Wade Padgett didn't have to be there. Columbia County's chief magistrate could have found lots of other things to do Tuesday night rather than lecturing fidgety teens.
Most of those teens didn't have to be there, either. About a fourth of them raised their hands when Padgett asked how many of them were there because they had to be - presumably on orders from their parents - but the rest indicated they were there by choice.
And William Archer Stulb didn't have to be there. But he was the only one in attendance who had to go to jail afterward.
Dressed in orange jail-issue scrubs, chains dangling from his ankles and his hands cuffed behind him, Stulb was escorted onto the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center stage near the end of Padgett's Teenage Years 101 seminar. He was greeted by raucous applause from kids who seemed to think it was just an act - a phony convict trotted out for a tired old "scared straight" routine.
But on an evening in which Padgett urged teens to take responsibility for their actions, Stulb faced his own past and faced down those kids, warning them not to take a similar path to a difficult future.
"I wake up every day to a formal count and barbed wire," said Stulb, who is serving a one-year sentence at the Columbia County Detention Center for his statutory rape conviction. "I can't floss my teeth. ... I can't eat what I want to eat. I eat on the jail schedule."
Stulb made it clear that it was his own bad choices - "drinking and 'hooking up' with an underage girl at a party" that landed him in jail. "I want y'all to know I allowed all those things to happen," he said. "I've been convicted of a felony; that's going to follow me for the rest of my life."
Stulb, if you remember, was the subject of significant commentary - much of it from me - when he smirked his way through a trial and received a minimal sentence from Judge Duncan Wheale, who the next day increased the sentence.
The remolded penalty was thrown out on appeal however, keeping Stulb's sentence at one year in jail and nine years of probation after. The case generated numerous headlines; Stulb delivered his comments Tuesday while standing in front of a giant screen on which those headlines were projected.
When he was partying and having fun, doing things he shouldn't have been, Stulb said he never thought of the humiliation such headlines could bring to his family, including his mother and sister, who sat watching from the second row, among only a few of the adults other than media allowed in the room.
His fall was especially hard, Stulb said, because he'd lived a life of privilege; he was captain of his college golf team prior to his arrest. "Those things were taken away from me" along with his freedom, Stulb said. He urged the quieted, attentive teens to take responsibility for their lives and not to become "the next one in an orange jump-suit."
Stulb didn't have to be there to deliver his brief, unscripted comments. Wheale, who struggled with Stulb's sentence and re-sentence, and then endured criticism from both the community and from Stulb's family, nonetheless sees hope in Stulb's rehabilitation from careless teen to responsible adult.
Wheale suggested Stulb speak to the teens, and Padgett visited the now-22-year-old at the Appling jail to see if he was interested. Though he had nothing personally to gain from it, Stulb readily agreed.
The chains and the handcuffs were, in fact, for show. Stulb is a trustee at the jail, and has greater leeway and access than most prisoners. But his voluntary walk across the Evans stage wasn't an act; it was part of his long journey toward personal redemption.
William Archer Stulb didn't have to take that walk. But because he did, perhaps it will persuade other teens not to follow in his shackled footsteps.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.