Shared memories of a shared mother so I can know her, too

Blogging this from my Facebook today:

Many of you saw my post Wednesday about my late biological mother Betty’s 99th birthday. As most of you know, I have three older full-blooded birth family siblings — brothers Crys and Robin and sister Terry — whom I found 15 years ago. We lost dear Robin, a smart, sensitive, devoted father, grandfather and husband, in January 2009 when he was only 61 years old. Crys, Terry and I keep an open group text going and stay in close contact, although we don’t get to talk or see one another nearly as often as I wish. They’ve both lived in the Denver area for over 45 years.

Yesterday as we shared texts about Betty’s birthday and I texted several photos of her, I asked Crys and Terry to do me a special favor: Would they please take a minute to text me one lasting memory of Betty in her honor so I could share it on Facebook and on my blog?

And they did. Lord knows, over the past 15 years I have barraged them with so many questions about Betty and our father Bob, they’re certainly accustomed to it. And being the loving, kindhearted people they are, they’ve never told me, “Enough with the questions! What are you, some kind of reporter?” 

I’m so sorry I’m a day late with these, Betty. Newspaper deadlines got in the way, as they often do.

****

My brother Crys, the oldest of my three birth family full siblings, with our mother Betty in 1988 during a visit Betty and her second husband Ronnie made to Colorado. She passed away from lung cancer in December 1992 at age 71.

A sweet memory from Crys, who was born 2-28-44 (we share a birthday, 17 years apart). He joined the Air Force in September 1962 after having graduated that year from East HS in Huntington, West Virginia. After getting out of the service, he lived briefly with Betty and almost-teenage Terry in an apartment on Third Avenue before getting his own place, enrolling in Marshall University and going to work at WSAZ-TV:

“When I returned to Huntington (in 1966) after the Air Force stint, I was learning to play the electric guitar I had bought. There was a song, ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’ that I was intrigued by and I was surprised that our mother knew it (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised). I turned on my amp and started playing as she sang. It was a beautiful moment that I will always remember.”

****

My late birth mother Betty with my sister Terry the day before Terry married in Denver in October 1980.

Poignant memories from Terry (Teresa), who was born 12-19-54, graduated from East HS in 1973 and moved to Colorado about a year later after getting pregnant — and, at age 19 like our mother did as she was months from turning 40, placing her son for adoption. (Terry reunited with her son when he was 18.) Terry had always been the baby of the family — until she and our brothers were discovered by their long-lost sibling:

“Well, I have lots of little memories of Mother that were special to me! Number one was always holding my arms around her waist and her singing to me and we dancing in a circle is probably the most precious. And also, that at least once in the summer, maybe twice, we went to Dreamland, the swimming pool in the West end of town and we had to take two or three buses to go down there coming and going … and she did that just for my pleasure! Love you Mother for always thinking of my happiness!   I have a lot more to say but that’s just a few right now.”

****

Betty never had a driver’s license, never drove a car, so that’s why she and Terry had to take those buses to Dreamland, a crazy-popular Olympic-size swimming pool in the Huntington suburb of Kenova. It also had a pavilion where big bands — and big names — started performing in the 1930s. (I’m talking Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and the like.) Betty herself sang at Dreamland with a dance band fronted by a drummer named Hal “Scotty” Scott a number of times in the early 1960s.

Terry has told me before about how she often danced with Betty at home when Terry was growing up. That visual touches my heart like no other — Betty twirling gracefully, gently with her young brown-haired, brown-eyed daughter through their rented house, then later their apartment, serenading her with that remarkable singing voice. The chills and tears come as I type. I wish that just once, I could have been that brown-haired, brown-eyed dance partner.

Thank you, Sister and Brother, for sharing such sentimental memories of our mother, and for always showing me how much you loved her. Thank you for loving me, too. 

On her 99th birthday, missing and loving the mom I never met

It seems all too unbelievable, but my precious birth mother Betty is 99 years old today, July 22, 2020. She’s celebrating with all the other angels, as she has been since arriving at heaven’s gates five days before Christmas 1992.

So many of my Facebook friends and family have shared in my birth family journey since the social media platform came around — what, 12 years ago? — and we cherish that you’ve so genuinely joined us in that life-changing experience.

As we wish beautiful Betty a happy 99th, I’m bringing back a FB post I wrote 5 years ago, because it embodies so many of the emotions I’ve felt and questions I’ve had since finding my three older full siblings in 2005. Crys, Robin and Terry were all very close to our mother, and the memories they’ve so generously given of her have meant more to me than anything.

