According to the most recent figures, about 178,500 Texas residents die each year. That’s about 0.07 percent of our entire population, a little more than 1-in-140 people. So there’s a chance a Texan you knew passed this year. Suddenly gone. Poof. How incomprehensible and foreign that concept truly is. Those former not-dead people used to be here—or there—and likely within reach. But now they’re somewhere . . . no . . . something else entirely. Perhaps they are celestial beings. Perhaps they are nothing. But they are beyond us in every way. They are not even a “they” any more.
That’s the physical reality. But not, of course, the metaphysical one. Those who are gone master all the cliches. They’ve “passed on. “They’ve “touched lives.” They remain, for a little while longer, “with us” or “in our hearts.” They’re memorialized in public obituaries, dirges, folk songs, the honorary renaming of some place or building, and, as is common practice now, memorials on their Facebook wall, a hashtagged #RIP.
We considered probably close to fifty Texans for inclusion in this year’s selection of People We’ll Miss, a hefty roster of talented and unique (read: quirky) characters. But researching the lives of these people was often bittersweet; their efforts and accomplishments were given some proper public due only after they had gone—but at least they had been celebrated at all.
We had some big names leave us this year, giants of Texas like Red Duke and Jim Wright, people that received extensive appreciations and posthumous (and humorous) profiles. (We also experienced great grief just days before this list was finished, including the loss of the “Greatest Lawyer Who Ever Lived.”) But we also made an effort this year to give attention to some of the lesser-known creators of the Texas Mythology. Like Texas itself, they are eclectic in their descriptors. There’s the Texas housewife who made bundt cake a national staple. There’s the Texas professor who coined a word that’s now so ubiquitous it seems elemental to our vernacular. There are Texas football players, and nationally-renowned cartoonists, and a rebellious poet-priest who roamed the terrain of Big Bend.
We hope that by featuring those characters, they will live on just a little longer, deep in the hearts of Texans. And, as cliches go, their passing will remind the living that Texas is and will always be full of characters, fellow Texans worth befriending, of understanding, of becoming family with. Preferably before it’s too late.
Ella Rita Helfrich
The woman who popularized the bundt cake
The poet-priest of Big Bend
The professor who coined the term “workaholic”
The pioneering trauma surgeon
The great music historian
The premier furrier of Texas
The bra expert of Austin
The Astros play-by-play man
The voice of the Astros
John David Crow
The first Heisman winner of Aggieland
The heralded Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle
The Archie comics illustrator
The creator of Marmaduke
Sheri S. Petmecky
The patroness of the Palomino Patrol
The unrequited country music icon
The unofficial greeter of Fort Worth
“The American Dream”
Gilberto O. Garcia
The conjunto king
The real estate maven of Dallas
The creator of Big Bend State Park
The Speaker of the House
The lead animator for Rooster Teeth
The jazz genius
The radio man of Dallas
The pageant king
The grandfather of cheerleading
The founder of Taco Bueno
The man who desegregated DISD
|And Tommie “F— that Alligator” Woodward|
Ella Rita Helfrich
December 1, 1916–July 21, 2015
Before there was an entire television channel dedicated to cooking shows; before the late-night infomercials shilling the latest kitchen gadgets; before the organic movement, the buy-local movement, Lunchables and Hot Pockets. Before all that, there was a Houston homemaker named Ella Rita Helfrich.
At the same time Julia Child was just beginning to show America that extravagant French cuisine was possible in the home, there was Helfrich, demonstrating pragmatic treats for the everywoman. Her greatest creation, the Tunnel of Fudge, would become a national phenomenon, one of the high-points in an era mostly unrecognizable to the gluten-free generation.
Some kitchen prep for those who’ve grown up with Whole Foods and Chopped. By the sixties, the Greatest Generation was well settled into their suburban lives, working on maintaining the kind of Leave It To Beaver existence that was the hallmark of relative post-war stability. It was that “traditional” time when father, in his gray flannel suit, went to his job, and mother stayed home—only about 25 percent of women were in the workforce. Product companies and advertisers were in their groove, directing their pitches and consumables, an entire lifestyle, to the modern homemaker. It was the beginning of the era of convenience products: quick and sturdy dishes great for taking to a church supper or when hosting a large martini party, or just to allow one more time to do more housework with other great products.
Tupperware was invented in 1945; by the fifties, Tupperware Parties were de rigeur. Another grand event to emerge during this time? The Pillsbury Bake-Off, held annually from 1949 until 1976 (before switching to a biannual affair).
The Pillsbury Bake-Off was the pinnacle celebration of convenience cooking. It was televised live on CBS and emceed by stars and celebrities like singer Pat Boone. Thousands submitted recipes, and about one hundred were invited to the annual competition itself. Houstonian Ella Rita Helfrich, mother of five, wife of a railroad mechanic, possessor of a stunning, oh-so-popular blonde bouffant that was almost as big as she, had been submitting various recipes since the competition’s second year. She was the ultimate home-maker.
“She always had an experiment going. She would come up with an idea and she would cook it four different ways, three different pans, two different temperatures, and etcetera,” said Helfrich’s granddaughter Jacqueline Pontello, who has served as the keeper of the legacy. It took years of experimenting and competition submissions, but in 1966, Helfrich became a finalist at the Bake-Off with her grand contribution to the culinary world, an invention of necessity and playfulness, “She wanted to make a dessert [for the Louisiana relatives] and she didn’t have cake mix, so she tried this frosting mix,” explained Pontello “She didn’t know how long to bake it, but she wasn’t supposed to bake frosting mix. And so it was sort of lava-y.” Helfrich had used a bundt cake pan because the shape and ridges looked fun.
And thus was born the Tunnel of Fudge. Shaped like a doughnut from another dimension, the outside was all fudgy goodness, while the inside, that decedent tunnel of butter and sugar and chocolate and pecans, remained contained until bursting forth. Lava-y. The 1965 Pillsbury Bake-Off was the year of the Tunnel of Love. Helfrich won $5,000; a full set of kitchen appliances, and a tractor (“Don’t ask me why; must’ve been a corporate sponsorship,” said Pontello).
It’s impossible to truly document the impact Helfrich’s dessert had. To say it became a staple of the American recipe book is an understatement. After Helfrich’s Bake-Off appearance, more than 300,000 people sent letters to Pillsbury asking about the recipe (Helfrich received notes from people like Albert Thomas, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Ladybird Johnson). She toured around with her creation, signing autographs and making appearances on behalf of Pillsbury.
The bundt cake pan had been an obscure item designed by a Minnesota company for a few of its Jewish customers who wanted to recreate a dish from their German fatherland. The company had sold about five hundred of them the year before Helfrich’s recipe and were considering limiting their availability, said Pontello. Afterwards, demand for the pan was so high the company set up two factories on a 24-7 production schedule. The reason you probably have a bundt cake pan in your kitchen right now is due to Helfrich. The recipe is now in an untold number of cookbooks. Ever had a molten lava cake at a fancy restaurant? That’s a direct rip-off of the Tunnel of Fudge.
Ironically, Helfrich only earned second-place in the Pillsbury competition. But there have been some just efforts to redeem one of the poorest culinary judgments ever made: Herlich’s recipe is the most requested in the history of Pillsbury, which inducted her into its Hall of Fame, and she and the pan were featured in the Smithsonian’s first exhibit on American food.
Herlich never rested on her sweet laurels though. She continued submitting recipes to the Pillsbury Bake-Off until 2000. She achieved greatness—and $10,000—one other time with a Triscuit-inspired praline dish, a glorious homage to Texas made with pecans and chocolate.
Helfrich died at the age of 98. As her granddaughter likes to say, Helfrich’s four major food groups were butter, sugar, chocolate, and pecans. Appropriately enough, the last thing she ate before passing was chocolate mousse pudding, a fitting last meal for one the state and country’s great culinary artists—a Houston homemaker with a sweet tooth.
(If you’d like to make the Tunnel of Fudge, the recipe is here.)
Father Melvin Walker La Follette
September 7, 1930–July 4, 2015
Invariably, the shepherd seems to always mirror his flock. Or is it the other way around? Regardless, far from the cities with their mega churches, more than five hundred miles from Joel Osteen in Houston, or T.D. Jakes in Dallas, there was Melvin Walker La Follette of Big Bend.
The first thing to know is that everyone called him Father Mel. The second thing to know is that all those everyones would comment on his eyes. A deep, piercing blue, they nestled in a full and rugged, crevice-lined face, itself adorned with a bushy, white mustache. Father Mel looked as tough and bracing as the land around him. And just as his flock around the area is full of characters (¡Viva Terlingua!), so too was Father Mel, the Episcopal priest-poet.
Father Mel arrived in the area in 1984 with the most distinguished sounding of titles: Reverend Canon of the Trans Pecos. With communities sparse and far apart, Father Mel attended to numerous people in numerous—Van Horn, Fort Stockton, Alpine, Marfa, Terlingua Ranch, Lajitas—whether they were Episcopalian or not. It was, as his son put it, the “riding circuit of the Rio Grande.” Father Mel had learned Spanish late in life to better serve the Latino communities (that they might not have understood that he wasn’t Catholic, was a minor concern), and he reached them as best he could. When the border was still open, when it was still possible for two very different communities to interact, Father Mel would take a rowboat across the river, where he would then ride a donkey to visit parishes in Mexico.
In Lajitas, he held services every other Sunday, which a handful of patrons would atend. And at times that meant literally a grouping that could be counted on a single hand—they were lucky if six people were in attendance, including a group of “church ladies,” as they half-jokingly called themselves. Yet despite the far-flung post, despite the meager flock, Father Mel gave the sermons his all. He wore the full vestments. He delivered his homilies. He went through all the pomp and circumstance. Once, during a Communion procession, Father Mel had his four church ladies walk forth while he recited liturgical lines. Had there been more members, he might have finished on time. Instead, Father Mel had the women rush back to the end of the line to begin their procession again, several times, so that he could complete the formalities.
It was sanctuary by improvisation, which is the only way to do it in a part of Texas where one can find strange art installations or a town that is willing to elects a goat as its mayor. Father Mel fit right in. Upon finishing his service, moments after taking off his vestments, Father Mel would light his cigarette. He’d put on his favorite hat, the one advertising cock fights (he appreciated all kinds of culture), and sell fresh eggs from the trunk of his car. The product came from the chickens he kept on his tiny plot of land in Redford, a coop beside the garden he tended. There, he lived in a simple trailer filled with the pages of the historical tome he was working on until his death and packed with the lives he lived before his time in Big Bend.
There were artifacts from the summers after high school that he spent on fire crews with the U.S. Forestry Service during the infamous Mann Gulch Montana Fire of 1949 that killed thirteen fighters. There was a diploma from graduate school at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studied poetry under the esteemed John Berryman. There was material from his teaching jobs, one at the University of British Columbia where he was sought out by none other than Dylan Thomas, for whom he served as a guide through the Columbian Rockies. There were mementos of his life during the fifties and 1960s, when he continued to write and skip from college to college—he became friends with Allen Ginsberg in California, yet another chance encounter with one of the greats. There was his published work, which appeared in publications like Poetry Magazine, the Beloit Poetry Review, and the New Yorker.
