Texas History: Notable Texans recall growing up in the Lone Star State
At long last.
Journalists and oral historians Gaylon Finklea Hecker and Marianne Odom have been sitting down with notable Texans — politicos, actors, news reporters, musicians, writers, athletes, business folks and just plain good storytellers — to hear their stories since 1981.
Now that's a project.
They listened to sometimes heartwarming, at other times humorous or harrowing tales about youth, and preserved those records, now housed at the Briscoe Center for American History.
Along the way, Hecker and Odom made their own kind of history. They trimmed and smoothed out the transcribed interviews into entertaining and instructive narratives, 48 of them now gathered in "Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods" (University of Texas Press / Briscoe Center for American History).
I'll tell you honestly that I have not read the entire book yet. In fact, I look forward to consuming its 442 pages, bit by bit, in portions during the coming months.
Each of the 48 stories runs about a half dozen to a dozen pages and each includes priceless photographs of the subjects in childhood and later in life, including one of race car champion A.J. Foyt, barely old enough to walk, driving a little roadster powered by a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower motor.
In this column, I offer a first sampling, short excerpts from three of the entries.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson
Born: Senfronia Paige on Jan. 1 1939, in Booth, to J.M. Proctor and Thelma Lee Waterhouse
Interview: Her office, Texas State Capitol, Austin, Aug. 6, 2018
Background: Rep. Thompson is the longest-serving woman and African American in Texas history. She has represented Northeast Houston, where she grew up, for almost 50 years. Thompson was among the most prominent of the Democrats who headed to Washington, D.C., to protest a Texas Republican voting bill and to lobby for a national voting rights bill.
Senfronia Thompson: I was my great-grandmother's favorite great-grandchild because I wouldn't cry. I was fearless and I could talk plainly. She often send me to the corner grocery store and would recite what she was asking me to order for her.
The store owner was such a nice guy, and he always enjoyed seeing me come into the store. He knew where my great-grandmother lived. But he would pretend that he did not and said, "Where do you live?"
And I said: "I'll show you where I live."
And I just marched down the sidewalk made of bricks. I'd get there and crawl up on the steps. He would help me get up on the stairs, too, and I'd open the door for him.
He'd bring the box of groceries inside. He'd wink at my great-grandmother and he'd say, "I didn't know how to get here, but your great-grandbaby showed me how, and I'm going to leave her a nickel."
But I couldn't spend the nickel, though. My great-grandmother insisted on me saving my money. She had a sock, and if somebody gave me money, then she'd put those coins in there. My great-grandmother was very frugal. She was conscious of saving — just not taking something and spending it because you got it.
My Uncle Sammy would always give me a nickel to make sure that I had milk. The real milk was sold in a bottle with a curly neck, and the milk would be at the bottom and the cream would be at the top. And my great-grandmother would always siphon the cream for the coffee or cake or whatever she was going to cook.
Born: Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. on Jan. 16, 1935, in Houston to Anthony Joseph Foyt Sr. and Evelyn Monk Foyt
Interview: A.J. Foyt Racing, Waller, Jan. 27, 2018
Background: Houston's A.J. Foyt was the first driver to ace four Indianapolis 500 races, and is one of only two drivers to win both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, and the only one to also win the 24 hours of Le Mans. He won 67 Indy car races and was victorious in seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series races. In 1993, Foyt retired and became solely a team owner. Growing up, his father owned a car-repair garage.
A.J. Foyt: When I was 14 or 15, working in my daddy's garage, they brought a car in. I was under it and water and ice was dripping on me. You didn't have all these hydraulic jacks to put it on stands back then. Everything was manual. So I decided it'd be better to be a race car drive than working on those damned things.
My first stock car was a '38 standard Ford, and I bought it out of a junkyard in Austin and towed it home and built it in the yard to start with. I was probably 16. I think it fascinated me. It was just something interesting to learn to do and have a way of making a living. I like engineering stuff.
I built my first race car myself. Knowing the mechanics behind it probably made me a better driver. I used to do all my own sprint car work, tow it to the races and work on it at the races — change the setup, mount my own tires, everything. It's so different nowadays.
What I like about the race cars is that you make your own decisions, and if you make a bad decision, you know it. And I guess that's one thing I really loved about racing even when I was young.
Me and my daddy, we were like brothers. When I was a young kid, my daddy had cars that won most of the races around here. Then a bunch of people started saying: "Your daddy's slipping. He can't build a winning car anymore."
Well, the guy who drove for him, Dale Burt, was not what you call a winning race driver. He was like a fourth- or fifth-place driver. Dale was good friends with my daddy, and they had a business together. They called it B&F Garage, Burt and Foyt. Super guy.
When you hear people bad-mouthing your daddy, you're out to prove them wrong. And that's what really started me wanting to be a race driver. I wanted to win.
To be honest with you, I don't know if my daddy wanted me to grow up to be a race car driver. He built me race cars. He always let me race cars when I was a little bitty kid, but he never said nothing.
When my mama had to sign a release because I was too young to drive, she told my daddy and his friend Jimmy Greer, "Now if y'all hurt that boy, I'll kill both of y'all."
I remember my mama saying that. She started crying.
"Y'all better not hurt that boy of mine."
Born: Jerry LeVias on Sept. 5, 1946, in Beaumont to Charles LeVias and Leura Wright LeVias
Interview: His home, Houston, Jan. 21, 2017
Background: From Deep East Texas, Jerry LeVias broke a color barrier in the powerhouse Southwest Conference in 1965 as the first African American to receive a football scholarship. As a wide receiver, he led the SMU Mustangs to their first football title in 18 years and achieved both academic and athletic All-American honors. He played for the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers and remains an ambassador for the Houston Texans.
Jerry LeVias: I got to SMU. I got to freshman football practice, and they couldn't show me any special favors. They put all the highly recruited defensive guys and offensive guys on one team. They put the rest of us on the third team. When they scrimmaged, they put the first-team defense up against the third-team offense. ...
A couple of times, they caught up with me, I got spit on, kicked in the back; they wedged a vertebra in my back, cracked my ribs, because I was Black.
People on Mockingbird were stopping on the street to see us scrimmage, you know, to see the colored boy. Some of my teammates didn't like that. They hit me after the whistle was blown, and all this kind of stuff, but I was still running. ...
I took such a beating the rest of the time, they would keep the medical center open. Out of five games, I only played probably two, because they beat me up so bad during practice. Sometimes I'd stay late after practice running because none of the other guys wanted to shower with me.
I got flatfeet, and they'd laugh at me and say, "All y'all got flatfeet?"
The head trainer, Eddie Lane, he would tape my feet; some student trainers never wanted to touch me.
I was ready to go. Didn't have a roommate. Didn't have a friend on the team. Only Tony Patron from New Jersey would talk to me. They all were white, and none of them had ever played with or against Black players. I told my sister I was about to leave.
And my sister said, "You know what Daddy said, 'You make your bed. You sleep in it.' You gave those people word that you'd play there." ...
I played against Texas Tech in Lubbock. And I had a good game and newspaper reporters were asking the coach, "Coach King, LeVias had a pretty good game against you today. When you play them again, what kind of defense you gonna use, what you gonna do?"
He said, "I'm going to put a sign on the locker room door that says, 'For Whites Only.'"
These stories are excerpted from "Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods" by Gaylon Finklea Hecker and Marianne Odom, © 2021, published with permission from the Briscoe Center for American History.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.