St. Petersburg Times May 11, 1997
By MIKE WILSON
TILDEN, NEB. - In a no-stoplight town on the American plain, in a house
where the King James Version lies open in the entryway, a woman unfolds her
newspaper and begins to read.
The headline in the Tilden Citizen announces, "New Park Groundbreaking
Ceremony Held.'' A picture shows 13 people posed shoulder to shoulder, their
grins as frozen as the February soil. The mayor, a construction foreman on
his afternoon break, has the familiar job of holding the shovel.
A banner in the background says, "L. RON HUBBARD PARK."
L. Ron Hubbard? The woman pauses in her reading, searches her mental files,
retrieves a few scant details: Born in Tilden a long time ago, wrote
something called Dianetics, founded the Church of Scientology.
The woman read some Scientology pamphlets once, and found them vaguely
Now she wonders: Is Hubbard the kind of person his hometown should make
That afternoon, after tidying the kitchen, she fastens her infant son into a
stroller and pushes him three blocks to the Tilden Public Library. There,
she begins her research, which continues for days.
She copies the 1991 Time magazine cover story describing Scientology as "a
hugely profitable global racket" that operates "in a Mafialike manner." She
samples the Web sites where critics rage about "the cult of $cientology" and
its history of harassing its enemies with lawsuits and dirty tricks. She
absorbs a 1995 court opinion that denounces a Scientology legal blitz as
"reprehensible," and another that dismisses the church's founder as "a
Among Hubbard's own writings, she finds the Scientology Code of Honor and
goes cold at No. 12:
Never fear to hurt another in a just cause.
L. Ron Hubbard Park? The name won't do, Marcie Sextro decides. She has a
husband, a house to keep up, three children besides the baby boy, and no
experience as an activist. But she knows the park must not keep that name.
Back at the house, the Bible is open to the Gospel of John, and she is
certain that Jesus doesn't say anything about just causes.
LOVE AND HELP CHILDREN
A couple of years ago, the city of Tilden, Neb., conducted a survey to see
what the town needed most. One thing was a doctor. Dr. Bill Barr was getting
along in years, and would eventually retire. Doctors named Barr - Bill
Barr's grandfather, then his father and uncle, and now Bill himself - have
been taking Tilden's temperature since 1910.
The other thing people wanted was a new park with a ballfield, walking
trails, picnic areas, and so on. If Tilden - population 895, according to
the sign - was to survive, it had to attract families. A civic group had
already given the land. Twenty-two acres.
The City Council created the Friends of the Park Foundation to raise money
for the park, build it and maintain it. The park foundation - a feed
salesman, a florist, some insurance agents, a few others - decided to seek
donations from former Tilden residents who had become famous.
Two people qualified. One was Richie Ashburn, who was elected to the
Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. Ashburn's mother, who is in her 90s, still
lives in town, and shovels her own front walk when it snows.
The other was Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, who was born at 405 S Oak St.
on March 13, 1911. Hubbard's birth was the beginning and the end of his
association with Tilden. His family left town when he was an infant, and he
died in 1986 without ever having gone back.
The park foundation sent a letter to Los Angeles and quickly got a response
from a group called the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. This group - which said
it was made up of people, mostly Scientologists, who admired Hubbard - was
so eager to help that the park foundation never got around to approaching
The Friends of L. Ron Hubbard pledged $50,000 to help build a
biking-and-walking trail in the park. Later, they said they'd pay for the
whole park, whose cost exceeded $800,000 as the park foundation's vision for
it grew grander.
The Friends reached an agreement with the park foundation to name the park
after Hubbard and to call the bike path The Way To Happiness Trail.
Hubbard published a pamphlet called The Way To Happiness in 1981. Some of
the 21 Ways To Happiness echo the Ten Commandments: "Honor and Help Your
Parents," "Do Not Steal," "Do Not Murder." Some offer fatherly advice: "Be
Worthy of Trust," "Take Care of Yourself," "Love and Help Children." One
recasts the Golden Rule in a curiously relaxed way:
"Try To Treat Others As You Would Want Them To Treat You."
