Some say small-town culture explains allegations against Ferrell

Monday, March 19, 2007

ST. LOUIS -- Last month, Fred Ferrell's way of greeting and treating women cost him his job as Missouri's agriculture director.

But for many in Charleston, Mo., where Ferrell and his wife have lived since 1964, what some see as sexual harassment is nothing more than the culture of the Bootheel, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.

Charleston, about 150 miles south of St. Louis, has 5,000 residents.

"I think it's more cultural dissimilarity than sexual harassment," said Liz Anderson, editor and owner of the Enterprise-Courier, a weekly newspaper in Charleston, and a high school classmate of Ferrell. "The whole Bootheel is different from the rest of the state. It's more Southern."

At the Rolwing-Moxley Seed Co., Ferrell often stopped by secretary Terra Slayden's desk and called out, "Hi, princess."

Slayden, 47, said it was "just his normal greeting."

At Ferrell's farm office, his longtime secretary, Pam Whittington, said her boss used to call her a "show dog."

"That's just a term for, 'You look good today,'" Whittington said.

At the farm loan cooperative where Ferrell was board chairman, Della Hubbard said Ferrell sometimes hugged her and kissed her on the cheek "in front of the whole board."

"He was congratulating me," she said.

Women who know Ferrell say he often hugged and used pet names, but they never considered it sexual harassment.

In fact, some woman said Ferrell promoted them or encouraged them in their careers.

Ferrell, 66, was forced out by Gov. Matt Blunt after a former secretary, Heather Elder, 36, filed a sexual harassment suit. Elder said Ferrell frequently hugged her, kissed her on the cheek and called her his "princess."

He also suggested three times that he'd like to see Elder in a wet T-shirt contest, witnesses told the highway patrol.

Two male administrators told the patrol that Ferrell had said women shouldn't supervise men. Ferrell acknowledged that he called his assistant a "show dog." And Elder contended she was denied a promotion because she is a woman.

Ferrell declined to be interviewed. His daughter-in-law, Anna Ferrell, said he is devastated and "feels very betrayed" by Blunt. "It wasn't until he got political pressure that he turned his back on him," she said.

Mary Anne Sedey, a St. Louis lawyer who has handled numerous sexual harassment suits, isn't buying the argument that men behave this way.

"I come from Charlotte, N.C.," she said. "I spend a lot of time in the South. That's not the way men behave in the workplace in the South."

Lanie Black, a farmer and former Republican legislator from Charleston, has said that the allegations against Ferrell were "a classic misunderstanding."

"It's just a difference in Southern culture and Southern roots, which is kind of what we have down here in the Bootheel," he said.

In the Ferrell family, the phrase "show dog" was a term of endearment that Fred's grandfather used for his wife, said Fred's sister, Pam Ferrell.

Frank Nickell, a native of northern Illinois, said he's caught off guard by the hugs he receives in southeast Missouri, from both men and women.

"This is kind of a hugging area," said Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.

But custom or not, he said, male bosses shouldn't hug and touch women they supervise.

Ferrell was accused of saying women couldn't balance checkbooks.

But Paulette Spence says Ferrell recommended her for a promotion at Progressive Farm Credit Services when he was board chairman.

Whittington, the secretary for the farm, praised Ferrell for persuading her to go to school to become an insurance agent.

Beauty salon owner Wanda Shoffner comes down in the middle.

"We all open our mouth when we should have engaged our brain first," she said.

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