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Cactus Pryor, Austin's original funnyman, dies at 88

Ricardo Gandara

Cactus Pryor, Austin's original funnyman and pioneer of local radio and television, died Tuesday. He was 88 .

The cause was complications from a recent fall and Alzheimer's disease. He fell and broke his leg earlier this month while living at an assisted living facility in Buda. With family around him, Pryor died at Hospice Austin's Christopher House, where he was moved recently.

When Austin got its first local TV broadcast on KTBC in 1951, the folksy humorist was the first face that viewers saw. Until 2008, he did commentaries about Austin haunts and personalities on KLBJ radio, but the station continued rerunning his old commentaries, a tribute to his lasting popularity with listeners. He ended each segment with a distinguishable but puzzling word: "thermerstrockimortimer." Pryor never revealed what it means.

"For nearly 90 years he made us laugh, learn, love and sometimes cry, all at the same time," said Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson. The president had Pryor emcee parties at the LBJ Ranch, and the family hired him to work at its radio station, KLBJ.

"I don't remember life without Cactus, and I can't bear to think of it now. But I know for sure that Mother and Daddy are leading the applause for his debut in heaven," she said.

A local institution, many called him, his style distinguished by Southern-fried wit. "The funniest person ever in Austin," said Dale Dudley of KLBJ-FM.

Dudley, who called Pryor a mentor, referred to him as "Mr. Pryor," but TV viewers and radio listeners knew him as Cactus.

"Very few cities or towns ever know the benefits and pleasures brought about by rare legends like Cactus," said Bob Cole, longtime radio talk show host on the competing KVET. "These treasures are individuals that not only help define the culture and character of a community, the fiber they weave likely endures forever. Austin is Austin, in large part, because of Cactus Pryor."

Pryor, who grew up on Speedway near the University of Texas, dipped in Barton Springs and fished Onion Creek, called his upbringing a "privileged" life. And he was everything to everyone. He entertained world leaders with the Johnsons. He had small parts in two John Wayne movies, "Hellfighters" and "The Green Berets." He escorted stars such as Raquel Welch, Lucille Ball and Dean Martin on promotional tours.

He became an in-demand after-dinner speaker and roaster of politicians and entertainers. He sometimes used disguises. In 1971, he appeared as Count Krag Jansen at a gala at the new Highland Mall. The American-Statesman photographed and identified him as a Danish fashion designer. Unfortunately, the reporter left before the punch line. The next day, the newspaper had to note that Pryor had duped everyone once again.

"To me, he was a star," said golfing buddy Theo Painter. "I saw him many times as an after-dinner speaker. He was the Bob Hope of Texas and could have been a national star, but he decided to stay in Texas."

Behind the scenes, he was a sensitive man who cared about people, said Barbara Miller, who co-hosted "The Noon Show" with Pryor at KTBC from 1978 to 1983. "He was my son Lasater's godfather, and every Christmas morning, Cactus brought him a present. He spoke at Lasater's rehearsal dinner when he got married. Talk about spanning generations. Twenty-five-year-olds then were in awe of Cactus," she said.

A man who thrived in the public eye, Pryor told his KLBJ listeners in 2007 that he had Alzheimer's disease. He joked about it in an interview with the American-Statesman: "My doctor has told me that I will be losing my memory because of a certain disease. I don't buy that there will come a time I won't even recognize my own family. No way. Me forgetting the name of my wife, ah, Jewell, ah, Peggy, or was it Harriet? No, that's my sister who lives in Santa Monica — no, San Antonio."

He was determined not to be slowed by a disease. "There's still some living and laughing to do," he said.

And that he did. He continued his regular commentaries on KLBJ, where he pecked away at the computer while trying to read handwritten notes.

"I write things down, and now the fun part is trying to remember what they mean," he said.

He continued weekly golf games with four friends on his beloved Muny — the Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin. The outings came to be known for tall tales as much as precious time on the greens.

"Golf feeds my soul," he said. He wrote "My Sand Trap or Yours?," which has stories of golf outings with friends, and "Playback," a collection of essays.

The second of six children, Pryor was born to entertain. His father, Richard "Skinny" Pryor, was a legendary vaudeville performer who ran the Cactus Theatre on Sixth Street — hence young Richard's nickname. He graduated from Austin High School in 1941. He majored in radio at the University of Texas but did not finish; he went into the U.S. Army Air Forces, and after a three-year stint, he returned to Austin in 1945 and married Jewell, his first wife.

His first radio job in Austin was with KNOW-AM, but the stint was brief because he couldn't get along with the program director. After short stays in Corpus Christi and Houston, he returned to Austin for good in 1948 and began working as a disc jockey for KLBJ. He and Jewell had four children: Paul, Kerry, Don and Dayne. Jewell died in 1983, the same year Cactus met Peggy Davis, who was then working for Lady Bird Johnson. Cactus and Peggy married in 1989, and were sweethearts ever since.

They enjoyed a life of Labrador retrievers, seven grandchildren, one great-grandchild and fishing in Port Aransas.

Pryor called Peggy "babe" and said, "I'm damn lucky to have her." She felt the same and didn't mind sharing her husband with the world.

"Everyone Cactus knew thought he loved and cared for them better than anyone else, and that was OK with me," she said. "We had an ever-abiding presence for one another, able to listen. Through the joys and sorrows and messiness of life, we held on through the ride, loving one another completely, loving well. We have been richly blessed and we knew it."

Even in his declining years with Alzheimer's getting the best of him, he courted her.

Kerry Guthrie, Cactus' daughter, recalled a recent phone call from her jubilant father, who was repeating over again that he was married to Peggy. One day while visiting a Randalls grocery store, her dad bought a flower arrangement.

"He was so proud walking out of that store with the flowers. They were for Peggy," she said.

Pryor is survived by his wife, five children — Paul, Kerry, Don, Dayne and stepson Stuart Clark — seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The family will have a private burial at Texas State Cemetery. The public is invited to a celebration of his life at 2 p.m. Friday at Riverbend Centre, 4214 Capital of Texas Highway.

rgandara@statesman.com; 445-3632