Friday, November 24, 2023

Giving Thanks for Renn Carson and His Music

If you’ve been part of music in the Brazos Valley, audience or performer, you know Renn Carson, not by his words as much as by his consistent presence during specific decades in live performance, especially when there was a call for a stellar blues guitar.

A true blues performer has lived what they play—extreme highs and lows—that reflect the way the music business goes. You hope for the best and you tolerate the worst until you can turn life around and get back on track. And you keep on playing through it all.

To write one word about Renn, there are always two words that follow: "and Connie" as the Carsons did virtually everything in life and love together, including music.

If Renn was playing, Connie was in the audience, there for load in and loud out and sound check in between, quietly by his side, sharing his passion for music that gave him the fuel to keep on pursuing that which he loved in life. He was a man truly powered by music, fueled by love for his Connie, and the result was a joy to hear. Hence, "Renn and Connie." This photo is just one of many beautiful memories throughout their life together (borrowed from Connie's FB page). Sadly, we lost Renn on November 11, 2023, the eldest child and brother to his sister, Nancy, and his brother, Hank.

As expected, the historic but modest St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church ran out of sanctuary seating on Tuesday afternoon, November 21, despite pulling in every folding chair, or ushering friends and loved ones into the adjoining church parlor for the overflow crowd who’d gathered to pay their respects to the family and memory of their beloved Renn—born into this world of Bryan, Texas, as James Renner Carson on April 20, 1953, to parents Edward Carson and Barbara Renner Lyles.

Part of the world that Renn created around him the past 70 years flowed into St. Andrew’s as others watched via livestream on St. Andrew’s YouTube channel. Yes, much of it was his church family; and others were his music family. And yet, it wasn’t the full world that Renn created. For all of the years he performed music as a guitarist and an ambassador of music to others, Renn made a world of friends everywhere he went.

Renowned musician Ruthie Foster, longtime family to Renn and Connie, put her broken heart on hold while she offered songs of healing, of love, and faith in honor to the man who was an integral part of her earliest days as an accomplished musician. As Kathleen Phillips and another friend, Ramona, shared words of comfort, and as the congregation shared the words of the 23rd Psalm, the voices present united once more in the beauty of scripture that continues to bring reassurance to all who hear it.

Ruthie said, “I talk through my music like Renn always did. I looked at him as my brother. He was always there to hold me close through good times and bad times and now we can take him everywhere. Right, Connie?” With Tanya Richardson on fiddle and Scotty Miller on keys, Ruthie sang “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” a song that preached to us as she reminded us that Renn’s work on Earth was done.

Rev. Daryl Hay of St. Andrew’s offered a homily that included a quote attributed to St. Augustine, “The one who sings prays twice.” He also shared the words of Kurt Vonnegut,

“Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic, and in tough times of my life I can listen to music, and it makes such a difference.”

While he was on Earth, Renn created a performance portfolio that any music professional would be honored to have. The groups in which he was an important part for as long as he chose to be there included the Blue Gravel Rock Band, The Rock-a-Fellas Band, The Blue Note All-Stars, The King Bees, Eugene Eugene and the Solid Foundation, and headliners including Bryan-born Grammy winner, Donald Ray Johnson, Nat Dove, Sunny Nash, and of course, Ruthie Foster, five-time Grammy nominee.

The one thing to focus on is not the fame or the acclaim of the performers listed, but instead the joy and the peace having the chance to perform with these outstanding musicians brings wherever and whenever they gathered.

Renn was part of an early configuration of The Rock-a-Fellas Band. The band has always been gently fluid, with each member contributing their best when they could all intersect their schedules and good times were waiting. Band members include Donnie Angonia, Donnie Wilson, Heath Allyn, Craig Knight, and at different times there you’d find Tim Rogers, Renn Carson, Mike Holleman and others.

Eugene Eugene and the Solid Foundation Band had a strong following early on for playing local gigs. They blazed a path for some good local blues although the smaller city of Navasota, 20 miles up the road, was far more known for their annual blues festivals. Yet, it takes a town and a venue like Bryan’s Palace Theatre being renovated to establish a place for the blues, and for a few years, the Bryan Blues Festival committee was able to put events together that were popular and well attended. In June 2012, this group featured Eugene Smith, Ernest Gibbs, Renn Carson, James Gibbs, and Ralph Moncivais and the band not only performed their own set, they backed other Bryan legends Donald Ray Johnson, Dr. Nat Dove, and Sunny Nash.

Sharing a photo credited to Ernest TK Gibbs (borrowed from his FB page) from a performance in College Station:

This was a fundraiser for Stillcreek Ranch in 2017, held at the Benjamin Knox Gallery. Wherever good works were in progress, you could find Eugene Eugene and the Solid Foundation to bring a crowd.

And sharing a photo from the 2013 Bryan Blues Festival, showing the band backing singer Sunny Nash, as they did for Nat Dove and Donald Ray Johnson, thanks to Renn's FB page here. Below: Sharing a 2013 video with Donald Ray Johnson (previously, drummer in A Taste of Honey) including Ernest TK Gibbs, James Gibbs, and Ralph Moncivais, where Renn is slightly hidden behind the camera, but you can catch his guitar stands out in “Rainy Night in Georgia.”

In more recent years, circa 2016, you could catch Renn in concert locally performing with the band The King Bees, together with guitarist/vocalist Jason Gabbard, bassist Dan Peterson, and drummer Mark Esman. Their bio once noted that Renn came in runner-up for first place in a seventh-grade talent show, playing the blues. That was also about the last time that Renn came in second to anyone for musical anything, to be sure.

[Special thanks to Rhonda Brinkmann, Wordsmiths4U, for The King Bees photos.]

As the funeral service came to a close on Tuesday, Ruthie offered the perfect song, one from her most recent (Grammy-nominated) album (“Healing Time”), called “Feels Like Freedom,” which was fitting and perfect to sing Renn right into the gardens of Heaven, reunited with all he’d been waiting to see once again, the promise of which we are reassured. You can hear her sing at the 31:32 mark in this Facebook video:

“The sun is comin' up again

Those winds of change are blowin' in

And I know

Yes, I know

It feels like freedom

Been a long and lonely road

But I'm finally comin' home

And oh

Oh, yeah

It feels like freedom”

[Words and music by Ruthie Foster, Healing Time 2022]

It’s not every day that we have to give up a friend far sooner than we’d have imagined, but for as long as we live and love people and let them into our lives to stay, there comes a point by which we have to give them back to the Lord, from where they came. So often we say, “Gone too soon,” or “We didn’t have enough time” or any other lament that tries to describe the loss that we feel. Still, we have recordings, videos, and a ton of memories to share and preserve.

Another “Renn gem” can be found on SoundCloud, posted by user WMHarps a few days ago, “Richland City Blues,” featuring Ruthie Foster, Renn on guitar, and Tim Moyer on harmonica. Check it out here:

Finally, a special dialogue between musicians Renn and Ruthie takes place in the song, “Turn Me On,” from Foster’s 2004 album, “Stages.” As Ruthie sings/says, “Alright, Renn Carson, show me what you got here,” and Renn took flight on one of his solos, the audience loved it because the man with soul spoke loudly. Ruthie then said, “I believe, I believe he’s got something else to say,” and indeed he did. That’s the way it was often, for Renn on stage. He did his best talking with his guitar and frankly, after he played, it was enough said.

Check it out on Spotify:

Beyond high school graduation, Renn attended Blinn College and went on to have a long professional career, including working at Agency Management Services (AMS), where many musicians held prolific day jobs so they could play the music they loved at night. Things came naturally to Renn, and he was beyond gifted in so many things he did. He loved his high school sweetheart, Connie Pittman, and they were married over 49 years. He appreciated the simple times and complex puzzles of life.

