Friday, June 25, 2010

Part Six: Where I’m From

Part Six: Where I’m From

Several years ago, while relaxing with my wife on a bench outside a beautiful old stone church in Vail, Colorado awaiting the wedding ceremony for a friend of mine from business school, a nice older couple in their early 70s sat beside us and began making small talk. Our conversation was the typical banal banter between strangers who don’t expect to speak to one another again: “Isn’t this weather beautiful? Are you related to the bride or groom? Have you visited Vail before? It sure is beautiful here, isn’t it?” Etcetera, etcetera.

The husband’s east Texas twang was particularly thick, and it was refreshing to hear a voice that sounded like home while sitting on a bench in glamorous, highbrow Vail, of all places. The groom whose wedding we were attending grew up in Dallas—Highland Park, to be precise—and I expected to run into fellow Texans at the wedding. However, I didn’t expect what happened next.

After a few minutes of chitchat I asked the couple where in Texas they were from, and the wife said, “Oh, we live in a tiny town in East Texas.”

“Whereabouts?” I asked. “I was born and raised in Texas.”

“Oh I’m sure you’ve never heard it…we’re pretty close to a town called Palestine [pronounced PAL-es-teen]. Are you familiar with Palestine?” she inquired.

“Sure,” I responded, “I’ve driven through Palestine many times on the way to my great grandparents’ house. What town do y’all live in?” (Don’t you just love how smoothly the word “y’all” flows off the tongue when visiting with fellow Texans.)

At this point the husband jumps in: “I guarantee you’ve never heard of it…it’s a little place called Grapeland and it ain’t much bigger than a main street and a feed store.”

“Well sir, I know Grapeland. In fact, I’ve been there many times.” I explained, as they nodded in disbelief. “It’s just off Highway 287 about 30 minutes southeast of Palestine, right? My great grandparents—Will and Rubie Mae Lively—lived in Grapeland and I used to go there several times a year when I was growing up in Dallas.” Just for kicks, I added, “Don’t you just love the piney woods of East Texas?”

The couple sat speechless and stunned on the cold stone bench beneath the warm Colorado sun. My wife was also mute. It was a classic Texpatriate moment. It truly is a small world, especially when you’re a multigenerational Texan.

“My God, that’s something.” The husband remarked, raising his eyebrows and digesting this surprising bit of information. He then paused for what felt like a full minute before inquiring, “Are you related to J.B. Lively? He used to be the sheriff of Grapeland back in the 60s.”

“Yes,” I replied, rather surprised and quite pleased to make such a connection. “I believe he was my grandfather's cousin.”

There was another exceedingly long pause as though we were characters in a Harold Pinter play. After what seemed like an eternity he responded, “J.B. Lively was the meanest son-of-a-bitch I ever met. I'm tellin' you, he was downright mean. Scared the hell out of me back in the day.”

Yep—that's my family. Or at least that’s one distant cousin who shares my last name and bloodline. In addition to J.B., I have several ancestors with questionable—if not downright ignominious—pedigrees: one rode with Jesse James, several owned slaves, another worked as an evangelical tent preacher (in spite of being a lousy, mean drunk), several fought as loyalists during the Revolutionary War against George Washington and the Continental Army. Only God and Sam Houston know what other disreputable relatives I have among the various branches of my family tree. (In fairness, the vast majority of my ancestors would make most folks proud, but it’s the colorful ones we like to remember.)

To be honest, I can’t quite remember how I responded to this septuagenarian’s frank remark, other than to agree with his assessment (i.e. I had heard the same thing about good ole’ J.B., to be honest), congratulate him on his nephew’s nuptials, and wish them both a good evening.

Lone Star Connections

Family is a complicated and beautiful thing. I owe everything I am to my family—all my unique personal characteristics, from the positive and irritating to the downright embarrassing. It is to my four grandparents and their ancestors that I ultimately owe my life and my good fortune. And it is they who helped shaped the culture of my family—and in their own small, unique way they helped to shape the culture of Texas, my home.

My grandparents were all born and raised in Texas, and on my mother's side I can trace family in the Lone Star State back to the 1840s (and possibly earlier), in Austin. The relative whose residency in Texas dates back the farthest—at least that I can verify at the present—was Ephraim Hanaway, an old Mexican War veteran (N.B.: it’s now referred to as the Mexican American War). Hanaway is my third great grandfather (i.e. for those who care, he is my mother’s, mother’s, father’s, mother’s father). When he died, in Austin at the beginning of the 20th century, he was the “oldest Mexican war pensioner” per the faded obituary from an Austin newspaper found in my cousin Helen’s family bible.

