, as Wilson recalls it, he again returned home to Rabun County.
By then, Wigginton had moved off of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee campus and was living alone in a private house. As he had done many times before, Tommy visited his former teacher, drank with him and fell asleep. “I think I had built up some tolerance to alcohol by then. That probably contributed to the fact that I didn’t just stay completely out of it this time,” he says.
Coming to, he might have just as implausibly found himself driving down a dark highway and arriving on the scene of a horrible accident. “And… it didn’t exactly feel good… I realized Wig was kneeling there by the cot… and certain physical stimulations are going to cause certain reactions.”
Tommy’s description of what happened is clear and clinical. He says Wig had pulled his pants down. Wig had his mouth on Tommy’s penis. He alternated with his hand, then took Tommy’s hand and placed it on his own penis. “It just escaped me what to do,” says Tommy, who was then 19. He had never had sexual contact of that nature with anyone, and he froze, like a rabbit caught in rushing headlights.
Wig moved Tommy’s hand back and forth until he ejaculated. Then he stood up and left the room. “Just like a man,” Tommy says wryly. “Soon as he was done, he got up and went to the bathroom.”
Tommy did not try to tell anyone until three years later. He was at a party in Clayton, with six or seven other people affiliated with Foxfire. They were kicking back a few beers, he says, when someone said something to the effect that Wigginton might have certain peculiar tastes. But when Tommy tried to verbalize what had happened—just as his 10th-grade buddy had tried to tell him six years earlier—he says he met with little support. In fact, says Wilson, “The reaction was kind of ‘Well, at least no one will get pregnant.’ ”
IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Sometimes A Shining Moment, Eliot Wigginton condemns the deviance that private schools breed, stressing the vulnerability of students, extolling the responsibility of teachers to help kids stand up to obvious abuses. He wrote eloquently about the power of teachers: And, acknowledging that power, we must also admit that not to continually strive to use it well is almost sacrilegious. It is like having the power to heal, but never healing.
Wigginton also recounts his eagerness to escort young male students from the private school, and from the new public high school to which he later transferred, on hikes and camping excursions, to the movies, out to eat, on Foxfire interviewing trips. There are also accounts of rumors in the Rabun community that he was bending kids’ minds in the classroom with books like Lord of the Flies, at the end of which a group of shipwrecked boys ends up in a seminude state. And he also writes about rumors that he was encouraging students to experiment with drinking.
“I don’t know that he lured young boys and plied them with alcohol,” says Wilson. “I don’t know that he didn’t. But all the goodwill and enthusiasm, for all I know it was genuine.”
By the mid-’70s, Wigginton’s student-centered, learn-by-doing teaching methods had placed him in wide demand as a lecturer. His adamant policy was to always take one or more students on Foxfire speaking trips. He extolled to captivated educators the self-esteem that these trips brought out in his students.
The majority of that decade, however, is excluded from his autobiography. The book only skims the years between 1973 and 1984, picking up with a chapter called “The End of Innocence—Now What?” Eighteen of the 23 molestations alleged in court motions, including acts of fondling, anal manipulation, oral sex and masturbation, occurred in the ’70s, several on Foxfire speaking trips.
Many of the victims came from troubled pasts, making them more susceptible to his influence, and less likely to have a receptive adult outlet for their grievances. But some believe that Wigginton’s impulses were primarily random.
Stan (not his real name) was seriously molested by a relative when he was 8 years old. He says, “The majority of kids at Rabun Gap were from tough backgrounds. But I knew kids he molested who were from [stable] homes, too. It’s not like he had a dossier on each kid.”
Stan says he was warned by an eighth-grade classmate about Wigginton, but did not believe it until a 14-year-old boy related his encounter with the teacher: drinking to intoxication, and then four acts of oral sex performed on him as he feigned sleep. Several years later, in 1976, Stan spent the night drinking with Wig at his log cabin, he says. After Stan went to bed, he says, Wigginton entered the room, stood by his bed and reached out to touch him.
“You say to yourself that you want to do certain things, go on trips and interviews and whatever, and that you are not going to let the rapists and robbers in the world stop you from doing what you want,” he says. “We were all fighting this holier-than-thou religious institution. To most kids the dean was the enemy. Wig was more like a friend than a regular teacher. He was a kind of escape for us.
“The reason most guys didn’t say anything was because Foxfire was this dopey, fledgling organization and a very positive experience. We got to do fun things, and the attitude was that if I say anything, all this will be taken away. So we just tried to warn each other. We were protecting Foxfire.”