Also, to celebrate Betty’s birthday, here’s one of a handful of songs we have priceless recordings of her performing in about 1951 at a March of Dimes benefit in Logan, West Virginia. She truly had an amazing gift, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Here’s to the mother my brothers and sister have always loved, and to the mother I never knew but love just the same. 

****

It’s your birthday, Betty Louise.

I – and all your surviving family and friends – celebrate you, honor you and love you. And, even though our eyes and arms never met, I miss you. You can miss and long for someone, even if you never knew her personally or ever embraced her. You love, cherish and are grateful for all the people life surrounds you with. I wouldn’t trade the family I’ve known my whole life for 10 Astros World Series titles (and those who know me well know how much that would mean to me).

But you always wonder what if. What you missed out on. I can’t help that, and I hope you and all the people whom I love and who love me can accept that. It’s not like missing the bus or missing an appointment or missing a sale you’ve been waiting for. It’s like missing the smells and comforts of your grandmother’s house, the reassuring warmth of her hugs, the escape provided by visits to her home. You wish you could go back and keep going back forever.

And so I miss you – and what we never had.

There are so many things I don’t know, and will never know in this life. If I’d searched for my birth family sooner and found you before you left almost 23 years ago, maybe you could’ve answered all of my questions – or at least some of them.

I don’t know how or when you and my birth father Bob, the father of all four of your children, met. I don’t know if he started drinking at some point after you, at age 18, married him in 1939, or he was already under the bottle’s spell before you fell in love. I don’t know how bad things truly got in your 20 years of marriage – outside of the relatively few details brother Crys has told me about from childhood flashbacks, many painful. Or how many times you thought about packing up Crys, Robin and Terry and leaving Bob, if you ever did. I don’t know if you loved him so much that you forgave – or overlooked – his weaknesses and drunken larks to keep your family together for your children. I don’t know if, after your 1959 divorce, he pleaded with you to take him back, promising to change, so you gave him the last of what must’ve been countless chances to get it right.

My birth parents, Betty and Bob Workman, at home in West Virginia with my oldest brother Crys, who was born Feb. 28, 1944. I was born 17 years later to the day.

I don’t know how you felt in 1960 when you found out that you, divorced a year earlier, were implausibly pregnant out of wedlock, knowing the father could only be your ex-husband. I don’t know how much time, as a single mother two months from turning 39, with children ages 16, 12 and 5, you spent trying to decide what to do. I don’t know if you cried or prayed “why me” to God or accepted responsibility for a moment of passion – I’m convinced that’s what it was, not the appalling alternative – and its fateful outcome.

I don’t know if you agonized through sleepless nights about whether to keep me or give me up, or decided immediately that adoption was your only option. I don’t know if your thoughts raced ahead, looking at the prospect of what life would be like with another mouth to feed, another child to rear until you were almost 60. I don’t know if you were so focused on working to put food on the table that you knew you had to block out conflicted thoughts of me during your pregnancy. I don’t know if you were so ashamed, so worried about folks finding out, that you didn’t tell a soul besides your Aunt Victoria and Uncle Walter. I don’t know how difficult it was to conceal the pregnancy, but I’m sure you wore out a girdle or three trying to.

I don’t know if, while performing with an upscale hotel bar’s dance band as I grew inside you, you sang lyrics that echoed some of the essence of your life story, and the anguish and regret you felt about your predicament. I don’t know if, while you performed gigs with a band at Dreamland a couple of years later, any of the songs you so beautifully entertained crowds with reminded you of me and brought tears to your eyes.

I don’t know what you were feeling when you arrived at Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, WV on Feb. 28, 1961. I don’t know if you tormented yourself over whether you were doing the right thing. I don’t know if, after I arrived at 5:15 p.m., you saw my face. I don’t know if you held me or if the nurses asked if you’d like to – or if you asked them if you could. I don’t know if I was whisked away to avoid complications or if the nurses tended to me as you watched. I don’t know if you cried or put on a brave face that masked your sorrow. I don’t know if you really wanted to keep me but couldn’t shake the stark reality that my life would be better if you didn’t.

Betty in the mid-1950s at home in Huntington, West Virginia. That’s a photo of my big brother Crys behind her.

