Kaiser on a Roll
Why has Frances Kaiser of Kerr County succeeded as one of the few female sheriffs in Texas today? First of all, there’s her arresting personality.
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THE HALLS SEEMED EMPTY AS MY HEART. I walked past some old wooden doors that looked like they’d been closed for a hundred years, some pebbled glass, and about seven spittoons. Before I knew it I was sitting in a big office in front of a big desk behind which sat a big woman. Everything was big in Texas, I thought. Even the small towns.
“The old lady who died last night,” I said. “The one with her lips sewn shut. That one definitely goes down as murder, right?”
“Of course it was murder,” said Sheriff Frances Kaiser, looking fairly murderous herself. “Can you think of anything else you could call it?”
“There’s always the possibility,” I said, “that she might’ve had a nearsighted tailor?”
I chuckled a brief, good-natured chuckle. A large vein throbbed in the sheriff’s neck.
“What in the dickens would lead you to believe it wasn’t murder?” she said. “Poor old thing was strangled and her lips sewn shut. Doesn’t that sound like murder to you? Maybe you’ve been in New York too long.”
“This kind of wanton violence never happens in New York,” I said. “We’re all good, God-fearin’ little church workers up there. Mind if smoke?”…
“We’re really very busy,” said the sheriff as she studied her fingernails. She performed this gesture, I noticed, not with her palm outward as a woman might, but palm inward with fingers curled toward her, as somebody who drove a tractor might.
“I guess I’ll wait till another time,” I said, “to ask you to quash my parking tickets.”
“Cut the bullshit,” she said. “I’m late for my Rotary luncheon.”
—from Armadillos & Old Lace, by Kinky Friedman*
Kerr County, deep in the conservative, hunter-friendly heart of the Texas Hill Country, has long been the kind of place where Jesus could walk in with three nails and somebody’d put him up for the night. Not that it’s the only place in Texas where some folks have wide open spaces between their ears, but there’s no shortage of brontosaurus material. “Women votin’ is bad enough,” said a former deputy last seen flipping cheeseburgers at the Burger King, “but a gal runnin’ for sheriff? It ain’t gonna happen in God’s lifetime.”
Those words were uttered long before last March, when Sheriff Frances Kaiser was effectively reelected to her third term in office after defeating ex-Texas Ranger Joe Davis in the Republican primary (she had no Democratic opponent in last month’s general election). It was also long before Governor George W. Bush had appointed her to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. Today she is one of the few female sheriffs in the state of Texas. Six feet tall in cowboy boots, wearing her trademark sheriff’s star earrings, the 55-year-old works Winston Churchill—like eighteen-hour days beginning at six o’clock. As she told the state sheriffs’ convention during her first year in office, to thunderous applause, “What a great job these men have done. And I’m one of these men.”
Not surprising words actually for someone who, though she faithfully read her Nancy Drew, has always thought of herself as “my dad’s boy.” Raised near Medina, the eldest of ten children born to Buddy and Nora Hubble, Frances helped take care of her five sisters and four brothers and helped her father with farm chores. Earl Buckelew, a longtime neighbor and the unofficial mayor of Medina (who, when asked about his cholesterol, said, “Hell, when we were growin’ up we didn’t even know we had blood”) remembers her well as a child: “Wearin’ those damn ol’ overalls, hair cut short—you’d see her all the time workin’ the fields with her dad, bailin’ hay, milkin’ cows, and drivin’ that big ol’ tractor. Sometimes she’d sneak onto my place to go fishin’, but I didn’t mind, of course. I figured any ten-year-old girl who drives a tractor can do just about anything she wants.”
And she did. In the great barefoot tomboy tradition of Amelia Earhart, Emily Dickinson, and Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, Frances grew up strong, stubborn, and compassionate, with an occasional righteous temper that earned her the nickname Fire Eyes. Along the way, she met one of those Center Point boys, a tall, handsome marine named Richard Kaiser. She married him, had three children, drove a school bus, worked as a teacher’s aide, and finally, strapping on a .357 Smith and Wesson, took to the back roads of Kerr County as its first woman patrol deputy.
When Frances thought the time had come to run for sheriff herself, her father was one of the first people she told. He didn’t quite give her his blessing, but he didn’t stand in her way. “I’ve never thought a woman should have a job like sheriff,” Buddy said, “but when I look around and see the way the damn men have screwed things up, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”
But certain Kerrverts, comprising a good ol’ boy network carbon-dated back to the australopithecine times, did not share Buddy’s cautious encouragement of his daughter’s political ambitions. Friends told Richard Kaiser, “You want your wife runnin’ around at night? How you gonna put up with it?” And some local officials in Kerrville seemed even less enlightened. “She’s just a damned woman,” said a former county commissioner I last observed loading a U-Haul. “She doesn’t know what she’s talkin’ about.”