Even Tommy Wilson came back to Foxfire. In 1973, the summer after he had first tried to warn others of Wigginton, he returned from college to work full time restoring a gristmill and other log structures on Foxfire property. One day, he and Eliot had to drive out to the country to pick up a loom. A young boy had procured it for Foxfire studies and had it waiting for them. Eliot was grateful.
“And again, this could just be how I saw it . . . but Eliot reached out and touched the boy on the leg,” Wilson says, grabbing his own thigh, high and deep on the inside. “I mean, it was more than just a touch. What I saw, it looked like he was kneading the boy’s thigh.”
A few days later, Tommy started his morning drive up Black Rock Mountain to begin work on the gristmill. In a flash of anger and disgust, he turned his truck around and never went back.
EXACTLY HOW IMPORTANT Foxfire was and still is to Rabun County is perhaps best measured against the sting that mountain folks have long felt from being stereotyped. Many native highlanders fumed at the movie Deliverance’s portrayal of a hillbilly landscape inhabited by banjo-picking, corn-holing freaks.
Foxfire publications, on the other hand, garnered widespread respect for the mountain lifestyle. How to make a whimmy diddle or a rabbit box or a gristmill with oak cogs was once again valuable information. Elders who possessed this vanishing knowledge were dignified by it. Kids respected them, and wanted to help preserve it. To that extent, Foxfire was becoming intimately identified with Rabun County. And until the early ’80s, Eliot Wigginton was Foxfire. Thus, if Wigginton was living a lie, many others in Rabun County and in the Foxfire network were at the very least avoiding the truth.
In 1971, four male students confronted Wig with a molestation and made him promise he would never do it again. According to Rabun County Chief Assistant District Attorney Jay McCollum, who was set to prosecute Wigginton on one count of child molestation last November, three of the four later worked for Foxfire. By early last November, he said, one still did. On another occasion, McCollum says, some boys assaulted Wigginton. They wrapped his legs around a tree and called him “fag” and “queer,” and vowed that if he ever molested anyone again, they would break both his legs.
Stan says, “I told an adult who was with the high school. I alluded to it, yes, but I felt in my heart he knew what I was talking about.” Nothing more was said about it. “I also felt that the president and the dean [at Rabun Gap] knew. How could they not? They knew everything else that was going on.” At Stan’s class reunion in the mid-’80s, Wigginton’s disorder was discussed among male alumni, shocking many female alumni.
Clay Smith, a Gillsville contractor, was set to testify in court that his molestation by Wigginton caused him to quit high school and join the Air Force because “I thought it would make a man out of me.” Says Smith, “In the mid-’80s there was a lot of talk about Wig in Clayton. I had someone who was an employee of Foxfire tell me that he was a known homosexual, but they would not do anything about it because he brought so much revenue into Rabun County.”
A 1982 victim went to two Foxfire employees with his story, according to Jay McCollum. Another man says that he related his 1969 molestation to an acquaintance who later became the director of endowments for a Foxfire Fund corporate benefactor.
Rabun County Sheriff Don Page, whose wife once worked for Foxfire, says he knew about a GBI investigation into Wigginton as far back as 1986. A young man’s father had told state authorities that his son was undergoing psychological treatment as the result of a late-’70s molestation. Sheriff Page says he arranged for a GBI investigator to talk with someone who “had been affiliated” with Foxfire, but says that person shed no light on the subject. The statute of limitations had also run out. The investigation was dropped.
“I don’t feel bad that nothing was said,” says Page. “At the time, I had no knowledge that it was widespread. And I think people still have rights unless you can back it up.”
And then there was scattered suspicion and rumor: that Wig had once been beaten up by the father of a boy whom he molested, that another boy had gone to a football coach, that Wig, who turned 50 late last year and had never married, was homosexual, asexual, creepy.
The Foxfire Fund’s board of directors have repeatedly denied any knowledge of misdoing by Wigginton. But a disturbing social conundrum remains. If, in such a small town, some people did know the truth about their community’s most distinguished citizen, why did the many tentacles of that information never touch the right people?
“I don’t know that any answer would be persuasive,” says Hilton Smith, director of Foxfire’s Teacher Outreach Program. “But number one, there was no organized cover-up. There may have been people who could have acted more forcefully on what they heard. Notice the word heard. But we are as interested in finding that out as anyone. And number two, the very nature of the alleged acts is private, secluded, occasional and shameful.”
