Chairmen of the Boards

Chairmen of the Boards

Chairmen of the Boards

How TikTok, COVID-19, ESPN and mad bag skills turned two Tigers into cornhole kings

HE’S WATCHED IT, heck, maybe 10 times now? Maybe 100? Who knows? It’s hard to keep track when people keep posting it on Facebook. If he sees it, then he’s watching it. If it’s on, he’s watching it. He’ll keep watching it as long as ESPN keeps showing it, until it sinks in.

Did they seriously go to Myrtle Beach and do the dang thing? Did he seriously take down Draven Sneed in overtime? Are people actually recognizing him, like, in public?

No joke, the other night at his favorite Mexican place back home in Phenix City, Ala., three people walk over: Aren’t you one of the guys who won the cornhole college championship? Same thing happened at the gym. Four guys go up to him and ask if he’s Travis Moore.

Heck yeah, he’s Travis Moore. And now he’s starting to understand how “Cornhole Blaine” feels.

BLAINE ROSIER SMILES AND SHRUGS. He doesn’t understand it, either. “Well, people started calling me Cornhole Blaine and I was
like, maybe I’ll just ride with that,” Rosier said. He’s had to hang on tight.

Cornhole Blaine brought over his custom Cornhole Blaine boards around 2 p.m. When it’s warm, they’re on the green space. On cold afternoons, they take over the fitness center basketball court at Trav’s place on S. College, crank up the country and go at it until Moore has to go study for hydrologic analysis, or until the lady at the front desk kicks them out.

Which today might be sooner rather than later. Blaine’s roommate, Sam, another Phenix City guy, came over to watch the show but opened the wrong door. So, today the best college cornhole doubles team in the country is throwing to a portable speaker soundtrack of as-loud-as-it-goes Morgan Wallen synced with a security alarm siren no one knows how to turn off. It’s deafening.

Blaine Rosier—Cornhole Blaine—and Travis Moore—the Travis Moore—don’t even notice. They’re in the zone. Rosier’s bag drops straight in. He tosses another. Same thing.

“I’m more of a push-and-slide guy, but Blaine’s airmail is really good,” Moore shouts. “I’m working on mine. They’re getting better. But that’s Blaine’s specialty.”

A year ago, Cornhole Blaine was just a guy, a junior in wildlife enterprises management stuck at home in Phenix City and going to class on the couch. He was bored. He saw a board. One Gen Z thing led to another.

“Well, I was joking with my sister, saying that I’d have more TikTok followers than her,” Rosier said.

He didn’t have a TikTok account. He’d never played cornhole beyond his backyard. But, hey, families were going viral for fighting COVID cabin fever in the wackiest ways possible. Posting videos of himself tossing one-pound bean bags into a hole? Why not?

His first video went up on April 2, 2020. Shirt off, visor on, tossing a few front-yard trick shots. Nothing special, not in his mind. He hashtagged it #QuarantineLife. He posted some more. Three days later, a clothing company reached out—his first sponsor.

Cornhole Blaine was born.

Nowadays, he just posts clips from practice and people watch. But early on, he’d get fancy. Airmails over the Cam Newton statue. Four-baggers into the bed of a moving pickup. Within a few months, it wasn’t just free T-shirts. Cornhole Blaine wasn’t paying for anything. Not his bags. Not his boards.

Going by followers, he has the second-most popular cornhole account on TikTok. The American Cornhole League (ACL) has 14,000 followers. Cornhole Blaine currently has 240,000. Another smile. Another shrug.

“One video was just us throwing on the green space,” Rosier said. “I posted it that night and woke up and it had, like, 2 million views.”

“Heck, the other day we looked, and it was over 18 million,” Moore shouts. “The caption is ‘College Cornhole Is Where It’s At.’”

Heck, is it ever.

Dazzle your opponent at your next cornhole match with these unofficial terms

When two players or teams cannot agree on the score.

When a cornhole bag lands in front of the hole, blocking the other bags from entering the hole.
When a single player gets four bags in the hole in a single round.
When a player tosses a bag and it goes into the hole without touching the cornhole board.
When a bag is tossed in cornhole and there is no spin or rotation during its flight.

HERE WAS A 19TH CENTURY PARLOR GAME similar to the pregame pastime that’s come to dominate tailgates over the past 20 years, and some websites actually try to trace it to Native Americans. But the best Trey Ryder, media director and color analyst for the ACL, can tell, the game he gave up an engineering career to promote first really bubbled to the surface at fairgrounds and family reunions around Cincinnati in the 1950s. 32 CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARDS Even still, the first actual mention of “cornhole” in the Cincinnati Enquirer didn’t come until a 2001 classified ad for a backyard bean bag game. A year later, there was a full feature on a new Queen City craze. Were bags once just socks filled with corn? Does that explain the name? Who can say?

 

“People are like, ‘why the hell is cornhole on ESPN?’” Ryder, 27, says.

“Then, 20 minutes later, they realize they’re sucked in.”

What Ryder knows for sure is that 2020 was the year of competitive cornhole. Partly because nothing else was on. But also because, man, it’s kind of addicting. And it’s about time. “People are like, ‘why the hell is cornhole on ESPN?’” Ryder, 27, says. “Then, 20 minutes later, they realize they’re sucked in.” The game had been growing for years, inspiring multiple socalled governing bodies that invoke self-proclaimed sanctioning powers with varying degrees of seriousness. But in 2015, a tailgate culture impresario named Stacey Moore, commissioner of the North Carolina-based ACL, turned competitive cornhole—first professional, then college—into a well-oiled, broadcast-ready machine complete with proprietary stat-tracking software, tournament-organizing apps, broadcast rights, pro contracts, and bratwurst-and-baked-bean sponsors. It was getting big.

