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Maybe Terlingua Lost the Chili-Off, but Trent Jones Got It a Real School

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In recent years Terlingua, Texas has had two touching claims to fame—the World Championship Chili Cook-off and a heroic young schoolteacher named Trent Jones. Now both are gone. The chili cook-off was wooed away by Villa de la Mina, and then Jones went 80 miles down the road to Alpine. But Jones’ memory lives on in Texas’ only accredited one-room schoolhouse. For most of the past five years he was its principal, not to mention janitor and whole faculty. Now, having achieved accreditation plus a permanent building and two replacement teachers, Jones, 30, has returned to his own studies. He is working for a double master’s degree in school administration and manual arts at Sul Ross State University.

Jones, his wife, Olga (who is getting her M.A. in art and music), and their daughters, 5 and 3, are scraping by on savings and a $300-a-semester scholarship. Olga also works part-time as a disc jockey on local station KVLF. Their other source of income is Where the Rainbows Wait, a simple, moving narrative of Jones’ experience in Terlingua, co-authored with Carlton Stowers (Playboy Press, $10). Neither in the book nor in life does Jones overromanticize his own self-sacrifice. He smiles about how in 1973 he abandoned a $9,000-a-year elementary school job in San Antonio and moved to Terlingua at half the salary in order to “get out of the rat race. Almost everybody has this dream of going back to a more uncomplicated life,” Trent reflects today. “Some people do it, like we did, without knowing what they’re getting into.”

What the Joneses got into was living in a trailer sans plumbing in a ghost town (pop. 35) too dry even to garden. Now that they’re in the metropolis of Alpine (pop. 6,171), Jones sighs, “You can’t appreciate how important it is to take a shower, or go out for a McDonald’s hamburger. We go nuts at the Taco Bell.” Still, he says he would return to Terlingua if his beloved school were in danger of losing its probationary accreditation. If not, Jones’ dream—once he’s armed with his new degrees—is to establish a private school “way out in the country” for city kids who are in academic trouble. “Terlingua did convince me,” he says, “that there’s a lot more to life than just the middle-class version of success.”