Family, above all, meant the world to him. Their son Chris and his wife Kasie and their daughter Nikki and her husband Jim brought them three grandchildren, who were the lights of his life. Together they were key parts of organized cookouts and races to benefit the Relay for Life of Brazos Valley for the American Cancer Society, but that was just one more aspect of the quiet goodness of Renn and his family. Anything they could do as a family—that was what was important to them.

If you knew Renn well, you knew he spoke volumes with his heart. Music filled his heart, his love of Connie and his family fueled his soul, and you can rest assured that the Lord has him in safekeeping until the “rest of his band” joins him in Heaven. Meanwhile, the famous band in “rock and roll Heaven” just gained one heckuva blues player.

And, as Ruthie sings and Renn plays, and the beloved, precious children dance in front of the stage together with the late Samantha Banks and iconic Larry Fulcher on bass, the secret to life is knowing when to compromise….” Here it is, for Renn with great respect, Ruthie’s “Full Circle,” with his amazing notes.

Renn's circle of life is now complete. Well done, thou good and faithful servant, Renn. Amen and amen.

Additional videos:

With Ruthie Foster


Photo May 4, 2017, from Connie's FB Page

Monday, September 25, 2023

Actor David McCallum Dead at 90—U.N.C.L.E.’s Illya and NCIS’s Ducky Has Crossed the Pond

Twenty years ago this week, Donald Bellisario’s and Don McGill’s genius ensemble called “NCIS” premiered on CBS, a shot-in-the-dark gamble of a series based on a complex character of a determined yet troubled Marine, Leroy Jethro Gibbs with Mark Harmon as lead. McCallum was also included on the two-part story on Bellisario’s “JAG,” where the character originated.(Photo permission, CBS Press Express)

Harmon, still a young unknown, had come to their attention thanks to his four-episode role as Allison Janney’s love interest in “The West Wing.” To make “NCIS” come alive, with gravitas, Bellisario knew he could count on David McCallum to be the perfect counterpart to Gibbs, as medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard.

Who better than the man who embodied cool under pressure, having played Ilya Kuryakin from 1964–1968 on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” His repertoire had included Shakespeare, and theatre productions of “The Lion in Winter” and “Julius Caesar.” The Glasgow, Scotland, native won the hearts of Americans in the 1960s with his cool, suave portrayal of Illya Kuryakin, secret agent, in the proverbial black turtleneck cast opposite the ultracool Robert Vaughn.

McCallum had a wonderful means of expressing himself with any dialogue he was given and for exactly the past 20 years, he “was” Ducky to this generation of Americans who adored his brilliant memory, tolerated his penchant for telling a three-minute answer in eight minutes (on the show) and his dapper portrayal of a man whose heart was always with the U.S. Marine, both throughout the show and beyond.

In many episodes of “NCIS” over the years, Ducky’s character provided closure when homeless Marines were killed in assuring that they received full military honors when appropriate. There were several occasions that showed Ducky attending the Marine Military Ball, which was a fund raiser for their scholarship fund.

Far more than a character actor, McCallum was a music professional, having studied oboe at the Royal Academy of Music. Sort of keeping it all in the family, given that his father was first violinist for the London Philharmonic and his mother a cellist.

Even beyond that, the music continues. His family with two women includes four sons and a daughter. With first wife, Jill Ireland, are sons Paul, Jason (d. 1989), and Valentine. With wife Katherine Carpenter are son Peter and daughter Sophie.

Son Val is a guitarist and singer-songwriter who is a veteran of many tours. He also has been a studio musician with Jackson Browne, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt, and Loretta Lynn. Val noted that “My grandfather actually played on The Beatles’ track A Day in the Life”; “He’s also credited by Jimmy Page for suggesting using a violin bow on the strings of his electric guitar.”

Son Paul is a popular and respected guitarist, songwriter, and performer in Los Angeles, who favors jazz, blues, and some of his own compositions, which you can find on “Jazz Dogs” by the Paul McCallum Trio. Fellow musicians include Tom Buckner, Granville “Danny” Young, and Rod Harbour as well as Dave Smith and Doemenic Genova.

Son Peter told Sky News, “He always put family before self. He looked forward to any chance to connect with his grandchildren and had a unique bond with each of them.”

For 459 episodes McCallum sustained record-setting times for “NCIS,” a season beyond Harmon, albeit not in each episode of Season 19, for CBS and for all of us who know much of the dialogue from any number of these episodes.

More than a TV show, more than a standard entertaining procedural with strong plots thanks to brilliant show runners who assured the characters stayed true to Bellisario’s and McGill’s visions, “NCIS” was a part of family life for many on Tuesday nights (later on the show shifted to Mondays) and was the foundation by which audiences would later come to know and enjoy “NCIS: LA,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” and most recently “NCIS: Hawaii,” which has to be some kind of record for launching multimillion-dollar enterprises for one network. (Photo below by Michael Yarish)

Michael Weatherly shared on Twitter, “David McCallum made every moment count, in life and on set. Let’s raise a jug and celebrate a funny fantastic authentic man. I’ve only got 3 autographs. Connery, Tony Bennett and McCallum. … No one did it better. We were lucky to have him bring us Ducky. Let’s send all the love in the world to his beautiful family. Rest In Peace David.”

Brian Dietzen, who played Ducky’s mentoree, Jimmy Palmer, shared today on Twitter, “Such a kind soul and a terrific talent. You are missed beyond words, my friend. My heart just breaks today. Thank you for everything. Sending all my love to the McCallum family.” (Photo by Cliff Lipson, 2011, courtesy of CBS)

To anyone expecting a quote from Mark Harmon, they’ll have to wait until morning for the press outlets as neither Harmon, nor Gibbs, are on social media, but you already knew that.

As the character of Ducky was seen to deem, in his discussion with Gibbs about the fate of his massive personal fortune, it was to be given to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, and in April 2015, the U.S. Marine Corps invited him to be the official starter for the Marine Corps Historic Half race. It is poignant and caring that the McCallum family “asks that donations be made to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation at — just as Ducky would have appreciated.

David penned his first novel “Once a Crooked Man” in 2016 and “recorded four albums for Capitol Records comprised of instrumental versions of hits at the time.” If that’s not enough, McCallum was a prolific actor and voice character for various movies, video games, and TV series. He was born September 19, 1933 in Glasgow, Scotland; the premiere of “NCIS” was September 23, 2003, which they are rerunning tonight on CBS—the episode is “Yankee White” and features Sasha Alexander at FBI Agent Caitlin Todd. And, he died September 25, 2023 in New York City at the age of 90. Wouldn’t you know it?

Today, by long-ago plan, CBS had declared this day and evening “NCIS Day” in honor of the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut. They are airing 3 episodes of the show tonight beginning at 7pm CST, “Yankee White,” “SWAK,” and “All Hands.” Longtime fans of “NCIS” already know what those episodes are all about.

Everything seems to have come full circle then, and right on time for airtime tonight.

Thank you and good night, David. God bless you.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Sustaining the Loss of Extended Family—Southern Style

Sometimes the loss of a loved one can hit you like a ton of bricks, when you least expect it. Losing a relative, the immediate family kind, is eventual and though sad, a part of the expected process for all adults…it’s not a matter of if, but when, we give back to Heaven the lives we loved here on Earth.

Just as welcoming new lives is into our worlds each day when a baby is born, there comes a time when we have to bid farewell to those we love. When we enter our lives, we are “issued” two parents who make us possible and for many of us, we’re raised by those two individuals.

Others are raised by variations of parents—adoptive, or additional loved ones who live in the home where we are raised (older siblings, additional relatives such as aunts or grandmothers). Depending on economics and living conditions, some families house as many as three generations under the same roof as part of tradition or necessity. When children are present, they often grow up knowing they are loved comprehensively by a large number of people who are called their family.