Then came COVID. Then, again, came cornhole. Instead of canceling its season, the ACL announced a series of regional qualifiers in a bid to turn 2020’s lemons into lemonade that could—pandemic protocols in place—quench ESPN’s desperate thirst for live competition. It worked. ESPN started showing live cornhole. Not on some digital streaming thing. Not on ESPN3, but on the flagship station.

The Ringer.com recently wrote a piece on the game’s ascendance, crediting it not only to COVID, but to Ryder’s uncanny telestrator talent for turning cornhole into high drama. And, dang, it doesn’t get much higher than what those boys from Auburn did live on ESPN over New Year’s in the finals of the third annual ACL National College Cornhole Championship.

RYDER EASILY PLACES it in the Top 10 finishes he’s called. Maybe Top 5. The context, the characters, the comeback? Awesome. Rosier and Moore were down 12-1 in Round 10, but then the TikTok wunderkind (whom some even called a one trick-shot pony to his face) delivered a hard push that completely flipped the game.

The noise Ryder made when both bags dropped in was between “wow” and a groan. He hit it from so far down the board! In Ryder’s mind, it was the throw of the tournament.

Then there was the drama on the other side. King David had his stones. Travis Moore had his bags.

SENIOR YEAR of high school, he beat a pro in a charity tournament. That’s when Moore knew he was good. He found a partner, entered local tournaments and got serious. Civil engineering classes, however, sort of have a way of dominating your calendar. In college, if he got the boards out, it was for kicks, not cash.

But over “Shutdown Summer,” he started throwing again, doing tournaments. Thanks to the free time, the itch was back. When he saw his old buddy’s videos on TikTok, it turned into full-blown hives. He picked up the phone.

THE DAY BEFORE THEIR DOUBLES MATCH, North Carolina State’s Draven Sneed had won the singles national championship; Travis had tied for 5th. Sneed and partner Alex Lippard seemed primed to sweep it for the Wolfpack: singles and doubles. And maybe they would have.

Had Draven Sneed kept his mouth shut.

Moore starts grinning.

“Heck,” Moore shouts, “he yells down to his partner ‘boardit—let me get it.’”

Now, without getting into cornhole strategy and the fine print of the point system, just know that this was trash talk. Everyone there knew it. The crowd “ooohed.” Someone shouted, “I like it.”

It was the final round. Throwing against Lippard, Rosier had brought them back and put them in a position to actually win it in overtime—if it got there. Lippard had one bag left. He could have gone for gold with an airmail. Risky, but doable. The safe bet? Just get it on the board, send it back, and let Sneed claim another crown. Which is what he did. But not before the “Board It” heard ’round the world.

Moore shakes his head. “When he said that, I was just like ‘I can’t let this guy win again, no way.’”

It’s overtime. Moore misses to the right. Sneed misses to the back to Cornhole Blaine for double overtime. At best? War Damn Eagle.

The singles champ starts to sweat. He takes his hat off. He goes for a safe slide to send it back to Lippard.

The bag dips halfway into the hole—and then just hangs there.

Travis Moore—the Travis Moore—nearly bear-hugs Cornhole Blaine to the floor.

Once again, Trey Ryder, the world’s premiere cornhole connoisseur, is nearly speechless.

“What. A. Finish.”

Ref: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_FBvyNJhQo

THE MORGAN WALLEN IS STILL BLASTING. The alarm is still going off. Cornhole Blaine sets up his cell phone anyway. Gotta give the people what they want. They’re both about to graduate. Cornhole Blaine plans to keep riding, become an ACL pro and get paid.

Moore is starting to lean that way, too. There’s a job waiting on him at an engineering firm in Columbus, Ga. that he’s definitely excited about. But engineering jobs typically don’t get you recognized at El Vaquero. They typically don’t get your face on TV. Testing the waters of professional cornhole on the weekends? That just might.

“Heck, I turned on ESPN this morning and there it was. They were playing it again.”

“Did you watch it?” I shout.

He nails an airmail, Cornhole Blaine style.

“Heck, yeah.”

The Year Auburn Canceled Football

The Year Auburn Canceled Football

UNTIL THE BIGGER GAME IS WON

IT WILL SOUND FAMILIAR. Teams began cancelling their seasons over the summer. Sports sections read like obituaries for entire programs. Headlines heralded the end
of the game—you just couldn’t risk the health of the players. If you did, you risked the entire population of the country. Maybe even the world. The crisis was global. It
affected everything.

Still, people held out hope. Surely, come September—surely everything would be back to normal, or at least normal enough for touchdowns and field goals and
cheerleaders and hotdogs. The country needed it. People needed it.

But, unlike you and me, they didn’t get it. Not a single snap.

This is the story of the one year it actually happened — 1943, the year Auburn cancelled football.

THERE WERE A COUPLE OF MADMEN trying to take over the world, so, obviously, the handwriting was on the wall. But no one wanted to read it. And they definitely didn’t want to believe it—not after a season like 1942.

Sure, with a 6-4-1 record, there had been a few hiccups—all on the road, all in the rain, let it be known. But get ’em on a dry field and, man, oh, man, were the Auburn Tigers even better than that final No. 16 ranking! Those final three games? The blowout vs. Clemson in the only game at home? The upset over LSU? But most especially, forever and always, that upset win over No. 1 Georgia? We’re not talking some last-second miracle. It wasn’t a Hail Mary. It wasn’t some fluke field goal. No, it was a beating—a beating you were going to tell your grandkids about, the biggest upset of a generation.