I don’t know if your tears dampened the form you signed March 3, 1961, making it official I’d be going home with another family. I don’t know if your days were filled with regret and pain at first, and then things became easier for you. I don’t know if you thought of me every day or only on my birthday and Christmas, the holiday when you and your grown children who lived out of state were almost never together.

I don’t know if you wished you could tell your secret to the three children you raised or how close you came to doing so. I don’t know if you ever considered trying to find me but were just too overwhelmed by it all – and felt you had to take your secret to heaven with you.

I want to know all of this, and so very much more. But for now, I can only speculate – and say I’m sorry for every misery you suffered.

****

What I do know, in my every fiber:

I know you made the heartbreaking decision you did – the one that had to be made – out of an undying love for me and a resolve to keep me safe, whatever it took. I know you did it to protect me from my father, who’d already drunkenly threatened to take your young daughter away from you. I know you took every possible precaution to ensure he never found out about me, from the jarring moment you realized you were pregnant until Bob’s unfortunate demise when he drowned in Tampa in July 1962. I know that my life – not how difficult keeping me would surely make yours – was your only concern. I know you selflessly opened your heart to send me into a new home because you knew you couldn’t raise a fourth child on love alone, no matter how abundant.

I know you formed and stored a picture of me in your mind and memory, and that image often entered your thoughts, especially when life threw so many challenges your way. I know you missed me and wondered what my life was like – it’s not possible, knowing the kind of tenderhearted woman I’ve learned you were, that you could have shut me out once I was no longer yours. I know that every Feb. 28, you found time to cry and tell me you loved me – as well as your oldest son Crys, who turned 17 the day you gave birth to me.

Betty working at Walgreens in Huntington in the late 1930s.

I know you aren’t the mother who raised me, but I am who I am – as are all four of us – in great measure because of you. I know most of me can be traced to the parents who were forever grateful for your benevolence, the act of two people receiving a newborn from a stranger about whom they knew nothing. But I have personality and emotional traits, and even mannerisms sister Terry has noticed, that only your son could have. Your sensitivities and sentimentality are instilled in me.

I know you’re overjoyed and thankful that, 10 years ago, the child you lost finally became part of your family again. I know that even though you could never bring yourself to admit to my siblings that I hadn’t really died in childbirth, it was your greatest hope that we would find each other someday.

I have much to be thankful for, many family and friends to love and cherish. You, what you did for me, and your other three children with whom I have built everlasting bonds, are among the blessings I will never stop counting.

Happy birthday from all of us, Betty.  

An ace copy editor, a man of mighty intellect and razor wit, joins heaven’s newspaper staff

I’m not a reporter — like our dear friend and former Dallas Morning News copy desk colleague Christopher Wienandt, I’ve been a copy editor for many years. But I started my career as a sports writer, have always had a passion for writing and still try to make my own opportunities.

When it looked like our COVID-, protest-, layoff- and attrition-strapped reporting staff wouldn’t have anyone available to write a proper obituary for Chris, my supervisor mentioned that if I volunteered to write one, we’d run it.

It was my honor to spend time before and after my editing shifts a couple of days late last week working on a feature obit for Chris. It would’ve been a disservice for us not to have a staff-written obit for him like countless other former DMN journalists have over the years.

So, here’s to Chris, whom we all admire, love, respect and will never forget.

*****

By FRANK CHRISTLIEB
Staff Writer
fchristlieb@dallasnews.com

He spent almost 40 years in the newspaper business and earned four degrees — only one of which had anything to do with journalism. He became a gifted and revered copy editor and was committed to the craft, defending the vital role of those who, like him, toiled in anonymity.

But actually, Chris Wienandt had another job in mind.

“I wanted to be an actor, and still do,” he told American Copy Editors Society co-founder Hank Glamann in 2005 for a newsletter profile when Wienandt became president of ACES. “But I think I was destined to be a journalist. I’ve always had a passion for language, a passion for knowledge and a passion for accuracy. That pretty much means becoming a journalist.”

Former Dallas Morning News copy editor and copy chief Chris Wienandt, who was president of the American Copy Editors Society from 2005 to 2010, spoke to attendees at the ACES national conference in Miami in 2007. (Matthew Crowley)

Wienandt, a copy editor and copy desk chief for more than 30 years at The Dallas Morning News before retiring in May 2017, died of Parkinson’s disease Monday in Fort Worth. He was 68.

