SAN ANGELO, Texas Like a teenage wallflower suddenly shoved onto the homecoming queen stage during the high school dance, the unassuming town of San Angelo found itself in the national spotlight because of April's FLDS raid.
Accordingly, she straightened her dress, smiled sweetly and stepped further into the glare, extending a welcome with grace.
In the process, she won a few hearts.
Eldorado, home to the YFZ Ranch, is 45 minutes away from San Angelo, but there was no place in small Schleicher County to handle the 400-plus children taken into state custody in the nation's largest-ever child custody case.
San Angelo took the children and mothers on in stride and shouldered the ensuing chaos with nary a blink.
And even as the Texas child custody case appears to be unraveling, San Angelo continues on as the heartbeat of the controversy, playing host to Friday's hearing in which Judge Barbara Walther refused to sign an order outlining conditions for the children to return home. An appeals court and the Texas Supreme Court have ordered that the children be returned, ruling that Walther and Child Protective Services overstepped their authority in sending more than 400 children and apparently some young adults into foster care.
The city, like others across the country, is made up of the things it is and the things it is not.
San Angelo is baseball, wide streets, large oak trees and tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It is not oil fields, bustle, blaring horns and impatience.
It is all about Texas boogie, two-step, Southern-fried hospitality and squirrels that play among the birds on the lawn of the Tom Green County Courthouse.
San Angelo is about a controversial judge with a Geena Davis-drawl and a dry sense of humor, three lakes and once being hailed as the mohair capital of the world.
Councilman Jon Mark Hogg, who grew up in a big city, said he moved to San Angelo to get away from those things that it is not: crowded, hostile, crime-ridden.
Depending on who you talk to, San Angelo in April was the setting for the state to house hundreds of children and the mothers much like the concentration camps from World War II. The scene was about Nazi tactics, the annihilation of civil rights, religious persecution, about Texas justice gone sour. Or it was about saving children from a perverted, secretive sex-sect abusing young girls.
As the city's coliseum and neighboring pavilion filled with hundreds of FLDS children and mothers, the storm blew into town, flooding the city with hundreds of attorneys and even more media. Hotel rooms disappeared in the wake.
"There were no rooms to be had," said Eve Keim, a coordinator at the San Angelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Everybody was here everyone had an attorney. All the Child Protective Services people were here, the police, the Department of Public Safety, the sheriff's department. And all the media from everywhere."
The phones began to light up at the visitor center and echoed several blocks away at City Hall.
San Angelo had put on her best dress and wanted to know how to help.
"It was amazing the number of phone calls from people saying we will take in this child, we will take in this attorney, we will provide a bed. People opened their homes to total strangers," said City Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer. "You don't see that anymore. It says a lot for San Angelo people."
Keim and others said the town lived up to its marketing tag of "100,000 Friendly Texans."
It went from being home to a regional airport and more churches than you can shake a Bible at, to a new place on the map with an old history of giving.
Farmer proudly boasts that a few years back, San Angelo beat out every city in Texas in its Fill the Boot Campaign organized by firefighters to fight muscular dystrophy.
Born and raised in New Mexico, Farmer thought she came from the best, friendliest place on earth until she moved to San Angelo.
"Bar none, this is the most friendly, most giving, most caring community I have ever had the privilege to be associated with. I truly believe it is the all-American city. Regardless of political, religious, spiritual beliefs, people seem to trade off each other it's like being a child of the '50s when no one locked their doors. ... Sure, we have our caveats, demons and our problems, but they don't seem to be on the grand scale as elsewhere."
The out-of-towners bunked with strangers in hunting lodges, slept in rooms offered by members of local churches, and local hoteliers volunteered to wash sheets, serve food or do whatever else necessary where FLDS members were being housed.
San Angelo became the personification of Tony Garcia, a former California Catholic cooking up hamburgers and hot dogs adjacent to the courthouse during the massive CPS status hearings last month.
He and his fellow Calvary Chapel parishioners hauled in a big trailer, set up a tent and put up a grill. They served anyone and everyone who stopped by, and they served breakfast, lunch and dinner at Fort Concho to the FLDS people there.
And they did it for free.
"We don't ask for money. We believe where God guides, God provides," Garcia said.
'Do unto others'
That's another thing that San Angelo is all about lots of churches (more than its larger neighbor Abilene) and lots of Christians of a variety of flavors.
Here's what locals say it's not about: pushing religion or discrimination based on those flavors.
Hogg said when TV footage showed FLDS members being taken away from the ranch in Baptist church buses, he wondered if people would think what some people eventually said that it was all about religion against religion.
"I had that thought, too, but we are predominately Catholic and Protestant and Christian here," he said. "I think what it came to was it was them trying to show the love of God and Christ to these people in need."
Local cab driver Jennie Williams said the issue of the FLDS lands either black or white, not gray in the middle like religion.
"I don't know much about that faith. To me it's not about faith. It's about the abuse of little girls. I am in no position to judge their religious beliefs."
Farmer, too, said she doesn't know enough about the FLDS religion to make any comment.
"I only know what is morally wrong or right."
In a place that can snow in April, San Angelo rightly or wrongly transformed its relative west Texas obscurity in a New York minute and landed on a yard stick used to measure all that is Texas.
Councilman Dwaine Morrison shrugs off the attention.
"Everybody has pretty well understood and accepted it and realized when things have to be done, you just do it."
It's a no-nonsense Texas way of simply dealing with things, like the wallflower that gets shoved on stage unexpectedly and then helps the chosen homecoming queen straighten her tiara.
E-mail: [email protected]