Georgia had a great team led by Heisman Trophy winner Frankie Sinkwich and had gone on to win the national championship in 1942. And Auburn and mighty Monk Gafford, Auburn’s best back ever, had blown them out of the water.

Youtube Video – 1942 Auburn vs. Georgia

WORD WAS that Coach Meagher was bringing the video reels with him to the ballroom—that he was going to narrate the whole Georgia game after dinner! The 200 reservations were snapped up faster than ever.

Ol’ George Penton, the granddaddy of the old Montgomery Auburn men, was going to surprise the Little General with an inscribed wristwatch. “Jack Meagher, Our All-America Coach—Montgomery Auburn Alumni.” Everyone would cheer and then Meagher would hit the podium and hold up some “Gafford Sinks Sinkwich” headlines and introduce Monk, and then they would dim the lights and flip the switch and Genial Jack and his low tenor voice would relive it right in front of them.

Finally, Meagher would talk about the upcoming season and about how, sure, it might get interesting because of the war, and that they might be down a few practice balls because of the leather rationing, but that plenty of the current boys probably wouldn’t be called up for a couple of semesters, and that even if they were, there’d probably be some decent new material coming in through the Army Specialized Training Program. No, despite all the Chicken Littles, he just didn’t see the Army or the Navy saying no to the benefits of football. What better way to train a future fighting man to fight than the gridiron? Not to worry, ol’ Jack would surely say—they would find a way to do America proud and still beat the hell out of Georgia again. That’s what was supposed to happen that Wednesday night, Feb. 10, 1943, in Montgomery.

API President Luther Duncan stood up. The room got quiet. Dr. Duncan wasn’t smiling. After a few seconds, neither was anyone else.

Coach Meagher, Duncan said, wasn’t there. He wouldn’t be coming.

Lt. Commander Meagher, Duncan said, was on his way to North Carolina. Right then. At that very moment. Uncle Sam had called that morning. Meagher had said yes. He was reporting for active duty. For the past 12 hours, Auburn hadn’t had a football coach.

After a few seconds, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hartwell Davis, Class of ‘28, broke the silence. They were Auburn men, he reminded the room, they were Auburn women. He motioned that the club immediately wire Meagher a message:

“GOOD LUCK IN THE BIG GAME.”

JACK MEAGHER HADN’T EXACTLY BEEN SHY about wanting to return to the service. He’d been itching to come off the bench since Dec. 7, 1941. He’d withdrawn from Notre Dame to enlist in the Marines in 1917, finished the Great War as a captain, and still had connections with Navy brass who now wanted him in charge of the Navy’s physical training division. Made sense. If you can whip boys into shape for football, you can get them fit enough for a Flying Fortress.

So, no, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still a shock. People looked at each other. This did not bode well. It wasn’t just a feeling. Duncan was saying as much.

“I don’t know whether we will have intercollegiate football this fall or not.”

Meagher’s departure—and Duncan’s quote—hit the papers hard and fast, regionally and nationally. Every major paper in the country was eager to tease the To Play or Not To Play wartime narrative with whatever they could get their hands on. The football fate of the team that had spoiled a perfect season for mighty Georgia might now be decided not just by possible lack of material (which everyone would be dealing with to some extent) but the lack of a head coach, one Esquire Magazine had two years earlier called one of the top 10 in the country was too good to pass up?

Love of Country Trumps School Spirit!

It was too good to pass up.

Of course, it was natural to think an assistant could just handle things for as long as necessary. The only problem was that there weren’t any assistants. Most had already shipped off themselves. Porter Grant, Boots Chambless, Jimmy Hitchcock and some guy named Shug Jordan were already gone.

And now, suddenly, minus Meagher, they were also without an athletics director. Gentleman Jack had been pulling double duty.

But surely it was too premature to say something as drastic as no football. It wasn’t just Meagher’s reassurances. SEC bigwigs had been promising business as usual not two months earlier, promising that football was totally aligned with the war effort in every possible way—good for morale, good for fitness.

And Auburn had kept the gridiron going during the last conflict — which coincided with the Spanish Flu, no less—even when some other schools hadn’t. Why not now? Everyone understood that 1943 might look a lot different than 1942, and that they’d maybe have to bring some men out of the woodwork to coach the boys, but couldn’t it work out if there were still boys to coach, like the January 27th War Department directive made it sound like there might be?

Almost certainly not, said the February 12th War Department directive.

THE NEWS BROKE just two days after Meagher’s departure, and mere hours before President Roosevelt took to the airwaves to promise an expedited annihilation of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.

In the Loveliest Village, word spread fast. Forget the “in a couple of semesters” talk—it was time to kiss your sweethearts. And to try to get excited about another sport.

Because for Auburn and the 270 other colleges under the authority of the Army Specialized Training Program, as opposed to the less strict V-12 Navy College Training Program, the issue wasn’t just the new timetable, it was the new rules.

Any soldiers-in-waiting on campus might be able to play baseball, basketball, track, tennis, stuff like that. But risking life and limb for the fate of a football game rather than the fate of the free world was now out of the question.

