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Valley Mills schools comfort classmates after girl dies from amoeba
 Brooke Crum  / 

The death of 10-year-old Valley Mills student Lily Mae Avant did not just leave the town of roughly 1,200 reeling. It made waves around the world.

Lily died early Monday morning after contracting a rare infection from a deadly amoeba after swimming in the Brazos River this month. A Facebook page dedicated to her fight against the infection — #lilystrong — has attracted worldwide attention and more than 22,000 members since it was created Sept. 11.

On Monday, thousands of people posted their condolences on the Facebook page. A quick Google search reveals Lily’s story spread across the globe, with articles popping up on Chilean, German, Mexican, Norwegian and Hindi news websites.

But the shock hit especially hard in the close-knit school system where she had been a fifth-grader.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Valley Mills Elementary School Principal Chris Dowdy said. “It’s unreal. No kid is supposed to endure that.”

Lily attended the school since the middle of second grade, when she transferred from Whitney ISD. Dowdy said the school was blessed to have her for the short time it did and that she was an “outstanding student” and a “remarkable person.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Valley Mills Elementary School Principal Chris Dowdy recalls stories about Lily Mae Avant, 10, who died of infection by Naegleri Fowleri, the deadly amoeba often found in stagnant water.

After developing a fever and headache Sept. 8, Lily’s family took her to the doctor, where she was instructed to take ibuprofen and stay hydrated, according to the Facebook page. Lily’s mother heard her daughter having nightmares one night, and then Lily became incoherent and unresponsive. At the emergency room, Lily was treated for bacterial and viral meningitis, but was quickly flown to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth for treatment, according to the social media page.

Lily battled primary amebic meningoencephalitis, an infection caused by the waterborne Naegleria fowleri pathogen, for more than a week at the Fort Worth’s children’s hospital, before succumbing to the disease, according to the Facebook page.

In the Valley Mills Independent School District, where she was a pupil for almost three years, school officials and students passed around buckets for donations at the Friday night homecoming football game, raising nearly $4,000, Superintendent Mike Kelly said. The band booster club also donated its concession stand profits from the night, roughly $2,100.

“There has been an outpouring of love for the family,” he said. “They need way more than financial help. They just need prayer. They were beside Lily through this whole fight.”

School and crisis counselors from Region 12 Education Service Center will be on campus all week long to help students process and heal from Lily’s death, Kelly said. Counselors and administrators met with fourth and fifth grade students in the library Monday morning to tell them the tragic news. They also called parents to inform them of the district’s plans to help ease the grief and notified parents that they could pick up their students early if they wanted.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Messages etched in chalk outside Valley Mills Elementary for Lily Mae Avant, 10, who died of infection by Naegleri Fowleri, the deadly amoeba often found in stagnant water.

Friday is the district’s “Superhero Day,” and administrators are trying to get blue T-shirts made with #lilystrong on them made by then. Blue was Lily’s favorite color. Kelly said he hopes that will be a positive end to a tough week for the students.

“She was a friend to everybody,” Kelly said. “She really was one of the best.”

Lily’s was the only case of a Naegleria fowleri infection in Texas so far this year and the second in the past 12 months. A New Jersey man, Fabrizio Stabile, died Sept. 21, 2018, after contracting the infection at BSR Surf Resort northeast of Waco.

The Naegleria fowleri amoeba is found around the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. In the U.S., most infections caused by the amoeba occurred in freshwater located in southern states. It can be found in bodies of warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers, hot springs, water heaters and soil.

From 2009 to 2018, just 34 infections were reported in the U.S., according to the CDC. The infection has a 97% fatality rate. Only four people out of 145 known infected in the U.S. from 1962 to 2018 have survived.

The last time a Texas resident contracted the infection was in 2016, Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen said. The department only tracks infections of Texas residents, which are required to be reported to the resident’s local public health entity.

Van Deusen said the department will conduct an investigation into the cause of Lily’s death, taking any measures necessary to determine the source of the illness and if any public health measures need to be taken. He said in these cases the department generally does not implement public health measures because the amoeba is so common in Texas waters.

“This organism is just ubiquitous,” he said. “The amoeba is pretty common in lakes and rivers, but infections are rare. They’re so rare we don’t really know why people get sick.”

Van Deusen said millions of people swim in Texas lakes and rivers annually, yet few ever contract the deadly infection from the ubiquitous amoeba. Ways to minimize the risk of infection include swimming in only chlorinated water; avoiding shallow, warm bodies of water; never submerging your head in thermal or hot springs; and plugging the nose while swimming in freshwater.