Occasionally we encounter the statistical outlier—the person without a lot of family around them. Usually the older the person, the fewer family remembers around them it seems.

But one of the nicest parts of life is when your immediate world is expanded of additional people who don’t “have” to be there but who are brought in and introduced as “just like family” in your world. How they arrive can be a number of pathways, but the end result is the same. For the person who receives the extra love and attention from the “outsider,” it’s a bonus to adult or child to have yet one more advocate in their corner, rooting them on in life, one more person cheering at the baseball game or one more ear to hear a confidence or calm a troubled soul.

Although their presence is not truly necessary, it does have benefits to both parties to be an outsider. More often than not, especially in the south, if these outsiders are female they are known as “Aunt” inside the family, or “Uncle” as appropriate. They are invited to and included in holidays, celebrations, ceremonies marking rites of passage, and just regular family gatherings because they love seeing everyone.

Children in the south are often taught to address adults who are not family by names like Miss and Mister (sometimes Ms., depending on where you are). Speaking personally, I love being Miss Dawn Lee, Ms. Dawn Lee, or Aunt Dawn Lee to a host of children whose parents or grandparents have gifted me with the substantive time to get to know their children and the joy of watching them grow up before my eyes. And, I have a group of individuals whom, later in my life, I was fortunate enough to call “my” Aunts and Uncles.

For people who don’t know me well, they occasionally say, “It’s a shame you don’t have any family”—haha, yeah, no. Wrong. My cup runneth over. Oh, I do have a family on my very large family tree, even though I’m an only child—there are 25 of us who are first-cousins just on my mother’s side alone. She was one of eight children and yet, I was an only child. But we are all geographically scattered (as Grandma used to say) “from hell to breakfast.” I’m close to a few of the cousins, closer to some second cousins, and enjoy watching third cousins grow up via Facebook pictures and updates.

As an only child, however, except one aunt to whom I am still close, I grew up without aunts and uncles around me often enough to bring sufficient meaning to thinking I had any, even though I had seven of each on Mom’s side of the tree.

That is, until I was a mature adult at which point I was gifted with one of the richest inheritances of my life—the love of an extended family, an actual family by the way, complete with “just like” siblings, aunts, nieces, nephews, and grandparents! I was encouraged, rather than allowed, to address the seniors as “Aunt” and “Uncle” same as their “real” nieces. I was included at weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, and at hospitals when new generations were born. I often took photographs of the children’s first days on earth, starting in the hospital nursery, and I loved running to Eckerd’s and Walgreen’s (remember those days?) to get them developed and gifting the relatives with their photos. Over the years, I took photos at birthdays, Christmases, on and on.

Over the years, my career took me back and forth to Houston on consulting projects, and while I could choose to stay in Houston hotels, there were times when I’d stop and stay in a small Texas town in the country. This was home to Aunt Jean and Uncle Donald (and Aunt Dot and Uncle Aubrey and even before that, their beloved sister-in-law and brother-in-law, a third couple whose two families had married into each other some 50 years prior and whose ability to remain together, geographically and in their hearts found them as next-door neighbors almost all of their lives). It was unique, it was real, and I loved being with all of them, thanks to an adoptive sister who understood what I needed without my ever saying a word and she shared them with me unconditionally.

For more than 23 years, I was blessed with this family as “mine,” and I’ll never forget, when my Mom passed away, as people came filing into the church to be there “for me,” there was pew after pew after pew of members of that family, my extended family, who showed me their love that day, with their physical presence. I never felt alone for a minute. Everyone who knew how close my Mom and I were all of our lives seemed mystified at why I wasn’t falling apart when she died. And yet, all I had to do was look around and know that I was never alone.

It was just shy of 10 years ago, our paths changed and our schedules and some of my usual activities and hobbies changed. It’s the natural progression of things. As things were redirected I lost daily or weekly contact with “my family” and they with me. On the times and occasions that we reached out by phone to check in, the love was always there. It was never not there. And we ended each visit with a hug and a kiss and an “I love you” that still brings a smile and warms my heart.

Every time I get a piece of fine china out of my cupboard (for those of you who are laughing to think that every happens, think again! I do have them, and I do use them)…I remember Aunt Jean. One day en route home from a consulting trip (I’d stopped and brought back primo Houston BBQ for our dinner), I’d visited her and Uncle Donald in the beloved tiny town.

She said she’d found a fantastic “deal” for me at their annual town garage sale and wanted me to have them “for the future.” I told her I wasn’t putting them in my (No-)Hope Chest but that I was putting them into active duty immediately and that I loved them. The pattern was exquisite and classic and matched my taste to a proverbial “T,” as we say here.

The best part was traveling together—not to some destinations that you might call exotic, but every single one of them was one of the most joyous adventures I ever had the privilege of being included in, thanks to their “real” niece. Sometimes we drove a few hours away to a casino destination (and to visit more beloved extended family whom I got to call Aunt and Uncle times two or three), and we’d have the best time. The road trips were the best because we had conversations that were so fun, so funny, and reminiscing about some of our previous trips.

We talked of old times that, even on the ones I was never on, I was always made to feel like I’d been right there. The storytelling was so vivid, upbeat and I honestly think that some of my present-day skills that people (kindly) say I have for telling stories were shaped and colored by how I loved how they related history, family experiences, and were able to always find positives by which to place inside memories, good and bad alike.

One of the best times of my life was being in Las Vegas with the intention of hearing my favorite band, The Buckinghams, live in concert. I’d arrived early together with a high school friend and then local friends Pam and Mike were there for the wedding of their friend and to boot, I was lucky enough that my high school classmate Howard happened to be within driving distance that weekend and came over.

Then I drove to the airport to pick up the party of five, including Aunt Jean, who flew in to join my most important weekend—the concert. That evening, I had a table of 10 enjoying the concert of a lifetime for me and no exaggeration—if my life had ended that night for some obscure reason, I can truly say that I could have gone on to my next life with no regrets. But that was far from the end of the adventures with the extended family.

What was special about Aunt Jean is that she had an amazing recall for everything in my life that was important. Over the years she never forgot anything I shared with her, she kept confidences close, and she never failed to ask about the people she’d met in my life when she was in town and that was something truly special about her—that’s love…knowing who and what is important to you, even the small things that you hold close in your heart, not wanting to share them with the world…

We talked about music all the time—her daughter was just a few years older than I was and so we both had about the same record albums blasting all the time as we grew up years and miles apart from each other. I loved that she knew who some of my favorites were and she was as current as they come. She also loved sports—she and Uncle Donald were giant sports fans and enjoyed baseball, football, and even boxing. She was a major Houston Astros fan and I know she’d be pleased with many games I’ve seen this season. We loved discussing our favorite teams and players.

Constantly Seeking The Good in Others Leaves the Best Life Lesson

Perhaps it sounds absurd for me to go on and on about simple conversations of years ago but the reason I do is that in our present day and time, people seem to refuse to consider the best in people. They can’t want to point out a difference, a flaw, something that makes someone else lesser than, not as good as, or worse yet, to judge them by sight rather than finding out who they are first. Let me say that it is a rare gift indeed when you meet people who show you love first before they show you judgment.

Road trips grew to be annual to include “the changing of the leaves” each October; and as many of “the girls” as the Suburban would hold, we would travel throughout the New England countryside over, around, under, and through the most beautiful scenery God ever thought up. I took pictures when I wasn’t driving, and those memories fill my heart and my photo albums still today. Simply stopping on the side of the road for gas and goodies in a convenience store. This cartoon sums it up, but the fun part was being a kid and being yourself.