Good ole’ Ephriam had three daughters and no sons. His daughter Mamie, born in 1867, married Frank Pfaefflin, the son of a German immigrant. Incidentally, Frank’s brother, H. Pfaefflin, was the key government witness against William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, who embezzled money from the American National Bank, Austin, where they both worked in 1898. For all you short story connoisseurs, O. Henry—for whom the most prestigious short story writing award is named—published his first stories while serving time in an Ohio prison following great uncle Pfaefflin’s testimony and Porter’s subsequent conviction. I’d like to think my ancestor is at least partially responsible for helping to launch the career of America’s most storied short story writer—is that a stretch? (If you haven't seen the O. Henry house, which is now a museum, on 4th street in Austin, check it out.)

Frank Pfaefflin’s granddaughter Anna May, my maternal grandmother, also had unique ties to a Texas literary icon. Apparently, while studying at the University of Texas (or sometime thereafter) in the early-1930s, Anna May Pfaefflin worked as a clerk for Professor J. Frank Dobie, an American folklorist known as “Mr. Texas.” Dobie was the first serious Texas intellectual and he is widely considered the father of Texas literature. How and why my grandmother found a job clerking for him at UT is a mystery. But ain't it cool?

Anna May Pfaefflin was barely five feet tall, but at times her personality made her seem more like an NBA Center. She was a firecracker with a quick temper, a sharp tongue, and very few kind words—at least in public—for Royal Kelley, her husband of more than 60 years, whom we called Papaw Kelley. (This is not to be confused with Papaw Lively, my other grandfather; apparently there’s not much creativity in my family when it comes to selecting family nicknames). However, Nanny, as we called her, was a wonderful grandmother who spent countless hours babysitting each of her six grandchildren. Such are the paradoxes of family. She was smart as a whip, and she was tougher than a sidewinder rattlesnake. From Nanny we inherited toughness, true grit and a wry sense of humor. Nanny could stare down and verbally outmaneuver the toughest characters.

Cowboys and Bandits in the Family Tree

Anna May Pfaefflin married Royal Hobart Kelley. Kelley, as Nanny always called him, was just about the strongest yet gentlest human being I have ever known. To understand Papaw Kelley, one must first understand his background. Papaw was the great nephew of Otho Offutt, a member of the notorious Confederate rangers known as Quantrill’s Raiders. William Clarke Quantrill and his Quantrill’s Raiders, whose ranks included Frank and Jesse James as well as Cole and Jim Younger, were infamous for robbing and killing northerners. Their most notorious operation was the Lawrence Massacre—in Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863—when Quantrill and his gang looted the banks and stores, burned nearly all the town’s building, and killed approximately 200 men and boys. I think Papaw explained it best in one of the many stories he told over and over: “They burned the houses, spared the women and furniture, and killed all the men.” Following the raid Quantrill led his men to Texas, behind Confederate lines. (The James and Younger gangs kept on looting and killing long after the Civil War using tactics learned while riding with Quantrill.) Needless to say, Papaw Kelley’s great uncle Otho was a tough son of a bitch.

Papaw’s father Otho Kelley wasn’t much nicer. As a young man, the younger Otho—who was named after his tough as nails uncle, Otho Offutt—worked as a cowboy at the famed XIT Ranch, which at one time comprised more than 3 million acres across the Texas panhandle. The XIT was the biggest private ranch in the world. After breaking both of his legs in a hay bale crane accident, where he fell more than 30 feet to the ground, he quit cowboying and became a tent preacher. From my 21st century perspective, this was a dubious profession for such a mean son of a bitch but times were different and Texas at the turn of the 20th century was still the edge of the frontier—and fire-and-brimstone preachers had to be a tough bunch to save any souls. Eventually, Otho Kelley settled in a rough section of Wichita Falls where he ran a rundown general store. Mostly, however, he was just a mean SOB who liked to drink whiskey and beat his son.

As a young teen of thirteen of fourteen—at the heart of the Great Depression—Royal Kelley had endured enough violence from his abusive father and, following his mother’s untimely death, decided to leave Wichita Falls for something better. As a teenaged hobo he hid underneath train cars and road the railroads alone all the way to California, where he stayed with distant cousins whose dispositions were kinder than his father’s.

Ultimately, this skinny kid from Wichita Falls with Gary Cooper-looks joined the Marines followed by the FBI Academy, and he eventually served as a policeman and a highway patrolman across Texas in Uvalde (where he lived next door to then Vice President John Nance Garner, who served under FDR), Austin, Amarillo and Abilene. For the last 27 years of his career he served as chief of security for LTV. In retirement he played golf nearly every day, it not twice a day. (Once he told me he played from sunrise to sunset, and he never used a golf cart.)

As a kid, Papaw Kelley was always my favorite grandparent. I know kids aren’t supposed to choose a favorite, but Papaw was like a huge teddy bear who would pick me up and give me a hug and a kiss every time I saw him. The countless stories he told about his life—such as growing up beside a Hooverville (i.e. a depression-era shantytown) during the Great Depression, running away from home in his teens and traveling on freight trains to California, lying about his age and joining the Marines at 17, attending the FBI Academy under J. Edgar Hoover, winning awards as an expert marksman, and riding motorcycles as a Texas State Highway Patrolman—were the stuff of legend, and they excited me to no end. These were adventures about which a young grandson dreams.