By the late sixties, Mel had felt the call of God, finally becoming Father Mel in 1967, another period of life on the road as he served one congregation after another around the country and the world. In his forties, Father Mel became a merchant marine for the mind—or more accurately, he became a professor for the U.S. Navy, teaching sailors who traveled through the Pacific and Indian oceans. It was, in many ways, the beatnik poet life of his more famous peers. But while the others squandered their talents with vices, with declarations of Nihilism, with a life uninhibited by God, Father Mel had kept his devotion to righteousness. A poet-priest-warrior.
Father Mel had spent most of his life fighting against injustice—joining the Civil Rights and anti-war causes when they were at their height. It was a passion he maintained and that followed him to Big Bend. It was Father Mel who supported the family of Esequiel Hernández, Jr., who helped them seek legal recourse after the killing of the eighteen-year-old by U.S. Marines near the border. It was Father Mel who established a co-op for the area to assist the poor. And it was Father Mel’s 2012 Christmas Eve service that had people talking for years. For once, the church was “packed to the gills,” as one of the Church Ladies recalls. “And, Father Mel busts out with not Mary and Joseph, not the Baby in the Manger, not the Nativity, none of that. It is full scale [attack on the gun culture that had killed so many].” By all accounts, it was a heck of a sermon, and not simply because he was preaching to a gun-toting choir (his “street cred” had been his own collection of guns). As Father Mel would explain it later in a very un-priestly manner, the shock-and-awe sermon had been a calling, something from necessity. “It was just time. We’ve pussy-footed too much [on the issue of gun violence and gun control].”
As the Church Ladies would recall, Father Mel had that twinkle in his deep, blue eyes when he gave that Christmas sermon. Though there are few like him, he fit perfectly among the odd flock of Big Bend, idiosyncratic and restless. The poet-priest-warrior who never ceased to wonder, to create, to inspire. Let him, then give the final blessing, a small stanza from his book of poems, The Clever Body:
We loved him; loved, but not because
He was blue and blue horses are rare—
He taught us to love; the tamed us, too—
Our wild minds learned new meanings for care.
August 29, 1922—April 20, 2015
Aware of it or not, there is likely at least one area of your life that has been affected by Richard Evans. Taught your kids how to say no to drugs? Thank Evans. Love the inflated conjurings of Malcolm Gladwell and his polished books on pop social science? Thank Evans. What about being able to call out peers (or yourself), as “workaholics”? Thank. Evans.
A Professor Emeritus at the University of Houston, Evans was one of the county’s pioneers of social psychology, not only bringing it to the masses but creating the program from scratch for the school itself. One of Evans’s first contribution to our national psychology was the development of social “inoculation.” Scaring kids (“fear arousal,” academics call it) into avoiding unhealthy behaviors—like not brushing your teeth, or, more to the immediate concern of his studies, teen smoking—is not nearly enough. Evans’s research in the seventies, and eventual report to the U.S. Surgeons General, stressed the need to educate kids not only on the harm of drugs, but how to react in social situations involving things like peers and pressure. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the work would later be whittled down to a perfect and simple political phrase for Nancy Reagan: “Just Say No.”
Evans’s other contribution to our modern thinking came by mostly by accident, during a consulting job in the sixties. As Evans himself recalled years later, he was describing employees who overworked to the point of becoming inefficient or unproductive. “I explained that it was a phenomenon similar to other addictions of excess, such as alcoholism, and basically made an off-the-cuff comment that perhaps we should refer to those employees as ‘workaholics.’” The word, obviously, stuck. Newspaper columnists began using it. Merriam-Webster put in the dictionary. The curious can click on a hundred different online tests to see if he or she is in fact one. It’s even the title of a Comedy Central show that’s about to begin its sixth season.
Catchphrases are nice, but Evans also wanted to bring psychology to the masses. As the Houston Chronicle noted, Evans aired his daily social psychology class on local television, making him “an early pioneer of distance learning, an idea that has gained momentum recently via massive open online courses and other web-based classes.” Nationally, Evans conducted interviews with some of the area’s top scholars (B.F. Skinner, and the only filmed interview with Carl Jung), not to mention discussions about psychology with entertainers and artists like Arthur Miller and Joan Rivers. Curiously enough, it was Evans’ Jung interview and subsequent book, that caught the attention of Johnny Carson, who had the Professor on the Tonight Show several times.
With all his contributions, academic or otherwise, Evans was about as popular as a social psychology professor can get. The fame and renown, however, didn’t seem to affect him. “He could have traded up to a different city or university, but he loved Houston,” his son told the Chronicle. “He liked the idea of growing the University of Houston. He was very loyal to Houston.”
November 16, 1928–August 26, 2015
By Jan Reid
While I’m glad I knew James “Red” Duke, the folkloric trauma surgeon who died August 26, 2015, I wish we had met under different circumstances. The path that led me to his care in Houston started, oddly enough, in Mexico City. In April 1998, I traveled there with three friends—who are all now senior editors at Texas Monthly—to watch a boxing match featuring a fighter from Austin that I respected and admired. On the last night of our trip, we got into one of Mexico City’s notorious green cabs, a fateful decision. The taxi driver acting as courier delivered us to two malevolent characters with guns, who entered the cab with us and, for the next 45 minutes or so, terrorized us and pistol-whipped us. When we finally stopped, one of the robbers shot me with a .38 revolver. The slug shattered my wrist, set off a flood of internal bleeding, and ricocheted off vertebrae to the base of my spine.
An off-work paramedic who lived in the barrio where the thieves left me to die sent the ambulance that picked me up to the most acclaimed hospital in the city. I received superb care from a vascular surgeon and a team of neurosurgeons. When my wife, Dorothy Browne, and stepdaughter, Lila Wilson, arrived, the neurosurgeons told them I was out of danger, but their tests indicated I would be paralyzed from the waist down. The vascular surgeon, Roberto Castañeda, took Dorothy and Lila into his care with great compassion, and told them he thought had seen me move my toes voluntarily. When I was coming out from anesthesia, a routine test for sensation hurt me, and I kicked my foot.
I might walk again, if physical therapy began very soon, they were told. So Texas Monthly colleagues secured a Life Flight jet—an emergency service Red Duke pioneered in 1976 for Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston—and I just needed to get on it. Dr. Castañeda and a doctor friend in Austin had cleared me to travel, but Dorothy and Lila wondered if moving me so soon was reckless. Could I survive a turbulent flight? Though well equipped and staffed, it was not a mobile emergency room. Finally Dorothy said, “Let’s go.”
When the jet landed at Hobby airport in Houston, the nurse in charge told Dorothy and Lila that my eyes were open but I wasn’t breathing. Hustled off the plane with Lila, Dorothy blamed herself and screamed for a helicopter. The chopper carried me off, with a van or EMS unit racing my family through the empty pre-dawn streets. When they arrived at Memorial Hermann, they expected a neurosurgeon would receive them; instead, a tall, bony old fellow in greens and with a rust-colored mustache awaited them. “I’m Dr. Red Duke,” he said. “I’m gonna be your doctor, and I’m gonna be your mother.”
He continued, “I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m gonna take you back in there and let you see Jan Reid breathing.” Once Dorothy and Lila were assured I was out of danger, he said, “Now I’ve got to do something about you two.” He called a hotel and barked at a receptionist, “Yes, a room! Do you think I’m asking you for a date?” Then he told my family, “They’ve got a van, but if they won’t send it, I’ll drive you over there in my pickup.”
A long friendship had begun.
My parents lived in northeast Texas, and an area television station carried the nationally syndicated Dr. Red Duke’s Health Reports on the afternoon news. I had been charmed by Red’s drawl, his down-home bearing, and his sign-off: “For your health!” But I suspected he might be just a TV doctor with a gift for performing in front of a camera.
How wrong I was.
Born November 16, 1928, Red grew up in Ennis, Texas, acquainted with youthful Willie Nelson and Bob Bullock. Red had been an Eagle Scout and proud yell leader at Texas A&M. He served as an army tank commander for two years before taking a divinity degree at a Baptist seminary. A book by Albert Schweitzer—the famed theologian, humanitarian, and doctor—had a profound effect on him and inspired him to go to medical school. He enrolled in the University of Texas Medical School in Dallas, and it was during his time there as a resident in general surgery at Parkland hospital that he made his own imprint on the world: he was the first doctor to receive President John F. Kennedy after the shots were fired in November 1963. And the lung surgery he performed that day on Governor John Connally likely saved the man’s life.
Red later took graduate courses in chemical engineering and biochemistry on a fellowship at Columbia and then spent two years as a professor of surgery in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Following his return to Texas in 1972, he directed Memorial Hermann’s trauma and emergency services and held a distinguished professor’s chair at the University of Texas Medical School.
During his tenure, he received numerous accolades—Surgeon of the Year, consideration to be the Surgeon General of the United States—but he never let his rising star take him too far from his truest calling: being a damn fine doctor.
The doctors, nurses, and technicians stabilized and prepared me for my transfer to TIRR Memorial Hermann, an esteemed rehab hospital nearby. Red came to see me every day I was lucid. He talked about hunting and his conservation efforts on behalf of Texas Bighorn sheep. His favorite Texas novel was Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained. One day he performed a hilarious dramatic reading from a novel by a fellow surgeon Ferrol Sams in which a farmer paid back a flatulent mule by lighting a match under its tail.
Red oversaw a couple of Aggie residents who looked like football players and made sure I followed the doctor’s orders. But he never kid me about my injuries. “That slug came close to your business interests”—a punctured aorta would have killed me—“and it whanged your spine around pretty good.” Yet not quite two years later I walked with a cane and danced with Lila at her wedding. I wanted to write a full-blown profile of Red, but he declined, saying, “I’m really pretty shy.”
Instead, I wrote a book about the Mexico City brutality and its aftermath, and when asked to talk about it, I learned to just talk about Red. A supporter of Austin’s library foundation came up after one of the readings during my book tour, and she told me her own Red Duke story. “I was in the hospital down there, in bad need of a surgery scheduled the next day. But I was terribly frightened and Red knew I was on the verge of bolting and going home. He told me to get dressed up nice, and he took me dancing. A couple of margaritas, and the next day the surgery went off fine.”
The last time I saw Red I was following a Memorial Hermann publicist through corridors when doors swung open and I cried, “It’s my favorite doctor!” Red pulled back, startled, and I reminded him who I was. “By god, you are!” he cried. His greens were spotted with blood from the prior night’s emergency surgery. He was eighty years old.
