In 1971, Joan Bolsinger wanted her fourth graders to write better, so she asked them to compose letters. Her assignment took on a life of its own.
The students at Roseburg’s Eastwood Elementary School became foot soldiers in what was then dubbed “The Pencil War.” Schoolchildren across the nation joined an effort spearheaded by Velma Johnston of Nevada, also known as “Wild Horse Annie,” writing to lawmakers urging them to protect wild horses.
Bolsinger’s star pupil, Lynn Williams, remembers his class touring the Capitol in Salem and urging lawmakers to protect wild horses in Oregon.
They’d already decided if Oregon lawmakers didn’t act, they’d go federal. “We’d gotten pretty full of ourselves at that point,” says Williams.
Go federal, they did.
On April 17, 1971, Williams found himself seated at a table staring at a committee of Congress asking to hear what he thought should be done for the horses. Bolsinger sat at his side.
“It was funny,” says Williams. “They asked us about things like running water and Indians. Joan and I joked they thought we’d come there in a wagon.”
Their efforts impressed The Wall Street Journal enough to put them on the front page, which reported, “Lobbyist Lynn Williams is putting the heat on Congress to pass a law. And he’s pretty confident about the outcome.”
The nationwide children’s lobby marshaled to stop the capture of wild horses for slaughter. In that time, horsemeat was a common ingredient in dog food and was consumed by humans in other countries.
Equally common was a practice called mustanging. Ranchers would chase horses with trucks across the open range to lasso the fleeing mustang. The lasso was often tied to a heavy weight like a truck tire. The horse would run, dragging itself into exhaustion.
“Horses should not be treated like that,” says Bolsinger.
“That’s what they were doing,” adds Williams. “We did a lot of things different in 1971 than we do in 2013. Thank God.”
Wiliams, now teaching in California, always makes a point of visiting Bolsinger, his former teacher, when he heads home to Roseburg.
“Oh, he’s my boy,” says Bolsinger. “I don’t have youngsters of my own, but he fills a pretty good hole.”
Williams says, “We’re part teacher and student and part mom and son.”
Her lesson has lasted a lifetime, he adds. “One person, a small group of people can still affect real change. You know you can make a difference.”