A tavern keeper in Van Horn, the birdman of Port O’Connor: fifteen Texans who give their community its character.
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A SMALL TOWN WITHOUT A CHARACTER OR TWO is like a water tower without graffiti or a buzzardless blue sky. Male or female, rich or poor, curmudgeonly or kind, small-town characters are the folks that everybody around knows by face, name, and reputation. Their roles may vary from place to place: Some are famous for being, well, a little different; others are community constants; still others are simply nice as pie. In these twelve photographs we pay tribute to some special Texans. They range from a 93-year-old retired teacher in West Texas to a 41-year-old entertainer in the Hill Country, but they all have one thing in common—they’re our Hondo Crouches and Sam the Lions, the village idiosyncratics of Texas today.
Emma Feld Mallan, Marfa
A native New Yorker, Mallan, now 92, moved to Marfa in 1946 when she inherited the landmark Paisano Hotel, later the hangout of the stars of Giant. Says a longtime friend, Margaret Fletcher Weyrauch: “She helped put on so many beautiful weddings and parties there. She was a perfect hostess.”
Obie Satterwhite, Luling
Satterwhite has the friendliest face in Caldwell County. At age 82, he still works part-time as a sacker at the H.E.B., where customers request him by name. Satterwhite regularly performed with the high school’s cheerleaders until a hip replacement three years ago “slowed me down some,” he allows.
Ruby Sanchez McGill, Van Horn
A Van Horn native, McGill gave up waitressing twenty years ago to open her own tavern, and Ruby’s Place has been the locals’ favorite watering hole ever since. Just off the freeway, it’s a haven for travelers too. Says McGill (who declines to give her age): “They come in and say, ‘We’re hot! We’re thirsty! We’re so tired of driving!’ Then they take pictures.”
Dave Harris, Athens
The 61-year-old Harris must be a good joe; how else could he have stayed the town’s police chief for thirty years? “He’s a family man, real calm, real levelheaded,” says Judge Jack H. Holland of the 173rd State District Court. Harris has a distinctive silver tooth—and a silver tongue: “Oh, he can tell stories,” says Holland. “And he’s heard a lot of stories too. He’s been good for the town.”
Ila Johnston, Spur
For 33 years, until retiring in 1971, Johnston taught math, physics, history, and economics at Spur High School. Today she’s teaching lessons in civic pride: She helped restore the Palace Theater, and she is currently helping paint a historical mural downtown. Says the 93-year-old: “Life keeps me hippety-hopping.”
Kevin Fitzpatrick, Bandera
Fitzpatrick, whose father was a horseshoer and rodeo cowboy, taught himself roping when he was eight years old and now demonstrates lasso tricks of his own devising—often on horseback—at schools, conventions, dude ranches, and stock shows. The 41-year-old has long been a celebrity in Bandera, but his fame is spreading: “Last year in a Florida airport, somebody said, ‘Hey, you’re the roper!’” recalls his wife, Trenna. “People of all ages just love what he does. We’ve been married five years, and I still can’t believe people pay him money for it.”
Wilson Pickard, Ovilla
Born 82 years ago “up on Bear Creek,” just outside this townlet near Waxahachie, Pickard runs the only grocery in town. No wonder he’s indispensable to his fellow residents. “I come down here every morning just to have something to do,” he says. “If I haven’t opened up by seven, they go looking for me. They come to my house and start knocking on the door: ‘You all right in there?’”
Odd Fellows, Waxahachie
As militarily erect as only their generation can be, three seventy-something members of Waxahachie’s chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows stand in their spick-and-span lodge. The fraternal organization, long devoted to Waxahachie’s welfare, raises money for a local food pantry and the fire department’s Toys for Tots program.
Randell Horn, Van Horn
A native Texan and sometime Baptist preacher, Horn moved back from Minnesota in 1997 so he could be “Ran Horn from Van Horn” and, he says, “because I really liked the idea of living near the place where interstates 10 and 20 come together.” Now 46, Horn operates Van Gogh in Van Horn, an art gallery and used-book store, and offers art lessons for $5 each. Here, he poses for a portrait of the artist as art.
Monroe Schubert, La Grange
Schubert, age 64, has long been Mr. Barbecue to the hungry folks of La Grange. They regularly feast on the brisket and sausage he prepares at Prause’s Meat Market, where he has worked for 29 years. “Monroe gets the pits started every morning, cooks everything, cleans everything,” says Mark Prause, one of the proprietors. “You could say he’s family.”
Bob Holloway, Decatur
Half Southern gentleman and half grizzled cowboy, Robert Lee “Bob” Holloway resembles the courtly general whose name he bears. Friends know they can always find the 72-year-old rancher and retired judge having coffee at the bank or at Mattie’s cafe. He’s famous for his Western garb, silver mane, and booming voice—often drawling, “Well, I declare!”
Chester and Ilet Smith, Port O’Connor
Around this coastal community, Chester Smith, age 77, is known as the Warden of Bird Island; a Texas Audubon Society stalwart, he serves as census taker, nurse, and bodyguard for the waterfowl there. “People will chase away the birds while they’re nesting,” says his 75-year-old wife, Ilet, “so Chester chases away the people.”
Editor’s Note: Suzi Bittles should have been credited for casting and researching the subjects of the portrait series “Townsfolk.”