August 3, 1930–November 18, 2015
By Michael Hall
Mack McCormick loved to tell stories—even if they sometimes took a circuitous path. He might start off talking about the time he took a group of Texas ex-cons to the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 before segueing into some historic minutiae about Lead Belly, who had also spent time in the state prison system, a fact Mack knew due to his extensive research into the musician. Before you knew it Mack would be talking about his work for the Census Department in the early sixties, how he knocked on doors in Houston’s Fourth Ward and, when he was finished asking the government’s questions, he would ask about barrelhouse piano players. Then he’d tell about his early love for trumpet player Harry James, who grew up in Beaumont, a factoid that would somehow lead to a memory about how Floyd Tillman said he ran into Robert Johnson at the Huntsville Prison Rodeo in 1938. Or was it 1939? Either way, some year after Johnson was supposed to be dead. And maybe that death would remind him of Billy Gibbons’s birth and how Billy’s father gave Mack a blue cigar the day he son was born. That snippet might unlock another memory, like a short anecdote about the life of Joe Patterson, an Alabama panpipe player. Or it could lead to a beautiful soliloquy about Mack’s adoration of Willie Nelson. “I love him deeply,” he once said, “and regard him as a major musician. He’s important to the country.”
This fluid storytelling was a natural response to his work as a historian, folklorist, collector, musicologist, producer, songwriter, record label owner, journalist, and playwright. Mack recorded and preserved the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Robert Shaw. He researched and re-imagined the lives of Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He tracked down the first known photos of Robert Johnson. And he spent decades of his life researching and collecting the life and work of countless other unknown Americans, spending much of his life on the road, chasing down stories but also songs, games, recipes, and photographs. “I am an anthropologist,” he once wrote, “I am involved in a study of mankind and his ability to cope and the style he brings to the job.” For Mack, it was all about connections—the ones between ideas, between artists, between barrelhouse piano players, between us all as human beings. “All I learned,” he said in 2002, “was what others found staying home with the neighbors. Each of us is connected by an infinite number of threads.”
Mack was born on August 30, 1930, in Pittsburgh. His parents divorced and Mack grew up with his mother as she moved around the country, finally winding up in Texas. He was living in Houston in 1949 and writing plays when he became the jazz correspondent for Down Beat magazine, interviewing everyone from Frank Sinatra to Duke Ellington. He worked various jobs over the next decade—barge electrician, cook, carny. Driving a taxi around Houston he was struck by all the different kinds of music he heard—and he began seeking out strangers to record, ultimately working with many, including Hopkins, Lipscomb, and Shaw.
This quest for knowledge led to his greatest passion: field research. Or simply the act of knocking on doors and asking questions. Stopping in a strange town and going up to groups of strangers and starting a conversation. He’d hear songs, get recipes, learn local legends—in short, make connections. Later he’d type up his notes and file them away for future use. He wrote stories for various newspapers and magazines, booked shows, and occasionally actually made money being a folklorist. In 1968 he was hired by the Smithsonian as a “cultural historian” when Texas had an exhibit at the summer Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. Mack gathered everything he could to show off his state, from quilts and recipes to dolls and handmade chairs. He also asked President Lyndon Baines Johnson to do a workshop and tell tall tales. The President came and told stories for fifteen minutes.
Mack was obsessed with the search. Most famously, Mack spent many years on the trail of bluesman Robert Johnson, driving down the back roads of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, talking to hundreds of people. This singular focus on Johnson took over Mack’s life, and he finally located the musician’s two half-sisters near Baltimore in 1972 and got the first photos of Johnson. He sat down to write what would be the definitive book about the bluesman, tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom, though he often thought of it as a detective story: Who Killed Robert Johnson?
The book never came, though, even as Johnson became an American icon. It wasn’t the only project Mack abandoned—The Texas Blues, a mammoth project he had collaborated on with English scholar Paul Oliver, was also left incomplete after he and Oliver had a falling out. Mack was a noted perfectionist, one who also suffered from manic depression, which became, he said, a “destructive block.” A creature of enthusiasms, Mack would set aside one project and pick up another. “I’m the king of unfinished manuscripts,” he said. He was also physically ill–and paranoid, though not without reason. Over the years people stole artifacts and information from him.
In the years before his death on November 18, 2015, due to complications from esophageal cancer, he mostly worked in solitude, withdrawing inside his northwest Houston home and severing a lot of his closest connections. Mack continued to work on various projects, puttered around the house, and fielded calls from enthusiastic strangers—whether students and journalists or rock stars like Jack White, who wanted to talk to the man who had done so much to find and preserve American music. He also spent much of his time working on plays–including one on his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, called Zero at the Bone. “She’s so inspiring,” he said in 2002. “All I have to do is go to one of her poems for hope. ‘This is my letter to the world’ is the most heartbreaking poem and the closest to my own lonely feeling sometimes”:
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
Sam Spritzer & Earlene Moore
July 16, 1920—April 12, 2015
December 20, 1922—April 24, 2015
We love the people who dress us. Maybe it’s something programmed from birth and childhood starting with the parents and adults who literally put on our clothes— the protection, the armor—we needed to make it through the day. The people who prevented the shoelace disasters, who layered coats upon coats to stop the cold, who, even later, offered sage opinions on the perfect outfit for those once-in-a-lifetime occasions.
Perhaps that’s why we hold somewhat aloft such positions as the tailor, the seamstress, and the personal shopping assistant. They provide support and assistance, some reassurance in those choices that affect our mood, comfort, and confidence. Texas lost two such couture icons this year. And while their departments would’ve have been located on different floors, their ability to affect those around them is certainly going to last longer than any fashion trend.
For more than fifty years, Earlene Moore was the bra expert of Austin. She worked for several area retailers between the thirties and sixties. Then, in 1970, she opened up her own high-end lingerie shop, “where the elite ladies of Austin shopped,” as well as couples. “Even the transvestites found their way there.” By age 94 (she was still working a few weeks before her death), Moore had not only fitted several generations of women, but they would flock from far and wide for her divination-like abilities—she didn’t use or need a tape measure.
Perhaps you’re the other fifty percent of the population that doesn’t understand just how necessary a proper fitting is, or how rare it is for someone like Moore to be so good at it. A multitude of factors go into finding the right bra: there’s the obvious cup size, but there’s also lift, the right amount of padding, the right material, concerns over chaffing, back rolls, and how it cuts into the shoulder just to name some concerns. Even those with daily experience have difficulties. Anywhere between 60 to 80 percent of women wear the wrong bra size.
In other words, being the best isn’t a one-size-fits all compliment. Though Moore guided woman in the subtle and hidden art of a good bra, there was nothing secret, Victoria’s or otherwise, about how Moore was able to be so successful. She was charismatically up-front about the garment and her mentions of unmentionables : “Everyone thinks they are a 34B,” she told the Statesman in 2010. “In their dreams.”
Moore, known for her pristine appearance, was all but a superhero for countless number of women, previously trapped by the just-not-quite right. There are far too many bothersome problems—pestering men, restricted movement—to not have the most intimate things be treated with care. Moore made this her goal, like a zen craftswoman striving for perfection. “The harder they are to fit, the harder I work. Because there is an answer; I just have to find it. I don’t give up,” she once said. “Every single customer is different. She is a worthy person and deserves attention. There is an art to it.”
While Moore’s gifts to the community often remained hidden, Sam Spritzer wore his more on his sleeve. He was, after all, Houston’s premier furrier for sixty years. As one might expect, he covered Houston’s finest, becoming well-known in the social circles in the city and beyond. “Glamorous parties, trips to New York and Paris and photo shoots all were part of his job description,” wrote the Houston Chronicle, “and he met Warner Roberts when he was looking for glamorous young women to model his furs.” He became, in the words of another Houston furrier, “an institution.”
Spritzer’s success seems almost preordained—the fur business was a tradition passed through the family. Except there was nothing certain about his family’s legacy, or his own life. The fancy furs, the warm coats, the exalted position in the community—it was the antithesis of Spritzer’s early years. Born in Poland, much of his family had been trampled by Hitler’s march for control. At seventeen, he fled from the Nazi guards who’d rounded up all the men in his village. Later, he was drafted for the war and returned to fight the Soviets. There were bitter battles, those against the elements being some of the toughest.
He returned to his Polish village after the war, to confirm the horror heard: his entire family, the entire Jewish population of his town, had been eliminated. Following a few years in France, Spritzer moved to Houston in 1955 and began what would become a thriving business. But it wouldn’t be his entire legacy. He spent much of his time alighting both the past and future. Throughout his years, he shared his and his family’s story numerous times, a warning against the evils we allow. But, as a Rabbi explained during one such meeting, “the message, was not a morbid one. It was about perseverance, rebuilding for the future.”
In no way was this more evident than the work Spritzer did with the community. His status, as had always been the case, had less to do with those precious garments adorning the shoulders then what was in his heart. The list of charities he participated in and gave generously could fill a closet. He helped develop Houston’s Holocaust Museum and pushed for Texas’s “Stop the Darfur Genocide Act,” encouraging divestment from the oppressive Sudanese government.
Spritzer knew it wasn’t the clothes that make the man. Just as Earlene Moore knew each one of her customers deserved, and needed, individual care and attention. Texas without these two feels a little more exposed.
Milo Hamilton & Gene Elston
September 2, 1927–September 17, 2015
March 26, 1922–September 5, 2015
“It’s plain and simple: baseball is a radio game,” someone once declared. Sure, that someone was Milo Hamilton and it was the opening line of his memoir chronicling fifty years as one of the sport’s most recognized playcallers. That doesn’t mean he’s not absolutely right. That calm, methodical play-by-play punctured by exuberant moments of triumph and failures is as essential to the game as bats and gloves. The announcers are part and parcel to the experience and are just as much tied to the teams as anything else. It’s true across the country, whether it’s Los Angeles’s Vin Scully, Chicago’s Harry Carey, or “Mr. Baseball” himself, Bob Uecker.
Texas, and Houston, lost two of those famous voices this year with the signing off of Hamilton himself, along with the Astro’s other long-time announcer, Gene Elston.
Hamilton’s fame preceded his arrival to Texas in 1985. It was his voice that people remember when the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career 714 home run record in 1974. Even Aaron associates ones of his greatest accomplishments with the man who joyfully shared the news with the entire country. “Your voice goes with me all over the world,” Aaron told Hamilton in 2012. “Everywhere I go when people start talking about that home run, your voice comes back, and I want to say how much I appreciate that.”
That’s likely the sentiment of every Houston Astros fan who remembers hearing Hamilton’s favorite catchphrases like “Holey Toledo” and “put a blue star on that play!” He worked several ball clubs before finally settling in Houston, and as a man who believed passionately in the purity of the America’s greatest pastime, it’s no wonder he liked it here. “In coming to Texas, he found a home and a region that liked him to an extraordinary degree,” explained an historian of baseball’s voices. “He hearkened back to an era where for many people there was only one sport, and that sport was baseball. He called other sports and called them well, but to Milo, there was really only one game, and that was baseball.”
