Tuesday, May 08, 2012

'Let Yankees adopt such low callings': Reflections on the making of a southern lawyer

Tracy Crawford presents award to my Dad (right)
I appreciated all the kind words readers had to say about my father, Tom Henson, who was honored Friday in Tyler with the "Justinian Award" by the Smith County Bar Foundation, so I thought I'd point those interested to a blog post from my brother - a minister in Shreveport - giving a brief account of the event.  I should add that, though I've always been proud of my father, the hagiography offered up by his law partner and (for me) life-long family friend Tracy Crawford during the introduction left me downright tearful and beaming with pride. (I said to my Dad afterward that normally people don't say things like that about you until they're throwing dirt on you!) Your correspondent was blessed to be raised by good Christian parents of high character and it was wonderful to see my Dad justly honored for his life's work.

BTW, a line from my father's acceptance speech recorded in John's post will give you a flavor of both my Dad's humor and a taste of the cultural background that led your correspondent to choose the perhaps unlikely nom de plume, "Grits for Breakfast." At one point my Dad rattled off a series of quotes about the law from a variety of learned figures from Einstein to Clarence Darrow to St. Thomas Aquinas, but he finished off the litany with a line from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: "The south produced statesmen and soldiers, planters and doctors and lawyers and poets, but certainly no engineers and mechanics. Let Yankees adopt such low callings!"

Tracy Crawford mentioned, as my brother recorded, that my great grandfather, Archibald "Arch" Sneed, my grandmother's father, was a huge formative influence for my Dad, and he could have added for me as well. (My brother was a little too young to remember him very much.) He died when I was six and was the first person I loved to pass away, which itself was a formative experience. But this family patriarch's life and legacy was as emblematic of Texas for me as Longhorns or spring bluebonnets.

Sneed's family came to Texas after Sherman's soldiers destroyed their family farm in eastern Mississippi near the end of the Civil War. According to family lore, the women and children hid in a root cellar, terrified, silent and cowering while union troops burned out their farm. They listened to the soldiers pillaging their home while their animals screamed and died in a burning barn just a few feet away from them. Afterward, they abandoned the smoldering rubble to head westward to Texas, part of a mass migration of ex-Confederates that rapidly populated much of the state.

Via the XIT Museum
Arch Sneed was born a Texan and grew up in Lampassass. As Tracy mentioned, he was inspired to see the cattle drives plowing northward toward the markets in Kansas and Chicago. As a young man  he moved north hoping to work as a cowboy on the famed XIT Ranch, which covered large chunks of ten Texas counties in the northwestern section of the Panhandle. He was turned down when he first applied, though. They only wanted men age 21 and over who could vote in order to maximize their power in local elections. If you're unaware of the XIT it's an interesting tidbit of Texas history that was incredibly important to that region of the state. A Chicago-based syndicate, if I recall, had traded the state for the massive expanse of property along the New Mexico border - three million acres famously surrounded by six thousand miles of fence - in exchange for construction of the Texas capitol. The granite building - the one still in use today - had to be built to spec: Slightly taller than the capitol in Washington D.C. and facing south, with its back to the Yankee oppressors.

Anyway, before my great-grandfather was old enough to land his dream job at the XIT, Teddy Roosevelt came through town recruiting men to join his Rough Riders, who would eventually join him in his famed ride up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. He was traveling through cowboy country recruiting men as he headed southward where they would train in San Antonio before heading to Cuba. Young Arch met the future president, was sorely impressed with him, and desperately wanted to join the Rough Riders, he recounted to me more than once many decades later. But because he was 17, the Army required his mother's permission and she said "no." Her reason: He would be required to wear a blue (read: Yankee) uniform. The wounds were still too fresh. So that was that. He would remain a cowboy instead of becoming a soldier, signing on at the XIT the moment they would have him. If Arch Sneed could be said to have had any life regrets, the missed opportunity to ride with Teddy Roosevelt would certainly be it.

TR recruited Panhandle cowboys
When the XIT Ranch folded before WWI, my great-grandfather became a railroad engineer and worked 30 years based out of Dalhart piloting trains across America for the now-defunct Rock Island Line, retiring with a traditional company watch when he was done that's one of my father's prized possessions. Less discussed in family lore was his participation in massive railworker strike in 1946 busted by Harry Truman. He was a Freemason of some fairly high degree. On a darker note, he very briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, say my older relatives, leaving once he "found out what they were about." I hope that's true. His favorite book was Ivanhoe, which he read more than a dozen times. (When books were more scarce, you read the same ones over and over.) He could recite poetry nearly endlessly on command, much of it memorized from a set of small blue books anthologizing "classic" poetry he'd purchased somewhere on his railroad travels. (My father later taught me to recite verse as a child from those very same texts.) He raised two daughters, including my grandmother, and sent both of them to college at Texas Tech.

Through all of that, though, he continued to self-identify as a cowboy. It was who Arch Sneed was at his core. Dalhart continues to hold an annual XIT Rodeo along with the world's largest outdoor barbecue. But the annual event in August used to be the XIT Rodeo and Reunion, where, before they all passed, former XIT cowboys would be feted and honored, even driven down the street in a full-blown parade with floats and marching bands. By the time I attended, as we did nearly annually as a kid, the increasingly few elderly former XIT cowboys would ride along in horse drawn carriages, followed by one horse with a poignantly empty saddle to honor the cowboys no longer with them. The XIT Ranch was celebrated in Dalhart when I was a kid more vigorously than the Fourth of July!

Tracy Crawford couldn't be more right that to understand Tom Henson one must understand Arch Sneed. It's probably true for me as well. The man's life helped define our family's values and priorities long after he was dead and buried, and my own identity as a Texan is certainly rooted in his legacy. My father's parents lived just a few blocks away from his maternal grandparents during his childhood and he spent nearly as much time at their place as at his own home. His father was Dallam County Judge and a rather stern man, while Arch Sneed, his grandfather, was a jovial, joking character with a wry sense of humor who liberally handed out nicknames and was full of stories from his cowboy and railroad days, always sprinkled with healthy dose of almost classic Texan exaggeration and bombast, but also the down-to-earth self-deprecation of a man who'd helped transform the Old West into the modern era, along with many others like him, not through oil money or hustling real estate but by the sweat of his brow working other men's cattle and land.

As my father likes to point out, Arch Sneed's life coincided with a wave of technological and social change that's nearly impossible to fathom. As a boy he established his life's ambition watching Texas cattle drives marching northward and before he died he watched on television as a man walked on the moon. What a mind blowing transformation he witnessed! He would have been proud of last week's homage to my father, and I was pleased his memory was recognized on Friday along with my Dad.

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