If you’re lucky, you only die once. For some it’s a gentle passing into whatever lies ahead. For others, it’s sudden and cruel. Sadly, this latter fate fell upon some of the Texans we lost this year, people who were victims of unspeakable acts of violence, tragedies so immense that those directly touched by them may never be whole again: an eleven-year-old boy murdered while walking home from school in Houston; a Texan slaughtered by a mass shooter in Orlando; the five officers killed in the tragic Dallas shooting; an Austin man and his boy, vacationing in France, both victims to the random ruin of a terrorist attack. Death is an undoing.
But death can also bring us together, and that’s not necessarily just a platitude. On at least two occasions in 2016, Texas couples, bound in life for the better part of a century by love and holy matrimony, died within moments of their partner, one pair even reportedly passing while holding hands. Families and friends gather for funerals, which all too often become de facto reunions (Commonly overheard: “We have to get together more often, we only ever see each other at these things!”). And with each death comes an opportunity for collective empathy.
Whether you believe in a literal afterworld where the streets are paved with gold, or you believe death is a tidy denouement to the whole sha-bang, one thing is certain: we—meaning you, the not-dead-yet reading these words—still have memories. As long as we share these memories with each other, or at least continue to play them back in our own heads, then the dead will linger on.
So imagine this collection of Texans we’ll miss as a metaphorical city block. Perhaps the familiar Main Street of a small town somewhere in the flat North Texas prairie, or one big ranch house nestled in the West Texas desert scrub. Take a walk and pay attention to what you see. Shadow figures moving behind the windows, their faces staring back. Not ghosts, exactly, but memories and moments from the people who have changed our state—or the lives of people who live in it—forever. These memories may fade or warp as the years go on—dusk descends on the city block; the street lights flicker and go out—but they’re always there, in your conscious, ready to surround you, a faint embrace from those you’ve loved and lost.
Is this all a little cliché? Maybe. But so is dying. Literally everyone does it. But as the cliché about clichés goes, it’s cliché because it’s true. Now, let us remember, or, if you’d rather, let us not forget, some of the Texans who died in 2016.
Francine Reese Morrison
August 16, 1935—July 23, 2016
Francine Reese Morrison was bestowed with many monikers. She was the “songbird of the South,” and similarly the “songbird of East Bowie Street,” but she was also “God’s ambassador of song.” All of them were spot on. Morrison, a traditional gospel singer, was known internationally for her booming voice. She recorded three best-selling albums and sang with giants like Mahalia Jackson, Ethel Waters, James Cleveland, and the Blackwood Quartet. She performed for religious leaders such as Jesse Jackson and, when he visited Fort Worth in 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. Her voice provided her an avenue to share her Christian faith with the world.
“Hers was a soulful, deep-rooted gospel voice that could touch the heart and sting the soul,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders, a friend and fan of the singer, told the newspaper after Morrison passed away in July at 80. “Depending on the song she was singing, it was like hearing the very sound of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet—every part of your being felt every piercing note.” Former U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a Democratic representative from Fort Worth and a friend of Morrison, described her singing as “a meditation. It lifts you on wings.”
Morrison’s career was full of groundbreaking moments. Her performance at John Connally’s inauguration in 1963 marked the first time an African-American participated in a Texas governor’s initiation fête. She became the first black singer to take the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention in 1962. And, on its opening day in 1965, Morrison’s contralto was the first solo performance to ring into the rafters of the Astrodome. She toured internationally, hitting Europe and South America and annually making the rounds in Mexico. No matter where she went, she remained steadfastly committed to her faith, once defiantly belting out gospel hymns in Russia at a time when religion, specifically Christianity, was unwelcome there.
Despite receiving worldwide acclaim through her larger-than-life voice, Morrison was unwavering in her conviction. She never sang at clubs or any other venue that she felt wasn’t quite in line with her Christian beliefs, and she turned down countless opportunities to break into the secular recording industry, sacrificing what would have certainly been a far more lucrative music career. “I’ve got an eternal contract, and that’s the one that counts,” Morrison told the Star-Telegram in 1995. “I signed my life away to Jesus, and I will not take it back.” In 1984, Morrison told the Star-Telegram, “I try to touch people’s spiritual side. When I’m singin’, I’m prayin’. I’ve never believed that you have to take the devil’s money to pay the Lord’s bills.”
Her faith began at the earliest stages. She was still in the womb when her mother, Luvenia Flemings Bostic, listened to the gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Bostic was so inspired by the music that she made a deal with God: if he gave her a healthy child, she’d give the child back to God for the rest of her life. Morrison’s mother and grandmother did their best to fulfill their end of the bargain, raising Morrison in a devout Christian household in Paris, Texas.
Despite her worldwide recognition later in life, Morrison was a bit of a loner growing up. “I played outside, but every time the children came to play, I wanted to play church, so I didn’t have many friends,” Morrison told the The Paris News in 1995. But her faith would eventually draw people to her, even outside of music. In 1980, Morrison founded the Everywhere Church, an interracial non-denominational congregation in Fort Worth that grew from holding services in her living room to a storefront church that Morrison led as pastor for nine years.
Morrison moved (with her trademark mink-covered Bible) to an assisted living facility in 2001, where she lived out the rest of her days before her death following a long battle with an undisclosed illness. Her spirit is elsewhere now, but you can bet she’s still singin’ and prayin’.
There isn’t much of a record on the Internet that captures Morrison’s singing—no Spotify playlists, nothing in the iTunes store. There is, however, a C-SPAN recording of Morrison singing at a 1988 campaign rally for Jesse Jackson in Fort Worth. Here’s a clip from her performance. Click play, jack up the volume, sit back, and let Francine Reese Morrison’s voice lift you up.