Now, as an adult, his stories and experiences have taken on new meaning for me—a poignancy that I did not fully appreciate as a child. Despite losing his mother as a young boy, enduring an abusive father, and having few role models in the callous depression-era Wichita Falls in which he matured, Papaw was among the kindest, gentlest and most caring individuals I’ve ever known. Indeed, it was his kind, gentle spirit in the face of hardship and cruelty that made me appreciate him so much more—and which still makes me appreciate what is important in my own life today.

Papaw Kelley was without a doubt the strongest man I’ve ever known. His intensity and strength were palpable to all who knew him. In his 70s and 80s, Papaw played 18 holes of golf almost every day, without a cart, and could still hit the ball farther than most 30-year-olds. Even in his last years, with cancer eating away at his body, Papaw would walk laps around Presbyterian Village, where he lived in South Oak Cliff, to maintain his endurance and strength. Simply put, he was a survivor.

It was these dual qualities—kindness and strength—that made Papaw Kelley unique. This duality formed the core of his amazing character, for which he was known and loved by family and friends. And I am thankful to him for passing along even just a small part of himself to me.

Hook ‘em Horns

My paternal grandmother came from educated, serious North Texas stock. Mary Alice Keeton, whom we grandkids knew as Memaw, was the daughter of William Fount Keeton of Bonham, Texas. Granddaddy Keeton, as he was known by my dad and his brothers, was a serious man who represented Fannin County in the Texas House of Representatives in 1927 and again in 1929. His daughter Mary Alice was a serious woman. She was introduced to the University of Texas as a young girl while living in Austin during her father’s years in the Texas legislature. After graduating high school she eventually matriculated at UT and was graduated four years later. Henceforth, Memaw became a devoted Longhorn who—even in old age with extremely poor eyesight—would grab her binoculars and turn on the tube to watch UT play Oklahoma or A&M, or whoever would be defeated by her beloved Longhorns that day.

Memaw was a loving grandmother, but like her father she was a serious person. She did not joke nor did she appreciate tomfoolery of any sort. (Her four sons definitely tested her patience.) Her husband Henry (Papaw Lively) had a monopoly on humor and wit in their marriage, and he almost always had a smile on his face. But it was Mary Alice who insisted on a first class education for her sons and her grandchildren. She would often count the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees attained by every child and grandchild in her family, and she wore that accomplishment like a badge of honor—sharing with anyone who cared to listen. Except for her Presbyterian devotion to God and her devotion to family, education was primary to Memaw.

While my father had a closer bond with his own dad, he and his brothers inherited Mary Alice’s serious demeanor, devotion to God, and commitment to education. From Memaw, I inherited a deep seriousness of purpose and a belief in the primacy of education. Indeed, her devotion to education has clearly influenced my own career, and I share many traits with Memaw, including some about which I am proud and some—such as being too serious (or humorless, as my wife would likely suggest) too often—that I wish I did not.

Lively: Is it A) an Adjective, B) an Adverb, C) a Last Name, or D) All of the Above?

My last name, Lively, is an English surname—or at least it’s a derivative of an old English surname. It’s both an adjective and an adverb, providing countless bad jokes for kids and adults alike. It’s an uncommon name in Chicago, and adults here typically crack the same kind of insipid jokes I heard as a youth. (You don’t need me to repeat ‘em as I’m sure you can think of several obvious moronic Lively-as-last-name jokes on your own.)

At some point in the late-1600s, John Lyfolly, of Oxfordshire, England, was imprisoned for a crime—likely petty theft—and sent to prison in Barbardos (an overflow prison for British criminals and miscreants since the infamous Newgate Prison was apparently overbooked). Somehow, this 17th century ne’er-do-well left the Caribbean prison and made his way to South Carolina where he joined other Lyfollys making a living in the colonies. Within a generation or two the name Lyfolly would became Lively. During the Revolutionary War the Lively clan made the unfortunate decision to fight as loyalists on the side of King George.

So to recap, my forefathers with whom I proudly share a last name were basically criminals who fought against the founding of the world’s greatest living democracy. At least the Livelys got one thing right: they eventually moved west to Texas.

By the mid-1800s several members of the Lively clan moved to Houston County, the oldest county in Texas, where they tenant farmed and tried to avoid getting scalped or robbed and killed by gunslingers. Once, as a young boy Will Lively—my great grandfather—was in school when the teacher made all the kids crouch beneath their desks as Jesse James was riding through town. (It’s possible Otho Offut was with the infamous outlaw when he rode through Grapeland, making this the first near encounter between two sides of my family.)

