LESSONS FROM THE HOTLINE

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Joel Dyer/Hand-tinted photo: \"Turning Their Backs\"

Back then, Glen didn’t sleep much. Rumor was he had apnea or some other sleep disorder, but it seemed to me that the middle of the night was just when most farmers chose to kill themselves, so 2 a.m. tended to be rush hour around Glen’s place in Oklahoma City.

Glen Wallace is a psychologist, my friend, my brother’s father-in-law and the guy who answered a lot of the hotline calls from suicidal farmers back during the farm crisis of the 1980s and early ’90s.

Of course the myth is that the crisis ended back then, which it didn’t. It’s still alive and well in quite a few places. It just slowed down on paper because once most of the small family farms had disappeared by way of foreclosure, there were fewer mediumsized farms left to fail and now it’s the big farms. So, statistically, it all looks to have improved, but looks don’t mean much when the bankers come around.

Losing a big, medium or small family farm all feels the same to the families left behind to clean up after a shotgun under the chin. Yes, you can reach the trigger from that position. Trust me.

I was looking for a big project to report on when I first met Glen. Being from Oklahoma, the idea of farmers being forced off their land seemed a good fit for me emotionally, but I had no idea how the path I was about to head down would change the course of my life. Not only would I be following this story and its many twists and turns for the next 25 years, I also learned a few lessons from Glen along the way that I like to think have served me well both professionally and personally.

The farm crisis and the fact that suicide had become the number one cause of unnatural death on the family farm is the kind of under-reported story that grabs you and won’t let go.

Thanks to Glen, I was given the opportunity to observe, and in some ways come to understand, the profound grief that accompanies losing a family farm or ranch, at least as much as a writer descended from a line of landless barbers can.

It’s not a simple thing to wrap your head around. The loss of a family farm is a powerful force that defies logic in many ways. It’s not like other business failures. You can’t just move on. It’s more like losing a member of your family or more precisely, like losing all the members of your family at the same time.

When a family farm goes into foreclosure, it’s most often a farm that someone’s grandparents built and passed on to their kids who then gave it to their kids with the intention that it be passed on to future generations. In many ways family farmers see themselves as trusted caregivers given the monumental responsibility of passing on the family’s heritage via the land itself.

So when a farm family loses that land, they feel they have failed, even betrayed all those who came before, as well as their own kids, grandkids and the countless generations that should have inherited the place down the road. The shame of this failure creates an unimaginable guilt that often leads to severe depression, which explains why suicide is so often the final outcome of farm foreclosures. This is true not only in the U.S. but around the world from Mexico to Australia to India.

It’s hard to understand the level of anguish until you see it. Consider the case of Katherine Copeland, a 54-yearold farm wife, kindergarten teacher and mother of three who was a model of stability until the stress of losing her family’s farm to forces outside her control got hold of her.

Katherine lived on her farm with her husband Eugene in Chattanooga, Oklahoma, where they raised cotton and cattle. It all seemed to be going well until the Federal Reserve decided to fight inflation by radically raising interest rates on farm loans in the early 1980s. That, combined with low commodity prices brought on due to years of corporate consolidation that left only a few giant monopolies to dictate the prices that farmers would get for their crops, was simply too much to overcome. But, like I said, it’s not like other business failures.

The pain for Katherine Copeland grew so bad that she needed a way out, she needed a way to punish herself for failing generations of her family. So on July 9, 1986, she walked out to a burning barrel of trash in her backyard and laid herself on top of it until she burned to death. What kind of mental pain can even make such a horrible thing an option? Katherine Copeland was just one of nearly a million family farmers forced from the land that year alone.

One of those other families was the Stalders who lived just outside Gracemont, Oklahoma. Like the Copelands, they were losing their farm to global economic forces they couldn’t control. The anger, pain, despair and guilt finally got the best of Bill Stalder and in the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1986, he killed his wife Susan, his 16-year-old daughter Jamie and his 10-year-old son Jeremy. He then went outside and shot the family dog and carried it inside and laid it with the rest of the family. He then covered the house and barn in gasoline and lit them on fire before finally turning the shotgun on himself as he sat with the bodies of his family members and dog.

The Stalders were a much beloved family in the tiny town of Gracemont. Nobody saw it coming.

When investigators arrived to sort things out and look for a motive, it didn’t take long. In the burned out ruble of the barn they found Bill Stadler’s journal. The last entries described his anxiety over losing the farm. And then, like a scene from a movie, the final entry was simply the word “responsible” written over and over again until the pages ran out.

It’s hard to fathom that kind of pain. It’s hard to understand what losing a family farm means to those who experience it.

As I reflect back on the days when I did ride-alongs with Glen on farm suicide calls, I am still in awe of what I witnessed and the lessons I learned.

First came the calm in the face of the storm.

Most times the farm we were headed for was a couple of hours away. So we had, from my perspective, way too much time to think about what we were walking into. The original phone calls often came from a spouse or child who would explain that someone in the family had been drinking, had a gun, had locked themselves in a room and were saying they were going to kill themselves and anyone who tried to stop them.