Hamilton put everything into his announcing. It was, in many ways, a performance meant to call the game with vigor and the most colorful language possible. “For me, Milo was part poet and part P.T. Barnum. He was a great ringmaster, and he loved painting the prose of baseball,” former Astros player Phil Garner said in September.
If Hamilton was the ebullient one, Gene Elston was the consummate professional. “I wanted to be a reporter, to let my listeners know what was going on,” Elston once explained. “I was never a homer. I was a fan of the Houston Astros and I wanted them to win, but my job was to report the game.” To many Houstonians, Elston is and was the voice the team. He’s certainly known as the original voice of the Astros, coming up with them as they went from being the Colt .45s expansion team to the pro club they are today.
Elston worked the press box from 1962 through 1986, and his signature style was that of “reserved eloquence,” as the Chronicle put it in its obituary. The Houston Press’ John Judge had long been a supporter of the Elston style, and has lamented more than once the fact that the Astros look over the subtle power and precision of Elston. “He wasn’t fancy. He didn’t shout. He wasn’t a homer. He was the eyes for the people who couldn’t be at the game, and it was his job to accurately describe what was happening on the field,” wrote Judge. Others who enjoy the art of the call, recognize Elston as an announcer’s announcer. The “most underrated play-by-play man I’ve ever listened to,” said one broadcaster. “He never treated the game like it was a four-alarm fire and that you’ve got to come down to watch things burn,” said that same voice historian. “He treated the listener with respect, and he assumed a certain body of knowledge by the viewer or listener.”
In an era when the focus shifted from radio to television, Elston was one of the few to first recognize that the words and images could work together, rather than piling on top of one another. The moment after Nolan Ryan’s record-breaking fifth no-hitter, Elston simply said “there it is,” and let the audience see for itself the excitement of the stadium.
Both Hamilton and Elston went silent in September, two weeks apart from one another. With their passing, we might prepare to mourn, too, the passing of America’s pastime, at least as we know it. The skilled and universally recognized radioman, though an integral part of baseball, is not what it used to be. It’s little more than an echo of the very different talent each man possessed. Houston still has plenty of people who chatter, but no more with such voices.
Jethro Pugh & John David Crow
July 4, 1944–January 7, 2015
July 8, 1937–June 17, 2015
We like to think of our sports figures—especially our football players—as gods, immortal and limitless in their strength. They are, of course, mere mortals, like the rest of us (well, much more than mere). The problem with Texas producing so many football greats is that we must also watch so many of them walk off this grand field.
John David Crow wasn’t simply among the greats. He was a legend. Long before there was Johnny Manziel, there was Crow. He is, as Manziel himself said, “Mr. Aggie Football at Texas A&M.” As if it weren’t enough that Crow would become the first Aggie (just one of two, with Manziel) to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1957, the running back tore up fields and broke lines under the direction of Coach Bear Bryant. Even under such punishment, Crow was unstoppable. “People talk about coach Bryant being a bear—a tough man—but shoot, he wasn’t any tougher than my dad,” Crow once recounted. “Coach Bryant could have kicked me in the butt a lot of times, and he wouldn’t have caught up to my dad.” It was no doubt that toughness that led Bryant to famously declare that “If John David Crow doesn’t win the Heisman Trophy, they ought to stop giving it.” There was more. “Don’t count the yards. Count the people he’s run over.” Crow did indeed win following a year of rushing 562 yards, scoring six touchdowns, throwing five, and making five interceptions. When the Heisman committee told first told Crow about the award, he reportedly hadn’t even heard of it before.
It would be enough if Crow had stopped with his college career. But the prototypical bruiser originally from Louisiana—“Ol Crow” as he was nicknamed, was six-foot-two-inch and 215 pounds—continued pushing forward, playing eleven seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Cardinals. He’d later serve as an assistant coach to his old mentor in Alabama, then become athletic director and coach at Northeast Louisiana, before returning like a prodigal son to College Station as assistant athletic director, before taking over the big gig himself. “I tell everybody that A&M is my true love,” he once told an interviewer (though he did admit Alabama was a close second). It should come as no surprise that he’ll be remembered forever in AggieLand. Fittingly, the Core Values statue was rededicated to Crow the first day in the newly redeveloped Kyle Stadium.
While Crow cemented his legacy through life-long efforts, the game, bless its heart, allows others a single game, a single moment, to be etched into history. It’s not always an appreciated invitation. The Dallas Cowboys’ Jethro Pugh, who died in January, earn his status thanks to one gridiron battle that’s impossible to forget. It was December 21, 1967, the National Championship game, against the Green Bay Packers, mercilessly held at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. With the temperature hovering around -15 and -20 degrees fahrenheit —the coldest game in NFL history—the game sort of had to be known as the Ice Bowl. So cold was it, that the referee’s lips stuck to his whistle. Green Bay got the first good lead, at 14-0, but before the half, the Cowboys closed the gap by four. While the temperature kept dropping the Cowboys’ score kept climbing, eventually putting them ahead 17-14 in the fourth. With the Packers in possession at the one yard line, Bart Starr went for a quarterback sneak with two linemen knocking back Pugh, a defensive tackle. And with that Green Bay won, 21-17.
As teammates remember, they were literally playing on ice, so there was little Pugh could do to stop the play. But that was just one play, and Pugh had a tremendous career, all of it with Dallas, replete with examples of his commitment. He was part of the Cowboy’s Doomsday Defense that would help get the team to four Super Bowl. He even once played through the end of season while taking penicillin to hold back appendicitis. He finished his career with 95.5 sacks and led the team in that statistic for five consecutive seasons (’68-72) before it became an official category, writes ESPN. Working with the best of the best, however, had consequences—Pugh never made the Pro Bowl. He was “overlooked” his teammates have said, calling Pugh “a terribly unsung person among that bunch of great players.”
Pugh himself had a brighter view. After the end of that season, he “decided to look to the future.” Though there are no statues of him as there are of others like Crow, Pugh contributed just as much to the game and to future players. He showed all of Texas just what giving 110 percent actually looks like. In their unique ways, both Pugh and Crow showed that with clear eyes and full hearts, is really is impossible to lose.
Tom Moore & Brad Anderson
May 16, 1928–July 20, 2015
May 14, 1924–August 30, 2015
Back in the ol’ days, there were things called newspapers—like iPads but bigger, heavier, flammable. And these items, kids, were comprised of things called pages. These pages were filled with some of the same sections, stories, and pictures you might see now on the Huffington Post, MorningNews.com and any local homepage. The problem with these pages is that you had to share them. Not “share” them with “friends.” But actually, physically, share them with actual, physical people. It was a nightmare! At least in my house. The parents read the news and opinion section in tandem, trading sections at roughly the same time. Apart from that, no one in the family cared a lick for sports, the stock-market page was some sort of newfangled crossword, and the classifieds were only glanced at to ensure the newly available rental property advertisement been spelled correctly. So that left one section for which everyone battled for, clawed at, would hide like contraband if given the chance: the comics page.
It was a glorious thing, kids. A page that seemed to jump out at you with all manner of fantasy—aliens, talking animals, grotesquely depicted humans, everything. The ones that tended to really stand alone were the ones that went against the grain, the vertically inclined big boxes as opposed to the strips. If you were lucky, one of those big boxes belonged to the loveable if forever-pestering Great Dane known as Marmaduke. Some people were still lucky until this year. The 91-year-old creator Brad Anderson was still sketching away from his home in The Woodlands when he died this year, 62 years after the comic debuted. At its height, Marmaduke was syndicated in 600 newspapers and available in 20 countries. The single-panel work earned Anderson prominent accolades in the comic world, including a lifetime achievement award. So beloved by those who followed Marmaduke’s innocent antics that more than one paper faced a “reader revolt” when it threatened to drop it. There was perhaps a deceptively simple reason for this. “People who’ve had a pet in their lives, or wish they had, will identify with the antics of this loving dog,” Paul Anderson, Brad’s son and late-career assistant once explained. “He doesn’t lecture or get political. He’s good-natured and kind, lives a dog’s life, gets into mischief and takes care of his family, generating smiles along the way.”
It was, in a word, relatable. It didn’t concern itself or need to hammer readers over the head with angsty emotions, convoluted plots, or the latest trend of dark, anti-heroes.
Like Marmaduke, Archie was a comic for the regular types. And like Marmaduke, it was created by a man who kept at the art with a workmanlike consistency. You may not recognize his name (in the early days, hustling several illustration gigs, he sometimes wasn’t credited), but you most surely know the name of the most wholesome, American cartoon ever: Archie.
It was native Texan and long-time El Pasoan Tom Moore that shepherded the long-running comic book on and off from the early fifties to the eighties during the height of its popularity. Like his Marmaduke counterpart, Moore got his first taste of drawing success during his Vietnam service. Famously, he sketched a caricature of his captain and was soon summoned by his superiors. Rather than any kind of punishment, he was reassigned as the staff cartoonist. Back in civilian life, he first trained under pioneering Tarzan creator Burne Hogarth, and after more than a decade working in New York, decided to move back home, “having felt that his heart belonged at the foot of the Franklin Mountains,” his son told the Associated Press.
Homegrown gems flourish everywhere, but it’s almost hard to imagine that the artist behind Archie, not to mention his work with another popular strip, “Snuffy Smith,” would be continuously creating iconic and universally known work in the city that even parts of Texas tend to forget. But Moore flourished, doing freelance projects for other comics like “Underdog” and “Mighty Mouse,” not to mention other ambitious efforts. By the time he retired (at least from doing Archie work), he become one of those hidden, unassuming legends of the comic world. Not that he didn’t have admirers in town, least of all the El Paso Museum of art, which hosted his work in 1996, well before all the big, hip cities and art galleries began their major efforts to reclaim comics as art.
“If he’d been in New York, or in Dallas, or the big cities, he could’ve came out and went to these [comic] book conventions and went to shows and people would’ve come to see what he was doing and what he had done,” said Brad Wilson, the owner of All Star Comics & Games in El Paso, who helped Moore’s son curate his late father’s collection. “But he was kind of low key and being in El Paso, well, you know, we’re El Paso.”
Moore himself was equally low key, saying in 1996, “I have enjoyed what I’ve done and I am pleased that others liked it, too. I think it’s such a kick that my stuff is going to be hanging at the museum. Who knew Archie would have such universal appeal?”
Those of us with a full house of family that all reached for the same comics page day in and day out, that would shared those strips with each other or put them on the refrigerator could’ve told him that.
Sheri Shelburne Petmecky
June 27, 1924–April 19, 2015
There are some essential components to the Jack Sellers Bexar County Palomino Patrol and Drill Team. Palomino horses, of course. Definitely those famous silver saddles. And, for 32 years, another key component was Sheri Petmecky, the woman who ensured there were both saddles and mares for one of San Antonio’s most spectacular rodeo displays.
“The best way I can describe Sheri is that she was a sweet as she can be but she also was not afraid to speak her mind,” recalls Steve Turvey, president of the organization. “She was a little salty sometimes. You didn’t cross her.”
