I know Jack (the man wearing the pinstriped shirt in the above picture).
Or I should say I knew Jack.
I haven’t seen (or thought of) Jack in years.
But while watching NBC Nightly News the other night, that changed. I saw Jack on TV. And the story about him wasn’t a good one. Jack, as in Jack DeCoster, is the man who’s been dubbed “A Bad Egg” by members of the press. Why? Because a half-a-billion eggs have been recalled. And according to reports, Jack’s chickens laid a good number of those bad eggs.
I was four-years-old when I met Jack. Jack and I went to church together. (Yes, the church I wrote about in Churched.) He was a deacon, an usher, and the “man with the cash” who helped make most things at our church possible. When God didn’t listen to Pastor Nolan (name changed), Pastor Nolan talked to Jack. Jack almost always listened. And Jack made things happen, even when God couldn’t or didn’t…
A side note: I should also add that I knew Jack’s wife. Her name is Pat. For several years, Pat was one of the “untrained-at-teaching-but-still a teacher at my Christian school. She was my homeroom school teacher for two years. I also knew Jack and Pat’s four boys.
Other than churchgoer, the only other thing that Jack was better known for was chickens and eggs.
And long before NBC News reported on Jack, and the states of Iowa and Maine launched a variety of investigations (1990s to recent) into Jack’s business and farming practices, and a slew of people all over the country tossed their cookies because Jack laid a whole bunch of bad eggs, I witnessed firsthand how Jack ran his chicken/egg business.
And all I can say is that I would have never wanted to be one of Jack’s chickens. (More on that in a moment.)
Like I said, I knew Jack from church. In 1977, when my father helped start the Baptist church in Chestertown, Maryland, Jack was one of the other seven “charter male members” of the church. In fact, he was perhaps the most important of the seven members. Because he had the most money.
And Jack loved giving money to Jesus. Jack supported Jesus’s churches, colleges (Hyles Anderson College), students, and other ministries. And he did that with chickens and eggs. Back then, Jack was the wealthiest man I knew (by a long shot). His business, DeCoster Egg Farm, Inc. was one of the largest (maybe THE largest) farming business in Kent County.
DeCoster Gymnasium at Hyles Anderson College (Hyles-Anderson also has a campus dining hall named after him)
As a child, I took a tour of DeCoster Egg Farm. Because my father worked for the Soil Conservation Service (he knew every farmer in town) and because, like Jack, I too was a chicken farmer (I started with twelve Rhode Island Reds; four years later, I owned just over 100 chickens), my father hooked me up with a private tour.
At church, while Jack was rich because he owned a million chickens, I was known as the “Egg Salesman” at church–that’s because I actually sold eggs before and after the church services. Don’t laugh. (Eh, it’s okay; you can laugh.) However, believe it or not, my little chicken/egg business helped me save up close to $9000.00 over the course of four years (for college). Of course, it probably cost my father close to $10,000 over the course of four years. But knowing that he would eventually help me pay for college anyway, Dad believed it was far better for me to earn the money as opposed to simply giving it to me. So to Dad, even though it lost him money, it was still a good investment. And I have to agree; I learned a lot.
So, for a nine-year-old kid with his own egg farm, tour DeCoster Egg Farm was a huge deal.
And yes, I was excited.
When my father pulled up the driveway of DeCoster Egg Farm, it appeared perfect. Not pretty. Just perfect. Twenty or more of the largest chicken houses (like those pictured above) I had ever seen were neatly built amid fields of corn and soy beans.
Another side note: At church, anytime I came running into the auditorium with dozens of eggs, people sometimes made jokes to Jack about me. “You better lookout,” I heard people tell him, “there’s your competition.” Once in awhile I got called “little Jack.” Even my father called me that once in a while–you know, as a joke.
Jack always laughed when people called me the little version of him. And I did too… until I took the tour.
After the tour, being called “Little Jack” became no longer funny. It was an insult.
Jack’s way of chicken farming was different than mine. Of course, there were the obvious differences (And yes, I know now that, in many instances, they had to be run differently. But at the time, I didn’t know this)…
- The size of our businesses. Jack made lots of money from his chickens. My dad lost money because of mine.
- Jack had employees. I ran my business alone. Sometimes Dad helped. But mostly, I was my own boss.
- The number of chickens Jack owned (millions!) compared to the 12 that I owned.
- The color of the eggs we sold were different, too. Jack’s chickens laid white eggs and my chickens laid brown ones.
And then there were a host of other differences, less obvious ones, a list of things that I didn’t (at the time) expect… among those differences were…
- Jack’s chickens were crammed like sardines into small wired cages. My chickens were in a cage, too, but one that was big enough for them to run around all day. Jack’s chickens couldn’t move around enough to flap their wings. (Even my father, not one to ever become emotionally involved with animals or birds, felt sorry for the chickens at Jack’s farm. He didn’t say anything, but that’s because Dad was crammed into the same deacon board with Jack.) Unlike Jack’s chickens, my chickens flapped their wings all the time. But…
- My chickens also had all of their feathers. Most of Jack’s chickens had large featherless spots on their bodies. Some of them didn’t appear to have wings. They did, of course, just featherless wings.
- Jack’s chickens laid small eggs, much smaller than the eggs that my chickens laid. (Sometimes my chickens were so healthy they laid double yoked eggs, which meant they were having a good day.)
- I saw a few cages where Jack’s chickens sat in their own poop all day. My chickens walked around in their own poop once in awhile. But they didn’t have to stay there, and they never had other chickens sitting on top of them forcing their beaks into their own poop.
- Some of Jack’s chickens were dead. I don’t think he knew they were dead, because they were still in the cages with the live ones. I only had one chicken die. A fox killed it.
- All twelve of my chickens had names (SERIOUSLY!). And uh… Jack’s chickens were lucky to have feathers.
Touring was only permitted in two of Jack’s (20 or so) chicken coups. The other chicken houses were off limits. That was fine by me; I’d seen all I ever wanted to see. As we left DeCoster’s Egg Farm, Dad looked at me and said, “Hey Buck, let’s not tell anybody what we saw today.”
“Okay,” I said, and then I added, “Dad, I feel sorry for those chickens.” Which was true, I wanted to bring all of them home with me, so they could run around and peck and scratch in freedom.
(Far far away from Jack’s chicken shit conditions.)
Dad and I didn’t say much on the drive home. As we pulled into our driveway, Dad spoke what I was certain he’d been thinking about all the way home. “Now, remember, don’t talk about this, okay? Just tell everybody that you had a nice time.”
Dad got silent again until we pulled into the garage.
“I don’t want to make Jack look bad,” he said. “That’s all. You know, because he gives a whole bunch of money to the Lord’s work.”
I nodded. “I won’t say anything, Dad.”
“And because I’m on the deacon board with him.”
“Okay, Dad. I know. I won’t tell a soul.”
And we didn’t. Nobody ever said anything bad about Jack.
Because at our church, giving large amounts of money to the “Lord’s work” always forgave a multitude of sins, and in Jack’s case, a multitude of chicken shit…
…now, only time will tell whether or not “giving to the Lord’s work” also helps people forgive a half-billion bad eggs…