November 12, 1935—June 15, 2016
Joaquin Jackson made a simple request before he died. He asked that his entire estate be sold and the proceeds be given to his son. A man’s story can often be told—at least in part—through his stuff, and this longtime Texas Ranger, who succumbed to cancer on June 15, had a lot of it that went up for auction: guns and knives, Hollywood scripts, various Texas-shaped household items, old paintings of prairies flush with cowboys and cattle.
Among Jackson’s possessions were hundreds of law enforcement accessories, including, of course, his Texas Ranger badge. That familiar five-pointed star is perhaps the most recognizable symbol we have of justice, honor, and integrity, and Jackson was the rare man who both wore the badge and wholly embodied its symbolism. He graced the cover of Texas Monthly in 1994, the striking black-and-white portrait forever immortalizing Jackson as the Western rural lawman archetype.
As a Texas Ranger, Jackson made a number of big busts while serving his posts in Alpine and Uvalde—he once helped wrangle an infamous horse thief and took part in his fair share of shootouts. According to a 1994 Texas Monthly story by Robert Draper, “as veteran lawmen went, Jackson had a reputation for open-mindedness,” once advocating for the 1973 hiring of the Rangers’ first Hispanic officer in more than five decades. “He believed that any good law enforcement agency had to adapt with the times and was hopeful that by the year 2000, Rangers would be computer experts who primarily tangled with white-collar criminals,” Draper wrote.
But Jackson, like all of us, was resistant to some changes. He left the Rangers after the group underwent a number of shifts, including hiring female Rangers. “When they hired those two women, that clinched it for me,” Jackson told Draper. He left the Rangers that year, at age 57, after 27 years of service.
Jackson did his part post-retirement to preserve the Rangers he had once known, writing a memoir and joining the NRA board (“We do not need any more federal firearms laws,” Jackson told Texas Monthly in 2002. “We need to enforce the ones on the books”). He also participated in an oral history project by the Texas Rangers and lent himself to Hollywood stars researching the brash, mustachioed Texas lawman character that shows up so often on the big screen. Sometimes, Jackson even played that character himself, most notably alongside Tommy Lee Jones (The Good Old Boys) and Robert Duvall (Wild Horses).
Jackson was a lawman before dash cams and iPhones and Ferguson, and certainly—as he predicted—the work of law enforcement is changing. But there is one thing that Texas Rangers will almost certainly always have in common: the badge, that ultimate symbol of justice that Jackson wore with pride.
February 1, 1923 — August 18, 2016
Playing the carillon is a lost art. The instrument itself, in fact, seems to be endangered—there are only 23 grand carillons left in the world. The carillon’s big, bronze bells are bolted to steel or wooden beams; inside those bells are clappers, which are connected to a wooden, organ-like keyboard and foot pedals. It’s a powerful machine that requires a soft, skillful touch. The final step in the carillon assembly is its placement inside a tower, a crucial vantage point which gives it perhaps the furthest natural reach of any instrument in existence.
Names like Jef Denyn, Wim Franken, and Jacob van Eyck (who was born blind yet went on to play the carillon at the Dom Tower of Utrecht in the Netherlands for decades in the seventeenth century), are some of the most prominent players in the carillon canon, yet they remain entirely unknown to most of us. Those who commit themselves to the carillon life are not doing it for the glory.
This is part of what made Tom Anderson so special. Three days a week, he’d take an elevator up to the twenty-seventh floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin, where he’d man the Kniker Carillon. His sensitivity (after the Kent State massacre, Anderson played “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”) and cleverness (on hot summer days he pounded out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and on April Fool’s he’d play Christmas carols) served as testimony to his mastery of the instrument as much as his tender, lively spirit. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 12:50 in the afternoon until about one, Anderson sat at that carillon—the biggest in the state—and played. “It’s a wonderful instrument,” Anderson told The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, in 2011. “It’s a beautiful sound, and I just love it.”
According to the Austin American-Statesman, Anderson started playing the carillon while he was a graduate student studying music at the University of Texas from 1952 to 1956. He came back to campus in 1966 to work as an assistant director in the university’s international office, and a year later he was asked by then-president Harry Ransom to be the carillonneur, a role he accepted and held until he stepped down for good in 2013. His service earned him a presidential citation from UT in 2010.
Although Anderson is now gone—he passed away this August at the age of 93—the bells at UT still play. There is a new generation of carillon players, guided by UT’s Guild of Carillonneurs, which was set up a few years ago to preserve Anderson’s legacy. The new classes of Longhorn carillonneurs are no doubt influenced by Anderson’s flair and joy for the instrument, as evidenced by their song selections: everything from classical compositions to Celine Dion to Coldplay and Bob Dylan, and, when the occasion calls for it, more solemn songs, like when they played “Amazing Grace” at the request of the family of Haruka Weiser, the student who was murdered on campus earlier this year. Largely thanks to Anderson, we’ll have the pleasure of listening to the Texas carillon long after his death.
July 7, 1943—September 27, 2016
During Suzanne Mitchell’s remarkable fourteen-year run as director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, from 1976 to 1989, she’d often trot the squad out on stiflingly hot Texas nights for what she called “band rehearsal.” The team’s band would do its thing and the cheerleaders would practice their sideline routines, again and again, without any water breaks, in preparation for blazing summer afternoon performances.
During one of these rehearsals, one cheerleader was having a particularly hard time. She told Mitchell she needed to stop, or else she was going to throw up. Mitchell walked over to her, stood right before her face, and said, “If you’re going to throw up, you’ll throw up on me.” Mitchell revisited that scene in a speech at an NFL Cheer Alumni reunion in 2014. “Did she throw up?” Mitchell said. “No. Because she was capable of more than she knew.”
