Lucky Dogs

While a reputable photojournalist would have recognized the story possibility and taken a photo, yours truly didn’t think of it in time and now has to rely once again on the internet. This is not the cart in question, just a facsimile.

This is a true story. None of the names have been changed, because there is no innocent we need to protect.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, but one superintendent and a different business manager ago (good thing, since now it’s my sister Tia), our school district hired a man named Cannon Leatherwood (yes, that’s really his name) to be the entirety of the IT department. [I could remember that ‘T’ was “technology,” but it took the internet to provide the information that the ‘I’ stands for “information.”]

I know very little about Cannon Leatherwood, even today, except that what we learned late in his tenure at the school district was that his IT job and a side business vending hot dogs from a food cart were apparently not nearly enough for this ambitious fellow.

In his spare time, probably even during his time at his day job, he set up a number of corporations, some of them in his name, some in the names of members of his family. Then he started selling non-existent IT equipment to his one-man school-district department.

He sold a lot of this non-existent equipment to the Gunnison school district, $500,000 worth of items that never existed except on paper and in his bank accounts. And no one outside of his one-man department noticed, not even the auditors as they conducted their annual scrutiny of the district’s books.

He could have, and likely would have, continued this lucrative sideline that was paying way better than the hot dog cart with no one the wiser, except that he stupidly brought one of his corporate deposit stamps to work and even more stupidly left it in the copy room for a finance employee to find. She couldn’t think of a single legitimate reason why there might be a deposit stamp for this outside corporation to be lying next to a district copying machine, and that wonderment led in a lengthy, drawn-out line to where we are today: the district has vastly overhauled purchasing policies, there’s a new IT guy, insurance eventually covered some if not most of the loss, and Cannon Leatherwood reposes in prison, paying what are probably meager amounts of restitution.

And: the school district now owns the former Lucky Dog food cart.

Initially, this was not much of a gain for a small school district that had lost half a million dollars, because Cannon Leatherwood was even sloppier with his cooking than with his cooking o’ the books. The cart sat, rather uselessly, until the day Trina Lull started eyeballing it.

Trina, who started life as Trina Reese here in Gunnison and is two-three years older than me, has been the “lunch lady” at Gunnison High School for several years now.

For some reason, our school district has never been great about food service. When I was a kid attending Lake School, back then a K-6 building, now early education plus administration, we had to be bussed several blocks for lunch at Richardson Hall, then the districtwide cafeteria and tiny little administrative offices, now a residential complex for seniors.

Even when the district built new schools, food service came across as an afterthought, and at the high school, which in my day set out tables in the lobby for students to sit and eat their sack lunches from home, food was trucked in by volunteers from a couple three local restaurants since the “kitchen” was the size of a broom closet.

The kitchen is now bigger, and I think tables are still set up in the lobby, and under Trina’s watch an in-school lunch program has finally been established. But then, Trina’s a go-getter who sees possibility where others see a lot of trouble and effort.

Like when she looked at the hot dog cart in full deshabille, which had engendered in others despair. To this daughter of educators, the cart was a teaching moment. She handed students some razor blades and sent them into the grease- and grime-covered Lucky Dog cart. Ten weeks — ten weeks! — later these students emerged triumphant, their labor having produced a functional food cart that passed county inspection.

Now, a few years down the road, Trina has her food cart turned into an entire culinary course. Roughly half a dozen students signed up for this year’s “Summer Experience” class, which runs the entire duration of the summer and has students learning the ins and outs of food preparation, food service and the business end of it all.

When Trina does something, she goes whole hog, as it were: at one point the students were even making their own sausage. They’ve backed off that in favor of bun production (a lesson still in process, I’m told), but they also have come up with their own barbecue sauce that is making its way through the approval process from the Food and Drug Administration.

Trina has not cut any corners, as you might guess. Her students all take the state’s food safety course before they set foot in the cart, and they are versed in safe handling practices. This is not your standard school concession fund-raising project.

Although it is a money-maker. Trina reports they’ve returned a profit to the school district, maybe even more than whatever meager restitution they might be getting from their felon “benefactor.” Best of all, because the cart doesn’t come with a cash register, students are having to learn to count back change, which is a dying art if there ever was one.

This year’s class has had a busy summer. They recently catered a meal at the reunion I didn’t attend, and Lynn and I found them at the farmers’ market last weekend. We were quite impressed with our pulled pork sandwiches, although we got so busy talking to Trina that we didn’t add any Cowboy Sauce — Trina says Kroger Foods is prepared to sell it once the sauce completes the FDA process — and thus can’t provide you with a full report card.

I don’t know if the food cart will be making any return appearances at the market, since the school year is creeping up on us, but I am happy to heartily endorse the Cowboy Cart and all the education and hard work that’s gone into it.

When life hands you a lemon like Cannon Leatherwood, it’s good to know there are people like Trina Reese Lull and her students ready and willing to make lemonade. Maybe even literally.

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