Thursday, January 27, 2011

Remembering Monk Willis

LONGVIEW, TEXAS — We came to remember Monk Willis on a cold January day, the First Presbyterian Church filled with friends and his extended family. Monk’s service was handled by four Presbyterian ministers and included eulogies from two federal judges who considered him a mentor. He planned the entire affair, I’m told, down to picking the hymns and coaching the distinguished jurists on what to say.

Achille Murat “Monk” Willis Jr. died at 94 on Jan. 14, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in early August. Unlike most of those attending his funeral, we were friends for just a short time. We packed a pile of friendship into the 27 months we knew each other.

A retired surgeon — who was active in Republican politics and brought judicial candidates around to meet me at the sundry East Texas newspapers I ran over two decades — served as matchmaker. “There’s someone you need to meet,” he said. “He’s 92 and another damn liberal like you.”

At lunch that day, Monk regaled me with stories about running Lyndon Johnson’s political campaigns in East Texas, going to four national Democratic conventions, working in Washington D.C. as staff director for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and what books he was reading. We became friends that day — eating lunch at least once a week, spending hours talking about politics, philosophy, history and even football. I even drove him to the tobacco store to buy cigarettes before he finally gave up smoking not long after turning 93.

Monk gave himself that nickname when he moved to Longview in 1946 to open an insurance business. He was the scion of a prominent Virginia family, product of exclusive private schools and held a master’s from Harvard Business School. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he decided that his new bride and he should make their own mark. They picked East Texas because of the pine trees and rolling hills, he said. But he feared nobody would be able to pronounce his given name of Murat, which sort-of rhymes with “hurrah.” He said his mother never forgave him for taking the moniker of Monk. But it stuck.

Monk read more than any human I’ve met. I’m quite certain is going to have a sluggish first quarter since his death. He bought books by the case, adding them to the stacks heaped in his study, since the shelves had long been filled, and sprawled across the dining-room table, more piles arrayed around his easy chair in the front living room. His tastes inclined to history and political analysis, though on occasion he would delve back into Greek mythology or philosophy. He subscribed to the New Yorker for more than 70 years, along with an armload of other magazines, from the New York Review of Books to Mother Jones and Texas Observer. An insomniac, he would read into the wee hours, then go online to read newspaper Web sites.

He would grow exasperated when I didn’t finish a book he loaned me quickly enough to suit him. “What in the world is taking you so long, Borders?” he’d growl with that Virginia drawl. Pointing out I had a day job only slightly mollified him.

Monk’s circle of friends included anyone who interested him, from the mechanic down the street to the wealthy, powerful and aging lions of Texas politics from the 1960s and 1970s. His connections got him appointed a regent at the University of North Texas for 18 years, under four different Texas governors. The main library at UNT is named after him. Nothing likely pleased this modest man —who never made much money but instead accumulated the wealth of knowledge, friends and good deeds performed — more than having a library named after him.

My father died two years ago this February. After his funeral, I received a card from Monk with a quotation I learned he often used to comfort the grieving. In his punctilious handwriting, he wrote: “All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”

Monk’s note ended: “I’m sorry we didn’t meet sooner, but let’s try to make up for it in the time I have left.” I believe we did our best to do so. Like so many folks whose lives he touched, I’m a better person for having known Achille Murat Willis Jr.

Thanks, Monk.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), January 27, 2011.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Despite Odds, Mom Keeps Trucking On

My mom turns 81 in a few days — a fact that when mentioned to her brought a look of incredulity.

“Damn, I’m getting old,” she said. My mom can be salty — a trait she passed down to her three sons, with considerable assistance from our late father. He was a sailor in his youth so had an excuse, at least to his way of thinking.

This conversation took place as she was holed up in the cardiac unit of Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview on New Year’s day. My mom has a litany of medical problems, including a heart that is wearing out. She lives in a nursing home in Longview that provides good care. Our plan is to move her to Central Texas as soon as we find a suitable place with a vacancy.

Four years ago, I became my parents’ primary caregiver when a medical emergency made it clear that they could no longer live on their own. Many of you middle-aged folks reading this also serve as parents of your parents — or if not yet, you likely will at some point. My parents went into an assisted-living facility near where I lived at the time. Most of their possessions were sold — furniture, car, the house. The bulk of their personal items — my dad’s artwork, dozens of boxes of photographs and knick-knacks — are in storage. Someday, when my mother is gone, the family will have the hard task of figuring out what to do with all that stuff.