The decision to officially cancel the game would still be up to individual schools. They could throw shoulder pads on civilians, schedule some games with whatever teams were left and call it a football season if they wanted. If they could get people to pay to watch 17-year-olds, or any 18-year-olds who hadn’t been processed, or any of the 4-F boys classified as physically or mentally unfit to defend the United States of America, more power to them. But any man fit enough for a fall roster was Uncle Sam’s, and Uncle Sam was no longer screwing around.

“Football,” read a common headline, “is Doomed.”

There were plenty of schools where that didn’t seem true. Auburn wasn’t one of them. Suddenly, the main issue wasn’t the lack of a competent coach. It was the lack of competent
players.

What would happen if they sent out 11 men who hadn’t gone through spring training—men who might even still legally be children!—against the Green Wave on the first Saturday in October? Tulane wouldn’t have as many varsity men as they’d had in 1942, but the ones they did have could still play football—they’d be Navy trainees. You could say the same for plenty of teams on Auburn’s tentative 1943 schedule. Georgia Tech had Navy men. LSU had Marines. Georgia thought they’d be allowed to tap into the university’s Naval Preflight Program team, a veritable all-star squad stocked with professional players from across the country. If Auburn lined up against its main rivals under current conditions, they’d be lucky to make a first down.

But, of course, the conditions seemed to change every day. These were crazy times. Plenty of folks across the conference thought the Army might ultimately reverse course. Duncan highly doubted it. But September was still a little ways off. There was still a month or two to decide.

Until there wasn’t.

IT WAS SATURDAY, JULY 3, 1943. Duncan walked up the stairs to Samford Hall. He could hear the yellow J-3 Cubs off in the distance. Seemed like there were never fewer than five overhead at any given moment. The 100 cadet pilots who’d taken up residence for training at the airport—the Navy had taken over the tiny facility—averaged 100 hours in the air each day. No one minded.

The Loveliest Village hadn’t slowed down much for the summer. Plenty of men were already at Fort Macpherson, but plenty were still around, hoping to get in one last Saturday night street dance behind Samford Hall before reporting Monday for 12 weeks at Officer Candidate School. The party was set to start at 8:15 p.m. It was going to be a good one, doubling as a special Independence Day celebration.

It was the furthest thing from Duncan’s mind.

He just wanted to get the afternoon and the whole issue behind him. He didn’t know how long the meeting would take. But he was pretty sure what the recently formed faculty committee on athletics was going to say.

By the beginning of the month, five SEC teams had already thrown in the towel. And then, Friday afternoon, the news from Knoxville hit the wire. That was six—half the conference. They handed him the piece of paper.

“It is recommended to the president that intercollegiate athletics at Alabama Polytechnic Institute be suspended for the present due to the insurmountable difficulties arising from the war.”

STUDENTS WEREN’T HAPPY. The Plainsman wasn’t happy. They understood, they accepted it. But the paper still insisted that the student body would cheer on any 97-pound weakling willing to strap on a helmet for the glory of Auburn. If they had to find some 17-year-olds, they’d find them. Hell, if the team needed underwire, so be it. Robert Allen, dean of the school of science and literature, and chairman of the faculty athletic committee, got out his typewriter. The Plainsman ran his letter.

The recent decision to drop intercollegiate football at API for the duration was reluctantly made by Pres. Duncan upon the unanimous recommendation of the faculty athletic commission, the executive council, and prominent alumni, long been associated with Auburn Athletics, who urged similar action.

Some of the factors influencing the decision follow:

The entire football coaching staff is in the Army. Only one member of last year’s football squad is on hand. The Army shows no disposition to modify its decision that college trainees are not eligible for intercollegiate competition. Auburn’s 1943 squad would have to be composed of 17 [sic] to 18-year-old boys and those classified into 4F or 2A.

Without the advantage of spring or summer practice under the direction of an able coaching staff it would be impossible to build a team in the fall that could offer reasonable competition to those having the services of Navy trainees or those still retaining their coaching staffs. Unsuccessful efforts were made to borrow the services of head coaches from other
Southeastern Conference colleges that have suspended athletics.

The majority of the SEC members have been faced with similar considerations and have elected to drop football. Those fortunate enough to have coaching facilities and eligible players are in the minority.

Under the circumstances, it did not seem possible to field a team that could acquit itself creditably. Every consideration dictated the wisdom of setting aside our intercollegiate sports until the bigger game is won.

Everyone had been invited to the stadium for the All Out For Victory pep rally. Students, soldiers, sailors and naval air cadets all were there. Cheerleaders were out in full force. Even football players, or former ones, at least—Monk Gafford and plenty of others from the great ‘42 team, still with the Army Specialized Training Program, yet to ship overseas, attended. It was Thursday night, November 18. Instead of Coach Meagher talking about what should have been the upcoming game against Georgia, Col. John J. Waterman talked on “Football Players at War.” Instead of orange and blue—red, white and blue.

“This time we were not yelling for the Auburn football team because there is no Auburn football team this year,” the Plainsman wrote a week later. “We were all down there yelling for a bigger and better team. The U.S. Army team! We were yelling for that team to march on to victory as our football team won victory over those Georgia Bulldogs last year.”

At the end of the night, everyone moved to the stadium parking lot. They lit the bonfire. Instead of papier-mâché bulldogs, they burned effigies of Hitler and Hirohito.

The Mark of Vorovoro

The Mark of Vorovoro

HAILEY CONQUEST’S IS JUST ABOVE THE CROOK OF HER ARM. It’s from a gospel song that the Fijian national rugby team sings before each match: “Eda Sa Qaqa”—we have overcome.