Wienandt was more than just a copy editor. He was an avid motorcyclist who joined a colleague on a trek to Mount Rushmore and rode his motorcycle cross-country to an ACES conference. He was a devotee of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he took up in his 60s — and continued for several years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2014. He even joined a boxing group for Parkinson’s patients, determined not to let the disease knock him down.

Known for his ever-present wit, intellect and professionalism, Wienandt arrived at The News in the early 1980s and quickly took on a copy desk leadership role. He became respected for his focus on getting the printed word right, his grasp of endless subjects and his calm demeanor.

“I really had no right to be on his copy desk in 1981,” said Steve Kenny, a former News editor who’s now senior editor in charge of the newsroom at night at The New York Times. “I had been a reporter but never a copy editor. I had never even had a copy editing class in college. So Chris had to teach me everything at a time when I didn’t know my way around a stylebook. Those lessons have served me well for 40 years, and I would not have had the editing career that I’ve been blessed to have if I hadn’t fallen under his tutelage in 1981.

“Every lesson came with a wry crack or a joke,” Kenny said. “Early on, I wrote a headline about a ‘Looming crisis.’ He came over to me and said, ‘Steve, nothing looooms in The Dallas Morning News.’ Every time I see ‘looms,’ I think of Chris.”

Wienandt, who besides being a stickler for details could throw out puns with the best of ’em, was known for creating award-winning headlines. But he also knew when they crossed the line into being “groaners.” Wienandt served as president of ACES until 2010, and his “Headlines as Poetry” session was always one of the most popular at the group’s annual conference.

After his first few years at The News, Wienandt joined former colleague Beverly Bundy in Darmstadt, Germany, where they worked as journalists at Stars and Stripes. After returning to the States, they married in 1987 and had a son, Joe, in 1992.

“Renaissance man is a term used loosely, but Chris really did know at least something about seemingly everything,” John Hanan, analytics editor for The Dallas Morning News, said of Chris, who had four degrees to his name. (Jeff Rogers)

Wienandt came back to The News in September 1986 and worked there until his retirement. He led the team of copy editors for the business news section for a number of years, and taught journalism classes at the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University.

“I remember my first day on the copy desk at The News,” said Joel Thornton, former copy chief who started at the newspaper in 1986. “After I learned the weird computer system, I was still unsure of my next move. But then a tall, friendly, laid-back guy with a professorial style helped put me at ease. Chris was a pro copy editor, and I learned a lot from him.”

In addition to his editing roles, Wienandt was an integral part of a team of “super users” who helped roll out a new content management system called CCI at The News in the early 2000s. In 2003, he was part of the original staff of Quick, a niche product geared toward 18- to 34-year-olds.

”As an editor, Chris championed clarity and battled cliches,” said longtime News copy editor Clay Morton. “And, to boot, he was one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”

Wienandt was a tireless advocate for copy editors, kicking off the 2008 ACES conference by telling attendees that they are “as essential to newspapers’ success as their stockholders are.”

As word of Wienandt’s death made its way around social media, tributes poured out among friends and former colleagues. They called him brilliant, classy, hilarious, kind, gentle, an inspiration, totally cool, a kindred spirit and a stalwart of copy editing.

“Renaissance man is a term used loosely, but Chris really did know at least something about seemingly everything,” said John Hanan, The News’ analytics editor, who was deputy copy chief in business news when Wienandt was that department’s copy chief. “On any given editing shift, you never knew whether he was going to quote Shakespeare, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields or Jim Morrison. He was one of a vanishing breed.”

Chris was a devotee of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he took up in his 60s — and continued for several years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2014.

Born in Iowa City, Iowa, and growing up with a father who became the longtime dean of the Baylor University graduate school of music and a mother who was a founding member of the Waco Symphony, Wienandt and his two younger siblings might have seemed destined to follow a musical path. But after piano lessons and playing the bassoon at Richfield High School, he pursued an undergraduate degree in German at Baylor, and then a master’s at the University of Iowa, also in German.

His sister, Linda Wienandt, who called him “absolutely brilliant,” remembers that while she was studying journalism at Baylor in the mid-1970s, she had an internship at the newspaper in Copperas Cove. She persuaded older brother Chris to take her place for the summer, and she believes that’s when the journalism bug bit him and drove him to get a second graduate degree, in international journalism, at Baylor.