We often refer to male sports coaches as “molders of young men.” By all accounts, Mitchell was a molder of young women. Anywhere from two thousand to four thousand applicants would roll in each year to audition for the Cowboys cheer squad, and, once Mitchell whittled it down to around thirty, she’d run the recruits through rigorous and strict training. “It was like boot camp,” Mitchell told Texas Monthly in an interview last May, shortly before she passed away in September following a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. “Sometimes we’d be there until one in the morning. It was very hard on them, because they’d never been asked to give so much of themselves.”
There were rules. Lots of them. No holding alcoholic beverages while in uniform. No performances or appearances at venues where alcohol was served. No cigarettes. No gum. “Suzanne turned me into a lady,” former Cowboys cheerleader Toni Washington recently told the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. “My mother raised me until I was eighteen, and she helped shape the person I am today. Suzanne was my second mother. She taught me etiquette, poise and how to handle myself in the national spotlight. Suzanne was my finishing school.”
In return for their hard work and dedication, Mitchell loved and protected her cheerleaders. She coached the women on how to interact with the press, and opened fan mail before passing it along to the women to make sure it was safe. “I remember one time,” Mitchell told Texas Monthly, “I think in Atlanta, we did an open show and I had six girls with me and we went offstage for a break. And all of a sudden a guy comes out with a knife, trying to cut this girl’s beautiful hair off. I elbowed him in the throat and security took him off.”
Under Mitchell’s guidance, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became more than just a rah-rah squad secondary to the main event. Mitchell made sure the cheerleaders gave back to the community too, taking them to nursing homes and hospitals and on tours overseas to meet with troops. Of course, as the Cowboys Cheerleaders fame exploded, they drew a fair share of detractors—usually crotchety old men (cough, John Madden, cough) who felt the women were too pretty and too talented and might, God forbid, distract from the real attraction: the muscle-bound men on the field bashing each others.
But Mitchell was an expert in shutting down criticism. “I would call after I’d get a letter and ask what the letter writer had been doing on Christmas Eve,” Mitchell said, according to Joe Nick Patoski’s 2012 book, The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America. “Then I would tell them there were twelve girls who were in the [Korean Demilitarized Zone] performing in minus-20-degree weather serving their country.”
“I know how much guts it took, and I don’t think people really recognize that it takes a lot of courage to get up in front of strangers in skimpy outfits,” Mitchell said in 2014. “That’s where I felt my responsibility was: these ladies were stepping into a world that they knew nothing about, and they were becoming celebrities overnight. How did they handle it? They needed to have boundaries, to have rules, to have regulations.”
Indeed, Mitchell was not one to be messed with. Her cheerleaders knew that first-hand. “Yes, [the rules] were tough,” Mitchell said in 2014. “And some tried to get away with murder. They didn’t.” Once, Mitchell recalled, after traveling to Japan and having met the chairman of Mitsubishi, the chairman assigned her a nickname: “dragon.” He later softened it slightly, to “iron butterfly.” The latter nickname is perhaps more fitting, considering how incredibly compassionate Mitchell could be. That compassion was reflected in the actions of her cheerleaders during her final days.
“People often ask me, what do I miss the most, what did I love the most?” Mitchell said in 2014. “Well, I worked seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, and loved every moment, and I would’ve paid [former Cowboys team president Tex Schramm] to let me do it. The things I miss most are the women themselves. This past year has been rough, but the support of two-hundred-and-some-odd young women who have prayed for me, it’s been overwhelming. That’s part of the sisterhood… it’s that connection. When one of you is in trouble, you reach out.”
After she made the decision to stop chemotherapy treatment shortly before she died at 73, Mitchell showed incredible strength. “I’ll tell you too, the beauty of having this cancer has been how this has brought them all together,” she told Texas Monthly. “I had over 500 cards when I got home from the hospital in Houston. They’ve come to see me. It’s just been overwhelming. It’s almost like this cancer’s been worth it. I’m at peace. I’ve had such a blessed life. After the surgery, I made up my mind not to do the chemo and radiation therapy. Why the hell would I want to have mouth sores and throw up all the time? I decided to go to Florence, Italy instead. Just by myself. It’s just pure attitude. And it’s the reason why I’m still here.”
December 10, 1943 — November 26, 2016
Texas Western was set to take on Kentucky on March 19, 1966, and Harry Flournoy—co-captain of Texas Western’s basketball team and its leading rebounder—had been assigned to guard Kentucky’s star, Pat Riley. But Flournoy suffered an injury in the semi-final, and was limited in the college basketball national championship game at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. Despite his absence, Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup shocked an all-white Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp and came away with the win.
Although he will forever be remembered as a member of the first all-black starting lineup to win a NCAA basketball championship, Flournoy played only the game’s first six minutes, “just enough to make the cover of Sports Illustrated,” Flournoy joked years later. Indeed, there Flournoy was on the cover of the nation’s foremost chronicle of sport, grabbing a rebound over Riley.
But Flournoy’s presence on the cover was well-deserved. He was by all accounts a good-hearted team leader, and also a pretty darn good ball player. He averaged 10.7 rebounds per game in three seasons with Western, and played a key role in securing one of Western’s biggest wins in that 1966 season, a one-point double-overtime victory over Kansas, in which Flournoy blocked an attempted dunk by Kansas’s six-foot-eleven All-American Walt Wesley.
Unfortunately, it would take years for the importance of the championship win by Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) to be truly recognized and honored. It only truly got the accolades it deserved when Disney movie Glory Road brought the team’s barrier-shattering season to light.