All the girls knew I had a fondness for “circus goobers,” which are those yummy chewy orange peanut-shaped candies, and sugared jelly beans, and they loved to tease me about my um….obsession over ice. Not just one kind of ice—all kinds of ice. They used to tease me (when I was driving) as to where I was bound to stop (or not) because of “they have really good ice here!” as my justification. Love is—letting her stop the car wherever she likes their ice.

Long relaxing days on a chair outside, sitting and visiting about whatever topic traveled by was such a joy. We all loved outdoor farmer’s markets and finding the bonanzas along various roadside locales (north and south alike) was such fun. Who had the best corn, the best tomatoes, and squash meant that we were going to enjoy some major league vegetable dinners that night.

The travels are over, those days are safely tucked away in the rearview mirror, fondly, for future reference when I need to smile. One of the best things about Aunt Jean was her devotion to her family, real and extended, and she was fortunate at a very early age to meet her kindred spirit and husband, Donald. Throughout the many, many years of her life they were a dedicated duo—did so many things together that you could blend their names — Jean’n’Donald — and you knew when one loved you, the other did, too. I was fortunate to meet them after they’d retired from their careers and they’d worked hard and saved carefully for the future. So I had the best gift of all —their time and their love and interest. I was one of many in their extended family of course, but I did love them.

At Christmas time I get out my decorations and some special ones are from Aunt Jean and Aunt Dot, who always thought of me at holidays. Every year at their annual rummage sale, the ladies quilting guild auctioned off (for tickets raffled) a handmade quilt that they made each year. These quilts were prized and gorgeous. Anyone lucky enough to have a Southern handmade quilt knows exactly what I’m describing. Every year for five years I bought tickets in hopes of winning. Finally, Aunt Jean and Aunt Dot decided I needed to “win,” and the two of them made me my own quilt! I was blown away to receive it and I prize it to this day. My home was filled with gifts of love like that over two decades.

For anyone who thinks it is necessary to locate a five-star property with limited clientele to call it heaven on earth has never just basked in the calm and peace of people who don’t have a mean bone in their bodies—who find a faith in God to get them through some of the worst challenges and time in their lives. Aunt Jean was in her 80s and in a regular Sunday School class and worship service with the energy of a 20-year-old, together with her sister-in-law, Aunt Dot. Another joy was driving about 2 hours to worship at the church they all belonged to there in a bigger city about 20 miles from the tiny town they lived in. The light in Jean’s heart emanated from her beautiful spirit. It’s surreal to think of her as not being here anymore. Logically, of course it was time, and she was not able to enjoy life anymore, so okay, it was appropriate. But she was so wonderful about offering encouragement when I was hitting the walls sometimes in my challenges. She believed in me and that meant everything.

About a month ago, I had had Aunt Jean on my mind and heart almost daily. I remembered her birthday and though I didn’t do anything about it (her condition had been such that she would not recognize a card from me to know me). Although it had been a year since I’d seen her in person, there wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t think of her. I kept wondering how she was but somehow I was too scared to call her nephew and niece and ask them, her caregivers, how she’d been doing. I was afraid I would hear that the end was near. And I wasn’t prepared to accept that reality, as if my preference, wish, or prayer had a flying fig to do with it.

Every day I promised I’d call and check, but I also remembered that they’d promised to let me know if something happened…so I just got busy and went on with life. Until I just couldn’t stand not knowing. As I’d feared, the answer was that indeed she had passed away, the day after her birthday…she’d made it one day past when she was most on my mind and memory.

Per her specific wishes, there was no formal service. That’s one thing that she was about—not wanting anyone to make a fuss over her. She was buried together with her beloved Donald and I’ll be paying my respects as fast as I can get there. People don’t stop to think that the rest of us left here need closure, we need to come together to reflect, share, remember when, and hug each other who are left that the love, time, and earthly memories they shared with us in better times meant something special to us. I’m glad that I was able to tell her during her lifetime what her friendship had meant to me.

While it’s sad it took me so long to find out that she was gone, it’s also as normal as the days in May—life gets busy. People deal with the passing of loved ones in different ways. Grief manifests itself in so many different ways as I have come to learn the past seven years especially. I won’t be as pompous as to say I’ve seen it all, but I have experienced and walked the paths of many people who have shown me there is no one right or wrong way to grieve. We all try and find a home base and center to return to, so that we can restart our lives and go forward without the presence of a key loved one in our lives any longer. Our responsibilities and schedules change and it can be so unsettling. The older we get means absolutely zero guarantee that we do “better” with grief than someone younger. There is no exact formula or correlation for recovering from grief.

The best we can do for each other is just be genuine, present, and happy in one another’s lives for as long as we can be, for as long as we are invited in, and for as long as our minds allow us to be considerate of what others need or want in their lives. Love never dies. When we lose extended family, it hurts like “the real thing” but tomorrow and tomorrow after and every day after that, we can be inspired by our extended family to reach out to those who might need an extra aunt or uncle in their lives to just listen, love, care, and be there, keeping it real, to sustain us through the uncertain times ahead. God bless you, Aunt Jean, and thank you for loving me, along with all your “real family.” You are the best!

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Southern Women and Our Words on Southern Nights

Although I was born in Texas and am geographically considered a natural-born Southern woman, I came from a mixed marriage between a Yankee and a Southerner. It never bothered me that I didn’t seem to have a Southern accent (unless various phrases and words I used gave me a distinctive speech pattern), as I am who I am like everyone else is who they are. We all speak based on who all we grew up around, who we heard speaking to us, reinforcing our understanding by loving intonations of various words being said and our learning to pronounce them similarly. When in Rome, and all…

Growing up in San Antonio, I remember the newscasters had what was then called Midwestern voices, where you weren’t going to hear any harsh northern pronunciations or any southern lilts in the words as they were read off the teleprompters. As I grew, I remember Mom saying that “the more Midwest you sound, the higher your salary would be on TV.” Never had I contemplated being a TV newscaster; however, random facts, once known as flotsam and jetsam, stayed safely in my brain for future recall at the strangest times. My high school class of 21 people was diverse but with few exceptions, I don’t recall deep southern accents spoken by my classmates, so I never gave it much thought.

Once I arrived at Texas A&M for school, though, I was certainly in for a shock. My freshman math class the first summer (nerd alert: takes a calculus class in the summer) was a wakeup call. Our teacher was fresh out of college and the only language he spoke as a grad student was Math. He was from Dallas but for all the words he said, it was blahblahblah Math. So, there were lots of questions from my fellow students.

I listened interestedly as students from all over the state posed their questions. Intonations, rate of speaking, and numbers of syllables in words once familiar were puzzling. Where were these people from? There was one fellow named Max who asked a question of the prof: “In equazhun three, you have some pa-ren-tha-seas there and I cain’t figger out wazzup they’re.” I was stunned, and then immediately sympathetic. I was sure he had a speech impediment. My heart was opened, and I thought about how brave he was to ask his question.

The prof couldn’t quite determine how to answer his question, and so the guy next to Max decided to help out. When “Jerry” asked the question, I swear he sounded exactly like Max! The words he spoke and how he spoke them blew my mind. There were two of them! Oh, bless their hearts. God love ‘em. How brave they were!

After class I went up and smiled and asked, “Where y’all from?” having fallen gently into the pattern of Texan talk. One smiled back and said, “Monahans.” From the blank look on my face, Max said, “It’s not too far from Odessa.” Ah, I made the connection and smiled. They didn’t have any speech impediments! They were from West Texas! I was the one with the impediment…in my brain. Clearly I’d grown up in the big city and was limited to observing Texas accents on television, many spoken by actors from New York and California. Oh well. That was my first memory of what it was like to be a true Texan, from the south, or any other distinctive quality about the world of the Texas Aggies I would ultimately enter and remain in for the rest of my academic career.