He would later earn a doctorate in American literature at UNT. In his dissertation, Wienandt studied the newspaper career of author Mark Twain, arguing that Twain made the right decision when he chose to become a fiction writer.

As a youngster, his sister said, Wienandt enjoyed doing impressions and was pretty good at them — including Julia Child cooking sessions. “Years later, when Chris met Julia Child [twice], he behaved himself and found her charming,” said wife Beverly, who was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s food editor for 16 years.

As an adult, he did his version of actress Katharine Hepburn. In a Facebook tribute after his death, his sister-in-law mentioned that, when visiting her in California a couple of years ago, he showed off how his Parkinson’s “had really added nuance” to his impression of Hepburn, who didn’t suffer from Parkinson’s but had an ailment that caused tremors.

Wienandt’s wife said his sense of humor and mental sharpness were still evident when he died. While filling out a form to donate his body to the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, he told her, “They really want me.” His donation was the kind of farewell gift to science, she said, that he would encourage anyone to make.

Survivors include his wife, Beverly Bundy of Fort Worth; son, James Joseph Wienandt of Dallas; and sister, Linda Wienandt of Tempe, Ariz.

Twitter: @FrankChristlieb

Celebrating 15 years as part of a ‘new’ family that’s always felt like home

Fifteen years. As of June 11, 2020, that’s how long it’s been since I “rejoined” the family I was separated from at birth through adoption. How long it’s been since I called a stranger in Colorado, one of two brothers and a sister, my three older siblings who grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, where I also was born.

How would he react? Would he refuse to believe me and hang up? Would he be disinterested and not want anything to do with me?

No, my brother Crys, I would sense right away, was much too sensitive and caring to brush anyone aside, much less someone calling out of nowhere with such a genuine and believable story.

Fifteen years later, one of the siblings I reunited with that day, our brother Robin, is gone, having died at age 61 in early 2009. But the gift of having three full-blooded siblings in my life is one I’ve treasured and wouldn’t trade for 15 Astros World Series championships. And if you know me very well, you realize that’s saying a lot.

Finding one’s roots — and making contact, with all the uncertainty and potential for heartache — isn’t for every adoptee. But it was for me, and now that I’ve been down this glorious road, I cringe to think what I’d have missed out on if I hadn’t taken the leap. If I hadn’t been brave enough to head down the path that led me to Crys, Terry and Robin. If I hadn’t been open to learning all the difficult life histories, along with the goodness and grace, that I now know about our parents, Betty and Bob.

And the adventure isn’t nearly over.

Five years ago, I wrote the following piece about my first contacts with my siblings in 2005. Seeing as I don’t have it in me to write a fresh one, I’m sharing it again. I hope you won’t mind.

My sister Terry, brother Crys (right) and me at Crys’s old house in Lakewood, Colorado, during my family’s first visit to meet them in July 2005. Terry’s not nearly that tall — she’s standing on the fireplace hearth.

****

Nervously, I tried to stick to the script I’d rehearsed both silently and aloud.

“Hello, Mr. Workman? My name is Frank Christlieb, and I live in Arlington, Texas. This is a long story, but I was born in Huntington, West Virginia in February 1961 and placed for adoption. I’ve just learned some information about my birth family, and I think we may be brothers.”

There was no moment of silence before Crystal Edward Workman responded, no disbelief in his voice. Only a sense of immediate acceptance, understanding and openness with the forgotten sibling our mother Betty had told him 44 years earlier she’d lost in childbirth.

I wish I’d been able to record that long-overdue contact June 11, 2005, between brothers, separated in age by 17 years, who never knew the other was out there somewhere. We visited for over two hours as Crys willingly, trustingly shared intimate details about our family with a stranger he already seemed certain was, indeed, his flesh.

When Betty, a divorcee of almost two years from her alcoholic husband Bob, came home from Cabell Huntington Hospital after giving birth to me Feb. 28, 1961, and signing papers for my adoption three days later, she didn’t talk about it with her other three children. The four of them had spent the first six months of her pregnancy in escape mode, across the Ohio River in Ironton, where she sang with a three-piece dance band and waited tables at an upscale hotel’s popular bar.

How she did this while carrying a child, I can’t begin to grasp. During those months living in a cramped apartment above a downtown grocery warehouse, 16-year-old Crys and our 13-year-old brother Robin could see that Betty was pregnant but knew better than to ask questions.