This is not an exaggeration. Petmecky had been living in Texas for more than a decade when, one day, she was alone with the baby at the family house in San Antonio. When two burglars ran across the property, evading police, Petmecky corned them, and held them at bay with a gun, firing a round into the ground to let them know she meant business. After the incident, the local paper had declared her a “pistol-packing mama.”
She had the same determination when it came to the Patrol. The first time Petmecky watched the Patrol’s grand entry, she told her husband, Fred, that she wanted to ride with that group. And “usually when Sheri set her mind to doing something she did it,” said Chuck Carabajal, the Patrol’s current captain.
For the next three decades, Petmecky did just that, taking on much of the responsibility for acquiring the expensive silver saddles and ensuring the Patrol upheld its tradition. “She ran a tight ship,” said Carabajal.”[The Petmeckys] set levels of people being able to ride their horse, level of behavior that would and would not be tolerated.” Would Petmecky lower the boom when she needed to? Absolutely. But that toughness came from a place of passion and love. “If Sheri supported you … she would support you in any and every way. You couldn’t ask for a better friend and for a more positive influence in your life.”
As her husband remarked, Petmecky had spent her life on horseback. So even when she could no longer ride, she still patrolled the patrol, still directed the action from the sidelines, still loved to visit with her horse, “Honey.” And when she did this, she glowed.
The saddles Petmecky obtained are still used by the Patrol’s members, and they’re still doing the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo’s Grand Entry—but the grand tradition feels just a little less showy without the pistol-packing mama leading the charge.
September 30, 1965–July 22, 2015
We all love a good country song. It’s often a sad and mournful tale of loss, heartbreak, and dark ironies (why did he stop loving her on that day?). And as much as we love a good country song, we equally love when our country singers reflect some of that same darkness—talented crooners like Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt, singers tortured by their own inner demons and proclivities.
Though Daron Norwood’s time in the national spotlight was brief compared to others, he was the epitome of a country star, and he was ours. Born in Lubbock, Norwood was the son of a preacher and sang in a family gospel band when he was young. At 20, he moved to Nashville to make it big, sleeping in his truck for three years while he chased down that big break. The big break did indeed come. His self-titled debut featured two songs that would break into the Billboard Top 40: “Cowboys Don’t Cry” and “If It Wasn’t For Her I Wouldn’t Have You.” Like so many artists, Norwood gave into the temptations of the lifestyle—drinkin’ and druggin’, as a country song might put it.
Unlike some for whom that would be their demise, or others who might make a public spectacle of their fall and return to grace, Norwood did what seems unthinkable: he walked away. And it was just after the release of his sophomore album, Ready, Willing and Able, to boot. It wasn’t a light decision either. Just before he got sober, Norwood said he knocked back 24 shots of Jack Daniels a night, for three consecutive nights. “I didn’t quit on life. But I quit the bus, I quit the band, I quit the record deal, quit the shows, the alcohol, the drugs,” Norwood would tell Country Weekly in 2002. “I quit it all with a phone call to my then-manager saying, ‘I’m done. And I do mean done—with it all.’”
In the following years, Norwood would take his sobriety and newfound faith in God on the road, establishing a drug and alcohol awareness program that he shared with kids all over the country. Away from the main show business stage, there were still some interesting times. In 2008, he was invited to speak at “Exposing the Threat of Islamist Terrorism-America’s Original Symposium Series on the Threat of Islamist Terrorism.”And he made minor headlines in 2009 when Panhandle students were caught off guard by his passionate, rambling, two-hour presentation during a school assembly, which was eventually halted after a teacher pulled a fire alarm.
You can take the Lubbock boy out of the country music scene, but you can’t take the country music out of the Lubbock boy. By 2012, Norwood was officially back, having released a third album, the heavily Christian I Still Believe, filled with the kinds of songs of redemption and contemplation that only true (and lucky) country singers experience. In the end, Norwood’s death had some poetry to it. After all those years on the road, of success, of recovery and resurrection, Norwood died, alone, in his Hereford apartment, a quiet end as sad and mournful as the final notes of a country song.
October 8, 1950–May 2, 2015
Charles “Charlie” Joyner was so often called the Fort Worth’s “unofficial greeter,” that it might as well have been official. “When he’s missing, there’s a void.” That’s how one citizen put it during the public comments section of a 2007 city council meeting. Those not intimately familiar with downtown Cowtown would be forgiven if they thought the remark was in regards to some sort of civic leader. But the subject in question was Joyner, the homeless (he preferred “houseless,” as his home was always with God), double amputee who’d lost his legs years ago hopping a freight train.
Joyner was more than just a colorful fixture of the downtown area. As locals liked to reiterate over and over, he was the kindest, sweetest, most cheerful person that could be found in Fort Worth, houseless or otherwise. One reverend even referred to him as a “prophet.” Parking his wheelchair everyday at the corner of 3rd and Houston for more than twenty years, Joyner waved at and chatted with everyone who walked by, often developing friendships with those who frequently crossed his path.
He even earned some bit of immortality when a local folksinger penned the song, “Glory Train: The Ballad of Charlie Joyner.”
However, the man, as always, is far more interesting and complicated than any folk legend. He had years-long confrontations with police who issued him multiple tickets for begging—as Joyner and his numerous supporters maintained, he never asked for money. And the Fort Worth Weekly details Joyner’s efforts to mark his territory, unafraid to give authorities a “tongue lashing” and getting in physical altercations with others over the location. Like everyone else, the mascot of pleasant downtown life wrestled with his own pain and demons — he reconciled with his estranged daughter, by phone, just moments before his death of pancreatic cancer at an area hospice.
If his cheerful “greeter” status was something of a performance it was perhaps the greatest kind, the kind that positively affects and truly touches his audience. He nurtured the neighborly love and familiarity from which all communities are built. Some can claim towering monuments, expansive wealth, or political influence; Joyner can claim an impromptu memorial at his corner that began to appear immediately after his death. And he can claim something far more indestructible—the lasting impression he made on the people around him.
October 10, 1945–June 11, 2015
The American Dream is dead. Not that obscure, lofty and impossible-to-identify idea that has long been over-discussed, but the imposingly physical embodiment of the everyman whose immodest smack talk was as beautiful as any fancy poetry. Is it any surprise that The American Dream was a Texan?
Born Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. in Austin and raised in Canyon, he will forever be known as Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes. He began his wrestling career in a bad guy tag team with Canyon native Dick Murdoch in the late sixties, working the various wrestling circuits across the country, often driving his pickup from one location to the next. Pro wrestling is interactive theater, with the plots, characters, winners, and losers all fantastically choreographed. Rhodes turned from heel to hero with the creation of The American Dream in 1974, though he would play many different roles in his lifetime, including doing influential work behind the scenes organizing matches, training a new generation of wrestlers, and even guiding his family into the business. No one really confused the act with the man, but there wasn’t any wrestling persona as “real” as The American Dream.
Rhodes knew how to win the audience over. Often it involved a lot of bodily harm and blood, both typically his own. But it was more than that. (A wonderful photo shows a pummeled and crimson-splashed Rhodes wearing a shirt that read “The American Dream, Son of a Plumber.”) With his crown of deep purple scars, a slight neanderthal brow, and markedly rotund frame, Rhodes became one of the most famous wrestlers of the spectacle’s Golden Era because he was the “Common Man” hero. Rhodes used his role to channel the frustrations boiling, the sweat dripping, and the injustice felt by regular people.
Then, as now, wrestlers would do “promos,” quick television spots in which they trash-talked their once and future opponents. Rhodes was a master of the art, precisely because he spent less time on the surface attacks and more time connecting with his audience. His “Hard Times” speech is now a classic of the form, a spectacular, spittled-specked soliloquy. Rhodes ostensibly rails against the gaudy and supercilious Ric Flair; but in reality, the speech is a battle cry for the forgotten and the poor, against the bigwig oppressors, fat cats, and selfish politicians. It’s not exactly pretty, but it feels real. “We all had hard times together,” screams Rhodes, “and I admit, I don’t look like the athlete of the day’s supposed to look. My belly’s just a lil’ big, my heiny’s a lil’ big, but brother, I am bad. And they know I’m bad.” We knew it, too.
Gilberto Ozuna Garcia
December 4, 1940–September 21, 2015
Texas music lost a legend with the passing of Gilberto Ozuna Garcia, the conjunto music master from Edinburgh. The Conjunto Hall of Famer led the Los Dos Gilbertos for almost forty years, playing all over the state and across the border with the prodigious output of a genius, writing hundreds of popular Tejano songs. His daughter, Mari, put it best when talking to the Brownsville Herald: “He’s remembered because he’s the best accordion player in the world,” she said. “That’s not an understatement. No one could compare to his accordion style in the Conjunto/Tejano genre. No one could duplicate his sound.”
Garcia was a musician’s musician: always on the road working concerts and dance halls, exciting crowds with Conjunto and Tejano classics, recording for numerous record labels and appearing on the famous Johnny Canales Show. Garcia was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 2007, and Los Dos Gilbertos was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award.
Ebby Halliday Acers
March 9, 1911–September 8, 2015
In Dallas, it’s not the tale of Horatio Alger they tell when discussing someone who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s Ebby Halliday Acers. And she did it by the brim of her hat. The woman knew how to hustle. It was like she was born to do it, which she pretty much was.
At eight years old, Ebby—born Vera Lucille Koch—was already a door-to-door salesman, selling Cloverine salve to neighbors as something of a cure-all for small abrasions, making a two-cent profit on every tin of the powder. By 27, she’d changed her name because it just sounded better—a better sell—and was in Dallas working at department store when she took some investment advice from her dentist. One thing led to another and soon she had her own hat store. Then came another suggestion, this time from an oil magnate: if Ebby was so good at selling hats to his wife, she should try selling houses. Which is exactly what Ebby did. As the Dallas Morning News describes it in its profile of Ebby, an extensive piece that filled more than two full pages, the transition from hats to houses just happened. And somewhere along the line she took over the Dallas real estate market (incidentally, she’s also credited with introducing Dallas to the idea of model homes).
In the proceeding years, those “Ebby” signs with their signature font became ubiquitous in Dallas. The company does about 19,000 transactions a year worth $6.6 billion in sales, and there are 1,700 sales associates to ensure it remains the tenth largest independently-owned residential real estate company in the country (it’s the largest in Texas, obviously). As if there would ever any doubt of Ebby’s personal boom market, it’s perhaps worth noting some of the people who offered praise upon her passing: George W. Bush, T. Boone Pickens, and Ross Perot. In all the remarks about her death, there’s a sense of awe. Talk of broken glass ceilings don’t even factor in. Ebby was up in the clouds.
During her ascent, Ebby made a point of keeping it classy and expected her sales associates to do the same. (“Thou shall not reveal thy cleavage,” was one of her commandments.) It was one half or her deceptively simple strategy for becoming the queen of the state’s real estate market, of rubbing shoulders with some of the state’s most powerful business leaders. “I work like a dog and act like a lady.” It doesn’t get any more Texan than that.
