The Spirit of ’76

Forty years ago I built forts on Bird Creek, raced at the roller rink, and watched my dad run for mayor of Temple.

Way back in 1976, in the midst of America’s bicentennial, the residents of my hometown of Temple elected my dad to the first of his two terms as mayor. I was only ten years old at the time and knew little of small-town campaigns, ribbon cuttings, lunchtime speeches to the Rotarians, or the importance of public service. I was far more preoccupied with enhancements to the fort down on Bird Creek, how my neighbor Flick Greenwood and I were going to hold on to our streak of scooter-race victories at Skate Haven, and the prospects of breaking into Evel Knievel–style bicycle daredevilry.

Plus, I didn’t see my dad as the mayor. He was my dad, and we were more likely to talk about the status of my homework than economic development. In the evenings, he’d come home for dinner, watch the news, and maybe sip on a “martini” (Beefeater on the rocks with a twist of lemon) while reading. Then he was up before the paper had landed on our lawn and already beginning his workday at Bowmer, Courtney, Burleson, Pemberton & Normand before my feet even hit the floor.

Still, I did take great pride in the fact that my dad was mayor. We lived near Midway Drive, which is an east-west artery for the south side of town, and during Mayor Bill Courtney’s time in office the road underwent a massive improvement, going from two lanes with gravel shoulders to four lanes replete with a turn lane and sidewalks. Such an undertaking was it that the city placed a marker at the corner of Midway and Hickory commemorating the accomplishment. And right there on the plaque were these words: “William R. Courtney—Mayor.” I rode my bike along Midway to Bonham Middle School, and I would occasionally take those who may have doubted the veracity of my adolescent brags by the marker for a big dose of “I told you so.”

I thought that plaque was pretty cool, but being the mayor of a small town also put my dad on a much larger stage. He once met President Gerald Ford on the tarmac of the Temple airport, and their picture, both of them in three-piece suits, appeared on the front page of the Temple Daily Telegram. I have no idea what brought a sitting president to Temple, but then I wasn’t a regular reader of the non–comic strip sections of the newspaper, and, well, who knows, I may have had a big scooter race coming up that weekend.

My dad’s elbow-rubbing with leaders of the free world didn’t end with President Ford. Mayor Courtney also traveled to Washington, D.C., for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors, which involved a meeting with President Jimmy Carter at the White House. You would assume that this might be the sort of thing that would have made an impression on a kid, but I don’t remember that it did at all. I think I’m confident that it happened only because he came home with a couple of lifted notepads emblazoned with the White House insignia and an autographed picture of himself with President Carter and first lady Rosalynn.

One thing that I’m certain of is that I was afforded no special privileges because of my dad’s position. In fact, the reality was that any youthful transgressions that I may have gotten myself into were handled somewhat more punitively than they might otherwise have been. Not long after he left office, I was on a city league basketball team known as the Dirty Dozen, as much a high-spirited social club as a basketball team, really, although we did take third place one season despite having warm-ups that consisted of not much more than beer-drinking in the gym’s parking lot.

Once, in a moment when the high-spiritedness got the best of me, I saw fit to “argue” a call by pulling down my shorts and giving the ref a glimpse of my lily-white butt. This, it turned out, was not a good idea. Mooning constituted an enhanced technical foul, and I was immediately ejected. The director of the parks and rec department got wind of the incident and called my house that night with a detailed play-by-play. My dad was as furious as I ever remember him being. I maintained that it had been nothing, that I barely showed my butt at all. Maybe a little, I said. The parks and rec director, a man my dad had worked with as mayor, had a different telling, one in which the entirety of my crack was visible, all the way from its north end on down to its southern terminus—and (gulp) beyond! I grew up a lot that night, and I’m still sorry to have put my dad through such an embarrassment.

My dad died in 1998, but I think about him a lot, especially when the subject of politics is at hand. Lately I’ve been wondering, What would he have thought of our first black president? What would he have thought of Trump? What would he have thought about the prospect of our first female president?

With this on my mind, I went back to Temple recently and took a tour of my old stomping grounds. I drove down Midway and stopped to look at the marker, and I strolled through the municipal building, where Mayor Courtney’s picture hangs outside the city council’s chambers. Being mayor was a high point in my dad’s life, but his dedication to public service went back to his World War II days, and it didn’t end when he congratulated his successor after the 1980 city election. He continued his law practice, a career that spanned nearly fifty years, and he went on to chair boards, preside over professional and civic organizations, and do right by his fellow citizens. The last stop on my tour took me by the William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans Home, which was the first such facility to be located in the state and which was named posthumously in my dad’s honor, in 2000.

My dad’s being the mayor of Temple wasn’t a great big deal to me at the time, but it also wasn’t not a great big deal. Temple was lucky to have my dad for a mayor, and I’m proud to have had Temple’s mayor for a dad—even though I may not have fully understood why.

The Texanist’s Little-Known Fact of the Month: The first and last time a Texan ate more tamales than anybody else was in 2005 at the World Tamale Eating Championship, in Lewisville, where the world record was established by Levi Oliver, a fellow from Austin who gobbled down 36 in just over ten minutes. Unfortunately, the record now belongs to that gluttonous Californian Joey Chestnut, who, in 2012, inhaled 102 tamales in twelve minutes.