My dad passed away two years ago next month. Since then, my mom — who spent nearly two decades caring for him after a botched medical procedure left him largely an invalid — has lived a tranquil if not terribly stimulating existence. Until the latest bout, she had not been hospitalized in nearly two years. We went out for lunch at the Cotton Patch every few weeks, where she invariably ate fried catfish and French fries — largely forbidden food for a diabetic, but what the heck. You gotta live it up occasionally.

We headed for lunch on Christmas Eve. It became clear she wasn’t feeling well. Usually, she can leave without toting her oxygen bottle but not this time. The short jaunt from the car to the front door required stopping a couple times. A few days later someone from the nursing home called to announce my mom was going to the emergency room because she was having trouble breathing.

Within a few days, her condition appeared dire. The cardiologist told my brother he was concerned that she would not recover. When I visited, she was barely able to talk, curled up in the fetal position. I began to mentally prepare myself that her time had come, called my daughters, prayed for either a recovery or a painless passage into eternity. My mom has been adamant about not being placed on life support. All the proper papers are on file.

Since I was back in Central Texas, my fiancé paid a visit later that day and called. “Your mom looks fine to me,” she said. “She’s talking my ear off about how rambunctious a kid you were, telling jokes and watching Court TV. I don’t think she’s going anywhere.”

Three days later I drove back to East Texas again to check on her. We walked in her hospital room to discover a teenage boy in what had been her bed, flanked by a glaring mother wondering who these intruders were. I backed out and headed to the nurse’s station to discover my mom had been discharged the day before. Someone forgot to call me.

We drove to the nursing home to find my mom back in street clothes, propped in her recliner and watching an NFL playoff game. Once again she had bounced back. I’ve watched my mother receive the Last Rites from a priest three times during the past 15 years. It’s become a whistling-past-the-graveyard joke in our family, that the surest way to ensure her recovery is to call in the priest to perform that ceremony. As we all like to say, she is a tough old bird.

I know the outcome will be different someday. But for now, she’s back home watching Court TV and football. And I’m thrilled to be able to wish her a Happy Birthday, against all odds.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), January 20, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Facebook Finally Discovers Cedar Park

Not long after moving here I went to my Facebook page to change the name of the town where I hailed from Junction City, Kansas to Cedar Park. I am thrilled to be back in Texas and wanted my “friends” on Facebook to know of my return.

I’m not a heavy user of the social networking site, but it’s a great way to keep tabs on family and friends. I am fascinated by the amount of time some folks spend letting others know arcane details from their everyday lives, such as:

• Just went to Starbucks.
• Going to bed now. Long day.
• Had a great pizza for lunch.
• Just filed a paternity suit against my ex-boyfriend.

OK, kidding about the last item. At least it has not been on my Facebook page by any of my 151 friends.

A few statistics gleaned from the site’s media page. There are 500 million active users of Facebook in the world, 70 percent of whom live outside the United States. There are 151.7 million users in this country. That includes individuals, businesses, and organizations, etc.

Our newspaper, for example, regularly sends breaking-news updates on via Facebook to our 300-plus friends — a number growing each week. More than two million websites are similarly linked to Facebook. Hey, the price is right, as in free.

You ought to sign up by “liking” us on your Facebook page. Sorry, couldn’t resist the plug.

There are 308 million people in the United States, according to the latest census. So even if half of American Facebook users are not actual people but instead are businesses and such, that would still mean one out of every four folks in this country uses Facebook. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s Person of the Year.

Until Dec. 30, however, Facebook apparently did not know Cedar Park existed. I realized that when I tried to change locations. I typed in Cedar Park, Texas and it would disappear from the screen after offering choices of other towns with “Cedar” in their name. After about a dozen attempts, I gave up and typed in Austin instead.

This offended my commitment to accuracy. I don’t really live in Austin. I really do live in Cedar Park. The first thing I see when I walk out my front door each morning to walk in the dark is one of the city’s water towers, the words “Cedar Park” faintly visible in the starlight. But I forgot about it until someone mentioned on Facebook to my oldest daughter, also a resident of this town, that she was frustrated the site wouldn’t let her list Cedar Park as where she lived.

I put a bug in editor Johnny Johnson’s ear. Let’s find out what Facebook has against Cedar Park. After all, it allows users to list Leander as where they live. Is this yet another example of the alleged lack of neighborliness between the two cities that Leander Mayor Cowman and other council members alluded to at the December meeting? Could there be some skullduggery going on here, a deliberate attempt to keep Cedar Park from being the place of residence for folks using the most popular social networking site in the world?