In 2006, the year Glory Road was released in theaters, the Texas Western championship-winning team was invited to the White House by President George W. Bush, and the next year the team was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—eleven years after the team’s white head coach made it in. Surviving members of the team, including Flournoy, were also honored on the court during halftime of a Final Four game in Houston this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1966 championship game. Seven months later, in September, Flournoy passed away. He was 72.
“Texas Western winning the 1966 championship had a profound effect on sports,” Flournoy wrote for his biography to go along with the hall of fame induction. “No longer could the excuse be used that ‘blacks were not smart enough; were undisciplined; could not work under pressure; could not follow directions and were not equipped to function on our own.’ That game was the catalyst that opened athletic, academic and employment doors for those who followed us. No longer would we be kept out of mainstream America.”
November 9, 1919 — April 28, 2016
Blackie Sherrod was the best sportswriter in Texas. That was true when Texas Monthly bestowed that honor upon Sherrod in 1975, and it remained true until he died in April, at age 96. And it’s entirely likely that there will never be a Texan who will write about sports as vividly and colorfully as Sherrod. A bulk of the evidence that he earned such a prestigious title can certainly be drawn from the never-ending list of awards he won during his over six-decade career writing about sports in Texas. Among these winnings were sixteen Texas Sportswriter of the Year awards (a record), and the national Red Smith award for lifetime achievement.
But Sherrod saw so little use for such flattery that, after a while, he rarely kept these awards around. The stream of plaques and trophies became so frequent that the ones in which he placed in any position but first were no longer worth saving. That’s fine—great writers aren’t remembered for their awards, but for their writing. And Sherrod’s was unforgettable.
In “Scattershooting,” his weekly Sunday column for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, Sherrod wrote in the voice of a true Texan—the Associated Press described his “country-fied Texas vernacular” as a mix of “Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner by way of Jett Rink.” Courtesy of Texas Monthly’s 1975 story and another 2009 piece featuring Sherrod, here’s a sampling of his Texas-style analysis.
His characterization of Harvard’s band while reporting on the Yale-Harvard football game in 1960:
“These lads were a bit unbelievable. They were clad in dusty black loafers, wrinkled white ducks, red flannel blazers and red ties that were wonderfully askew. One wore a beret. Another, an eye patch. Most had unfortunate complexions and thick glasses and difficulty determining which was the right foot and which was the left foot for the purpose of marching.”
On the Dallas Cowboys beating the Miami Dolphins in the 1972 Super Bowl:
“The ghosts are now buried and quiet, the closets have been swept clean of skeletons. The Cowboy complexion is now clear of pimples, and they may walk down the street on the day after their biggest challenge without yard dogs barking and small boys pelting them with stones. The old brands of Choke City, U.S.A., and the El Foldo Kids and the Next Year’s Champions must now fall on other brows. The Cowboys have met the big one and he is finally theirs. . . . The clock told the story. Dallas controlled the ball 40 minutes and 58 seconds of the game. This left 19 minutes and two seconds for the young Dolphins, and this was like trying to vault the Eiffel Tower with a broomstick. . . . Some Shadetree Experts called it a dull game because of Dallas’ grinding movements, but it is like putting the bad rap on a no-hitter because there were no home runs…”
On Belton High School’s victory over Cameron for the district football championship:
“The Belton team was a slight underdog because word leaked out the Cameron team had married guys on it. No one knew exactly what advantage this was, but it was impressive news. . . . Merchants in both towns closed their doors. The drug store sold out of cigars, and several of the sportier chaps made a run down to Williamson County for pints of Mint Springs. There was a report that the owner of the all-night cafe had bet $50. . . . Cameron had run a special train for the game, a distance of at least 30 miles or so. People stood a half-dozen deep around the field and some perched in trees . . . at one end of the arena. Talk about pressure, Don [Meredith] baby, you never had it like this.”
Describing former quarterback Johnny Unitas:
“His face is a map of a hard path, forehead wrinkles, cascading furrows in his cheeks, small pock marks dotting his lean, serious cheeks. He is a day laborer who somehow fell into fame on his way to work and it impresses him not one whit.”
This incredibly incisive passage:
“Something less than two weeks ago, Mr. LBJ thru his laig crost the saddle horn and made oratorical history. He spoke a line that zinged in the national ear. Zinged, baby, zinged. Our leader surveyed reports from [Watts] and released this ponderous thought: “‘Killing, rioting, and looting are contrary to the best traditions of this country.’ Not only was this of informative value but it showed a vast amount of diligent research.”
On writing of dying heavyweight boxer, Primo Carnera:
“He had zero ability but he was heavy on bravery and pride. And when he left the New York airport, his frame wracked by cirrhosis of the liver, heading home [to Italy] to die, the photographers clustered about him. A couple of his old sparring mates came to see him off and they were openly crying. Primo begged the photographers to wait a minute. Then he handed his cane to a friend and told the guys to shoot away. He still wanted no sign of weakness. May somebody forgive all of us everywhere for what we did to this human being.”
And this short, sweet gem:
“Sportswriting is just like driving a taxi. It ain’t the work you enjoy. It’s the people you run into.”
Scooter the Cat
March 26, 1986 — spring 2016
Scooter’s ninth life was his shortest. On April 8, the Guinness Book of World Records named the thirty-year-old Siamese kitty from Mansfield the oldest living cat. The title didn’t last long. By the time Guinness confirmed the evidence of Scooter’s longevity and relayed the honor to his owner, Gail Floyd, the cat had already kicked the bucket.
Still, it’s miraculous that Scooter blew by the average feline life expectancy of twelve to sixteen years. In 2014, he broke his leg and required medical treatment for the remainder of his life. But Scooter’s spirit never waned. “Scooter is quite an amazing cat, with a strong will to live,” his veterinarians told Guinness.