November 7, 1932–March 1, 2015
It’d be one thing if your legacy was establishing Big Bend as the premier park of the state. But to also inspire the creation of a specialty queso? Very few mortals manage two such massive achievements. But Bob Armstrong did it.
When people think of the Austin of the good ol’ days, there’s Willie at the bars and Armstrong at the Capitol. Born and raised in town, he earned degrees from the University of Texas and UT Law before he won a seat in the state House during a 1963 special election, serving until 1970 when he was elected the Land Commissioner. Taking over, Armstrong declared that “miniskirts and sideburns are welcomed back.” He was an outlaw politico-hippie, the kind of liberal “dreamed about in Billy Brammer’s [seminal political novel] The Gay Place,” as Texas Monthly’s own R.G. Ratcliffe put it. There could not have been a better person for the job of pushing for Texas conservation. As he was fond of saying, “Fish and animals cannot be Democrats or Republicans.” An avid camper and fisherman, Armstrong roamed large parts of the state, back when it was very much wild country.
Part of that country included Big Bend, or as it was known back then, Anderson Ranch. It wasn’t a matter of a quick trade either. The effort to acquire the land took twelve years. But the end result—212,000 acres at a cost of $8.8 million—doubled the size of state park land. Despite his Austin gentleness, friends say that when Armstrong wanted something, he was a force of the very Texas nature he was fighting to preserve. Creating Big Bend was “just brute force on his part, and it was a great accomplishment,” recalled Bob White, who beat Armstrong in the 1980 Governor’s race but later appointed him to the Parks and Wildlife’s board of directors. As the archives from the Land Commission perfectly note, Armstrong was laid-back on most fronts, but “his serious work ethic and concern for the environment ushered in a new era of ecological stewardship on public lands in Texas, especially along the coast.”
Not only did he snag Big Bend and help create the Coastal Zone Management Program, he initiated a statewide ecological survey that would eventually result in the creation of state parks and natural areas such as Devils River, Devil’s Sinkhole, Matagorda Island, and Enchanted Rock, just to name a few. Armstrong’s efforts were recognized far behind the Texas state limits. In 1992, he went to work for the Clinton Administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior.
Being the greatest defender of the state’s ecology is a fine distinction indeed. But then there’s the queso. It began like many of Armstrong’s encounters—impromptu and involving good friends. As legend has it (well, as numerous people tell it), Armstrong created the dish at his frequent meal stop, the local institution Matt’s El Rancho, when he walked into the kitchen and asked for “something different.” The resulting queso with taco meat and avocado was a hit with Armstrong and quickly thereafter, everyone else. Publications as far ranging as Esquire have offered a recipe for the Bob Armstrong Dip, and it’s still the restaurant’s most popular dish, with people ordering a “Small Bob” or a “large Bob.” As Armstrong’s own son, Will, loved to tell it, Armstrong was just as proud of his yellow creation as he was of his Big Bend one. “Once a politician, always a politician,” Will joked with the Statesman. “To the end, he’d go over there and walk around and he’d say, ‘Hey, is that Bob Armstrong dip you’re eating? Well, I’m Bob Armstrong.’”
It’s rare that someone can have such massive impact on future generations. How many people now regularly visit and promulgate the beauty of Big Bend? How many photo spreads—in Texas Monthly and beyond—has its beauty inspired? A visit to area has now become a rite of passage for any Texan. And as you stand in the depths of this rugged terrain, you can watch the bright, yellow sun dip into the afternoon like queso-covered chip and at once thank Bob Armstrong for both of those things.
December 22, 1922–May 6, 2015
More often than not, particularly in this day and age, politics is a bloodsport. Even at the federal level, Texans have shown they known how to wield the sword—from LBJ and Sam Rayburn to George W. Bush (a sword of compassion in his case). Not everyone gets away without being cut. Representative Jim Wright, who died in May, met the end of his own political career in 1989, when he resigned his post amidst an ethics scandal, becoming the first Speaker of the House in U.S. history to do so.
Wright had already been in office for 34 years before the scandal overshadowed him, serving Fort Worth’s 12th district as a Democrat (yes, those still existed back then). As with any long-term public service career, there were highs and lows, including brushes with history—Wright was in the motorcade when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. In 1986, he was elected to the Speakership and served as the chairman of the Democratic Party convention (perhaps a personal high), that nominated Michael Dukakis (definitely a party low). During his time in Washington, Wright thought of Texas and Tarrant County first. He was the author and namesake of the (in)famous Wright Amendment, a federal law dealing specifically and nearly singularly with Love Field that restricted flights in and around Texas for the monopolistic protection of DFW against competition.
As the Dallas Morning News put it, “Wright was a man of perplexing and sharp contrasts. He was a street fighter and peacemaker, local politician and international leader, and a consummate Democrat.” In short, the consummate politician, an insider who used his position to further the benefits of his people back home. That’s all par for the course. Wright was tough and hard driving in his goals, and he aimed to create a “muscular speakership that influenced and generated foreign policy,” something every future speaker would emulate.
While Wright was one of the most distinguished public servant, it will always be the scandal and his resignation that distinguishes his tenure. The scandal began with a report from the House Ethics Committee that implied Wright had semi-shady business dealings and used his position of influence to assist his immediate family (because that never, ever happens in Washington). Wright fought the allegations for a year as the negative attention ate away at his power and influence. Finally, during an hour-long speech on the House floor, Wright again refuted the accusations, denounced the political culture behind the attacks, and resigned his Speakership along with his seat.
“Let that be a total payment for the anger and hostility we feel toward each other,” said Wright, adding that “all of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end. There’s been enough of it.”
This mindlessness, unfortunately, would not desist. As more than one publication has observed, Wright was a harbinger, that his “resignation marked a turning point for Congress and signaled the start of an era in which partisan rancor and incivility became the norm.” Indeed, the very man who first went after him, who would then become Speaker himself, Newt Gingrich, would fall due, in part, to his own ethics troubles.
Wright had regrets about leaving office, although he wouldn’t share them publicly until a 2014 interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. But as the story points out, Wright, as always, continued putting the citizens of Tarrant County first. Had he stayed in Washington as a lobbyist or a member of a private corporate board—as is so, so often the case—“He could have printed money,” said Wright’s 12th District successor, Representative Pete Geren. “Instead, he came back to Fort Worth to be a teacher [at TCU, where his class was one of the most popular]. To me, more than anything, that points to his essential character.”
It sure is nice to have some Texans with high profiles in Washington D.C. But while Senator Ted Cruz is off trying to insult and distance everyone on his way to the top and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee continues to be “mean” to those beneath her, Texas sure could use someone like Wright. Someone in our corner who does everything he can for the state and for his constituents, no matter the cost.
June 22, 1981–February 1, 2015
Millennials get picked on a lot. They’re consumers, they’re lazy, they don’t know how to work. If there was a peer who could refute all those trite claims, however, it was Monty Oum. The Austin-based computer animator, who attracted a legion of fans and followers—not just for his gamer-friendly projects but his spectacular performances IRL—was one of the hardest working and productive minds to come out the gaming and computer communities.
The lead animator of the Austin-based production company Rooster Teeth, Monty was at the forefront of a budding animation and production world that exists just beyond the mainstream and main street. Far too young—he died of complications following a surgery at the age of 33—Monty already had numerous creative accomplishments. His first effort, a short film that pitted the main characters of the video games Halo and Metroid Prime in a battle royale “is the highest viewed user-created video on YouTube,” and a forerunner of the now-common mash-up form. His animated web series RWBY, meanwhile, was “the first US anime series to be exported to Japanese audiences.” When he died, Monty was working as the lead animator for Rooster Teeth’s cult classic “Red vs. Blue.”
Monty never really stopped working, never stopped creating. When cooking up a new project, he was almost singularly focused on doing more with what he had. A high school dropout and a first-generation child of Cambodian immigrants—one of seven—Monty taught himself how to animate, how to code, how to hack. His is the bootstrap story for the next generation.
At the Rooster Teeth offices, he’d work so hard on projects he’d often sleep under desks so as to be nearby. He took off certain keys on his keyboard because he didn’t use them. His desk looked like the cockpit of one of those ships in the Matrix, five screens going at once with Monty keeping an eye on all of them. He was almost, well, robotic, in so much that he seemed to absorb and produce at a clip that humans simply aren’t capable of. The model of efficiency.
His actual output and the quality of his efforts would be enough to impressive anyone—Monty was becoming well known for his ability to turn animated fight scenes into beautiful, choreographic moments that transcended “video games” or “animation.” But somehow, he was as big of a character as those he created, especially in public. At gaming and cosplay events, Monty outshone most with his homemade outfits, often based on his own characters—he designed and sewed his own costumes, often adding motorized parts that he created himself. His fans followed suit. Perhaps in the greatest combination of a utility, creativity and community, Monty would develop animated characters with practical aspects (like pockets), so that his fans could do the same—even superheroes need a place to put their phone. As hard as Monty worked, he worked just as hard at making his life, and the lives of the community members, fun as well.
A lot of people would say Monty was like a real-life anime character. He loved to interact with people in cosplay—the wigs, the makeup, the outlandish clothes, the rock-star glasses. Dressed in some very Monty attire, he once walked the red carpet at the Producer’s Guild Awards with his Rooster Teeth colleagues. Ahead of the team was LL Cool J. Cameras took LL’s picture. Behind the team was Colin Firth. Cameras took Firth’s picture. When Monty walked by, the cameras when crazy, too. No one could name him, but they knew he had to be somebody. No rando looks that amazing.
The loss of Monty was deeply felt by the community who knew his work because he was one of the special ones. He was an artist and a craftsman, a storyteller, and a practical designer. But more than anything, he was one of the tribe. He’d shared his life and his work with so many, inspiring far more people than he ever imagined. And all by the age of 33, all in front of a computer or in elaborate attire. All while being the perfect representation of the new Texas. Monty was resourceful and independent, sure. But he cut fresh paths into brave new territories. The old-timers can grasp onto their idea of what Texas looked like and should look like. The rest of us will follow Oum’s lead into creating the most colorful and creative Texas we can imagine. Monty taught us that there really are no limits.
March 9, 1930–June 11, 2015
Trying to talk about the impact and importance of Ornette Coleman is like trying to dissect a joke, or explain the feelings and power stirred by jazz itself. Woefully inept in every instance. Not that Ornette would’ve given two flips what was said, or what others thought. It’s easy to forget now, more than half a century after jazz’s golden age, many years after Ornette was knighted legendary status, that his tune was unique—polarizingly so.