In my childhood, I enjoyed doing voices of various TV characters that amused me, and the wilder the better. In my repertoire was when Cher played the lady in the laundromat, Laverne Lashinski, whose gum-snapping witticisms and hand waves (punctuated with “Oh honey, let me tell you!”) were filled with a tinge of naughtiness, her cat-eye glasses perched at the end of her nose, and a leopard-skin costume collection that Bob Mackie outdid himself to produce. I had Laverne down cold.

Same with Carol Burnett’s Stella Toddler (“Please don’t hurt me!”). There's no question that Carol's voices made the character but there's also no question that Bob Mackie's costume designs brought those characters to life!

Her Mrs. Wiggins was another favorite of mine. Before classes started in the mornings, many of us would sit around the cafeteria and chat about what was on TV the night before. The sketches known as “The Family” produced the greatest memories and giggles. I had Eunice Higgins to a ‘T’ and could switch in and out of Eunice and Vicki Lawrence’s “Mother Harper” (Thelma) seamlessly.
Other people play piano concertos from memory…I remember things that make me laugh. Oh well. Another product of my wildly misspent youth in the school library.

My repertoire grew to include Cher’s “Sadie” and my poor victim as the preacher was my dear friend Bobby, whose stalwart patience for my routines was my home base.

I started a list of phrases I’d never heard growing up, but that I heard regularly here as I “grew up” in my years of studying at A&M. An early favorite came from someone whose name escapes me, but she used to say, “I hear tell that….” Meaning someone had told her and now she was telling me. I thought that was adorable!

I did have one southern expression down cold, though: "Lick of sense." When I was 10 years old, I heard that phrase in Bobbi Gentry’s song, “Ode to Billy Joe.” You know, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta dayyyyy.” Yeah, that one. Anyway you go on into the song and there was a phrase, “Well, Billy Joe never had a liquorsince, pass the biscuits pleaseeee.” I remember my sweet neighbor Susan’s mom, Dolores, driving me to the dentist appointment one summer day while Mom was at work and that song came on the radio.

I asked Dolores, a true Southern girl, what she was singing, and she said, “Oh you know, a lickofsense” and I said, “No, I’ve never heard that. What is she singing?” “Lickofsenselickofsense.” By the confusion on my brow, she said, “He was slow, he didn’t have one bit of common sense about him.” Oh. OH. OHhhhhhh! Finally, breakthrough. Thank goodness for Dolores, because Mama didn’t have a clue what Bobbi Gentry was singing either!

Another favorite expression came from my adoptive grandma, aka MamMaw, who’d call me sometimes at 8:30 am if she had a question, and my late-night study hours were happening while she was fast asleep. If I sounded the least bit groggy, she’d ask, “Are you still laying up in the bed?” and I’d truthfully reply, “Yes, ma’am!” and she’d giggle and say, “It’s long past when you should have gotten up, so get going, girl!” and I’d promise her I would.

It was lovely to hear MamMaw's voice, even if it was to wake me up. She was the same MamMaw who insisted, 20 years later, that I call her when I drove back into town from Houston on business and had arrived home safely. I was in my 40s but I loved the fact that she made me call her to let her know I was safe. That was love. That was MamMaw. She wasn’t my blood relative, by the way. We adopted each other, thanks to her daughter-in-law and son who shared her very sweetly. I’ll have more to say on shared family later.

Another favorite expression I learned was “Momandem” and virtually all of you know instantly that you are reading the words “Mom and all of them” (in the family). When someone inquires about your well-being here, being polite Southerners they are all-inclusive, so they say “How are Momandem?” and you answer, “We are all doing well, thank you!” Or, if someone’s doing poorly, you break out that information at that time, too.

Sweet tea. Um. Is there any other kind? Oh yeah, unsweet tea. It’s when you grow up without sweet tea, you get started out on the wrong road of sipping brown water with virtually no flavor. Southern women make sweet tea, and if you’re fortunate enough, you learn exactly the right way to make it. Boil your water, get out your favorite tea bags (and that is a topic until itself…Lipton, Luzianne, Bigelow…. For another time), and steep them for a good while, then while your brew is still hot as a pistol, you open up a 5-lb bag of sugar and start slowly stirring your concoction. The more seasoned the cook, the more automatic the process, but the end product is worth it.

Homemade sweet tea is to die for. It’s basically a food group and if you have that and just a little of anything else, you’re all set! Through the years, I have been an iced tea afficionado, preferring this nectar to any soft drink by far. I will have much to say about iced tea in another post, but back to southerners and our tea. It’s just “home” for me. I’m not alone. I had to learn temperance, or unsweetened tea, for as much as I consume, but a little discipline is good for you. I call it going off the wagon when I drink the fully uncut sweet tea, but most of my favorite places offer “half and half” tea regularly on their menus. Pretty sure you won’t find that up north at the drive-thrus. I have lots more to say about drive-thru iced teas, for another time (Hint: HTeaO).

Kona — Okay, this one escaped me for a long time as several of my friends said that was where they were going to be and we could meet up there. I hid my ignorance on that one for years and just tried to find a friend to go with me so I wouldn’t be alone to guess where the kona was. Until I meet sweet Nita. Nita was a true Southern girl and she spoke so slowly but sweetly that you didn’t mind waiting for her to finish her sentence, but it was definitely slower than my usual motormouth pace.

Nita said that word first, in my memory, “kona,” when she described an intersection of two blocks and a store there. It didn’t register what she meant because I knew the store’s name. Finally, it was when my buddy Harold Presley was on the radio, playing Lou Vega’s “Mambo No. 5” one day, out of the blue it hit me….”Down to the kona”…..I heard it again!

“One, two, three, four five Everybody in the car, so come on, let’s ride To the liquor store around the corner…”

Bingo! You’d have thought I was Thomas Edison seeing the light bulb work for the first time, haha. My ear became better tuned. I just loved it when Nita said “corner.” Every time I hear “Mambo No. 5” now, I think of Nita, and smile.

I suppose it all “took,” my ear and new education in language skills after a long stretch of time living here.Just ask my friend Patti. When I see her number come up on my phone, I’m known to answer with a rather raucous response, “WAZZZUPPPP” to which she will reply (unless it’s business) with an equally splendiferous response and when we stop laughing, we begin to talk.

When I talk to my friends in Chicago, they tease me about my southern accent and yet, I swear up and down I don’t have one, unless it’s on purpose and for a character voice I’m doing…but we all fall into a groove that we love with and for the people we love, and we just tend to all blend in.

Oh, were that so...beyond simple speech patterns, the ability to blend. And that we could extend and expand that to better understanding of different points of view on various subjects…explored with interest rather than fear…with curiosity rather than concern…with respect rather than righteousness…as my dear brother from another mother, RC, would say, “I know that’s right!”

In the days to come maybe we can all take a page from TAMU Interim President Mark A. Welsh III’s playbook on listening…the more closely we listen to one another, and our hearts, the better we can hear what we are all saying, and welcome new ideas and thoughts different from ours without jumping to approve or disapprove. Just listen. It all begins with one person…no one person is as smart as all of us…my profs at A&M used to share that message with me all the time…back in the day.

Bidding you a good, southern night.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Johnny Manziel Documentary “Untold” Should Have Stayed That Way

There are possibly three groups of people who will have some kind of reaction to the debut of the new Netflix documentary on Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M’s most famous, or infamous, football player in the past 20 years. Group 1 is a group of Aggie fans who are devoted to championing Johnny Manziel as “Johnny Football,” and they are likely to own at least one piece of memorabilia bearing the number ‘2’. No matter what, Johnny is “their guy” forever, unquestionably.

Group 2 are those college football fans who watched as a pre-adult from a tiny Texas town took the world by storm by playing his heart out on Saturday afternoons around Texas and the eastern United States, set records, won the hearts of Aggies, and then disappointed himself and many who adored him, and washed their hands of him, disgusted that he’d won the nation’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, and then trashed his career, almost purposefully.