Scooter loved the simple things, like getting blow-dried after a bath and eating a yummy chicken snack every other day. He was a worldly little critter, traveling to 45 out of the 50 states. Scooter had been a loyal partner to Floyd since his birth, playing with her hair and riding on her shoulder, tagging along wherever she went. The feline was as dependable as they come. He’d wake Floyd up at six o’clock every morning, and he’d be waiting by the door when she returned from work.
There’s a strong argument to be made for the cat as man’s best friend. Sure, maybe they get freaked out by sudden noises and weird-shaped objects. But, similar to humans, they are also unnerved by very real things, like expressions of physical intimacy and the concept of showing emotional vulnerability. Only through unconditional love and affection can those walls come down, and once they do, cats are forever loyal. Dogs often get all the credit for their unwavering companionship, but cats are, perhaps, closer in spirit to mankind than any other of our fellow mammals. Scooter and his ilk share with us a neurotic, insecure soul, a true range of emotions, and a receptiveness to the world around them that is unmatched by rival household pets.
Go now, Scooter, and do as all good cats must: sleep in eternal, peaceful rest.
Bretagne the Dog
1999 — June 6, 2016
We tend to define our lives by moments of achievement or emotional highs. Once we’ve reached these zeniths, there is an inevitable drop-off, a loss of identity that can make our lives seem like nothing but a struggle in search of another big moment. Think of a parent sending its youngest child off to college, or a novelist who has just finished his or her pièce de résistance. It can be unbearably distressing to finish something. This dilemma is particularly poignant for people who were part of something a little bigger than the rest of us: an ex-world leader spends his post-presidency painting sub-par portraits; a former star quarterback whittles away the rest of his days in a vacuous mansion, occasionally doing spots for local TV commercials peddling used cars or above-ground pools.
It makes perfect sense, though, that Bretagne is the rare exception to the post-heroism struggle. Bretagne was always good at finding things when others couldn’t. During her long career as a FEMA-certified disaster search dog, Bretagne and her handler, Denise Corliss, responded to a number of the nation’s worst disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But her defining moment came in September 2001, when she traveled to New York City with Texas Task Force 1 in the days following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
For ten days after the 9/11 attack, then two-year-old Bretagne sniffed through the wreckage working twelve-hour shifts. She and the other rescuers found only human remains. But Bretagne became a sort of therapy dog at the scene, as responders would often pet the golden retriever and share their personal stories with Corliss. They spoke of loved ones, friends, and family they were searching for. For a few moments there amid the mass destruction, they found some comfort and strength in Bretagne.
Bretagne retired six years ago, but she remained a fixture at the Cy-Fair volunteer firehouse and continued to be an important member of her community, making public appearances and regularly visiting an elementary school in Waller County. “Each week, she would visit a first grade classroom and listen to young readers, providing a non-judgmental ear, and soft paw,” the department said in a press release after Bretagne passed away in June. “Her calm demeanor and warm heart helped the young and old through their own difficult moments.”
Bretagne was widely recognized for her service. In 2014, she accompanied Corliss to the “Hero Dog Awards” in Beverly Hills, California. In 2015, she was honored by a dog charity and invited back to New York City for her sixteenth birthday, where she enjoyed a ritzy hotel room, a gourmet burger, toys, treats, and a personalized welcome message on a billboard in Times Square. She was believed to be the last living rescue dog who responded to 9/11.
Once back in Texas after her New York trip, Bretagne’s age began to catch up with her. She slowed, stopped eating, and became anxious. On the night of Sunday, June 5, Corliss slept alongside the dog, a touching role reversal that undoubtedly provided Bretagne herself some comfort and solace. The next day, Corliss took Bretagne to the vet to be euthanized.
When Corliss arrived at the vet with Bretagne in the back seat of her car, the pair was greeted by a line of firefighters gathered to honor their beloved Bretagne. The dog trotted slowly, stoically, past the firefighters as they raised their arms in salute. When Bretagne, this time in a casket draped in a Texas flag, exited the vet’s office later that afternoon, the firefighters again lined up wearing black armbands. Members of the rescue unit served as pallbearers and walked with Bretagne for one last time, a fitting send-off for a hero.
August 23, 1962 — May 16, 2016
Emilio Navaira was perhaps the most famous Tejano artist not named Selena. His talent was such that he didn’t need back-up singers, slicked-up beats, or wild light shows that so often characterize today’s pop performances. Instead, Navaira relied on little more than his smooth vocals, heartthrob looks, killer dance moves, and his trusty band. Even just Emilio Navairo, all on his own, was more than enough to send a crowd of Tejano music lovers into a frenzy. That said, he still commanded the audience when given the opportunity for more theatrical concerts, like this old performance at the Tejano Music Awards featuring Navaira and the other aforementioned legend, Selena.
The San Antonio native was a self-taught singer, learning through the study of vocalists such as Willie Nelson, George Strait, and “Little Joe” DeLeon Hernandez. He eventually became a true Tejano icon, even scoring endorsement deals from Coca-Cola and Wrangler. When he died in May of an apparent heart attack at the age of 53, the blow rippled through the Tejano industry, but they were hardly shocked into silence: instead, fans mourned Navaira the best way they could, by playing his pop-polka ballads and sharing videos of his performances on social media. Even in death, Navaira could still make a crowd go wild.
“He had this energy that no one else had,” David Lee Garza, whose band, Los Musicales, gave Navairo his big break, told Texas Monthly in 2009. “When most singers would just stand there, he did these moves, swaying back and forth.”