Ornette’s need to explore, to go out in search notes off the charts, began so early it seems almost fate that he should become the iconoclast he is today. It began at Terrell High School in Fort Worth, itself an odd epicenter of jazz with numerous players getting their start theredrummer Charles Moffett and saxophonist King Curtis were both peers of and alumni with Ornette, just to name two. Like many of the black students at the school, Ornette lived in the segregated ghetto of Fort Worth, the Bottoms, and it was his single mother that bought him his first saxophone (a cheap plastic one), on which he taught himself. He was immediately drawn to wild runs of bebop jazz, an appreciation of which got him kicked off bands at both school and church. By nineteen, he was ready to escape the confines of Fort Worth, of what was expected. Trouble followed him regardless. There was the infamous incident in Louisiana when, after a show, Ornette was beat up and his sax was trashed because the audience didn’t like the uninhibited notes, it was too much even for bebop. From there, Ornette went to Los Angeles, jamming with some of the best players, and later New York, scene of another incident in which “All hell broke loose,” during Ornette’s debut at the historic Five Spot Café.
And here is where we will fail to accurately describe Ornette’s music, a liberation of possibilities. By the time Ornette came along, jazz had been popularized and thus somewhat ossified. Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie made breakthroughs in improvisation, but the music had remained tightly tethered to obvious structure, clear melodies, a grounded center. Ornette worked to cut those ties, creating a whole new system of “harmolodics,” the sounds and tempos and movements working separately in their allotted space but toward the same cosmic goal. It was discordant, wild, an indescribable structure molded from seeming chaos. Free jazz. When people nowadays imitate, depict, or tease out the stereotypical jazz scene—the one with hep cats and smoky lounges, and a sax player playing what sounds like an incomprehensible, primordial blast—they’re likely unaware that that is Ornette’s creation.
It’s one of those curious contradictions. The man who set off a firestorm in jazz for his unhinged sound, was meticulous in his work: his sounds were structured and charted, they just explored previously uncharted territory. The same contradictions were in the man himself, too. Soft-spoken but a barnburner in the club. A poor, self-taught Texan boy whose albums would later have the same self-assuredness as anything Kanye “Yeezus” West has ever put out. What’s perhaps more impressive than anything is that Ornette never stopped pushing boundaries, while the rest of the music world tried to keep up. His career spanned more than fifty years, with more than fifty albums. He played with everyone from jazz greats to the Grateful Dead. In keeping with his lifelong attempt at understanding his own musical theory, harmolodics, he explored non-western soundscapes from the likes of tribal Moroccans. The rest of us sometime managed to recognize the beauty in his madness, awarding him the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1994, a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and, of course, a couple of Grammys.
To claim Ornette as a Texan is somewhat disingenuous. Not because he spent years in Los Angeles, and the majority of his life and career in New York City. It’s because Ornette and his vision seems far too expansive. Too big for one location or moment. Too big, even, for Texas. Ornette’s music was more than a sound or a theory. It was the existence of daring, a force of change that so often never comes out of the shadows. We were simply lucky enough to have him come out of Fort Worth.
September 27, 1948–March 7, 2015
He was the closest thing to the voice of God for commuters suffering through DFW’s morning rush hour. Perhaps that’s a vast overstatement, but at the very least, Terry Dorsey was the voice of morning radio for more than thirty years. After a short stint in the Army and then three years at a station in Dayton, Ohio, the legendary DJ got his start in Texas radio in 1981. Between then and his retirement in December 2014, Dorsey’s KCSC morning program didn’t just become the most popular in the DFW area, he also won Billboard’s Local Air Personality of the Year, and was inducted into both the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame and the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. His cohorts, including Mark “Hawkeye” Louis became known as the Dorsey Gang.
The format of the show was loose—some country music, some news, some jokes, some banter. Maybe folks wouldn’t mind hearing a little news, and a song or two. But they stayed tuned in for the Dorsey Gang. Anchoring the program, Dorsey came across as down-to-earth and relaxed, a “regular guy” as his peers called him (he and co-hosts answered their own phone lines, not a common thing these days). In return, Dorsey had a habit of starting off all his conversations, with anyone, with “Hey pal!” The easy going nature wasn’t an act either. Hawkeye recalls all the quiet acts of compassion and care Dorsey performed without ever making mention of them. When a friend’s house burned down, it was Dorsey who gave money and clothes. The story only got around after the man explained it. Dorsey, whom Hawkeye had been holed up in a tiny room with, every weekday for years, never said a word about it.
A “short, slightly rumpled bachelor-uncle type who’s always ready with a wisecrack, often at his own expense,” as one profile put it in 1999, Dorsey created a space where listeners could feel like they were kidding around with old friends at the coffee klatch. The shows’s relaxed environment made Dorsey and his gang beloved characters, say nothing of the fictional characters that frequently dropped in with their own contributions, including The Deacon, Brother Van, Vanna Guy the Security Guard, Happy the Rodeo Clown. And then there there the April Fools Day pranks, like the time Dorsey accepted an offer to change his name to TexasMotorSpeedway.com for $100,000 (it kinda got out of hand). Almost all of those cohorts credit Dorsey with giving them their big break, for taking a chance on someone who didn’t fit the shock-jock or professional comedian mode. How all those people were able to fit into the studio on Dorsey’s last official day as the voice of DFW is mystifying, particularly considering how much love filled the room. One after another, they told stories, on air, about their time with Dorsey, who himself was reserved, or had a self-effacing comment ready.
Dorsey hadn’t wanted to make a big show of his retirement. He’d wanted to just make a quick announcement and say a quiet goodbye, like it was no big deal. For too many people, however, he was a big deal, for them personally, and for the listeners all around DFW. Just three months after his final sign-off, Dorsey really signed off. He had quit radio to go live on an Illinois property with his wife. His reason was as down-home and regular-guy as it comes—the fifty-year-old joked that he going to start his new life as a farmer.
December 9, 1941–September 25, 2015
Many of the kingmakers in Texas live exactly where you’d expect them. The captains of commerce in Dallas, the titans of industry in Houston, the political power brokers in Austin. But who could have guessed that the Queenmakers of the entire country would reside in a quiet house in El Paso? Except for the fact that Texans know how to hustle and, to borrow a phrase, make it work, it doesn’t much make sense. But such was the case with Rex Holt, one half of GuyRex, the eponymous beauty company Rex built with his long-time partner, Richard Guy.
The two former dance instructors with no training in pageants would end up coaching six Miss USA pageant winners, including a five-peat run. GuyRex had started off as a design company building theater sets, Thanksgiving day parade floats, and Christmas decorations in El Paso. In 1971, they became Miss USA’s Texas directors, taking over scandal-tainted program. GuyRex’s unprecedented success earned them attention from all over the country, with feature stories in, among others, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The papers of those fancy, high-class towns asked the obvious question that people wanted to know: how did two men, from El Paso, do it? The simple answer was that GuyRex trained their pageant Queens, “the girls” they always called them, like it was boot camp. The process took about 10 months and they would require the girls to live with them in El Paso, where GuyRex did everything from creating dresses, to lessons in etiquette and public speaking (appearing at events for sponsors was a big part of the potential pageant queen’s job). Parents were not allowed to interfere. But it was more than just intense work. As GuyRex would say repeatedly, they strived to let each girl develop her own individual persona, to teach them how to be a proud and independent women. The pageant efforts were customized around each girl’s particularly attributes, physical or otherwise. And it was more than just the customized work, too.
While GuyRex was known as a single entity, it was the combined elements of both men, the working and living in tandem that was the true reason for their success. Richard Guy was the disciplinarian, and by his own account the one who would make vocal demands of everything or anyone. Rex perfectly complimented this as the nurturing half on whose shoulder the girls would literally cry. Rex was there for them, ready to hold their train, but only when they needed and wanted it, when it really mattered.
Ari Cela, one of GuyRex’s pageant winners from the mid-nineties (she became an actress), now helps Guy with various affairs. She recalled one time while staying with GuyRex at their Beverly Hills house how she wanted to rollerskate down the long, steep driveway. Rex pleaded with her to abstain, worried that she would fall and scrap herself up. He was right, of course, but he didn’t stop her. Rather, he waited at the bottom of the hill with the first-aid, ready to comfort her after she’d made her decisions, to carry her back up the house himself. “I told you not to do it,” he said to Cela. “But I’m proud of you for trying.”
Through all his time with the girls, Rex “made sure we were always proud of who we were,” no matter what happened. That was Rex the individual, but he was always and will always be part of the perfect duo, incomplete, with Guy. They’ll share a single tombstone. It reads “GuyRex” and includes their birthdates, but that’s it. Because it was their union—as seemingly impossible as two El Pasoans showing the national pageant world how it’s done—that was the true fairy tale story.
October 14, 1925–July 1, 2015
Football without cheerleading is like, well, Texas without football. And the state (and the nation) have Dallas-based Lawrence Herkimer to thank for that. It’s one thing to be called the “Grandfather of cheerleading,” but to have one of the activity’s signature moves, the Herkie, named after you, as well as be the inventor of the pompom? That’s truly something worth cheering about.
Herkimer started firing up Southern Methodist University crowds in 1946 and invented his signature move while a student there. This first claim to fame, he said, was by accident. As he’d tell it time and again, Herkie was just trying to do a really high split jump, it just came out all wrong—the right leg kicked forward and the left tucked back. But like a good landing, the move, and the name, stuck.
After that, it seemed like everything Herkie did was a success, and none of it by accident. In 1948, he began teaching cheerleading at Sam Houston State University (née Sam Houston State Teachers College). The first year, he had 53 students. The following summer, it was 350. Perhaps Herkie was lucky enough to be doing just the right motions at just the right time, but none could say that that he stood on the sidelines for the action. Like an oil-hungry Texan, Herkie saw an opportunity and went for it. He began operating his cheerleading business out of his garage thanks to $600 of borrowed cash, and in a very short time, his National Cheerleaders Association had more than 1,500 instructors guiding tens of thousands of spirited, peppy kids. Welcome to the official start of the now-ubiquitous cheer camp and creation of the modern cheerleader.
Herkie was in the business of making cheerleading a national institution and by the fifties, he was also selling all the gear and equipment that cheerleaders carry around in their big gym bags: outfits, buttons, ribbons and the like. He also invented what might be the most important tool in the cheerleader’s arsenal: the modern-day pompon. It had started off as crepe paper attached to a stick, something flashy that Herkie knew would capture the attention of television audiences, a relatively recent crowd to cheer for. By 1971, Herkie had officially patented the pompon (not “pompom,” as Herkie discovered that that word is a nasty nickname used for a particular kind of woman in some Asian cultures). Herkie sold his cheerleading empire in 1986 for $20 million. By that point, he had about 430 cheer clinics training some 150,000 kids a year. While he occasionally toured and visited various camps, Herkie left the cheerleading to the future crop of rah-rah rousers. He said he performed his last Herkie in 1985, joking that it’d take heavy construction equipment to assist him with the proper form.
“Playing the 60-year-old cheerleader was getting kind of hard, and I couldn’t think like a 15-year-old girl anymore,” reflected Herkie in 2009. True, the mind of a fifteen-yea- old is a mystery to everyone. But Herkie’s efforts, like a proper cheer, are looking to be pretty timeless. If anything, he knew better than most how to Go! Fight! Win! He had real Texas S-P-I-R-I-T.