This was the deal: The people of Tilden could have their park, complete with
an ice-skating pond, wildflower meadow and baseball field. All they had to
do was name it after Hubbard and post his moral precepts on markers along
the Way To Happiness Trail, one every 190 feet.
All this might have happened if Marcie Sextro hadn't picked up her copy of
the Tilden Citizen and seen the picture of the groundbreaking.
After she did, Tilden began to experience some of the same fear and
confusion that befell Clearwater when the Church of Scientology quietly
began buying property there 22 years ago. Clearwater is now Scientology's
Tilden, a cluster of silos, barns and two-story brick buildings 150 miles
northwest of Omaha, straddles two counties, Madison on the east and Antelope
on the west. Scientology divided the town a second time, with the park
foundation people on one side and the Concerned Citizens Coalition - Marcie
Sextro and friends - on the other.
People who had known each other since the first grade didn't speak when they
met at the bank. Karen Decker, a park foundation member, would not pass
through the doors of the Johnsons' grocery store because the Johnsons were
aligned with the coalition.
In the midst of all this, strangers arrived from California, people whose
religious leader spoke of engrams and thetans and the galactic ruler, Xenu.
The Church of Scientology says its members got involved in the park project
on their own, not at the behest of the church. "The fact is that the
"church' was never in Tilden," president Heber C. Jentzsch, said in a letter
to the Times.
He'd have a hard time convincing Tilden of that.
SEEK TO LIVE WITH THE TRUTH
Three Scientologists visited Tilden in September 1995 as guests of the park
foundation. One said she was the director of the L. Ron Hubbard Office of
Public Relations International in Los Angeles. The others represented the
Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. This, they said, was the private foundation that
would give the money for the park.
The Scientologists stayed several days. They took a hayride to the park
site. They talked about the kind of tribute they would like to see there.
They had lunch. They handed out copies of The Way To Happiness.
They gave some books to the Tilden Public Library. One was called What Is
Scientology? That what was the question Tilden had to answer before it
decided what to do with the park.
What is Scientology? The church Web site says it is an "applied religious
philosophy" that seeks to help the individual "solve his own problems and so
better his own life." The church - which in 1993 was declared tax-exempt by
the IRS - says Scientology has helped countless people quit drugs and
alcohol and live happier and more productive lives.
Here's how: Hubbard said every human being has a "thetan" inside. He once
said thetans were sent to Earth, which he called "Teegeeack," by the cruel
king Xenu. This was 75-million years ago. Thetans go to Venus when their
The trouble with thetans is that they carry "engrams," lingering images of
past psychic injuries. Engrams confuse and sicken the beings they inhabit.
To overcome these painful memories - to "go clear" - one must receive
Auditing is a conversation between a trained Scientologist and the
"preclear," or subject. The auditor operates a device called an
Electropsychometer, or E-meter, which looks like a futuristic radio with two
tin cans attached by cords.
According to What Is Scientology?, the device "measures the mental state or
change of state of a person, helping the auditor and preclear locate areas
of spiritual distress or travail so they can be addressed."
Scientologists who go clear can become Operating Thetans. OTs can progress
through eight levels, with the highest known as Truth Revealed. The church
won't say what all this costs, but former members say they have had to pay
tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Marcie Sextro, 32, came across much of this information during her research.
The things she read did not make her a friend of L. Ron Hubbard.
She learned that 11 Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, went
to prison in the 1980s for infiltrating and burglarizing the IRS, the
Justice Department and other agencies to thwart their investigations of
And that Hubbard was suspected of stealing millions from the church and
socking the money away in Swiss banks.
And that federal authorities were seeking to charge him with tax fraud when
his thetan went to Venus in 1986.
The source for much of this was the 1991 Time magazine cover story,
"Scientology: The Cult of Greed." The church says the article is full of
lies and errors. It filed a $416-million libel suit against the magazine,
but a federal judge dismissed the suit last year, saying that "no reasonable
jury" could conclude that the statements in the article were published with
There was one other thing that disturbed Sextro. The church says Scientology
can be used to supplement other religions, but Christianity apparently isn't
one of them. Hubbard said Christ is a myth and heaven "is a very painful
Sextro - who goes to a foot-stomping, hand-waving, tongue-speaking Christian
church - took offense at that. So did the Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists,
and Church of Christ members who were helping her with her research. These
people didn't want anybody's religion in the park. And they wanted Hubbard's
there least of all.