Group 3 include college football fans in general who were mesmerized by the antics on and off the football field of a young renegade with an impish grin and devil-may-care attitude towards rules and regulations, and who are hoping to see that Johnny turned his life around and will tune in, possibly to see a portrait of a life redirected and focused on a happy adult existence.

On August 7, Johnny Manziel used his favorite social medium of choice, X, formerly known as Twitter, to share: “Can’t wait for you guys to see this. Appreciate all the support!” The “this” is the Netflix documentary, UNTOLD: Johnny Football, which premiered on August 8.

Assuming he had seen it in advance, you have to wonder why he’d want any of his friends or fans to see it. The timing, of course, is just a few weeks before his eponymous new business venture, Johnny Manziel’s Money Bar opens on College Main in Aggieland’s famous Northgate district.

Why I expected to see a documentary that might show the trajectory of a young man who had turned his life around and perhaps having found peace with hard work as he rebuilt his life, I don’t know. I naively like happy endings, and all Aggies who screamed and yelled for his success on game days, on award days, and on NFL opening day really want him to succeed. Who wouldn’t want the best for him? Listen to the words of those featured in the documentary.

Somehow between the beginning of a prospective insider’s look into the heart of Johnny Manziel, potentially to somewhat recapture the magic of a young man who zoomed through a myriad of opportunities for a secure future to the big reveals of things most of us suspected but were not sure, it was one sad story told for all the world to see, again.

If I were going to watch for a second time, which I won’t, I would take a pencil and make tik marks every clip that showed Johnny’s father scowling, his former lifetime childhood friend “Uncle Nate,” with so much camera time that you had a very good idea of the potential delinquents in training the duo were, they somehow never saw a reason to stop doing what they were doing, whether or not laws or professional student-athlete ethics were violated.

Then you have Uncle Nate describing how he was “the guy” or “the go-to” if you wanted to contact Johnny gave you cause to pause as you listened to Johnny’s former sports agent, Erik Burkhardt. Funny, I didn’t care for either person as they joyfully described the extremes to which they went for “their guy.” Yet, today, neither of them is Johnny’s guy anymore. No one interviewed any of Johnny’s teammates, the guys who Johnny would regularly treat to multicourse meals at Veritas, or anywhere else they wanted, because he knew to treat his O-line well.

You heard and saw the footage of one of the traffic stops of Johnny and former girlfriend, but you didn’t see two or three years of her riding along all the way to every destination party and event she was only too pleased to be there for. Not saying any woman should ever stand for being hit or abused, not at all. She loved living that life, until she didn't any more. It’s just that there was no in-depth search into Johnny’s psyche, just on the highlights of the disasters and very superficial coverage.

You didn’t see the girl he was engaged to and, for a time, married to, who focused Johnny on getting back in the gym daily and who may well be responsible for why he is still here. Nor, did you get treated to any real portrait other than two soundbytes from his sister, his lifeline and anchor throughout most of the past years.

If you want any real insight into Johnny and the family dynamics, read Josh Katzowitz’s 2012 book “Johnny Football,” as the author spent substantive time in Tyler, met the entire family at the Tyler Country Club and things become infinitely clearer, no thanks to this documentary. The Heisman trophy logged quite some time in the showrooms of the car dealerships in whatever city Dad was selling cars.

For all of Johnny’s freshman football year, when former head coach Kevin Sumlin’s imposed rule of forced silence for all freshman players was in place (arguably likely the only rule Johnny followed during his career here), all quotes, legend, lore, and facts were according to the words of “Uncle Nate,” the moniker being gifted no doubt to craft an image of a wise guy with an inside track and an outside character, or caricature, of “the guy” you need to know if you’re going to reach Johnny…or “get to him” more appropriately.

Plenty of people got to Johnny and he reciprocated in finding access to people he had only once dreamed of reaching. Imagine the heady feeling of sitting next to Maverick Carter, business partner for LeBron James, and then ultimately signing with their firm for investment opportunities as well as other groups, tweeting to his hero "Happy Birthday King James" and having LeBron welcome him on Twitter(X) when he signed with their agency. He sold a vitamin bodybuilder powder with Patrick Schwarzenegger for a time, and he sold some Snickers bars even when he didn’t make a Cheerios box.

And then there was the professional football meltdown. It was a movie in the making, literally. Another unpleasant character in Johnny’s life is smarmy Erik Burkhardt, who delighted in regaling all the steps he took in being the reason Johnny got drafted at all by the Cleveland Browns.

It’s ironic, the film “Draft Day” with Kevin Costner debuted in Johnny’s draft year, and as the team in the movie was the Cleveland Browns, the plot was almost prophetic. The big buzz around the draft was a hot shot quarterback who seemed too good to be true. The better player was Vontae Mack (Cuba Gooding Jr.), but all the hype was around the quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).

At the time, collective wisdom identified Michigan State’s Connor Cook at the quarterback with baggage but some pundits admitted it could just as easily be Johnny Manziel. The entire plot revolved around player character. And just like Bo sat at that table undrafted while everyone around him was getting the nod, Johnny sat there and ran through four bottles of water before he heard his name. Seriously, "Draft Day"is a better show to rewatch than “Untold,” by a long shot.

Whether or not he was an entitled athlete, as though Texas is not filled with them in every town from the Cut and Shoot Bulldogs to the Normangee Panthers, Johnny’s story is not unique as depicted in "Untold." Football and Friday nights reign every fall in Texas. You know going in that if you succeed, the sky’s the limit for you to receive local, state, regional and national prominence, even if you’re from tiny Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas.

There are young men who come from the least affluent circumstances with only raw talent and a dream, and they don’t waste the opportunities and chances they have. They work relentlessly, they sacrifice pleasures of the moment, and they follow team rules, listen to their coaches, and they mature and grow to be career NFL employees and professional athletes who take their substantive fortunes they amass and invest them in the communities where they grew up. LeBron James and Steph Curry are two basketball standouts who prioritize education, who fund a myriad of opportunities for children to learn and grow.

Then, there’s local football star Gerald Carter who played for Bryan High, spent eight years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then came home and spent 31 years with the Boys and Girls Club, which he attended as a grade school student, mentoring students. You don’t see a documentary on Gerald, but he and other local successes are surely worthy of them. No, it’s all about the bad boy, the headline-making, loud-living, rule-flaunting, yet lovable Johnny Football.

Yes, TAMU made millions off the publicity that he brought the school. No, it’s not fair that he didn’t see a dime of it but that was the way it was then. He didn’t really need the money, though, did he? He was proud of what he and Uncle Nate crafted as the myth behind the “family fortune” to explain away all the unexplained affluence he was enjoying.

People were not as stupid as to believe it. They did what they always do—overlook the obvious as long as the football team is winning—that’s the way of football, and of the Heisman. How do you expect anyone to apply a rule to Manziel when you’ve awarded the Heisman to Jameis Winston, whom Coach Jimbo Fisher couldn’t control any more than Coach Kevin Sumlin could control Johnny.

Spoiler alert: The bon mot dropped in the midst of the film is Johnny felt empty when he was at the top of his game, financially, positionally, and in big-city bright lights. He bought a gun, tried to use it, and it failed. And then the documentary continues on. Didn’t show how certain people in his life (not mom or dad, who he wouldn’t listen to) tried over and over to reach him, ground him, show him a different path…but the train had left the station long before.

Here he is today. A man alone on a bar stool chair in an empty set in a documentary. You don’t see if he lives in a home, condo, apartment, or where he is, whether he has people permanently in his life who are happy to be there with him, and you don’t see what his typical day is like these days. It’s like he’s there, and then he’s gone. It’s a damn shame.