August 2, 1935–January 20, 2015
It’s hard to imagine a world where you can’t get Tex-Mex in towns far beyond either the Texas or Mexico border. But such a time once existed. And while there’s now almost universal praise and availability of our most cherished local fare, let us take a moment, putting down our tacos, and thank the Texas food pioneer Bill Waugh, the founder of Taco Bueno.
Waugh’s first fast-food Tex-Mex location opened in Abilene, in 1967. Although Waugh went to Abilene Christian University for a Fine Arts degree, it seemed that his finest arts were creating the restaurant chains of our youth. Coming off the success of Taco Bueno, Waugh created the Casa Bonita chain in neighboring Oklahoma, and its Denver location, his obituary noted, “was the largest Mexican food restaurant in the world, serving more than 1 million customers a year and entertaining them with cliff divers and water falls, puppet shows, mariachi bands and life-size costumed characters.”
Waugh branched out from the Texan fare, when he established Crystal’s Pizza and Spaghetti in Abilene. It was a palace of endless Texas childhood delights, and something of a forerunner to the millennials’ CiCi’s Pizza. Waugh had the golden-cooked touch when it came to Southwestern restaurant franchises, later establishing Casa Viva, and the Burger Street chain in 1985 in Lewisville. In the Dallas Morning News, one of Waugh’s friends called him a “genius.” It may be an understatement. In the land of the hungry, the man with one nostalgic fast food chain is king. The man with several is institution unto himself.
November 21, 1921–August 16, 2015
There was never even a hint of ego-boosting when Sam Tasby spoke of what he’d done. No complicated explanations, no self-promotional efforts, not a lick of concern for what others may have said or thought. Tasby had all the reason in the world to feel like a hero, though, for it was he who forced the Dallas school system, and the city itself, to reckon with its promised equality and the segregated reality.
Although separate-but-equal was struck down in 1956 by the Supreme Court, the message hadn’t quite reached Dallas, which maintained “white” and “black” schools. In 1970, no longer willing to accept that his two sons were barred from going to the nearby school, Tasby walked himself into a local legal aid office to force a solution. The class-action lawsuit that eventually came from that visit would name Tasby as the lead defendant and, after a year of litigation, concrete efforts under the direction of the court were made to integrate Dallas ISD (although the efforts would faces challenges and controversy for much longer).
During and after the fight, Tasby reasons were subversively simple: “I just did what was right,” he would say. Yes, he was scared, but, as he said in a 2010 interview, that wasn’t enough to stop him from doing the obvious thing. “I didn’t have no need to ask for my rights as they saw it. I was tired of being pushed around for no reason because of the color I am.”
It was the right thing to do, and as the case sometime when the right thing to do is not the popular thing to do, Tasby took hits. The World War II veteran lost his job as a plumber because his employer did not appreciate the attention his case caused, the trouble being stirred. For some in the black community, Tasby, quiet and reserved, wasn’t any kind of rabble-rouser they’d hoped for. To whites in the community, to many leaders, he was exactly that, a troublemaker. Both sides were unhappy with the busing that occurred as a result of the lawsuit.
Yet forty years later, the school system has been permanently changed by the man who once claimed that “I did nothing.” Supervision of the schools by the courts ended in 2003 and by 2006, a newly built structure, the Sam Tasby Middle School, was named after the man who, despite his claims, did everything for future generations. By the children he frequently visited and supported at the school, he was known as Mr. Tasby, and treated “like a doggone rock star.” By the people in his neighborhood, he was known as the Honorable Sam Tasby, elected by God. After his death, elected officials praised him as the courageous Sam Tasby.
When Tasby described himself, it was as “a poor guy” that “ain’t been to college.” He might have protested the titles, but Sam Tasby was the archetype, the reluctant hero who did what is paradoxically the simplest yet most difficult thing: he just did what was right.
On ‘Last Words’ (A Penny for the Young Guy)
Who wouldn’t want their last words to be memorable? A person’s final utterance is the one last moment of conscious creation, a thought birthed by dying lips that might live on a second longer, a day longer, a year longer, decades longer, forever. As a species, we revere last words, or at least are morbidly curious about them, and consider them—from sacred last rites to the profane deathbed confessional—the instant bridge between the here and then not. Even the condemned are given theirs before they get what’s theirs.
Not everyone places such great import upon such things. Many say they want to “die peacefully” in their sleep. But there’s another way to view that: when you slip away from the party without saying goodbye, without notice, you have “ghosted.” Ghosts, in general, are not well-liked.
Regardless, we collectively have an overly particular interest in two distinct kinds of death vowels. The first category is reserved for the famous and successful, for whom long lists of epitaphs are easily found on the Internet, that place where we all live on forever. Many of the deathbed zingers are enviously clever, if apocryphal. There’s Humphrey Bogart’s “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” There’s the classic elegance of “Have I played the part well? Then applaud me as I exit,” by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar. And of course Oscar Wilde reportedly got in his famous “Either the curtains go, or I do!” before that sudden decision. Even the less eloquent lines—perhaps nothing fancier than a simple goodbye or “I love you” to partners—get their due when said by a person of note.
The other kind of “famous last words” we tend to love ironically. And most often at the expense not of the famous or successful, who are laid gently into that otherness with the calm of beds and care, but at the expense of the losers and idiots, whose end begins with jarring violence followed by “official reports.” Search online for “famous last words,” and up pops videos of failure. “Rednecks” with “famous last words” like “hey, watch this!” or “hold my beer!” It’s lightly cruel humor. In these cases, “famous last words” becomes a catch-all term for something stupid said moments before epic slapstick failure. “Famous last words” is funny (it is!) because it’s the perfect joke—an absurd set up followed by an obvious punchline.
It is into this latter category where most people shuffle one Tommie Woodward. And his “famous last words” really were that. No euphemism here. You likely never would’ve heard of Tommie if not for his death six months ago. Living in Orange, near Beaumont, the 28-year-old went to a local bayou with a friend. As the Houston Chronicle described it, Tommie was told by the marina staff not to go for a swim because a 12-foot-long alligator had been spotted in the vicinity. It was a primeval warning. Reptiles ruled long before us. It was an Edenian reptile that hastened the fall of man, and thousands of years later, with the help of radioactivity, Tokyo. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the god Sobek. A mere mortal didn’t stand a chance against such a primordial foe. Yet, Tommie responded with aplomb. He jumped in, and he was immediately introduced to the very fear he was warned about. Tommie’s last words, before taking the great leap, had been simple enough: “Fuck that Alligator.”
The macabre irony of the story was so neatly and naturally packaged, publications simply wrote what happened, deadpan in the headline. “Man mocks alligators, jumps in water and is killed in Texas,” wrote CNN. Gawker went with a direct quote. Texas Monthly includes him in the latest Bum Steer issue. It’s all easy click-bait. If you couldn’t insinuate the smirk in those efforts, you could read the direct snark in the comments. In one thread, someone posted a picture of Tommie and made a disparaging remark. Other circulated photos had a similar edge. Tommie wore somewhat raggedy clothes, he had a lip ring, harsh wisps of facial hair like worn steel wool, a tattoo on his shoulder that said “Mom,” maybe a lit cigarette and a beer in hand. Tommie looked like he knew how to have a good time. Something tells me we would’ve gotten along rather splendidly.
I love Tommie’s last words. When I say that, I’m deadly serious. I don’t mean it ironically. I’m not trying to be clever. And, I hope, above all else, that it’s not taken as patronizing. When I was younger, a friendly acquaintance succumbed rather quickly to brain cancer. I visited him in the hospice a few days before he died. His head was shaved and lumpy, his eyes bulged grotesquely from their sockets, his mouth drooped and stretched and hung like the visions of Salvador Dalí. His family hovered and circled around him. They spoke gently and quietly, explaining that he was pretty much non-responsive, but interacting with him was certainly encouraged. Maybe some words, any words—from anyone—would mean something to him, to them—to anyone—as he died peacefully, medicated. As he ghosted. So I small-talked with a zombie. Walking away from the room’s sickly sterile whiteness a few minutes later, his family said his EKG numbers got lively. Come back over, they said. Again bedside, I saw his eyes struggle mechanically. He gurgled. I’ll never forget that moment. I wished death for him. I felt shame. Borne of fear, maybe. Still feel shame. Shame for so immediately removing myself from this other thing that would soon cease to be. His incapacity brought back what Maw, a nurse, told me at maybe too young of an age. That just before people die, they often get delusional. Physically, their muscles relax and, as a result, they defecate. His family sent me a factual, one-line alert when it was all over. Without the fame, tributes, last rites, final words, or RIP rejoinders, that’s how it goes for a lot of us: a speechless, shitty end. Maybe (maybe), someone sends a text.
So, even second-hand, I cherish Tommie’s last words.
Because, without glorifying things here, it’s Tommie’s end and how it happened that I hold onto. My hope is that when I do go, I myself make such a leap into the bayou. That, yes, in some way, however small, I go down fighting. With some goddamn moxie. At the very least, I want some degree of choice, of confidence with which Tommie dared the weapon of his foretold fate. It does no good to wonder if Tommie would regret his decision; the dead have no regrets. As for me, living, I have trouble imagining really facing death with any kind of bravery or flagrant disregard for fate. There are fantasies, sure. It’s a conceit, and the coward in me plans that perfect goodbye in the way the well-off try to bribe death entirely. I don’t want to spend my lifetime fighting the inevitable, but I also don’t want to fight my whole life then acquiesce at the last full measure. I might could recite, like a battle cry, “do not go gentle into that good night … rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Except it sounds as trite as this piece is overwrought. And besides, short as it is, the poem might be a bit long to complete on my death bed. How many movies include a nobody character who slacks seconds before he can finish that one revelation? It’s certainly too long for any sort of incident in which I have just a moment to respond, in kind, to the indifference of the universe. All these things considered, Tommie’s declaration is perfect. His last words have the defiance and fire of our greatest poets, but they fit easily, comfortably, into the future-now epitaph of my generation: a tweet. It’s so short it could be a hashtag. And there’s a beautiful absurdity to it. Even within context, it’s so perfect as to seem contrived. Too perfect to be convincing fiction. In any other situation, it’s simply absurd. But our brief something—followed by what could very well be a long stretch of nothing—is cosmically absurd and maddeningly imperfect. Have me face the ultimate imperfections, the ultimate absurdities of life, and I too can only hope to have an equally, perfectly, absurd response. I’ll remember Tommie Woodward and, if I’m lucky, my last conscious creation will be to maintain the hope that another won’t be forgotten either. I will recast his last words as my own with the pride of a reckless something also sentenced to inescapable obscurity: #FuckThatAlligator.
(Additional photo credits: Ebby Halliday: From the collections of the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library; Lawrence Herkimer: National Cheerleaders Association)