It was typical June night on Vorovoro, and she and the other 16 students who visited this past summer are in their sulus, gathered around Tui Mali on the floor of the great grand bure that Auburn and Bridge the Gap rebuilt in 2017. Their hearts are full, their tongues numb from kava, and they realize that Tui Mali — the chief of the Mali tribe! — is inviting them to watch the biggest rugby match of the year on the tiny solar-powered TV in his tiny house on his 200-acre island. It’s a big deal.

So they stay up until 2 a.m., head off past the water catchment system, bucket showers, medicinal garden and odorless composting toilets, and barefoot it over ferns and fronds and 3,000-year-old pottery fragments through the Fijian jungle to sit on a concrete floor with Tui Mali and his nephew, Bogi, and watch the boys who sing “Eda sa Qaqa” beat the U.S. for the championship. The amazing sun rises, and they parade back across paradise to their tiny tin-roof dorm, crawl into their mosquito-net beds and pinch themselves. The next night, they march into the grand bure waving tiny Fijian flags and singing “Eda sa Qaqa.”

Tui Mali always smiles. He smiled while granting them permission to stay during the sevu sevu. He smiled when they tried their first coconut shell of kava, and he smiled when they finally learned the moves to the meke. But Hailey had never seen him smile like that. Hailey’s a global studies major. She’s considering the Peace Corps, so the six credits’ worth of realworld lessons in natural resource management and permaculture and everything were amazing. But the smile — that’s what she’ll remember forever

 

Living A Totally Different Life

Global studies senior Haley Turner ’20 is no longer considering the Peace Corps — she’s signed up. It’s happening. Two years in Cameroon, all because of Fiji.

“We were just living this totally different life,” she says of her first trip. “It helped me learn to communicate with people from The College of Human Science’s Sustainability in Action trip leaves a mark on you very different cultures.”

 

Left to right: Nemani, Laura Vinzant, Sibley Barnette and Haley Turner.

That’s the most valuable thing she left with, she says — the skills to navigate social nuance 7,000 miles from Sky Bar. Like knowing not to show the tattoo to her homestay family when, like her friend Laura Vinzant ’19, she returned to Vorovoro a year later to help facilitate the 2019 Auburn trip as a Bridge the Gap intern. (The modesty-minded Mali can’t do much about the bikini-clad tourists who occasionally anchor illegally off the coast, but when Tui Mali adopts you as a daughter, it’s time to cover up.)

It’s not that she didn’t want to. You wind up closer to the folks you’re with during the “first-hand look into authentic island life,” as the Sustainability in Action website calls it, than anyone else you meet in Fiji. Three days in a Mali village, living with people who have hardly anything and still want to give it all to you? Vinzant’s host family had one bed. It was a pad. She got it.

It went the same for Turner. She spent her first night cuddled up with four kids on the home’s single mattress, waiting out a storm with…well, she doesn’t remember their names. To her, they’re still just Mom and Dad. And she couldn’t disappoint Mom and Dad.

“Mine is on my ribs,” she says. “I was like, ‘no, I can’t show you!’ But I’d just point to Laura’s arm because it’s the same tattoo.”

Vuvale — Fijian for family, literally “my home is your home.”

Sibley Barnette ‘18, a natural resources management graduate, and went to fight climate change on the shrinking shores of an island with no water source. But the four-inch outline of Vorovoro on her side isn’t a tribute to the environment—it’s an attempt to explain the experience, the sense of belonging.

At first, she’d planned to go with something about family, too. It seemed right. After three trips — one as a student, two as a Bridge the Gap intern — the place felt like home.

In the end, she kept the design but changed the words. There was just something in Tui Mali’s voice that one time, something in his eyes as he looked around at the eager young Americans working side by side with his people. It wasn’t a statement—it was a question.

“Rawa Va Cava?” — How can it be?

HOW TIGERS GOT TO FIJI

It was August 2010. Kate Thornton ’07, director of global education in Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences, needed a break from her dissertation. She turned on the BBC. There it was.
“Paradise or Bust” was a five-part reality show about two British entrepreneurs who, in 2006, transplanted an online “tribe” onto a practically deserted island to establish what they claimed would be the most unique ecotourism experience in the world.

There would be buildings! There would be publicity!

Tui Mali said yes.

So did Thornton.

“I promised myself that if I ever finished the paper, I’d go there,” she says.

Four months later, she booked one of the last vacations to Vorovoro via Tribewanted.com. She was in love.

“A year later, I was a new member of the team in the College of Human Sciences and had an opportunity to write a grant for a new study abroad program,” Thornton says. “I was just like, ‘I have to take students back to that place.’”

She emailed Jenny Cahill.

In 2009, Jenny Cahill’s family needed a vacation. She’d read about Tribewanted in one of the dozens of stories on the charming start-up experiment. It seemed perfect. She logged on, signed up for a month and wound up staying for 12, the company’s founder convincing her and her ex-husband to take over island operations for what turned out to be Tribewanted’s fourth and final year on Vorovoro. The work was fantastic. Until it wasn’t.

Bookings dried up. Buildings buckled. The Cahills and Tui Mali occasionally shared Vorovoro with just one or two backpackers for weeks at a time. Bad for business. Great for bonding.

Hailey Conquest with her Vorovoro family.

 

“We fell in love with the [Mali] community,” Cahill says from her Indianapolis home, in between calls with marketing intern Natalie Jaroch, an Auburn global studies junior who took the Sustainability in Action trip last summer. “We thought we could use our relationships to create a visitor experience that was something truly sustainable.”