Sextro and her friends - including another housewife, a teacher at the
Lutheran preschool, a bull rancher and an auto mechanic - took their case to
the mayor and City Council.
Which, it turned out, couldn't be bothered with it.
BE WORTHY OF TRUST
About the time the Sextro group was doing its research - the spring of
1996 - four members of the park foundation flew to Los Angeles to pick up a
$50,000 check from the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. The money was to be used
for the Way To Happiness Trail.
Why didn't the park foundation ask the Scientologists to put the check in
"It is our responsibility as citizens of Tilden to find out more about L.
Ron Hubbard," park foundation leader Dave Decker told the Tilden Citizen.
The park foundation people fulfilled this responsibility by spending three
days in a Scientology hotel at the expense of Scientologists.
They attended a reception at the Way To Happiness Foundation, toured the
Scientology publishing house and enjoyed a day at Disneyland.
Decker's wife, Karen, received a free auditing session in Los Angeles.
Scientology says the purpose of auditing is to improve one's "beingness."
Mrs. Decker reported that her beingness was about the same after the session
as it was before.
Dave Decker used to have a feed store on Center Street, but that didn't work
out. Now he's building a small shopping center and - like a lot of people in
Tilden - raising a few hogs. But mostly he works on the park.
"It's going to be something nice for our children," he says.
Decker, fiftyish, has a broken halo of brown hair, fingers like kielbasas,
half-glasses on his nose. His checks bear pictures of Daffy Duck, Bugs
Bunny, Elmer Fudd. "Most people, when I write a check, figure it's a Looney
Tune anyway," he says.
Decker says the town needs tourism for economic development. Including his.
The state of Nebraska is laying a 300-mile bike path that will run through
Tilden. Decker backed the park plans in hopes that tourists - including
Scientologists - would bicycle into town, veer off into the park and then
visit his shopping center.
He has heard that people using the state bike trail will spend $83 a day.
"They gotta spend that someplace," Decker says.
The Concerned Citizens Coalition first approached the Tilden City Council
last August. The council usually meets in a room the size of a one-car
garage, but so many people came that the meeting had to be held in the
gymnasium, between the basketball hoops and beneath the Nebraska state flag.
The townspeople sat in the bleachers.
After voting to let the fire department buy a ventilation fan for $850, the
council took up the park issue.
Stan Grubb said the Scientologists had to be stopped "before they get a
foothold in the community." Jean Marie Shermer waved a copy of the Time
magazine story, which the Concerned Citizens had provided to the council.
She said she didn't want a tribute to Hubbard in Tilden.
Scott James said Scientology is a religion, not a cult, and everybody should
calm down. Council member Darrell Wyatt said Scientologists do some pretty
darned good work.
The council took no action. This turned out to be what the council did best.
Most of the council members did not read the Time article, or any of the
other materials the Concerned Citizens gave them. Some still haven't.
"We have people refusing to be informed," Sextro says.
Not refusing, exactly. Declining. The mayor of Tilden, Steve Rutjens, is the
foreman of his family business, Rutjens Construction. He wears a baseball
hat that says "Ditch Witch," the name of a company that makes trenchers and
"I don't have time to sit down and read books to figure out what this stuff
is. I told them I wished they had an audiocassette," he says. L.
Ron Hubbard, Tilden's most famous son, may have been a genius. Or maybe he
was a demented liar. Rutjens really can't say.
The mayor and council members weren't prepared for such a contentious issue.
They serve mostly because nobody else wants to, and get paid a couple
hundred dollars a year for their trouble. Normally they make easy decisions
such as whether to spend $1,000 to replace the brooms on the street sweeper,
which they did, but then it broke down again.
When the park controversy started and people demanded that they take a
stand, they were taken aback. They hadn't signed up for anything like this.
The Concerned Citizens Coalition didn't let up. It hired a lawyer, a clear
indication that things in Tilden had gotten out of hand.