An account has been set up at First National Bank in Valley Mills, and at First National Bank in Whitney to donate to Lily’s family. Donations also may be sent via Venmo to the account @LilyLaciJohn.

Cards and letters can be mailed to:

  • P.O. Box 5308
  • Laguna Park, TX 76644

Longtime airport shoeshine stand gets the boot
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Travelers who look forward to getting a shine on their shoes and an lively bit of conversation at Robert Pearson’s shoeshine stand at Waco Regional Airport will have to look elsewhere now.

Pearson, 74, cleared his stand from the airport concourse Saturday, ending his 14-year tenure of “putting a glow on the toe,” helping travelers with bags, providing sage counsel and spiritual guidance and giving directions to Waco’s attractions.

As Pearson puts it, “You pay for the shine but there’s no charge for the conversation.”

It’s an emotional time for Pearson. He received a letter last month from Waco Regional Airport Director Joel Martinez informing him that the city was terminating his contract, effective last Sunday. Pearson doesn’t fully understand why, but he reluctantly has accepted the city’s decision.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Robert Pearson packed up his shoeshine stand at the Waco Regional Airport Saturday after 14 years there.

“I want to thank all the wonderful, blessed people who have helped me and supported me over the years,” Pearson said Monday. “God bless them. Thanks for all of them and may God bless and keep them. They have shined their many blessings on me and I love them and pray for them all. Life goes on and there is a better place for me. God has a better plan for me and I want to thank everyone for so many blessings, the memories, the joys, the peace and the prayers.”

Pearson packed up his shoeshine stand on Saturday, taking with him the many posters that adorned his space, including many featuring Baylor University sports teams.

Pearson, a 1963 graduate of the all-black A.J. Moore High School, got to know a host of Baylor coaches, players and administrators over the years and has shined the shoes of quite a few celebrities, including George Strait, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, Jessica Simpson and former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre.

Waco's shining ambassadors keep lost art form alive

The man who calls himself Brother Silent blesses his patrons by anointing the soles of their shoes with a bit of frankincense and myrrh oil and guarantees his customers depart feeling like Johnny Cash, Brad Pitt or Barack Obama.

Martinez said Pearson is a popular, recognizable figure at the airport who has gotten to know a lot of people over the years. He said he will be missed.

“He never once came to ask us to reconsider,” Martinez said. “He never came back and asked us why. I felt like it was a mutual parting of the ways.”

Pearson’s stand fell victim to the city’s quest to standardize its contracts with city vendors, Martinez said.

“We are constantly trying to ensure the airport is operating at a certain standard and we are just trying to make sure that all our lease holders are operating under similar, standardized leases,” Martinez said. “We want to ensure we are upholding the standards that represent the city in the best light. Some of those are challenges for some businesses, such as insurance requirements, maintenance requirements, hours of operation, things like that.”

Martinez said it is important for the airport to become a “revenue-generating department,” which makes it necessary to evaluate requirements for city vendors.

“Part of the challenges (Pearson) had was based on revenue,” Martinez said. “His revenue had to exceed a threshold and that threshold was set really high, and for the past few years, he hasn’t made enough. Consequently, he hasn’t paid the city anything. So we said, ‘Wait a minute. You have someone in a prime location and you have all the amenities, and in a sense, he is not really paying anything. So we thought we needed to fine-tune that operation.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Robert Pearson’s 14-year tenure at the Waco Regional Airport came to an end Saturday after the city ended his contract.

Martinez said he is unsure if Pearson represents the last shoeshine operator at the airport.

“I think we are going to have to evaluate what type of service we want to provide to the traveling public,” he said. “Whether it is a porter service or a shoeshine service, we will have to evaluate those things. We will have to see if the public voices a need for those services and go forward. But if we do get those services, they will know going into it what the standards are vs. someone who is trying to change how they are doing it.”

Waco attorney Rick Bostwick, a frequent traveler, has gotten to know Pearson over the years he has flown in and out of the Waco airport.

“I think he has always been a cheerful, friendly greeter for all the people who come and go through the Waco airport,” Bostwick said. “I have always enjoyed having him there and seeing him there.”

Bostwick said Pearson always did a good job on his shoes in a trade that is diminishing from a generation ago, when he said many businessmen had their shoes shined at least once a week.

Hewitt councilman's resignation official despite second thoughts
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

The Hewitt City Council accepted the resignation of fellow council member Matthew Mevis on Monday, a day after he tried to rescind his resignation.

Mevis, a newcomer elected in May, emailed council members and city staff Sunday evening, saying he would like to withdrawal his resignation letter he submitted to the city Sept. 6. The email states he would like to stay with the council, reversing his earlier declaration that he would leave because of alleged harassment by a former councilman.