Glen’s response during our twohour drive was to make me play a game of spades on the dash of his car while careening down old two-lane highways and dirt roads at 70 miles an hour. Thank God most of Oklahoma’s roads are laid out in pencil-straight lines. Even so it got pretty crazy at times as cards slid into the defrost vents or under the seats, but the ensuing laughter and distraction was exactly what the doctor, being Glen, had ordered.

He understood what I didn’t back then, namely that we would find what we would find when we got there, and that we couldn’t impact a single thing between now and then so why waste two perfectly good hours of life imagining some horrific scenario that may or may not exist. Just a reminder, this was in the days before cell phones so there really wasn’t anything that could be done while driving.

Next came bravery or insanity… or faith if you asked Glen, that moment of truth when you’d pull up in front of a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere knowing that something terrible was going on just inside that front door.

Glen never hesitated, never took a deep breath, never cut loose a sigh. He just hopped out of the car and marched straight up to the door and knocked. If it wasn’t answered quickly he just pushed it open and went inside announcing that it was “just ol’ Glen Wallace dropping by.”

For me, these times felt like being the first to arrive at a car wreck. You know you have to stop and help but you sure wish you didn’t. I’d sigh. I’d hyperventilate. I’d take as long as I could to get from car to door in the hope that someone would stop me before I got there. Glen was always in and out of sight before my brain could make my legs take steps.

It’s hard to describe what would happen next, a combination of bravery, truth, empathy and strategy. Here’s a real example as best I can still recall:

“Get out of here or I’ll do it,” yelled the man in the recliner holding a shotgun and sitting next to a mostly empty bottle of whiskey. The room looked like a tornado had blown through.

“Well, if you’re gonna do it I won’t try to stop you, but I would like a cup of coffee. Just wait till I make a cup and then you can do whatever you want,” Glen responded as he disappeared into the kitchen and started making a pot of coffee.

Once inside, Glen never stopped talking.

“What do want in yours?” 

“I don’t want coffee,” the man yelled. 

“You drink this Folgers? I like that, but it’s getting expensive these days. All coffee’s getting expensive. Do you remember what you paid for it?” 

Silence. 

“I’m going to put a little sugar in mine. You want sugar?” 

Finally, after what seemed the longest one-sided conversation about coffee ever, Glen filled two cups and headed across the living room toward the angry, desperate man holding the loaded gun.

“Stop right there. I’ll do it. Stay back, I’ll kill us both.”

Glen never even slowed down, just kept walking toward the guy talking about trying not to spill the cups of coffee.

He set one down next to the bottle of whiskey and took a seat in the chair cattycorner to the man.

Next came truth. It would be easy and even forgivable in such life and death situations like those that Glen faced so often to tell people what they wanted to hear to get them not to hurt themselves or others, but Glen never did that. He told them the truth.

In the instance described above, Glen looked right at that guy holding a gun, desperate as a cornered animal, and told him he knew they were going to auction off his family’s farm and there wasn’t anything in the world that anyone could do to stop it.

He went on to relate that he understood the pain because, like that man, he too was a farmer. Glen had grown up on a family farm and still farmed cotton with his brother and nephews in the southwest part of the state.

Over the next few minutes, Glen explained that while the man was definitely going to lose his farm, he didn’t have to let them take his life too. He didn’t have to stop fighting for other farmers’ right to stay on the land and he didn’t have to miss out on all the future good times with his wife and children.

That’s the point where he brought me into the room and explained that I was a journalist and that even if the man still intended to kill himself, he should at least tell his story to me first, so that it could help other farmers going through the same hard times and maybe, just maybe, cause a politician or two to try and stop the foreclosures and end the crisis.

Of course, such stories, unaccompanied by campaign funds, never persuaded politicians to stop anything. But by the time the man had finished telling his family’s story, several hours had passed, he had mostly sobered up and his rage had turned to tears.

It seemed a bit of a miracle, really. 

Not once had Glen faltered from telling the hard truth. Not once had he offered the man false hope. But because he had delivered the truth coupled with true empathy, another life was saved that day.

We eventually drove the old farmer to a mental health facility in Western Oklahoma where he agreed to go in-patient for 30 days. I never heard, but I like to think he made it in the end. Not all of them did.

After we dropped him off, we drove two and a half hours back to Glen’s house and were there for less than a half hour before the phone rang. Ten minutes later we were driving several hours south to Ardmore, Oklahoma where Glen would make coffee and talk another farm couple out of ending their lives.

Thank God for apnea. How many lived because Glen couldn’t sleep?

In the years since we were driving from suicide to potential suicide, I have pondered how this experience with Glen Wallace shaped my life.

Professionally, it led to my opportunity to write several books. It allowed me regular work in the major news magazines and to become a writer and regular pundit for World Affairs Television, Canada’s version of Meet the Press.

But that’s not the important part. The important part of what I learned was personal. The life lessons like don’t waste a moment worrying about something you can’t do anything about right now; or how real and honest empathy is the most powerful tool we have to do good in the world; and finally that truth, no matter how difficult it seems to apply to certain situations, is always the right answer.

I’ve still got a lot of work to do on all of these, especially bravery. I still sigh a lot and move slowly when confronted by fearful circumstances.

Perhaps Glen is right and being brave is just a matter of faith. I’ll keep plugging away at that one.

One thing for sure, that farm suicide hot line changed a lot of lives thanks to Glen Wallace, including mine.