Likely not. Still, I thought we could have some fun with this, call Cedar Park’s city manager and get a reaction, maybe even involve the chamber folks in expressing their outrage over Facebook’s dissing of the city.

Johnny e-mailed Facebook on Dec. 30. Approximately 20 minutes later, a city spokeswoman called to say she didn’t understand our question —she was able to put in Cedar Park as where she lived with no problem. Whoever got Johnny’s e-mail at Facebook fixed the problem in minutes.

So, you Cedar Park Facebook users have us to thank. At least that’s my story. You can now list CP as where you live and not have to choose Austin, or Round Rock, or Pflugerville as an alternative. That will leave all of us more time for the important items, like telling our friends on the site what television show we plan to watch tonight.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), January 13, 2011.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Revisiting a Favorite Haunt

I should have mentioned this earlier so that those interested could have made it to the photography exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center at UT. But I forgot about getting there myself until it nearly was too late, and now it is.

The HRC is one of my favorite haunts in Austin. I spent hours as a graduate student in photojournalism at UT three decades ago, doing grunt work in the bowels of this vast repository. As a teaching assistant, I helped catalogue photographs from the morgue of the New York Journal-American, a dead newspaper whose 3 million photographs are part of the HRC’s holdings. There were black-and-white photos of murder scenes, tens of thousand of mug shots, grip-and-grin check-passing photos — a visual history of that city from the 1930s through the mid-1960s.

The exhibit, “Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection,” highlighted one of the HRC’s most famous acquisitions and provided a rare glimpse of photographs from the media’s early history — including the first photograph taken by Joseph Nièpce in 1826. It is a courtyard scene in a small French village. The exposure took eight hours. The photograph is barely visible from its pewter surface when one views it from an angle. Its value, of course, is that it is the first photograph.

I wandered the exhibit, hung throughout several spaces. Several photographs are so rare and sensitive to light that they hung draped with a velvet cloth that one lifted in order to view the image. Some of the stars of the show included Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — better known as Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland.” Dodgson was an avid photographer. Down the wall is a study by Eadweard Muybridge of a nude man swinging a baseball bat in 1887. Muybridge used photography to study motion and eventually proved through multiple photographs shot in time sequence that at some point when a horse gallops all four hooves are in the air. Leland Stanford, the namesake of the famed California university, paid him to prove it. Stanford, a former governor, owned horses. I figure he was trying to win a bar bet.

Since I was already there, I took a quick look at the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed on a press. The University’s copy is one of just five complete copies in this country. UT bought it in 1978. I never tire of looking at this magnificent piece of art and history, printed more than 550 years ago. Johann Gutenberg launched the information revolution with his press. I still love to hear a press starting up, ink flying on to paper using essentially the same principle.

Other exhibits in recent years that have drawn me to the HRC include one drawn from the papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story and brought down a president. Their efforts and subsequent fame — especially from the movie, “All the President’s Men” — spurred an entire generation of now-middle aged folks to enter journalism, including me. Of course, with a bachelor’s in philosophy, English and history I was unqualified for anything else.

The manuscript to “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, typed on a continuous scroll of paper and stretching 120 feet, was the centerpiece of “On the Road With the Beats,” a 2008 exhibit. As the HRC’s website notes, the end of the scroll — and thus Kerouac’s original ending for the book — is missing. Kerouac blamed a cocker spaniel owned by a friend for the missing pages. The dog indeed ate his homework.

The next exhibit, “Culture Unbound — Collecting in the Twenty-First Century,” starts on Feb. 1 and runs through the end of July, showcasing material from some of the country’s finest contemporary writers. A companion exhibit celebrates the life of playwright Tennessee Williams.

Visiting the HRC, which is just north of Dobie Mall on Guadalupe, only costs the gasoline required to get there. Donations are appreciated but no admission is charged. There are darned few things that are still free these days. (Getting one’s eyeglasses adjusted at an optometrist’s office comes to mind.) Keep the HRC on your list if looking for a pleasant few hours soaking up some culture. Park either in the Blanton Museum’s parking garage for a few bucks, or in the Bob Bullock State History Museum’s lot for free and get a bit of exercise hiking up the hill. It’s worth the trip.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), January 6, 2011.