“In light of the large volume of communication from residents intent on getting us whole and moving forward and after discussion with my wife, I have decided to withdraw my resignation,” he said in the email Sunday. “I shouldn’t have tendered it just to silence a vocal minority who seem intent on destroying the harmony of our council — even if it is a vicious kind of harmony some days,” the email states.

Council members were slated to accept Mevis’ resignation Monday during the regular city council meeting. But after announcing his reversal, Mevis learned he was a day late: Texas election code allots only eight days to rescind a resignation, and nine had passed.

“I’ve heard from person after person from every corner here that I should withdraw my resignation, get back in there and get back in the fight,” Mevis said. “After speaking with my wife, I decided to rescind my resignation, but technically it looks like I was a day late.”

Mevis said he decided to resign because former city council member Kurt Krakowian was harassing and threatening him and his wife on social media. Krakowian has said he was merely posting public records involving the couple.

According to Texas election code, an officer or an elected official can submit a resignation, whether to be effective immediately or at a future date, and the resignation will be accepted on the eighth day. Mevis’ letter stated that he wished to resign immediately, prompting city staff to place discussion of replacing Mevis on Monday’s city council agenda.

Mevis attended the workshop, but did not sit with council members during the workshop or the council meeting.

City Manager Bo Thomas said he and City Attorney Mike Dixon contacted city and state officials Monday to inquire whether the resignation was valid following the eight-day period.

“There is really nothing to do by accepting or rejecting the resignation,” Dixon said. “It, by law, has already been accepted by the vacancy.”

Dixon said it was not immediately clear whether Mevis could be reappointed to the council seat, if council members chose to do so. Dixon said he would research that question, but the council was not posted to make such an appointment Monday night.

During public comments, members of the public spoke for and against reappointing Mevis, if the council chose to reappoint a person to the council. Mevis also spoke during public comments, saying he apologized for the unclear direction he placed on the city.

“My two regrets are that hatred and bitterness were allowed to target myself and my family and that I could not still be up there serving this great city due to the menace that stalks us all,” he said.

Council members agreed to allow Dixon to research the next step for the city in regards to state law and city charter.

Autopsy: Robinson man shot 5 times in fatal FBI operation
 Kristin Hoppa  / 


A wanted Robinson man who died in an FBI operation in late July was shot five times, including four times in the head or neck, an autopsy shows.

The body of Joshua Steven Mitchell, 44, underwent a medical autopsy shortly after the July 25 shooting at his home at 780 Stegall Drive. Court records have stated FBI agents were executing a warrant for a firearms violation when a confrontation started, ending with officers shooting Mitchell multiple times.

The autopsy reported five rifle wounds, including a wound to his Mitchell’s left arm in addition to the head and neck wounds. The autopsy lists the manner of death as homicide.

The FBI did not respond to an email from the Tribune-Herald on Monday.

FBI agents arrived at Mitchell’s home on Stegall Drive at about 6 a.m. on July 25 to perform a “court-authorized law enforcement operation,” authorities previously reported.

Child Protective Services reports connected to the case stated Mitchell was dressed in a bulletproof vest and helmet at the time of the encounter.

Medical reports state Mitchell was killed around 6:45 a.m.

Several blocks in the Robinson neighborhood remained blocked for hours after the incident.

The FBI in July reported that “suspicious items” were found during the search of the home during the two-day operation at the home. Authorities reported the man in the home threatened officers with lethal force, but it remained unclear what the threat was before the shooting.

The CPS reported that the FBI on July 25 was attempting to serve a warrant on Mitchell for possession of a firearm by a felon. Before the confrontation with Mitchell, they removed a woman, Clara Santos, who was in a relationship with Mitchell, along with her 7-year-old son, the report states.

After the shooting, CPS caseworkers interviewed the boy, who told authorities the family had numerous guns, and Mitchell “had ‘secrets that he could not tell,’” the documents state.

The boy was placed in foster care ahead of the trial of his birth father, Jose Manuel Gonzalez, 47, who was convicted in August of one count of continuous sexual abuse of a young child and one count of indecency with a child by contact. Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for sexually abusing Santos’ daughter, Clarisa, for almost five years beginning when she was 8.

Clarisa was 14 years old when she took her own life at the home where Mitchell died last year. She was scheduled to testify against Gonzalez at his initial trial setting.

The Tribune-Herald does not routinely identify the victims of sexual abuse without their permission or report on most suicides. However, Santos’ mother and Mitchell said they planned create a foundation called One More Day with the goal of suicide prevention.