IN MID-NOVEMBER OF LAST year, assistant District Attorney Jay McCollum booked 16 rooms at the Stonebrook Inn in Clayton. Eliot Wigginton was going to trial, and former male students from as far away as Texas and California were ready to testify against him. McCollum had their rooms waiting.
The previous May, while working through UGA’s College of Education, Wigginton had escorted two boys from Athens’ Chase Street Elementary School—his own alma mater—to Foxfire’s annual Mother’s Day picnic in Rabun County. The boys were scheduled to speak about their experience in classrooms that were now employing Wigginton’s educational principles.
They stayed overnight at Wig’s log cabin, and returned the next day. On the following Monday, Wigginton received a phone call from the elementary school’s assistant principal. One of the boys had returned in an unexplainably hostile mood. After some questioning, he told his parents that while he pretended to sleep, Wigginton had removed the child’s pants and fondled him. The guardians filed a civil suit against Wigginton, which precipitated a criminal indictment and McCollum’s investigation.
Wigginton took a polygraph test. He passed it. He claimed that the Athens boy’s allegations where manufactured by adults who sought to “take advantage of Foxfire’s visibility for monetary gain.” He released statements of innocence to the newspapers, the TV media. And even though Sheriff Don Page warned Wigginton and his attorney months before his criminal indictment that he felt if there was anything to the Athens allegation, others would come forward, Eliot Wigginton shouted from the highest mountaintop: I did not do this!
It was a reasonable gamble.
Over 26 years, his stature in the community had become almost baronial. And after all, former victims had long gambled with their own consciences, compounding guilt they probably already felt for putting themselves in that situation, guilt for being minors involved with drugs and alcohol, guilt for not bringing this out years earlier, guilt involving their own sexuality and manhood.
He might have also reasoned that The Foxfire Fund administrators knew nothing of his behavior. There were letters of support by the dozens, and scores of kids who could say that they had travelled thousands of miles with Wig and never had a problem. All those bad things, they were history now, wounds surely long since healed.
Most former victims, in fact, had come to their own personal resolutions in their 20s and 30s. But what Wigginton did not know was that for the ghosts of those teenage boys drinking beer and rolling joints at the teacher’s house so many nights go, there had never been any real finality.
“The only thing that had been open-ended for me all those years was that it could still be happening,” says Wilson. About the time that school was letting out last year, Tommy’s wife began to hear that Wigginton was in trouble. One night she said to Tommy that she “thought some things might be coming home to roost.”
Stan’s brother-in-law had knowledge of Wigginton’s checkered past. Coincidentally, he also worked with the Athens boy’s guardian. One day, in the course of an otherwise ordinary conversation, the guardian mentioned that they would be filing suit against a well-known educator in Rabun County. Shortly, Stan got a phone call from his sister, then placed his own to the district attorney’s office.
Tom, a 42-year-old Atlanta contractor, was working in a woman’s bathroom when he heard his former teacher’s denials on WSB radio. “I had a hard time getting through the rest of the day.” He called the Rabun County district attorney, saying that Wigginton had molested him, too, in 1969.
Other former victims saw it on TV, read it in the newspapers, or, ironically, first heard of Wigginton’s predicament in Foxfire newsletters. The single most disturbing fact was that the Athens boy was only 10-years-old.
“I think a lot of us had gotten to the age that when we saw the kid was so young, and that this had gone on for so long, we realized we were starting to look at a second generation,” says Wilson, who was among those planning to testify. “We moved into a protective mode.” Sixteen men were scheduled to testify in Rabun County Superior Court to 23 separate incidents of molestation by Wigginton.
Wigginton offers no clues to the origins of his problem. “Questions like that are the same questions I have in myself. I guess the things that people don’t understand are the same things I don’t understand.”
For weeks Wigginton and his 81-year-old father had disagreed on what course Eliot should take. The Wednesday before his criminal trial, however, Wigginton asked for a Foxfire staff meeting. They gathered at Foxfire headquarters, in Mountain City, just a couple of hills outside Clayton, and sat in the little demonstration solar home built by Foxfire students. Wigginton announced that he had just pleaded guilty to the one charge of molestation. He asked those present to take care of his father, then broke down sobbing, flushed and unable to speak.
MANDATORY psychological treatment is part of Wigginton’s 20-year sentence: one year to serve and 19 on probation. A deputy periodically drives Eliot Wigginton to Atlanta for counseling. But most days he just gets up, neatly makes his bed and starts writing. He says that in time he will be willing to talk, but for now, however, his lawyers have advised against it.