By the mid-1900s Will and Rubie Mae (Herrington) Lively were able to purchase their own land. Their two sons, Henry and Carl Lively, left Grapeland for college and eventually both moved away to start families in other towns—Carl in nearby Lufkin and Henry in Dallas. Henry, whom we knew as Papaw Lively, was a hard-working man who spent his years selling life insurance, serving Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church, raising four kids, and playing golf with his many friends. What he was known for, however, was his personality. Henry never met a stranger, and his smile could warm even the coldest of hearts. Like his wife, Henry was a serious character, as his sons can confirm, but he also found great joy in life, in the company of good friends and family—and especially in the beauty of the majestic Colorado Rockies.

After attaining a college degree from Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University) and completing officer candidate school in New Haven, CT during the Second World War, Papaw built a hugely successful career in Dallas selling life insurance. He and Mary Alice raised four sons—each of whom attained graduate degrees and made substantive contributions to the communities in which they live. His sons all spent magical summers on the farm in Grapeland with their favorite grandfather, whom everyone in town called “Uncle Will,” that would help to shape their character and their lives. But Papaw preferred looking forward not backward. He was conflicted about his childhood and the culture of Grapeland in which he was raised.

Papaw’s grandchildren—myself included—grew up yearning for days spent on the farm shooting BB guns at tin cans and watermelons, listening to Great Granddaddy Lively’s stories, and walking through piney woods with Papaw Lively. Every Christmas and every summer—usually during extreme cold or brutal summer heat—we visited Grapeland. All the grandkids loved the farm. We loved its simple pleasures: Great Grandmother’s pies and fried chicken and time spent on the porch swing listening to great grandparents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and near cousins and distant cousins tell stories about the old days. I can hear the conversations in my head as I write this: I can hear the thick east Texas twang and the slow, deliberate voices of Great Granddaddy and Great Grandmother and Papaw and (his brother) Carl reliving childhood moments before they had electricity or cars or money; I can hear my uncles Bob and Jim telling stories about the old days that made their brother John laugh until he cried; I can hear the ringing of Great Grandmother’s hearing aid and the sound of the old gas heater on the floor in the den and the sound of the porch swing swaying back and forth as folks sat out front drinking coffee after lunch and several helpings of home-made pie. There was something manifestly romantic about days spent on the farm. Even the drive back home to Dallas was usually memorable: Uncle Bob would tell Wendigo (i.e. ghost) stories to a car full of scared nieces and nephews ready to scream at every twist and turn.

For Papaw, however, his childhood memories were quite different. I remember my dad once explaining to me in secret that he believed Papaw was embarrassed about his humble upbringing. As a teenager, I just didn’t—or couldn’t—understand that emotion about such a magical place. We loved the farm. We were proud to have a grandfather who was raised on a farm—it was exotic, especially to kids in suburban Dallas. I remember telling Papaw, sometime after my dad shared this secret with me, just how much I loved visiting his childhood home hoping he would agree with me. He didn’t really respond to my declaration and it was clear Papaw had complicated feelings about his childhood in Grapeland. In reality, growing up on the farm involved long, grueling days of endless toil. The culture of Grapeland and the daily grind of life on a farm was not the romanticized version of farm-life that his sons and grandchildren perceived it to be. Yet it was on the farm—through the enduring love of his parents and the lessons of hard work coupled with the extraordinary gift of an education—that Papaw learned to possess a quiet grace that I only now fully appreciate as a father who has been given much in life from his family.

And it is from Papaw that I learned to find joy in nature—especially in the Rocky Mountains—and for that I will be forever grateful. If only I could sit with him underneath his favorite ponderosa pine in Estes Park and see his smile and hear his laughter once more.

Prodigal Son

How this kid from Dallas with roots that lie deep in the heart of Texas got to Chicago is a long and not very interesting story. But, here I am. The prodigal son. A Texpatriate in Chicago.

I think everyone expects me to return home eventually. That remains to be seen. However, what I can promise, regardless where I live—whether it's Chicago or Grapeland or Dallas—I will always be a Texan at heart. And I will continue to be the amalgam of complicated, conflicting, rich personalities inherited by good people (along with a few shady characters) who were shaped by—and who in turn helped to shape—the unique culture of Texas.

...And hopefully, many years from now, when a distant relative or grandchild of mine meets someone who knew me back in my prime—which presumably is now—I hope I fare better than ole' J.B. Lively, the mean old son of a bitch.


  1. Great post as always, Dave. And I love the fact that you subconsciously (?) substituted Graceland for Grapeland. The King would be proud.


  2. Thanks...I didn't even notice the Graceland for Grapeland substitution. Clearly, Elvis is always present in my mind. (I corrected the error to avoid any confusion, but considered keeping it to maintain the Elvis connection. (Of course, there's always an Elvis connection in life, right?)