Navairo dominated Tejano’s peak years, placing three albums in the top 15 of Billboard’s Regional Mexico chart from 1989 to 1992. Throughout his career he won 21 Tejano Music Awards, taking home Male Performer of the Year five times. He was the rare Tejano artist to have success after crossing over into the mainstream, releasing country albums that received radio play. In 2003, he won a Grammy for best Tejano album. Navaira was, undoubtedly, the King of Tejano.
Off stage, however, he had personal struggles. In 2000, he was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend (that charge was dropped), and in the early aughts, he was charged twice with driving while intoxicated. In 2008, he was behind the wheel of his tour bus when it crashed in Houston, injuring several musicians and leaving Navaira critically injured after he was ejected through the windshield. Navaira miraculously survived, likely thanks to medically-induced hypothermia treatment, but he faced years of rehabilitation, and also pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge.
After the accident, Navaira had trouble remembering the lyrics to his songs, and he hardly had the strength to sing. But he fought his way back, performing in 2010 at the thirtieth annual Tejano Music Awards before eventually releasing new albums again and returning to his regular tour schedule.
November 6, 1941 — May 17, 2016
by Christian Wallace
Guy Clark wrote the kind of songs that make roughnecks weep. Songs about streamline trains, hand-me-down knives, heartbroken winos, and homegrown tomatoes. Songs made of sawdust and sweat. Each was meticulously crafted word by word, line by line, tinkered and tightened until every element was durable, dependable, and timeless as an old denim shirt.
Clark was born on November 6, 1941, in Monahans, “out between Pecos and nowhere.” During World War II, his grandmother, Rossie Clark, helped rear him while his father served in the Army. Rossie owned a thirteen-room shotgun motel where a revolving cast of oilfield workers, bomber pilots, and other drifters wandered though. The old man from his 1975 song “Desperados Waiting for the Train” was one such character—a weathered wildcatter named Jack Prigg, who was Rossie’s boyfriend and the closest Clark ever came to knowing a grandfather. Listening to the tall tales of Prigg and his domino partners, Clark’s lyrical storytelling—perhaps his greatest artistic gift—was smithed into shape.
The family moved to Houston after the war ended and later to Rockport, where Clark was captain of the high school football team. A spell of wandering took hold of his decade after graduating, beginning with his service in the Peace Corps as the first volunteer from South Texas. He returned from his assignment in India to Houston’s thriving folk scene, where he met both his musical blood-brother, Townes Van Zandt, and his soulmate, Susanna Talley. Clark briefly built and repaired mandolins and guitars in San Francisco, then decamped for Los Angeles where he worked in a Dobro factory. He grew sick of the West Coast, and, determined to make it as a songwriter, said “adios to all that concrete” and headed to Nashville in 1971.
Success came quickly. Within a year in Nashville, Jerry Jeff Walker recorded two of Clark’s original compositions, “L.A. Freeway” and “That Old Time Feeling.” It wasn’t long before Johnny Cash came calling, and soon many, many others did too. Ricky Skaggs was the first to hit number one with “Heartbroke.” But though Clark made thirteen studio records of his own, his songs never charted like the ones he wrote for others. Not that opulent commercial success was the aim. “I was never a hit songwriter in country music in that sense,” Clark once told Blurt. “I was trying to do it my way, whatever it took.”
And that’s exactly how Guy and Susanna spent the rest of their lives in Music City—doing it their way. The couple’s home was the epicenter of Nashville’s bohemian culture of outlaw poets and artists that flourished in the seventies and early eighties. Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and more names than you could carve into a dinner table, found inspiration in the community that gathered in the Clark household. Guy’s role as the stately patriarch of this wild family was captured in the cult documentary Heartworn Highways. In the yellowy tint of seventies film, Clark, dark-maned with his denim shirt unbuttoned, a hand-rolled cigarette smoking between his trademark turquoise ring and long slender fingers, can be seen sawing a piece of bone into a new guitar saddle. In that scene, Clark transcended into the ideal craftsman poet from Texas.
Despite losing Townes in 1997 and Susanna in 2012, Guy continued hosting young songwriters and collaborating with old pals in his basement workshop. The year Susanna passed, a tribute album to Clark, This One’s For Him, was named Americana album of the year. Then in 2014, his last record, My Favorite Picture of You, earned him his first Grammy for best folk album. These late accolades were well-earned and long overdue, but Clark’s place among the greatest Texas songwriters to ever couple a rhyme was cemented decades before his death this May.
Unlike Townes, who claimed that songs came to him in dreams like flashes of cosmic lightning, Guy extracted his words from the mud, leveraging the grease and grime of West Texas. He leaned as heavily on the Jack Priggs as he did on Shakespeare, and in doing so he gave credence to the lives of people that often go unsung. And despite spending his career in Tennessee, Clark always returned to dry, sandy Monahans or briny Rockport—the Texas of his youth—to draw from the well of inspiration.
On the back of Old No. 1, Clark’s first record, Jerry Jeff Walker perfectly surmised what would be true of every album Clark ever made: “Guy writes/of old men/and old trains/and old memories/like back & white movies/etched/no, carved like crow’s feet/in the corners of his past/now he’ll close his eyes/and all those faces/and places/pass/again/to the natural music/of a flat-top guitar/a fiddle/a Rockport jukebox/spilling/stories/Texas music/good hard workin’ people/light & dark/like the Texas skies/always changing/but constantly/Texas.”
December 15, 1945—March 22, 2016
We like to say that we honor those who fight for our country. We proudly display the stars-and-stripes outside of our homes. We trot brave young men and women out onto the field during halftime of our favorite sporting events and we stand up and we clap. We tie yellow ribbons to trees and stick them on the back of our minivans. We remember our troops.