Exchange instead of escape. Partnership rather than ownership. Precious water. Precious jobs.

“That,” she says of the labor of love she began in 2012, “is the idea behind Bridge the Gap.” And, yes, “absolutely,” she says as director—without Auburn and Kate Thornton, the gap wouldn’t be bridged.

 

Students participating in the meke.

PRESERVATION THROUGH PRESENCE

Cahill and Thornton connected through the Tribewanted message boards and stayed in touch. Until Thornton came calling in 2011, Bridge the Gap was essentially just an idea. University collaboration, however, provided the organizational infrastructure necessary to develop the most immersive study abroad program in the world, one that Auburn has helped pioneer.

“We’ve essentially built this model,” Thornton says. “Some of the Fijians we work with don’t have high school educations, but they’re sharing their expertise and knowledge with American college students, which puts them in a place of honor instead of service.”

On Vorovoro, students don’t just learn about a different culture—by their very presence, they literally help preserve it.

Currently, the Fijian government strongly encourages tribal chiefs interested in maintaining autonomy on their land to demonstrate “development,” which typically involves names like Hilton and Marriott. But by virtue of Auburn’s educational initiatives, sustainability studies and collaborative community improvement projects, Vorovoro — to the delight of Melanesian archaeologists, who in 2010 proclaimed it the oldest inhabited piece of the Fijian archipelago — now legally qualifies as a cultural center (i.e., a development).

Through Bridge the Gap, Auburn is protecting the Mali tribe’s past by providing its members opportunities to improve their future. And now Auburn is showing other universities how to do the same.

After eight exclusive years with Auburn, Bridge the Gap and tribe members are facilitating similar programs with Arizona State University and Purdue University.

“I never would have been able to reach out to these other schools,” Cahill says, “without working with Auburn.”

Tui Mali nods, just as appreciative.

“When [Tribewanted] was here, it happened so quick, I thought maybe another one can come,” he says. “There were buildings, but all going down. When Auburn University come, they start building up.” “That,” he says, pointing toward his beloved grand bure, smiling, “is from Auburn.”

Tui Mali

1 + 1 = 1

Tui Mali has a beatific little proverb about what’s been happening on his island. He says it so much, the students on the 2016 trip painted it on a board and nailed it to the coconut tree with all the distances posted on it: Auburn, where “Kate and the students” live —11,466 kilometers. Indianapolis, where “Mama Jenny” lives — 11,737 kilometers. There’s also a sign for Cegu Valley Farm, a 32-acre family homestead just outside the mainland city of Labasa that recently began offering select Sustainability in Action students an extra month of sustainability in action as beekeeping, kale-growing interns. But up top, in the place of honor: 1 + 1 = 1.

Sometimes the numbers don’t add up until the last day, during the goodbye song, or as everyone bawls as Bogi stands on the bow in his Fiji rugby shirt and leads a “War Eagle”, while little waving kids run after the boats along the shore. A few hours later, they’re at the five-star Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay for their first hot shower in forever. And everyone hates it.

They’re wasting water. They’re only watching the meke. They’re ordering kava from a menu.

The Sustainability in Action website calls it examining “the wealth of tourists versus the life of an average Fijian,” and it’s awful.

“(The resort) is in Nandi, where all the tourists go, and where there are lines people don’t really cross,” says Emily Strobaugh ’18, who graduated with degrees in global studies and English literature. Strobaugh went on the Sustainability in Action trip and interned at Cegu Valley Farms in 2017. “Native Fijians there are discouraged from talking to tourists…it was just so strange. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”

That’s when it sinks in. It’s not some kum ba yah cliché—on Vorovoro, it’s the solution to everything: 1 + 1 = 1.

Emily prefers it in Fijian: Dua Kei Na Dua Sa Dua. She got Tui Mali to write it down for her. She wanted it in his handwriting.

She didn’t wait till she got back to the states. On the day between the end of the study abroad and the start of her internship, she took the piece of paper to downtown Labasa, pointed to the back of her neck and told the tattoo artist “just like that.”

Fiji sign

Whether it’s a month with a Mali Tribe or a semester of language learning in Spain, Auburn offers countless study abroad choices. See auburn.edu/academic/international/auab for a full schedule and read on for a few more examples.

BIOMECHANICS AND ENGINEERING IN THE ARTS

People don’t typically associate engineering with the arts. Biomechanics and Engineering in the Arts is out to change that. Participants in this new study abroad offering from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering head to Florence, Italy to learn the biomechanics, roots of ballet, opera, the symphony and even painting by exploring the lives and engineering influence of Leonardo Da Vinci and Giovanni Borelli, the father of biomechanics. eng.auburn.edu/global

JOSEPH S. BRUNO ITALY PROGRAM

You can’t talk Auburn study abroad options without mentioning the popular Joseph S. Bruno Italy program. Three months studying Italian art in a 15th-century palace in the Roman suburb of Ariccia? The College of Human Sciences tells students that their assignment is simple: “Experience everything.” By trip’s end, participants will have an international minor in human sciences. humsci.auburn.edu/global/studyabroad.php

SPAIN SEMESTER PROGRAM

Want to learn Spanish? Move to Spain. Students who take advantage of the College of Liberal Arts’ immersive Spain Semester Program in quaint Alcalá de Henares improve their language skills by living with host families on the outskirts of Madrid. Students study at the Universidad de Alcalá, which is located in a renovated 17th-century convent. cla.auburn.edu/forlang/study-abroad

 

THE ROLE OF FORESTS IN HUMAN LIVELIHOOD AND HEALTH IN AFRICA TRIP

A trip led by faculty in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences examines environmental health, public health, animal health and economic development in both South Africa and Madagascar. In addition to taking in stunning scenery, students pursue holistic, multidisciplinary solutions to problems that affect humans and animals. sfws.auburn.edu/student-life/study-abroad

For Pete’s Sake

For Pete’s Sake

Pete in front of Samford and Langdon

It’s a long, crazy story that he pretty much just chalks up to divine intervention, because he says there is really no other way to explain it. But before you read any more about how, once upon a time, he quit his engineering job to paint pictures of an ugly little cat that somehow became a beloved children’s book character so popular Leonardo DiCaprio’s manager helped turn it into an animated Amazon Original series, James Dean ’82 needs you to know something.