“She really kept it a secret from me,” Crys said of Betty’s troublesome condition, the result of a moment of rekindled passion with her ex Bob, the father of all four of us – though we didn’t know undeniably, until a DNA test weeks later, that Bob had fathered me.

Betty, Robin and our 5-year-old sister Terry moved back to Huntington in November 1960, while Crys stayed behind to attend and play basketball as a junior at Ironton High. When he rejoined the family in March, he asked Betty about the baby and was told it had been lost. Subject closed – until 10 years ago.

“It saddened me, obviously, but I left it at that,” Crys said when I spoke to him a couple of days after our initial contact. “I knew the turmoil her life was in during those days and months.”

In my heart, I know Betty never stopped thinking of and missing me, although it’s just as likely she never told a soul aside from her Aunt Victoria and Uncle Walter Rowe, with whom she and the kids stayed in Huntington the final three months of the pregnancy.

Perhaps a limited circle of other relatives knew. From Betty’s few friends and co-workers I’ve been able to find still living over the past 10 years, none knew about me. She was intensely private and couldn’t bring herself to reveal such personal, embarrassing details about an episode she knew should’ve never happened.

In that first illuminating phone call, Crys told me of Bob’s booze affair that broke up the family in a 1959 divorce, and about Bob’s drowning in Florida – a pitiful ending none of them knew the truth about until August 2005, when I dug up a police report, autopsy and Tampa Tribune accounts of a brawl between two homeless drunks along the Hillsborough River.

My late brother Robin, his wife Barbara and me the first time we met, in April 2006 when they came to Houston for a billiards convention. Sadly, Robin passed away in January 2009 at age 61.

Crys told me how he’d graduated from high school in 1962, joined the Air Force and was stationed in Colorado, then moved back to Huntington in 1966 to attend Marshall University (majoring in English), before spending three decades as an electrician after getting married and moving back to Colorado. And he talked about Betty’s second marriage to a man 17 years her junior who, sadly, also drank himself into an early grave.

“She was always having relationships with men who were bad for her,” Crys lamented openly, as if we’d always known each other. “She was basically a very good woman, kind and giving, who always ended up with the wrong person.

“It’s a shame you couldn’t have met her, because she was such a wonderful person.”

Crys talked about our sister Terry being so like our mother – filled with warmth, compassion and a forgiving nature. He touched on Betty’s amazing vocal talents, saying that whenever he hears old standards like “It Had To Be You,” his thoughts turn to memories and visions of her. And he recalled sorrowfully Betty’s final couple of years of life, when she fought valiantly against the ravages of inoperable lung cancer.

Later that Saturday afternoon, Crys’s wife Charlene emailed several old family photos, giving me my first glimpses of Betty, Bob and my siblings when they were kids. Sitting at my desk at work, staring with co-workers gathered around at the first attachment I opened – a shot of a smiling, beautiful Betty lying on a couch at home – I knew without a doubt that she was my biological mother and that she’d finally helped bring her lost child back together with the three she raised.

****
Two days later on my Monday off, I jumped to answer the phone. I knew the sister I’d never had was calling, and I was even more anxious than when I contacted Crys. Terry had been on a weekend church retreat when I reached out to our brother, and she hadn’t learned until returning home to Arvada, Colorado, on Sunday evening that Crys and Charlene urgently needed to see and talk to her.

The tears – and the shock – flowed when they all got together that night and Terry learned of the baby brother she never knew about. Only 6 when I was born, she didn’t even know our mother had been pregnant.

After almost three hours of emotional, long-distance enlightenment, I knew more about my birth family than I ever dreamed of learning: Verbal snapshots of our parents and the kind of people they were – their virtues and faults. Memories of how Robin, 7 years older than Terry, played such a vital role in helping raise her after Crys joined the Air Force and Betty was working long, late hours as a drugstore clerk or taking the occasional nighttime singing gig.

The revelation that, like our mother, Terry had become pregnant out of wedlock and relinquished a baby boy for adoption – although at age 19 in 1974 rather than at 39 as Betty did in 1961 (and how Terry and Dan have been joyfully reunited since he was 18). About Crys buying Terry her first pair of bellbottoms.

And about her child’s-eye memories of the fateful day Bob was arrested in late spring 1960 after pushing Betty and drunkenly threatening to take little Terry away from her. No one in my family ever saw him again before his July 1962 death, so Betty was already in the earliest stages of pregnancy when he’d been hauled off.