But there has never been a shortage of bubbas in this world and even after the biblical miracle had occurred and Frances Kaiser was elected sheriff, things didn’t get much easier. “If you were a man,” threatened a courthouse politician shaking with rage, “I’d have handled things differently.” “How would you have handled them?” Frances asked coolly. The man sputtered, stammered, and eventually drove off in a vintage 1937 Snitmobile. And then there was the county court commissioner who, when Frances’ name came up for a raise, told her, “You don’t need a raise. Your husband makes a good salary.”
Frances admits her up-front style may sometimes ruffle feathers. In proving themselves in public life, she believes, women must be humble—a rather novel idea that other politicians, both men and women, might consider. “There’s a way to do it,” she says, “and I don’t think it’s to go in like gangbusters: ‘By God, I’m a woman and you’re damn well going to accept me.’ I think it’s: ‘Here I am. I think I can do the job. Give me the chance.’”
Her fellow Kerrverts, of course, have given her that chance, and so far she has survived and thrived in that office for more than eight years, which is about six years longer than Suzanne Somers’ television series She’s the Sheriff lasted (but, unfortunately, a somewhat shorter life span than Suzanne Somers’ Thighmaster commercials). Nonetheless, in that time the lady sheriff in the good ol’ boy town has solved more cases and collared more bad guys than anybody can remember: a double-murder suicide in which the bodies were discovered in a torched house, a triple murder featuring an elderly woman beaten to death in a wheelchair, the decapitation of a pet buffalo at a local wildlife preserve (the culprit got forty years and will eventually be hopping on a pogo stick in hell for all eternity). Not to be outdone, according to the local papers, there was the guy who O.J.’ed his wife by cutting her up into fajita-size pieces. Frances has also made one of the biggest drug busts in the history of the Hill Country and worked closely with enough child abuse, substance abuse, and domestic violence cases to make you wonder why anybody would want to be sheriff in the first place.
Aside from the normal risks and stresses of the job, on May 19, 1993, the sheriff was operated on for ovarian cancer, a circumstance that did not slow her down, although subsequent chemotherapy did force her to wear a wig to the sheriffs’ convention in El Paso later that year. Just as almost none of her constituents were aware of the cancer, almost none of her colleagues were aware of the wig. When the hairpiece began to irritate her while on a hotel elevator, she calmly reached in her purse and replaced it with a homemade turban, thus prompting a fellow sheriff from East Texas to make one of the more unintentionally humorous understatements of the year. “Jesus Christ, Frances,” he said. “Whatever have you done to your hair?”
Today the sheriff appears to have triumphed over both the cancer and the good ol’ boy system, though it’s always possible, of course, that the good ol’ boys are only in remission. She has accomplished this feat by combining a large measure of strength with a large measure of compassion. “I can handle a drunk in a fight if I have to,” she says. She also says, “I believe in second chances.” Both of these virtues were called front and center in late December 1994 when a local man Frances knew barricaded himself in a building in downtown Kerrville and threatened to kill himself and anybody who tried to stop him. Against all conventional procedure, she entered the building by herself. The man was as taut as piano wire, his face and features locked in a wild-eyed, shivering rictus of terror. With both hands he maintained a shooter’s death grip on a .357 Magnum. Frances walked up to the man.
“Darlin’,” she said. “I think you need a hug.”
In the long, legendary, and sometimes lurid annals of law enforcement, this may well be the only case on record of a man turning over his gun to a Texas sheriff and receiving, in return, a hug.
“I see,” said the sheriff as she stared past the window out into the fury of the storm. Her face was an emotionless porcelain mask that in some strange way seemed more unnerving than any display of mere emotion. I puffed politely on the cigar and waited.
“You obtained these documents—”
“Down the hall,” I said. “But it was Earl Buckelew’s idea to check the marriage license applications.”
“Ol’ Earl,” said the sheriff, her eyes going back in time. “We used to sneak onto his place and go fishin’ when I was a kid.”
“The same. He claims widow women always lie about their ages.”
Sheriff Kaiser smiled. It was a nice smile. Sheriffs usually don’t get to smile a lot but when they do it’s always appreciated. Kind of like Ronald Reagan giving a turkey to an orphanage on Thanksgiving.
The sheriff stood up, got rid of the smile, and stacked the pages neatly on her desk. It was a gesture of dismissal and I edged toward the door.
“You’ve been a good citizen,” she said. “We’ll take it from here.”
“I just did what anybody would do.”
“If that was really true,” she said, “I’d be out of a job.”
I opened the door and headed for the hallway.
“One more thing,” the sheriff called after me.
I turned around. She was standing like a giant in the doorway.
“Tell Earl Buckelew that one of the little Kaiser girls said hello.”
—from Armadillos & Old Lace