Had he stayed just slightly in the slow lane, he could have been joining a lifetime job for Texas A&M, welcoming and greeting Aggies on campus for the rest of his life, raising money for athletics, enjoying all things Aggie, surrounded by people who were always truly happy to have him here in town.

Image is not always as it seems. While Johnny was a student, even in the midst of some of his high jinks, for every rumor of wild behavior, you would hear how he had been at a party of some “regular people” in town and been the nicest, best behaved guy there, not acting entitled at all, just one of the guys. You’d hear how he would pull into McAlister’s Deli and pick up a to go order for “Johnny” and be the sweetest customer, said thank you with a big smile and left a nice tip. He was the same kid who doted on his little sister and cousin and was as happy as he could be to play a round of golf with a few close friends who weren’t on the A&M football team. When he was surrounded by normalcy, he fit right in.

It’s just that fame came calling, and notoriety put her arms around him and swept him up….now a bar in Northgate is not the path to normalcy for a quiet life but one would hope it brings him peace and contentment, and a group of clients who can appreciate that he wanted to create a place where everyone knows your name, relax, watch a game or two on TV, and hang out.

If he never achieves another iota of success in business in his lifetime doesn’t matter. With good investments, the money he made will hold out. One wishes him the best though, for a happy and successful life, and a new, better documentary to come down the road, one worth watching. Everyone still believes in a happy ending. Make it so, Johnny, make it so.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Texas Aggies Need Not Fear Diversity or Any Future Changes

[Photo: Image by pressphoto on Freepik]

When I arrived on campus at Texas A&M, 49 years ago this summer, as a new member of the Class of ’78, I was na├»ve about Texas politics and wide-eyed about the magnificent campus that hosted the friendliest group of students and smiling faculty I’d encountered since graduating from Keystone School in San Antonio. Today my high school remains in the Top 10% nationally among Best College Prep Private High Schools in America.

I graduated in 1974 as one in a class of 21, which included students of Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American heritage. Today the school still ranks #378 of 7,010 most diverse private high schools in America. Some of us were there on scholarships, full and partial, others were full-pay students. Some had new cars, others arrived in dated cars driven by parents, and still more took the bus across town to reach campus.

Coming from that environment, the only class distinction made was if you wanted to study hard or not. Everyone went to college and most graduated eventually if not in four years’ time. Yet, I am neither a student of privilege nor am I unfamiliar with what it is to have friends across all races and cultures. By most accounts, I’m just an ordinary student of life, slightly nerdy if I’m frank, but no better than anyone else.

Texas A&M felt like “home” to me and little to nothing that happened during my undergraduate education dissuaded me from that feeling. Change had happened on campus already when they admitted women as regular students. Hard feelings were still held by some of the older professors who preferred A&M remain all male, all military, just as it was when they first started teaching there, but I can only think of one class where I received a lesser grade than my male classmate with the same scores. Life’s tough, so if you want to succeed, you take a deep breath and keep going. I did. No big deal. I didn’t whine, nor complain to any higher ups. It’s life and it will always be that way as long as people are scared of change.

Thanks to two men of Democratic political persuasion, Gen. J. Earl Rudder and State Sen. W. T. “Bill” Moore, aka “The Bull of the Brazos,” women were accepted into A&M. They had to fight for our inclusion, just as the Civil Rights Act had had to fight for students of color to have equal admission. These changes happened and gradually, so I thought, those who were not pleased found a way to understand that these changes were not made “to” them, but “for” them, because as a wise prof once said, “No one person is as smart as ‘all of us.’” As a group, Aggies were unbeatable, and that was meant to describe more than a collective group on a football field.

The Aggie school spirit fueled the ability for students of all backgrounds to come together and love this place in a way that is seemingly absurd to those who didn’t go here. Nevertheless, we do, and we have and as long as there is a Texas A&M, we will continue to engender a sense of belonging that makes each of us feel that this is “our school.” We don’t take kindly to people trying to poke fun at us, or to put us in a bad light. Through the years, though, we’ve done enough of that to ourselves that we have found the enemy and “they are us.”

One of A&M’s greatest allies and advocates is a proud graduate of the University of Texas at Austin—the late, dynamic leader, Mrs. Margaret Rudder, another proud Democrat who not only welcomed diversity; she embraced it. In her time here, she mentored many students, male and female, and she loved them as much as they loved her. She was never judgmental or harsh if a student had long hair, blue hair, a nose ring, or four earrings in one ear. She might say “Now, that’s something you don’t see every day,” but she didn’t put it down nor did she try to bash it. A mother’s heart loves all at all times, I think, is one way to see it.

If we were all alike, we’d be very dull. And were she here, I doubt she’d be very pleased about The Rudder Association using her family name, even if her eldest son has endorsed their articulated beliefs proudly proclaimed online. She and Gen. Rudder have/had five children and until all of them place their names there, don’t assume that they’d be in lockstep agreement of the fear-based diatribe on that site.

Over the years, many among the small group of the disgruntled have found reason to come together under the guise of “protecting” all that is good and right about Texas A&M, through their eyes at least. To generalize them, most of them don’t have any friends who don’t think the same way they do, or don’t look any different than they do, and they find comfort in that. They’re the Ron Desantis’s of this world, to use a current example not from Texas.

Every time a person who doesn’t like how things are changing, how society and education have been asked to welcome, if not embrace at least tolerate, an inclusive student body that features making those who identify as LGBTQ+ feel at home to make them feel welcome, as they should here, there’s a giant failure that continues to perpetuate fear.

There seems to be a knee-jerk revulsion, repulsion, and need to run to the nearest Bible to grab onto, some right side up, others upside down, and to wave it and yell that “they’re not like us! They can’t belong here because that makes them just like us and we’re not them!” Really?

Students in pursuit of knowledge? Students with talents and interests different than ours? Students who do not ask you to be like them, or to approve of them any more than they are asked to approve of you or to like you. When I’m confronted with change or difference, I try to enter a discussion with love and understanding.

When grouped together in class projects, I’ve seen it over and over again, when “diverse” people come together and blend their best work and they produce the best results, collectively, as a result of combining individual gifts and talents. It doesn’t make the students leave the group and want to adopt a lifestyle that is not in keeping like they entered with, but they do leave, possibly, with less fear of the unknown, and less fear of having their minds changed because they had a good experience. Maybe they even leave with more understanding about people they didn't know before. Could be friendships are forged as well, some that last a lifetime.

If I see the word “woke” one more time, I think I shall have to put a(nother) quarter in the cuss jar, because it is so easily spewed by people who refuse to tolerate people who support diversity, equality, and inclusivity. If you’re not already awake, then by definition, you are asleep, like Rumpelstiltskin, and have been, as the world around you has changed over the past 20, 30, and 40 years. And before you bring your Bible and religion into the mix, I politely remind you that there is a reason for separation of church and state.

In my day, religion was taught at home and in my Sunday School classes and church, and education was taught in my school. We did recite the pledge of allegiance every morning in elementary school, and we had posters up in the hallways to commemorate the various religious holidays of our students at Keystone. We tried to learn a little about each of them, especially in music classes where we would learn cultural songs of relevant heritage. It was there to observe whether or not it was embraced. We attended Quincineras and Bar Mitzvahs of our classmates. No one was cramming anything down our throats. We loved it!

We were always “awake” at Keystone, and at Texas A&M, it’s such a big place, there have always been approved student groups to gather together those who had distinct interests unto themselves. Remember Cepheid Variable for science fiction (the early Trekkies et al.), the hometown groups for those from smaller towns, groups for the cowboys and cowgirls, service fraternity and sororities (before the Panhellenic groups came to town), and sports car clubs, on and on.

