NPR Podcast winners Jaxton Holly, John Gouge, Caleb Mille, and Deanna Hull receive keys to the city from Mayor Doris Hensley.(Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

A group of four students from Elizabethton High School have been named honorary citizens of the Town of Erwin and even received keys to the town.

These students earned that honor thanks to a podcast that explains the history of Murderous Mary and how the Town of Erwin has worked to turn that negative event in its past into a positive.

During the May 13 Town of Erwin BMA meeting, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley presented EHS students Deanna Hull, Caleb Miller, Jaxton Holly and John Gouge with a key to the city. The students worked alongside teachers Alex Campbell and Tim Wasem on the podcast.

The podcast won a national contest held by NPR, which aired the podcast during its “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” programs, on Wednesday, May 15.

Campbell explained to The Erwin Record why the students chose Erwin to be the focal point of their podcast.

“We decided that we wanted the students to choose a local history story or a local person,” Campbell said. “At first they decided they wanted to do the history of Murderous Mary, but after speaking with the mayor, and with (Erwin Communications Specialist) Jamie (Rice) the students decided to cover the topic from the past and present.”

According to Campbell, the students worked on the winning podcast for nine weeks.

“All of the podcast was so good, we thought they would do well,” Campbell said.

Campbell was impressed that students could take pride in the stories in this area.

“It built a lot of pride and appreciation between the students and the community,” Campbell said.

Rice said she was honored to be a part of the project.

“The mayor and I were approached maybe two or three months ago to help these EHS students with a project about Mary, and I don’t think either of us had any idea they were entering it into a podcast competition, especially NPR,” Rice said.

According to Rice, Hensley came into her office about two weeks ago very excited and shouting, “We won, we won, Mary won.”

“When I asked what we won, she told me about the NPR contest,” Rice said. “I was completely floored.” 

Rice said the Town of Erwin jumped at the chance to work with the students.

“We had no apprehension whatsoever,” Rice said. “I always enjoy telling our story of redemption for Mary. Had I known it had the potential to be heard by a nationwide audience, I probably would have been much more nervous.”

According to Rice, the story of Mary deserves to be told.

“Twenty-eight million listeners will hear a new elephant story, and we, as a community, do not have to hide or be ashamed of this sad event any longer,” Rice said. “A 100-year-old tragedy has been transformed into something full of life and positive outcomes, and we have significantly changed the perspective of Erwin’s relationship with elephants for future generations.”

According to Rice, the students did an amazing job.

“I am so impressed by these Elizabethton High School students, and they really had done their homework and had really great open-ended questions,” Rice said. “I loved how they used all our different voices to tell the narrative of the story.”

According to Campbell, students need more projects like this.

“It just validates that our students need projects and ways to create, and they need connections to the community,” Campbell said. “It’s like what Andrew Jackson said, ‘You give me 1,000 people from Tennessee, I’ll whip 1,000 of anyone else from anywhere in the world.’ I feel like you give me four students from Elizabethton, I can whip four students from anywhere else in America.”

For Rice, this project is one of many that she is proud of.

“I am so proud of these Elizabethton students; however, I do feel that the Unicoi County High School students played an integral role in the Erwin Elephant Revival,” Rice said. “Mrs. Lori Ann Wright’s drama students wrote, directed and performed a beautiful play in 2016 called ‘Mary’s Story,’ and I wish that every single person could see it again today.” 

The podcast is available at NPR.org.