Elizabethton High students win NPR podcast challenge

John Thompson • May 1, 2019 at 11:43 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Four students from Elizabethton High School have won a nationwide Student Podcast Challenge sponsored by National Public Radio.

Their topic was how the neighboring town of Erwin overcame the stigma of a century-old execution of a circus elephant, Mary. The podcast tells how the town honors elephants every year, raising funds for local charities and an elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

The network announced the podcast winners on Thursday morning, with Elizabethton taking the high school challenge and Bronx Prep Middle School taking the middle school competition. There were nearly 6,000 podcast entries in the contest.

The Elizabethton student winners are: John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull and Caleb Miller, They are juniors who are in a class which combines U.S. history and American English. They are taught by Tim Wasem and Alex Campbell.

Wasem is an experienced podcaster and was the first from the school to hear about the NPR challenge. Wasem is a team member of two podcasts. The first is “Erasable,” a tribute to the humble wooden pencil. His second is “The Membership,” which seeks to contribute to the health of the land and the community and is inspired by Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet, novelist, archivist and thinker.

There are 40 students in Wasem and Campbell’s combined classes. Wasem said a list of possible podcast topics was distributed to the students. The students who chose Mary’s story may not have realized how difficult it would be.

“First of all, it was by far the oldest story,” said Wasem. He said unlike the other topics, there is no one alive who saw Mary’s tragedy. The circus elephant was killed in 1916 after a large crowd watched a circus parade.

The crowd witnessed Mary respond to a beating by her rider by grabbing the man with her trunk, throwing him off her and stepping on him. That tragedy happened in nearby Kingsport.

With so many witnesses, no other town in the region would permit the circus in their town as long as “Murderous Mary” was a member. It was decided to execute the animal, but it was feared there was no rifle large enough to immediately kill Mary. That was when it was decided to take Mary to Erwin, which had the Clinchfield Railroad yard and a large railroad crane.

Mary was executed in Erwin, but that was not the end of the story.

Half the 12-minute podcast is devoted to telling how the people overcame the tragedy and turned it into something positive. How for generations the people of Erwin endured regionwide derision about being the town that hung an elephant. Most residents felt the criticism was unjustified because Erwin had no direct connection to the tragedy except that it had a crane large enough to hang the elephant.

Joe Penza, archivist for city of Elizabethton, encouraged the students to tell the rest of the story.

“The story of Mary is terrible, but it is how people are responding to that tragedy is another part of the story,” Penza said.

According to the podcast, the change began with the centennial of Mary’s execution. The town of Erwin, Janet Rice of RISE Erwin and others were instrumentsal in distributing forms of elephants around town and painted by local artists.

The elephants provided charm and color to the town and the town’s tragedy. The elephants were eventually auctioned off and the proceeds sent to the elephant sanctuary. The spectacle has become popular and profitable for local charities and the sanctuary.

When the elephants are auctioned, people in Erwin ask when the next herd of elephants will arrive.

The positive feelings about elephants was also captured by the Elizabethton students. Wasem said the students told him they had many hours of good stuff, but they were limited to 12 minutes.

Experienced podcaster Wasem said he only smiled and told them that was the reason why editing was so important.

Many of the judges of the contest obviously felt the students succeeded.

"This podcast took me on a journey," said Lee Hale, one of the judges and a reporter for KUER radio in Utah. "Halfway in, I forgot I was judging a student competition because I got so wrapped up in the story. The voices, the pacing, the arc — everything worked."

Wasem said several other groups also had excellent material and worked hard in editing. He expected that they also placed high in the national competition.