Rift over 11-story cross in Illinois turns corrosive - East Valley Tribune: Spirituallife

Rift over 11-story cross in Illinois turns corrosive

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Posted: Saturday, September 2, 2006 7:50 am | Updated: 5:09 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

ALTO PASS, Ill. - Soaring 11 stories above southern Illinois’ highest point, the Bald Knob Cross of Peace has been billed as a towering testament to good will. But peace and good will have been scarce lately on the board that administers the 43-year-old landmark about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Newer members of the 18-person board accuse their veteran counterparts of taking the not-for-profit site for granted, with little regard for God or financial stewardship. They suspect that the former treasurer — daughter of one of the site’s founders — misused donated funds, something she flatly denies.

Those who have been on the board longer, many of them descendants of the farmers who a half-century ago hatched the idea for the cross on the 32-acre site, counter that newer folks on the panel are intent on hijacking the landmark.

Today, the site collects money chiefly through donations from visitors to the landmark, though its annual income is unclear. The new guard on the board feels that the former leaders’ way of doing business was slipshod, with wasteful spending and loans to individual board members conspiring to make a clear financial picture impossible.

Amid the rancor, the cross is showing its age — many of its panels are rusting, missing or simply attached by coat hangers and bailing wire.

Words inscribed on the cross’s concrete base embody principles the infighting seems to have swept away: Faith. Hope. Charity. Peace.

‘‘I’m embarrassed to tell people that my dad was one of the founders of that cross, given the point that it has got to,’’ said Myra Owens, a 13-year board member from Centralia and a sister of Tirzah Tweedy, the woman accused of misappropriations. ‘‘It is very sad we have people who have come in over the past four years and really have tried to run everything.’’

She points to Steve Babb, who has butted heads with Tweedy and pressed for reforms since becoming board president in February at the head of a 10-person majority.

‘‘Our motives are to return that piece of property to the intent of the founding members — to have a free, safe place where Christians of all denominations could come to praise, honor and glorify the Lord — and to establish accountability in everything we do up there,’’ said Babb, a former Marine and state administrator who’s been on the board since October 2004.

There were times of greater unity on Bald Knob Mountain, elevation 1,025 feet.

Worshipping there dates to the mid-1930s, when rural mail carrier Wayman Presley and pastor William Lirely — the father of Tweedy and Owens — began talking of a nondenominational ‘‘united worship’’ atop a hill with a breathtaking view.

The first Easter service there — now a yearly tradition — was held in 1937. Presley and Lirely envisioned a huge cross that would be visible for miles.

So began a fundraising campaign that took decades, with a huge boost coming in 1955 when Presley was featured on television’s ‘‘This Is Your Life.’’ Donations poured in.

A widow named Myrta Clutts called the cross ‘‘the greatest idea I’d ever heard’’ — so much so she pledged $100 to the project when she didn’t have $10 to spare. Clutts considered her pig Betsy an instrument of God when the animal gave birth to 21 piglets, three times the normal litter. She sold 14 of the pigs, paid her $100 pledge and had $400 left to pay her bills.

Work began on the cross in 1959 and was finished four years later.

Many times, Owens says, Tweedy put her life savings into the cross’s upkeep, even using her assets as collateral for a $130,000 loan she used to expand the cross’ visitor center.

Owens says Tweedy’s action was endorsed by the board a few years ago, with the understanding the debt would be paid off by subsequent donations. But Babb argues Tweedy overstepped.

‘‘The board never took out the loan, approved it and wasn’t aware of it until after the fact,’’ he said.

Tweedy did not answer numerous calls to her home from The Associated Press. But many locals defend the 74-year-old woman, noting she used $3,000 of her own money in recent years to cover groceries, utilities and Christmas toys for the needy.

‘‘The character of this woman has been impugned. There’s been no deliberate misappropriation or wrong,’’ says Bill Vandergraph, a Pentecostal pastor in Alto Pass who has observed the unfolding drama and suspects older board members are intimidated by newer ones.

While defending Tweedy, Vandergraph said he backs Babb’s quest to tighten accountability of the board, whose meeting minutes in past, computerless decades were handwritten and often hardly legible.

Vandergraph has offered to mediate the dispute but offered a somber prediction of the future.

‘‘It will get nastier,’’ he said, shrugging.

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