Baylor to host discussion with LGBTQ Christian author Justin Lee
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

A leading proponent of building bridges between churches and LGBTQ Christians will speak Tuesday at Baylor University, where debates over sexuality and faith have come to the forefront.

The Baylor School of Social Work is hosting a discussion with Justin Lee, a nationally known author and founder of the Gay Christian Network.

Lee will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday on the fifth floor of the Cashion Academic Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Lee, author of “Torn” and “Talking Across the Divide,” has been writing about his experiences as a gay Christian since the late ‘90s. He founded the Gay Christian Network, now called the Q Christian Fellowship, in 2001, later parting with the organization in 2017. In his Baylor appearance he aims to discuss the way the Christian churches have handled LGBTQ issues in the past and how to better address them in the present.

“I’m not coming to give a theological talk on same-sex marriage or anything like that,” Lee said in an interview Monday. “My goal is to be able to speak to Christians on all sides of the theological disagreements and just focus on how we take care of people who are, right now, not always being cared for.”

He said debates about theology can often turn abstract, but he wants to focus more on students’ tangible experiences.

“We have to stop and say ‘What does this mean for the person sitting in the pews, for the student who is here at Baylor who is LGBTQ or who is wrestling with questions?’ “ Lee said. “What does all this mean for that person, realistically? What does it mean for Christian institutions and individuals in terms of how we treat people better?”

Lee said in his experience, it’s important for LGBTQ students to have ample opportunity to discuss their lives the way anyone would. Lee said after growing up Southern Baptist, speaking with other LGBTQ students in college and realizing he wasn’t the only one was crucial to him.

“For many LGBTQ students coming from conservative Christian homes, they’re already bringing a lot of cultural baggage and loneliness from growing up in the church,” Lee said. “It can be very difficult to work through all of that in a place like Baylor.”

Lee said there’s been rapid culture shifts in the way people think about and understand gender and sexuality within the last decade.

“It’s made people realize there’s a lot of people going through things they never knew they were going through who haven’t been well-served by the church in these areas,” Lee said. “That has really set off a lot of questions for Christians and Christian institutions that we haven’t really been focusing on for much of the church’s history.”

He said in his experience, Christian institutions can best navigate those questions when LGBTQ people whose lives will be impacted are involved in every level of the discussion.

“Those are not easy questions to work through, but I think it’s going to be really important that we not treat this as an issue to be resolved in the absence of human beings, but that we recognize that all of these conversations are ultimately about the lives of these LGBTQ students,” Lee said.

Lee’s appearance is part of Baylor’s 2019-2020 Conversation Series, which focuses on civil conversation about difficult topics. Diana R. Garland School of Social Work Dean Jon Singletary said Lee is not the first LGBTQ speaker at Baylor, but he may be the first to speak in an open venue rather than as part of a single class’ curriculum.

“This is the first time we’ve had someone with his profile at an event that is university-wide and really community-wide to promote a much larger conversation about our understandings of sexuality and as a way of wrestling with how to support our LGBTQ students,” Singletary said.

Singletary said the invitation was partially in recognition of LGBTQ students’ needs, which have been the subject of ongoing discussion since an open letter this spring calling for official recognition of Baylor’s unofficial LGBTQ student group, Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or GAY. The petition garnered more than 3,000 signatures, including those of Baylor alumni, donors and professors.

“It’s all part of how we talk about difficult issues, whether it’s part of our policy where there’s disagreement or part of the larger church conversation that it’s connected to, or values differences,” Singletary said.

Singletary said officials the School of Social Work have been encouraged by the support they’ve received. He said bringing in a speaker like Lee fits the school’s goal of educating future social workers who can work with people whose experiences may differ from their own.

“The university has been largely supportive of it,” Singletary said. “Now we know there’s a number of people who wouldn’t want us to be doing this, and disagreement, and we feel like there are conversations that will come about as a result of this.”

GAY Outreach Chair Hayden Evans said his group is barred from inviting speakers themselves as an unofficial student group.

“I’m hopeful that with Justin Lee coming to campus … that his talk will spur more action for others to gain a better understanding of the dynamic between Christianity and LGBTQ+ persons and understand that they’re not separate, they can be integrated and then hopefully people will be more supportive in our discussions and in our push for the university to recognize the need, in terms of safety and in terms of community, for LGBTQ + persons on campus,” he said.

Evans said the group’s charter was officially rejected by the Department of Student Life earlier this month, as it has been several times in recent years. A Baylor spokesperson confirmed that the charter had been rejected.