Attorney Mark Albin, whose office is in Norfolk, 22 miles east, made the
council members uncomfortable. He pointed out that the City Council had no
control over the park foundation. It had no idea how much money the
foundation had, where the money came from, or how the foundation was
This was important because the park foundation had used the $50,000 from the
Friends of L. Ron Hubbard to get state matching funds for the Way To
Happiness Trail. If the City Council decided not to approve a trail by that
name, and if the Scientologists took their money and went home, Tilden would
have to come up with $50,000 to make good on its deal with the state.
Albin had another point: What if the city built the trail and somebody sued
on the grounds that Tilden had violated the Constitutional separation of
church and state?
Not to worry, the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard said. The Way To Happiness is "a
common-sense moral code," not Scientology scripture.
Call it religion or call it common sense, the Way To Happiness was making
the Tilden City Council miserable.
Finally, Mayor Rutjens came up with a solution. It wasn't exactly
Churchillian, but it would have to do.
TRY TO TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD WANT THEM TO TREAT YOU
The members of the Concerned Citizens Coalition measure their words
carefully when they talk about Hubbard and the Church of Scientology.
They don't call it a cult of greed or a racket; they let Time magazine do
that. They don't mention that Hubbard falsified his military record,
claiming honors he didn't have; they leave that to the Los Angeles Times.
And they don't speculate about what happened to 36-year-old Lisa McPherson,
who died under mysterious circumstances after spending 17 days in the Fort
Harrison Hotel, the Scientology spiritual retreat in Clearwater. Instead,
the Concerned Citizens point to coverage of the case in the St. Petersburg
Times and the Tampa Tribune.
Sextro and the others don't speak ill of Hubbard or the church because they
know what happens to people who do. They read about Paulette Cooper, the
author of The Scandal of Scientology, who was framed by Scientologists on
charges that she made bomb threats against the church. Cooper was indicted
by a federal grand jury in 1973, only to be exonerated after the FBI raided
Scientology's offices and uncovered the plot against her.
The church says that's ancient history.
Just 18 months ago, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that a church lawsuit
against the Washington Post was "reprehensible" because its purpose was to
"(stifle) criticism and dissent of the religious practices of Scientology
and (destroy) its opponents." The church's Web site says the judge's
decision was "erroneous."
Even Dave Decker, Scientology's best ally in Tilden, is frank about the
church's tactics. "If you have ever defamed the church, you better be
careful, because they'll come after you," he says.
Still, he sees no reason not to honor Hubbard. The Los Angeles City
Commission did. If Los Angeles can have an L. Ron Hubbard Way, Decker asks,
why can't Tilden have an L. Ron Hubbard Park?
Decker says the park wasn't meant to promote Scientology, and the Friends of
L. Ron Hubbard took pains to distance themselves from the church that
Hubbard founded. The articles they wrote for the Tilden Citizen never
mentioned the word "Scientology."
Early on, Nebraska's Norfolk Daily News (circulation 21,000) published a
story saying the Church of Scientology was contributing to the park project.
The park foundation demanded a correction, and the paper published one that
said the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard are "not associated with the church."
Maybe not, but they certainly were dedicated. One day, Marcie Sextro got a
phone call from Dave Decker. Would it be all right if someone from the
Friends of L. Ron Hubbard called to talk about the park?
When Kaye Conley called, Sextro switched on her answering machine and said
she was recording the conversation. "I didn't trust her," she said. Yes,
things had changed in Tilden.
Conley said she didn't know why people were suspicious of the Friends of L.
Ron Hubbard. "It appears that it is considered that we have some vested
interest," she said.
BEEP! Sextro's answering machine emitted a loud, shrill sound, its way of
announcing that it was still recording. Conley gathered herself and went on.
But the sound interrupted her again, and then again, and then again, at
15-second intervals. The sound was a distraction at first, then an
annoyance, and finally a form of torture.
"Let's just forget that I'm a Scientologist . . ."
"Our children can't be educated because they're so drug-inflicted . .
"I don't know where this idea comes from that we worship some kind of devil
. . ."
Conley mentioned Scientology's opposition to psychiatry - especially
electroshock therapy. "We don't believe you can make a person better by
frying his brain . . ."
