A heroic swimmer falls from grace and becomes addicted to dope. A story ripped from the Olympic headlines? Why no, it's the strange tale of Priscilla the Pig, whose memory is enshrined in a Houston home.
Pigdom in Houston is one woman's "Shrine to Swine." The brightly painted home of Victoria Herberta and Judy Ganske has become not only a monument to the much-maligned farm animal, but also a memorial to a swimming pig that saved a boy's life and an art project in progress.
"After living with Victoria for so long, I've come to love the animals almost as much as she does," Judy says. The day I called, Victoria was away and Judy proudly led me through the chain of events that have since become nearly legendary.
Since she was a little girl, Victoria Herberta had a fondness for pigs. Around 1982, Victoria called Aquarena Springs Resort in San Marcos and had a long talk with the owner about his swimming pigs. The next year she went to the San Marcos farm that supplied the star performers of the resort's water show and brought Priscilla home.
The piglet grew to become a member of the household, like a family dog. The neighborhood kids trained Priscilla to come running when they yelled for her from the fence.
"The first time we took Priscilla swimming she hated it," Judy says with a laugh. After a few tries Priscilla took to the water like a ... well, like a swimming pig. Nearly every weekend in the summer, Victoria took Priscilla to a swimming hole.
Judy remembers the life-changing event as happening in August of 1983. They were at Lake Somerville with a group of friends. One of the women in the group asked Victoria if she could go swimming with Priscilla. All day long Priscilla had been in the water towing swimmers around while they held onto her harness.
Nobody noticed that the woman's young son followed his mother and the pig into the water. Suddenly, the boy stepped into a hole and went under. Every time the boy's head came up he screamed bloody murder, Judy says. Priscilla, thinking that the screams were coming from one of her neighborhood friends, swam toward the boy. As she passed the struggling child, he grabbed her harness and was pulled to safety.
The story might have quietly faded away except there was a man taking pictures of the heroic pig. It wasn't long before the picture of the swimming pig and the boy was broadcast around the world.
Houston proclaimed "Priscilla the Pig Day." She was the first pig given the William O. Fillman Award which is given out to pets who perform an act of life-saving courage. She was also inducted into the Texas Pet Hall of Fame. "We got an invitation to do the Johnny Carson show," Judy says, "but it was too hot to take Priscilla on an airplane. She was quite a star."
Unfortunately, like some other famous personalities, Priscilla developed a drug problem. She began devouring the morning glory plants and was sent to San Marcos to detoxify. A love affair at the farm resulted in a litter that included Jerome. Mother and son returned to Houston for a while, but Priscilla soon retired back to the farm where she died of old age.
Jerome became a celebrity in his own right as "Hambassador for the Homeless." Judy says that for years Victoria worked as an advocate for the homeless and Jerome helped her get the message out.
"We had a wacky neighbor who called the animal control officer as much as 30 times in one week to complain about Jerome," Judy says. Finally the officials had to enforce an ordinance against farm animals in the city and told the ladies that Jerome had to go. A petition with 4,000 signatures and 1,000 calls to Mayor Kathy Whitmire's office couldn't save him.
Victoria tried living in San Marcos for a couple of years to be close to Jerome, but couldn't find adequate work and had to return to Houston. In 1994, Jerome was struck by lightning and sent to hog heaven. "He was like a son to Victoria," Judy says. "She was just devastated."
Maybe she couldn't have her pet pigs in the city, but using her natural art talents and warm sense of humor, Victoria manifested her affection for pigs around the house. "Victoria says she can't draw, but everyone seems to love what she does," Judy says of the decorations.
The signs tacked up around the yard are many people's favorites. There is a red stop sign with the word "Slop" in the middle. Street signs that say "Hoggywood" and "Swine," "No Porking Zone," and "Pignic Area." In the driveway is parked a "pigup" truck.
Like Judy's vegetable and flower gardens that surround the house, Victoria's art changes with the seasons. "We've got more pig stuff than we know what to do with," Judy says with a laugh. The house is on the Kodak Tour of places in Houston to photograph and is visited regularly by tour buses and art classes.
If they're at home, Victoria and Judy would love to show you around and tell you the story of Priscilla, Jerome, and the artwork. Please remember that this is also their home and it is proper to be invited before entering someone's yard.
The house, at 4208 Crawford St., is pretty impressive from the street even if you don't get a tour. Pigdom is south of downtown and north of the museum district between Blodgett and U.S. 59. For directions or to schedule a visit, call 713/523-0303.
Coming up this weekend ...
Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg celebrates the harvest the old-fashioned way with lots of oompah bands, food, and games at Marktplaz, Oct. 6-8. 830/997-4810 or www.fredericksburg texas.com/octoberfest/index.htm.
Hill Country Wine Trail is an opportunity to sample the fine wines of the region during the month of October. The $20 passport includes a commemorative T-shirt and special tours. 830/868-2321.
Ladies State Chili Championship in Luckenbach shows the world how much fun a woman with an iron pot can have, Oct.7-8. 830/997-3224 or www.luckenbachtexas.com.
Coming up ...
Moonlight Prowl at UT is one of the things that makes Austin special when Jim Nicar takes visitors on a nighttime tour of campus. Besides registering for the tours, you can also leave college memories in the UT Memory Bank at www.utexas.edu/tours/prowl.