He needs you to know that he doesn’t hate Auburn.

“I think it actually used the word ‘hate’,” he says of the last time someone wrote about him and Pete, back in March 2019.

I try to click on the story to check, but it does not load.

“Well, that’s not the truth, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen with this article.”

He is in the car as he is telling me this, on the way to Fort Payne’s second annual Pete the Cat Day, and he is kind of laughing as he says it. Because that is what James Dean does — he laughs, he smiles, he wears crazy hats, he cries. He is an emotional guy; when they introduced him last year at Fort Payne’s first Pete the Cat Day, he’s not sure how long he just stood there sobbing on the sidewalk, but it felt like a while. Hey, comes with the territory, he says — he is an artist. But you can hear it in his voice — the idea that he hated Auburn? Nothing funny about that. That bothered him.

Sure, he was kind of an Alabama fan growing up in Huntsville and Fort Payne, Ala., as were plenty of folks in his family who still haven’t forgiven him. But dang if he didn’t fall in love with the Loveliest Village in, like, two minutes. He can still hear how the stadium sounded during his first football game. He can still hear all the shouting during the Friday Night Free Movies at Langdon Hall. Even the food was great in college. During freshmen orientation, they took him to this new place called Momma Goldberg’s that had these crazy things called bagels. You were supposed to put cream cheese on them. He got one. “They steamed it so that it was soft,” he says. “They were awesome.”

So, once again, for the record, no — he does not hate Auburn. Nor did he ever hate Auburn. Auburn was great.

Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes; James Dean's first book
Pete the Cat wearing a War Eagle sweater

CHOOSING MATH OVER SNOOPY

It was just that trying to learn electrical engineering was kind of brutal, he says — that’s all. That is what he told the reporter — that engineering was hard and that he struggled, and that he would sit on the steps of Samford Hall at night wondering how on earth he was supposed to be an engineer for the rest of his life. But coming out of Fort Payne High School in 1976, that is what he wanted to be. Or rather, that is what he thought he should do. There was a recession on, after all. Artists were not exactly in high demand. Sure, he liked painting and drawing, and he was great at sketching Snoopy. But he was also pretty good at math. His family didn’t have much money growing up—but engineers did.

So go to Auburn, everyone told him. Great engineering school, everyone told him.

His favorite class?

Art — basic drawing — during his last quarter. It was 1982.

“I have this really vivid memory of walking past the art building, and there were students out on the grass drawing pictures of buildings, and I wanted to do that,” Dean says. “My teacher was fantastic. He taught me a lot. By the end of the quarter, he said ‘You should think about studying art.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m graduating.’ But that always stuck with me. He thought I had some talent.”

He graduated, took a job with Georgia Power in the land of Herschel Walker and did not draw anything for a decade.

“I didn’t draw at all for ten years when I moved to Athens,” Dean says. “That was not a great time to be an Auburn fan living in Athens.”

AN ARTIST IS BORN IN ATHENS

For the rest of the ’80s and into the ’90s, James Dean was an electrical engineer, utterly and completely, pencils down, paints put away, driving from rural Georgia substation to rural Georgia substation, making good money. The dream was dead. Until it wasn’t.

He could not remember the professor’s name, but he still remembered what he had said. In a town like Athens, it was hard not to want to be an artist. It was small, but the place was becoming a little cultural mecca. Great bands. Art fairs. It finally got to him. In 1993, he got out the watercolors and acrylics.

He started drawing and painting the town, mostly the hip Georgia Theatre. He started painting country landscapes. He started showing his work. People liked it. They started buying it. He took the act on the road. New Orleans and Savannah. Those people started buying it, too.

Four years later, in 1997, he turned in his notice to Georgia Power and stopped getting haircuts.

“Everybody in my family thought I was crazy,” he says.

“I probably was.”

But he was an artist, finally, utterly and completely.

Then he adopted a cat.

THE TALES OF SLIM AND PETE

He laughs.

“I told you this was a long story,” he says. “I had a cat named Slim for years, and Slim passed away and that really bummed me out. I knew I couldn’t ever replace Slim, but I ended up getting this little cat at the shelter. He was tiny, starved, an ugly little cat, but he wanted to play, so I took him home and named him Pete. I don’t even know why.”

And who knows why Dean’s friend even suggested he paint a picture of Pete one day? Maybe because Pete would just sit in Dean’s lap while he painted. Whatever the reason, Dean was not feeling it.

“I told her I didn’t want to be a cat artist.”

Then he became a cat artist. He relented. And everyone lost it. It was 1999.

“It was pen-and-ink and I painted him blue since people might think a black cat was bad luck,” Dean says. “People went crazy over this first little five-minute painting I made of Pete.”