Conley gave up.
SUPPORT A GOVERNMENT DESIGNED AND RUN FOR ALL THE PEOPLE
This is what Mayor Steve Rutjens told the people of Tilden: I'll do whatever
you tell me to do.
If bending to the will of the majority doesn't sound like leadership, the
people didn't mind. In a place like Tilden, it's more important to be
neighborly than it is to be sure of yourself. A City Council vote on the
issue was scheduled for March 11 of this year.
Rutjens' "stand" turned the park issue into a numbers game: Whichever side
got the most signatures would get its way, at least with him. In the days
before the decisive City Council meeting, just about everybody in Tilden was
asked to sign a petition for one side or the other.
Both sides delivered their stacks to the city office before the meeting.
Most of the coalition's petitions were signed by longtime residents of
Tilden. Some of the names on the park foundation petitions were less
familiar: Rivera. Portillo. Morales. Ponce. Perez.
Guajardo. These were Mexican immigrants who live in a trailer park on North
Elm and work in the meat-packing plant in Norfolk.
In a city where second-generation families are seen as new blood, the
Mexicans are all but invisible. Some people might be inclined to
discriminate against them, but they'd have to notice them first.
Some in Tilden didn't appreciate the park foundation bringing the Mexicans
into the controversy. "They know nothing about the park and trail," City
Clerk Pat Borgelt says. Decker seized the opportunity to cry bigotry.
Borgelt finished tallying the petitions on the day of the big meeting.
If the council deadlocked, the mayor would know how to vote.
The council held the first part of the meeting in the garage-size room.
After voting to solicit bids for the shingling of the fire house roof, the
council members got up and walked to to the city gym, where 200 people in a
town of 900 sat waiting.
Tilden had a lot at stake. Business people who had taken a position were
suffering for it now. Old friends had stopped talking to each other. The
mayor had received two letters demanding that he accept the money from the
Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. The letters were from his mother and his niece.
Tilden - which had struggled to raise even a few thousand dollars - was now
being offered an $800,000 park. All the council had to do was say yes.
The meeting lasted until midnight. The park foundation spoke. The Concerned
Citizens Coalition spoke. Mayor Rutjens repeatedly asked the Friends of L.
Ron Hubbard what they would do if the city decided not to honor Hubbard.
Would they take back the money? The mayor could not get a straight answer.
By a 4-2 vote, the council decided not to name the park for Hubbard, and not
to build the Way To Happiness Trail. The mayor didn't have to vote.
After the meeting, the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard took back their $50,000 and
FULFILL YOUR OBLIGATIONS
A lot of people in Tilden don't want to talk about Scientology now.
The Lutheran pastor has no comment. Jeannene Kerkman, of the park
foundation, doesn't return calls. The wife of park foundation member Duane
Eggers says, "He isn't available." As in, ever.
But few people don't want to talk about Scientology as much as Jerry Fields
doesn't want to talk about it. Something, or someone, has made this Nebraska
insurance man as edgy as a little boy in the dark. He sits behind the desk
in his office, not talking. He won't even talk about why he won't talk.
"I really don't want to be in this," he says, meaning this newspaper story.
Or this office, this town, this area code.
Fields is the only person in Tilden who was on both the park foundation and
the City Council. As a park foundation member, he seconded the motion to
make a deal with the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard.
Later, in a City Council meeting, he voted against holding a public
referendum on the park issue. Clearly, the Hubbard people had him on their
Then some of the coalition members cranked up the heat. They told him they
would take their business elsewhere if he didn't vote their way.
He could lose his livelihood. The Scientologists pressured him, too, he
says. But he doesn't want to talk about it.
Jerry Fields empties his lungs with a long, shrinking sigh.
"People are cruel," he says.
He was among those who ultimately voted against honoring Hubbard. Soon
after, he quit the City Council and focused on selling insurance.
Hanging on the wall of Fields' waiting room is a plaque that the Friends of
L. Ron Hubbard gave him before he turned on them. It is inscribed with a
quotation from Hubbard:
"On the day when we can really trust each other, there will be peace on