He stands in the visitor’s area of the jailhouse wearing his trademark faded sweater and jeans and goggle glasses, calmly leaning against the cinder block wall. Occasionally, he wets the ample surface of his two front teeth.
“We’re hoping to have the civil thing resolved so I won’t have anything hanging over my head when I get out,” he says, referring to his eligibility for release after six months with good behavior, Sheriff Page’s discretion.
He offers no clues to the origins of his problem. “Questions like that are the same questions I have in myself. I guess the things that people don’t understand are the same things I don’t understand.”
In a later phone conversation, he would say that he still had not read the first word about his own imprisonment, that the whole thing makes him sick to his stomach. “But I assume there are a lot of people out there putting two and two together and coming up with 40,” he said, claiming that the swirling estimates of a hundred or more boys involved are ridiculously off-base. “The more McCollum can claim, the bigger hero he can become. In fact,” he went on to say, “some of the people who Jay McCollum said things happened with, never happened.”
Standing against the cold wall, he defines his daily existence as just sort of “floating,” and says that he might get to sit in on a Foxfire meeting next week, a possibility that Foxfire Chairman of the Board James K. Hasson Jr. later said was “simply divorced from reality.”
“I hope some of the good that’s come out of the last 26 years will find its way into this article. [Foxfire] has been a great experience,” says Wigginton.
The Foxfire Fund, which was not named in the civil suit, lists $2.8 million in assets. There is no evidence, however, that Wigginton has much money. Several years back, perhaps in preparation for his inevitable departure from Foxfire—which he often prophesied—he transferred his property on Black Rock Mountain to The Foxfire Fund’s balance sheet. Everything but his log cabin, which his students had enthusiastically helped him build. Royalties from the Foxfire books have always gone straight back to the program. And as an employee of the University of Georgia for the last two years, he has had only a standard teacher’s salary.
Always, Eliot Wigginton gave everything he had intellectually and financially back to Foxfire. By all accounts, he was married to it.
EVER SINCE SEPTEMBER of last year, Tuesday has been jail night for Tommy Wilson. That is, he visits inmates at the Rabun County jail and shares his Christian belief, which he says is the one thing that has helped him come to terms with his trauma. “I don’t have any problem saying that I took a close look at it, and I couldn’t cope. I find it distressing that there are so many people who think they can cope with it in and of themselves.”
Occasionally, he sees Wig behind bars. The greetings are short. As for the possibility of a longer meeting, he says, “It’s not something I would try to force, but if there was a situation that came up, I would certainly welcome it.”
He does not sense that people have yet faced the confusing duality of Eliot Wigginton, referring to those who believe that Wigginton was not capable of molesting children, that his enemies had conspired and he was just protecting Foxfire, and that educators are easy targets. “Individuals tend to push out of their consciousness disturbing areas,” he says. “It’s a self-preservation thing.”
Following Wigginton’s guilty plea, the flood of Foxfire Still Glows buttons and posters festooning downtown Clayton may as well have been knives turning in an old wound. “I think a lot of people are bending over backwards double to emphasize the positive in all this,” says Tommy.
About a week after Wigginton went to jail, Foxfire Fund Executive Director Bill Parrish said, “I think we were hoping we could jump out there and say we are going forward and have everything get back to normal. Now I’m more realistic about the time it’s going to take.”
Yet even former victims say that despite the dark side, Wig had his shining moments. “I saw the good side of Wig first,” says Stan, whose secondary motivation in coming forward was to see that Wigginton got help. “The bottom line is that Foxfire and my relationship with Wig overall has had a positive effect on my life.
“I don’t think there is a kid out there who hasn’t had something bad happen to them. It’s almost like a rite of passage, a time when you have to come out of that storybook world and realize that there are evils out there. To me, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a pedophile who wasn’t violent.”
For Tommy Wilson, it boils down to a simple matter of sin.
“The sin that was resonant in Wig . . . was present in me, too. My understanding is that sin is present in all of us.” The final and only lasting good, he says, will come when people peel back the onion skin of their pain and bewilderment and face reality.
“If I went to Eliot with this big sanctimonious attitude and threw my arms around him and said, ‘I forgive you,’ that’s not what I’m talking about,” he says. “But, yes, to the extent that I am aware of the pain he has caused me, I have forgiven him.”
In God’s Country, the cornfields have withered to a crispy winter gold. An electric cross burns nightly above the little town of Clayton, and good is still good. Brake linings smell like torture winding down the steep grade off Black Rock Mountain, and bad is bad. In God’s Country right is right and wrong is wrong, but black and white still make gray. ✦