For far too long, however, Santiago Erevia was forgotten. The Corpus Christi native was a 22-year-old cook in 1969, when, after seeing his friend return from Vietnam missing his ears, lips, nose, and a chunk of his leg, Erevia decided to enlist and help out in whatever way he could. In May of that same year, Erevia and the rest of the Charlie Company in the 101st Airborne Division got into their helicopters and swooped into an area nicknamed “Death Valley,” where a pair of North Vietnamese regiments were bunkered outside Tam Ky along the South China Sea.
Erevia’s squad was supposed to clear them out. But, as was typical of operations during the Vietnam War, things did not go as planned. After an American recon platoon went missing, Erevia and his company were quickly ordered to charge the North Vietnamese in a full-on assault.
“Explosion after explosion—they were firing RPGs at us, throwing grenades and AK-47 fires,” Erevia’s company commander David Gibson told NPR in 2014. “You know, to this day I say it was a damn miracle; I don’t know how any of us made it.”
After they broke the North Vietnamese’s perimeter, Erevia, a radio operator with the rank of specialist fourth class, was told to stay behind to help out the wounded. Erevia looked on as his fellow soldiers fell under heavy fire from North Vietnamese soldiers who seemed to come out of nowhere, popping up out of spider holes and and trenches concealed by the jungle foliage. Erevia and another soldier took cover against a tree—the other soldier stuck his head out for a moment, and immediately caught a bullet right in the forehead. “I said, well, what am I going to do, just stay here and get killed?” Erevia later told NPR.
Instead, Erevia left the safety of the tree and charged toward the North Vietnamese hidden bunkers. “I zigzagged, firing my M-16,” Erevia told NPR. “I thought I was going to get killed instantly, you know.” Armed with a pair of rifles and some grenades, Erevia eliminated four enemy bunkers, one-by-one. It was extremely close combat. One enemy soldier stood up in Erevia’s path, just a few feet away from him. Erevia shot him point-blank with his M-16.
Erevia cleared the bunkers, saving the rest of his company and ending the battle. Erevia’s platoon leader, along with Gibson, recommended he get a Medal of Honor for his heroism. But Erevia only received a Distinguished Service Cross. Erevia had always thought he was downgraded because he came out of that battle alive, even though many Medal of Honor winners have survived attacks. But decades later, a twelve-year investigation by the Pentagon revealed a far more nefarious reason: Erevia, along with nearly two-dozen other mostly Hispanic veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, were unjustly denied the Medal of Honor due to their race.
That snub was remedied in 2013 when Erevia got a phone call from President Barack Obama. The president told Erevia that he was looking into his medal situation and believed Erevia should receive a Medal of Honor. In March 2014, Erevia was finally awarded the right medal, the one he earned 45 years earlier when he charged through that jungle in Tam Ky. The correction came just in time. Two years after he was presented with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the White House, Erevia passed away at his home in San Antonio. He was 70.
June 7, 1942 — August 24, 2016
Nelda Laney’s legacy is within the very walls of the Texas Capitol. It was Laney who led an effort to raise funds to restore the building and grounds and helped furnish the Capitol when it was finally restored in the early nineties. It was Laney who made sure a holiday tree went up in the Texas House chamber at Christmas-time, starting a new tradition. And it was Laney who decorated the tree with lights and ornaments—ornaments she designed herself, of course.
Known as the “First Lady of West Texas,” Laney provided plenty of support for her husband, Pete, who represented Hale County in the Texas House from 1973 to 2007, and was House Speaker from 1993 to 2003. Perhaps one of her finest moments came in 2000, when her husband introduced George W. Bush, then the President-elect, from the floor of the House on national television. Laney’s twinkling lights and decked-out holiday tree were featured prominently in the background.
“We have many fond memories of happy times with Pete and Nelda when I was governor and Pete was speaker of the House,” Bush said in a statement after Laney passed away in August at 73. “Laura and Nelda were especially close. Nelda loved Texas. She was serious about her role as the speaker’s wife. She helped restore the Capitol and brought great joy to the speaker’s quarters. Most of all, Nelda loved Pete and her wonderful family. We will miss her.”
Laney was far more than just a skilled interior decorator though. In 1965, she graduated with honors from Texas Tech, where she met Pete. Former Tech Chancellor Kent Hance, who went to school with Laney, remembered her as a key political operative throughout her husband’s long run as a state representative. “I think Pete was a great campaigner, but she was better—going out and knocking on doors and talking with people,” Hance told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
But Laney was known for her fervent efforts to preserve the Capitol building. Take, for example, her famous ornaments. In 1995, someone sent Laney an ornament designed to raise money for the preservation of the White House. Something clicked for Laney, and she thought she could do the same thing for the state Capitol. So she started Texas’s commemorative Capitol Christmas ornament program, which, according to the Austin American-Statesman, became “the most successful effort of its kind nationwide.” Since its inception in 1996, Laney’s program has sold more than one million ornaments and raised $8 million for preservation and improvement projects at the Capitol. If you happen to hang a Texas Capitol ornament on your tree at home, or, better yet, if you have a chance to visit the Capitol during the Christmas season, make sure you take a moment to remember Nelda Laney.
Frank Escalante; Sean and Brodie Copeland; Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patricio Zamarippa
Even when we have time to prepare for death—when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or when they simply grow old—it’s still tough for us to process the moment they finally reach the end. But the aftermath of sudden death is among the most difficult situations that mankind is tasked with bearing. When a death is entirely unexpected and the circumstances particularly grim, it can be earth-shattering to those of us still left alive, who are suddenly faced with two troublesome questions: what reason was behind this loss of life, and how can something so horrible happen to someone we love? You can spend a lifetime searching, but it seems there is never an adequate answer to these questions.
