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Novelist Sparks: Ex-school head started fires he put out

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The private Christian school that novelist Nicholas Sparks founded in his North Carolina hometown was gripped by one small crisis after another and demanding too much of his attention until the headmaster he initially championed was cut loose, the writer said Thursday.

Sparks testified for a second day in a federal lawsuit by educator Saul Hillel Benjamin against the writer, his foundation and Epiphany School of Global Studies in New Bern, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Raleigh.

Benjamin contends he was fired without cause, then defamed when Sparks told a job recruiter and others that Benjamin suffered mental illness. Benjamin's attorney, Lawrence Pearson, sought to frame Spark's decision to press the educator into resignation after four months on the job as a rash move that violated his contract.

Sparks told jurors Benjamin lied about his experience and job performance, and also caused a series of campus conflicts the author had to resolve. Sparks said in one incident Benjamin told the author that Sparks' daughter had reported one student making an anti-gay threat against another boy. Sparks said that wasn't true and his daughter was never involved.

Sparks was often out of town — he traveled frequently to support his entertainment career — and compared the time spent investigating what was really happening at his cherished nonprofit to a leaky roof on a rainy day. He said he felt like he was seeing drips of water filtering through the ceiling, would rush to find a bucket to catch the water, and then would see another leak and would have to rush to find another container.

"It was incredibly stressful. I was besieged on all sides. I was doing my best to find out accurate information," Sparks said. "There were so many unnecessary fires that had been started." Sparks spoke easily from the witness stand, sometimes smiling to jurors and sometimes sighing before giving an extended answer to a question. U.S. District Judge James Dever III twice appeared to help Sparks, once cutting off the writer mid-sentence and reminding the novelist that he had already answered Pearson's question. Dever also stepped in when Benjamin took the stand and launched a series of weaving, rapid-fire responses the judge eventually ended by stating, "Next question."

Sparks sought to counter efforts by Benjamin's lawyers to portray the educator as a victim of a school community resistant to efforts to diversify, including Benjamin's support for gay or questioning students. Sparks said his belief in Benjamin plummeted when the writer learned about an unofficial LGBT student club the educator told him didn't exist.

Sparks said he's personally employed gay lawyers and publicists, that the school has had at least one transsexual student and has gay teachers now. "We've had gay students from the beginning," Sparks said. "It's a very happy school where people support each other."

Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio .

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