So he tried it again. And again. People could not get enough of Pete the cat. Pete driving a van. Pete walking Abbey Road with the Beatles. One writer described Pete as “a two-dimensional mascot of the local indie-art circuit.” He was all over town —first in Athens, then in Decatur, just outside Atlanta, which is where Dean moved in 2001, about a year after Pete, the three-dimensional Pete, went missing. Dean was torn up about it.

“I love cats,” Dean says, “but you can’t keep them forever.”

True, but if you start painting pictures of them and never stop, you can get pretty close.

Want to know the secret to success? The best advice former-electrical-engineer-turned-cat-artist James Dean can give is this: When you find something that connects with people, keep giving it to them. Be relentless. Paintings. T-shirts. Maybe a book.

People had been telling him he should do it for a while. Kids would love it, they said. A “Pete the Cat” book? That would sell.

One day, Dean and his wife, Kim, got out a notebook and gave it a go. Thirty minutes later, they were in the biggest fight of their marriage. They still talk about it. It is part of Pete the Cat lore. In sickness and health was no problem. In creative collaboration was another story. He pumped the proverbial brakes.

A couple of years — and a million passed-out James Dean, Cat Artist business cards — later, he pumped the literal brake.

It was a regular summer day in 2006. Dean was out cruising for paints and brushes in his 1965 Impala, newly customized with huge Pete the Cat stickers.

“I’d lost my mind at this point. I was all in,” Dean said.

The light turned red. He came to a stop right outside Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. “I look over, and there was this guy standing on the corner and he says, ‘Hey, you’re the Pete the Cat guy. I just recorded a song for you.’”

The guy was Eric Litwin, an educator well-known among Atlanta’s open-mic night aficionados for his penchant for penning children’s songs. His latest? A song about a girl with white shoes that he had finished recording not five minutes earlier. Only, on a whim, he had changed the lyrics — instead of a girl with white shoes accidentally stepping into a pile of strawberries, it was that cat character all over town created by the guy in the 1965 Impala suddenly right in front of him. Dean gave Eric his email address, and a partnership was born.

Dean and Litwin self-published and 7,000 copies of “Pete the Cat’s I Love My White Shoes” were gobbled up at art shows and festivals in less than a year.

Dean loves it when he finds someone who still has one of the original copies.

Fairhope Mayor Karen Wilson still has hers.

THE CAT GOES NATIONWIDE

All 1991 Auburn graduate Karen Wilson wanted was some artwork for a project she was working on. She had seen a Pete the Cat poster somewhere, and she had pointed at it, and said ‘yes’—that was the aesthetic she needed. She contacted Dean and told him she owned a bookstore that had been in her family for, at that point, 40 years. That’s when it happened.

Wilson calls it “the dreaded conversation.” It’s when people send her a book to read after finding out she owns a bookstore, and it’s bad.

“Ninety-nine percent of people are going to bring you something that you’re not going to have time to read or that you’ll have to come up with something nice to say about because it’s simply not sellable,” Wilson said.

As soon as “I Love My White Shoes” arrived in the mail, it was obvious — James Dean was in the one percent.

“Writing a children’s book is an art that most people think they can do, but it’s very difficult,” Wilson said. “It’s harder than a novel, I think — harder than any other type of book — because the art is in the brevity, and yet it has to be enjoyable to the adult.”

“For me, it was one of the best kids’ books I’ve ever read,” Wilson says.

She called Dean back and began gushing. Dean remembers it well.

“She looked at my book and said, ‘I’m going to make you famous,’” he says.

Last summer, Amazon announced a new animated original series called ‘Pete the Cat,’ based on the now more than 60 “Pete the Cat” books Dean has written and illustrated since HarperCollins Publishers signed him and Litwin to a two-book deal that included a new edition of “I Love My White Shoes” in 2010. Only four of those books were authored by Litwin; the dynamic duo parted professional ways in 2012. Dean kept going, enlisting Kim’s help along the way as coauthor.

LEO’S NEW LOVE

How many titles have made The New York Times’ Bestseller List? Thirty? Forty? Dean lost count.

Leonardo DiCaprio might know.

“I haven’t met him or anything, but he knows about the ‘Pete the Cat’ books,” Dean says. “He has them at his house and gives them to children and stuff.”

The DiCaprio connection started the latest chapter of the long, crazy story of Pete the Cat. Leo loved Pete. Leo told his manager about Pete. Leo’s manager called Dean. This was in 2015. Somehow, a producer for the long-running Disney cartoon “Phineas and Ferb” got looped into the conversation and agreed that Pete the Cat would make an excellent children’s show. It has.

The series, which features the music and voice of Elvis Costello, debuted to rave reviews last September and is gearing up for its second season.

Dean still pinches himself sometimes.

“God works in mysterious ways,” he says. “I’ve seen it over and over.”

Thank God he adopted that cat. Thank God he painted a picture of it. Thank God he stopped at that light. Thank God he had the courage to quit the job he went to school for — War Eagle.

“I tell people that after I went through engineering school, I had so much confidence in what I could do,” Dean says. “Everything in my life has been easy compared to engineering school. I think I actually use a lot of the skills I learned at Auburn in this business, in being an artist. Just the fact that I’m not afraid of numbers? That’s a huge thing in life. It’s hard. They put you through the ringer. But I don’t want to give the impression that I hated it.”

I click on the link one more time, just in case. It works. I start reading.

“So did they actually use the word ‘hate’?” he asks.

“Yep, looks like,” I respond.

He groans.

“I love Auburn.”

Pete at Momma Goldberg's Deli