Frank Hernandez Escalante, a native of the Rio Grande Valley, moved to Florida for work a few years ago. He died in June when a shooter opened fire inside Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people. He was 27. “I honestly don’t know how to say it, I don’t want to say it, I don’t even want to believe it,” Hernandez Escalante’s sister, Julissa Leal, wrote in a statement on Facebook shortly after she learned of her brother’s death. “I don’t understand why he had to be one of the many victims who didn’t make it. Why did it have to be him of all people?”
Almost exactly one month after the Pulse shooting, a truck barreled through a crowd gathered to celebrate Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 86 people. Among the dead were Sean Copeland of Lakeway and his eleven-year-old son Brodie, who were traveling across Europe while on vacation. “I don’t even know how to put this in words,” Heather Copeland, a family member, posted to Twitter. “My uncle Sean and my cousin Brodie were killed today in a terrorist attack in Nice, France, while they were on vacation.”
Sean worked for a software company and was a devoted father of three. Brodie played football and baseball, was a member of the honor choir at his elementary school, and participated in youth plays in Austin. One of his last roles was as the king in Cinderella. He had just finished fifth grade.
“We are heartbroken and in shock over the loss of Brodie Copeland, an amazing son and brother who lit up our lives, and Sean Copeland, a wonderful husband and father,” the family said in a statement after the terrorist attack. “They are so loved.”
And a few days before the attack in Nice, a sniper opened fire in downtown Dallas killing five officers. Bullets struck Dallas Police senior corporal Lorne Ahrens, 48, in the liver. He died at the hospital. Ahrens was a fourteen-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department and “always one of the happy ones, with a smile on his face,” one officer told the Dallas Morning News. He was married to a detective, Katrina, and they had two kids, a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old. When their mother told them their father was gone, she told them he died trying to help people. “They don’t get it yet,” Ahrens’s mother-in-law, Karen Buckingham, told the Morning News in July. “They don’t know what to do quite yet.”
Officer Michael Krol, 40, was an eight-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department. He spent time growing up in Massachusetts and Michigan, and when he chose to be a cop, he landed in the Dallas Police Department, which was hiring at the time. He was a quiet person and a big sports fan. His family told the Morning News that being a police officer was his lifelong dream.
Sergeant Michael Smith, 55, joined the department in 1989. He and his wife of nearly twenty years had two daughters: a fourteen-year-old and their youngest, Caroline, who is ten. Caroline told CBS that the last time she saw her dad was when he said goodbye before leaving for work. “He said to me, ‘What if this is the last time you ever kiss me or hug me?’” Caroline told CBS. “It just felt different to me. I thought something bad was going to happen.” According to the Morning News, Smith was only a couple of years away from retirement.
Brent Thompson, 43, had been a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer for seven years. He married a fellow DART officer only a few weeks before he was shot. His death marked the first time a DART officer was killed in the line of duty.
Officer Patricio Zamarippa, 30, was the youngest of the Dallas shooting victims. He left behind a two-year-old daughter and a stepson, and he loved baseball, especially the Texas Rangers. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” Zamarippa’s aunt, Lanette Martinez, told the Morning News. “You always think it’s somebody else. You feel for the fallen officers when we see something on TV; we hurt. You never expect for it to happen to you.”
Most newspaper obituaries are short, simple, and sweet: this person died on this date, was this old, and leaves behind these people. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that—it’s an effective way to notify the community of a death, allowing mourners the chance to gather at a wake or funeral. But the brevity leaves out the details that capture who that person was.
Russel Parsons certainly wasn’t a fan of the standard obit, which is why he wrote his own. Here is the start of Parsons’s parting shot as it appeared in the Austin American-Statesman after his death in April:
“I passed away on April 17, 2016. Aside from filling in the date (couldn’t figure out how to do that one without help), I wrote this obituary myself because most obituaries are thrown together at the last minute by grieving relatives and are, quite frankly, dull, boring and uninteresting. I’m hopeful that this one will break that mold. If not, at least it’s not too terribly long and it’s the last time you’ll hear from me.”
In the humorous obit, we learn of Parsons’s love for fast cars, Shiner Bock, music, “meat and taters,” nice people, his two adult sons, and his wife, Beth. We also learn of the things he didn’t like: Fox News, “most green vegetables,” slow drivers, hypocrites, mean people, and jerks. To complete the first-person send-off, Parsons wrote:
“I’m not quite sure what will come next. Perhaps this is it. Perhaps there is an afterlife where I may see some of you again. Perhaps I’ll come back in a different form and get another chance at this. That would be pretty cool. Whatever happens, it’s been a wonderful life. I hope every one of you makes the most of every single minute you have left on this planet. As the Grateful Dead put it, ‘what a long, strange trip it’s been.’ Adios.”
Parsons wasn’t the only Texan who left this world with a startlingly clever obit. There was Howard Wayne Neal, of Lolita, whose son Eric penned this incredibly funny obit for the Victoria Advocate:
Wayne Neal has exited his rickety old body, having lived twice as long as he expected and way longer then he deserved. He passed on September 11, 2016, at 74 years old. He often wished in his later years that he had not treated his body like a Tavern. Wayne never met a man he didn’t want to Indian leg wrestle, or play mercy with. Mainly because he was an ornery ole bastard. He was a modest man who very seldom bragged about all of his treasures on Facebook. By the Way, who the hell taught him about Facebook?
In Neal’s obit, we again learn so much about what this dearly departed Texan loved most in life. In Neal’s case, he liked “old cars, scotch, his construction company, scotch, travel, and oh yeah scotch,” Eric wrote. “Did we mention scotch?”
Then there was Elene Davis, a sweet old Houston woman who died in June at the age of 91. According to her obit, her cause of death was congestive heart failure and, uh, the 2016 presidential campaign. We understand, Elene. Rest well.