I didn’t think of Texas A&M as awake or asleep, or anything other than an institution of higher education and a safe place to express ideas of both political opinions without being ridiculed or grade penalized for that. It was in my role as one student senator that in 1976 our leader was student body president Fred McClure, future attorney and A&M regent, and Singing Cadet, and future Executive Director of The Leadership Initiative at A&M. Every meeting people expressed all kinds of ideas and opinions. All were heard and at the end, the votes decided the direction.

Quite civil, quite inspirational. Not everyone is going to agree all the time, and there’s going to be times when students disagree with professors, but it doesn’t mean it’s a state offense to disagree, nor should it. One example. In my fourth degree from A&M (having earned a B.S. ChE, M.S. in Phys. Chem, and Ph.D. in Phys. Chem., I went back to earn an M.Ed. in Educational Administration (Higher Ed Program Evaluation). One of my favorite professors was one with whom I seemed to disagree on at least three educational tenets, no doubt because my early educational experiences were different than his.

Rather than sit timidly like a mouse with my opinion welling up in my throat and getting angry, after he’d offered his opinions and “take” on things in our books, he asked, “Other thoughts?” I took that as my opening and the two of us enjoyed beginning our position statements with “I am diametrically opposed to everything you just said.” The class would laugh and off we’d go into a discourse that was soon joined in by others in the class. We didn’t change our minds, either of us, but we were both heard, and I received an A in the class because in my papers I could cite sources and make cases for my statements. I had one of the best learning experiences from someone I had least in common with opinion-wise.

That’s called intellectual discourse, and to be perfectly frank, there’s little to find that is intellectual about our current Governor or Lt. Governor, in my opinion. Although your mileage may vary and you want to attack me or my viewpoint because you disagree with me, please save it. I respect your right to disagree, and you go vote for your folks and I’ll vote for whomever I wish. No harm, no anger. Now, can we get back to the point of the matter, which is the future of Texas A&M University? You do not have to be a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, or any label to be a good leader, whether Texas A&M or the state of Texas. You have to be a critical thinker, though.

Democrat John Sharp is today still “the sharpest guy in the room” (No pun intended) because he did the ONE thing for Texas A&M that will be his most important legacy for the 73-year-old Aggie and career politician who will be forever remembered for SAVING TENURE at Texas A&M. When the less than intellectually gifted Lt. Governor threatened tenure for new hires at state universities he was playing with fire, so much so that he honestly didn’t realize what that would do to destroy Texas higher education forever. Sharp did and he was able to “do what he does” and build consensus quickly.

Tenure is the only thing that academics have as guarantees that they can teach without interference. If they commit moral or ethical infractions, tenure does not protect them, and they can be fired. But if they teach their curriculum their way, they cannot be punished or censured, or censored. Most teachers allow for differing viewpoints, despite what you may think.

And John Sharp saved not only Texas A&M but all Texas institutions of higher education, and he’s not been given as much as a gold watch or a plaque for doing it. He saved tenure! Yet he’s just had multiple headaches, one after another, because one of his hires has been refocusing repeatedly wrong actions and bad judgment onto Texas A&M for the past many weeks now.

Here’s the good news: Kathy Banks as engineering dean introduced the concept of professors of practice into several teaching classrooms, bringing real-world experiences into the classroom to benefit students. She helped grow and increase funding for research at A&M’s Engineering extension and experiment stations and Sharp’s dream of the RELLIS campus and expanded our level of national involvement in important research.

However, the bad news: Sharp having appointed two female (named as) superdeans (Banks and former Vet School Dean, Eleanor Green) was likely not a good idea because it elevated two women above extremely capable men who directed other important colleges, namely Agriculture and Business as just two examples. That sets up unnecessary contention, but no one asked my opinion so there’s that.

When the university finally was free of M. K. Young and his bride (who had a little office inside her husband’s office), appointing Banks as president was something I called (I even won an iced tea because I saw it before some of my pals did) as a no-brainer. You have someone you can work with, plus you share a vision of Texas A&M taking over the state in prominence and the sky’s the limit, right? But the series of missteps that followed showed where it really takes someone who truly understands the hearts and minds of Aggies to truly lead this place.

You have to introduce new ideas with strength and conviction, build consensus, and then share why it will benefit all in the long run. Banks failed to do that. In fact, she grew so powerful so quickly that she didn’t appear to need much of a reason to be a benevolent leader and she didn’t seem to stay closely in touch with the Distinguished Professors group whose mission it is to be a great sounding board when you want to take programs in a new or different direction. They’re a free knowledge base of wisdom that people who are smart seek out and listen to. She entirely ignored the Faculty Senate and frankly, that was ignorant.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m guessing that they didn’t hear any questions about combining the colleges of arts and sciences or hiring the giant consulting firm to study changes that should be made. It was an ill-fated plan from the get-go and so absolutely pointless and unnecessary, in my opinion. Other, far wiser, people may disagree and if they are in power, then more power to them to make it happen.

In watching the travesty of Kathleen McElroy ’81 unfold, I have been in tears, angry, and sick to be an alumnus of a school who would dare to treat one of our own, much less any woman, like this. Paying $1,000,000 is nothing to an institution that treats millions like peanuts (e.g., football salaries) but that we lost an AGGIE who wanted to come back and rejuvenate a program that Banks had already helped bury is unconscionable.

It is true that (shown in text messages between two Aggie regents and Banks) where the regents note that Banks assured them that training more conservative Aggie journalists was the mission of our school in the future. And simply to accept that this was the plan all along? I need Pepto-Bismol. I add my apologies to those who have expressed them to Professor McElroy for the botched attempted hire and all the insults she endured. All who were complicit and guilty in this fiasco should just save A&M the effort and resign and go someplace where more people think the way you do, so you don’t have to fear anyone not liking you or your idea.

Even more stunningly tragic is the Tribune's report:

"According to the internal report A&M released Thursday, Banks received calls from six to seven regents after Texas Scorecard, a conservative website, wrote an article about McElroy that painted her as a 'DEI proponent' for her prior research to improve diversity in newsrooms. Board member Sam Torn emailed a quote from the article to board Chair Bill Mahomes stating he wanted an explanation before he could approve McElroy's tenure...The internal report revealed that Banks was heavily involved in behind-the-scenes discussions to walk back the original offer to McElroy, contradicting Banks' public statements that she had no knowledge of changes to the offer."

It's breathtaking that so many spineless people are in positions of power, particularly to the point where they can destroy the solid foundation that has existed for so long. And yet, here we are, and it's not just one isolated incident.

As for Prof. Joy Alonso and that fiasco, could our state at last be free of the reign of terror that we all continue to have to endure? Is one man and his perceived status as sufficiently wise qualified to be a dictator?

Finally, as with all things Aggie, the one thing we always have is hope. That’s what the late Education Prof. John Hoyle used to tell us in our Educational Futures class: “The Aggies always have hope.” That applies to more than just the football team. We’ve had enough “stinkin’ thinkin’ as he used to call it, to last a decade. Today, we can celebrate the entry of Gen. (Ret’d.) Mark A. Welsh III as Interim President of Texas A&M.

In my opinion, there is no one better to lead our university out of this deep morass of embarrassment and back into prominence than President Welsh. His career with the U.S. Air Force is sufficient proof of his leadership skill, yet his success as Dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service is further testament to being the right person at the right time for Texas A&M, in fact just in the nick of time. He led an Air Force that featured highly qualified men and women as fighter pilots, teams of culturally and ethnically diverse service personnel who likely belong to groups in their own time that comprise a wide spectrum of beliefs.

You know, when you’re in the midst of battle in the air or fighting in a fox hole on the ground, the only thing on your mind is to do your job and protect your team, no one left behind. That’s the basic principle of education—no child left behind. As it should ever be. There is no need to fear. The Aggies are here to stay—all of us. God bless us all and continue to keep us safe from those who would choose to lead by fear.

[Note: Post updated to include reference source from Texas Tribune re text messages between TAMU Regents and former President Banks.]