My sister Terry, brother Crys and me during one of my visits to see them in Colorado a few years ago. Terry’s husband Rick took the photo.

Most meaningful and heart-rending, Terry shared memories of the end of our mother’s life. Terry had traveled from Colorado to Huntington to be with Betty in early December 1992 as her cancer’s progression grew swifter. Betty had sung to Terry beautifully and often during her only daughter’s youth; this time daughter sang to mother in her dying days … and prayed.

“Dear God, please take her,” Terry beseeched.

“I’d been there for a couple of weeks and Mother said to me, ‘Why don’t you go home, put up your Christmas tree and get ready for the holidays?'”

Terry did so hesitantly, and our brother Robin flew up from Florida to comfort and care for Betty. He was still with her when she died in her sleep on Dec. 20, 1992.

****
Dear brother,
Beethoven, in his 9th Symphony, celebrates the brotherhood of all men under God. Now, when I hear that glorious tribute, I will remember your search for brotherhood and belonging, and how it brought so many people together. We are all basking in the glow of this newly discovered brotherhood, with the hope that, under God, we will all understand what it means to belong to one another. Thank you again for that quest, that need, that brought together a new family.

Love, Crys

****
Ten days after Kay, 3-year-old Will, 10-month-old Lindsay and I returned to Arlington after driving 16 hours to Colorado to meet Crys, Terry and their families in early July 2005, I received that extraordinary email.

Not that I didn’t already know how they all felt about me, but my articulate oldest brother’s words were not only deep – they were profoundly genuine. We hadn’t all just hit it off; we’d begun forging a bond that we knew would withstand any test. It has.

And when brother Robin, on the day the DNA results confirmed our full-blooded kinship, said, “Welcome to the family, Frank,” I knew I was the luckiest of the lucky.  

Crys, goofball Terry and me in December 2013, when my family traveled to Colorado to spend Christmas with them. We had a fantastic time, although we didn’t get to see everyone in the family we’d hoped to.

A heavenly send-off to the man who hired my birth mother over a half-century ago

Since discovering my West Virginia roots in 2005 — most wonderfully, finding my three older full siblings — I’ve tried to learn as much as possible about my biological parents and my birthplace of Huntington. In doing so, I’ve reached out to a multitude of strangers, most of whom didn’t know Betty and Bob. But those who did have been gracious with their time and memories, filling in bits of my parents’ lives for the son who never met them.

Joe G. Stevens Jr.

Today, I learned that one of those folks, Joe G. Stevens Jr., left for heaven on Memorial Day at age 93. Mr. Stevens, whose family owned Stevens Drug Store in downtown Huntington from 1934 to 1988, hired my dear birth mother Betty as a clerk in about 1968. She ended up being one of his most beloved and valued employees for the next 20 years until he sold the store at the corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street to Rite-Aid in 1988.

https://www.herald-dispatch.com/obituaries/wv/joseph-g-stevens-jr/article_60af1b17-38fb-5dd3-82d3-4b7bd4fc57c8.html

After Mr. Stevens hired Betty, in no time she became fast friends with fellow clerks Dolores Gardner and Shirley Booten, and the three were inseparable during the two decades Betty worked there. Dolores and Shirley were younger than Betty, but old enough that their kinship was genuine and relatable, and it never wavered. I know this not from Betty, who died of lung cancer in 1992, but from phone visits with Shirley and with Dolores, who died of the same cancer in 2012.

My birth mother Betty (right) with longtime colleague and dear friend Dolores Gardner at work at Stevens Drug Store in the 1980s. Dolores told me they and fellow clerk and inseparable friend Shirley Booten were like peas in a pod.

But back to Mr. Stevens. I was fortunate to get to visit with him a couple of times a few years back, too, before his wife, Jeannette, passed away. He told me about how he hired Betty away from Lawrence Drug Store, where she’d gone to work after placing me for adoption at birth in 1961.

I know the hiring at Stevens was difficult for Betty, because Mr. Stevens told me that both she and her close friend Ruth Bunch, also a clerk at Lawrence, were in the running for the position, and Betty got the job. I remember Mr. Stevens telling me that Betty was always a dedicated, diligent worker and that the store’s customers loved her. (I also know this to be true from others.)

In a photo from the early 1950s, Stevens Drug Store can be seen at the corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street in downtown Huntington, where the “DRUGS” sign hangs below the Huntington School of Business. (Huntington Herald-Dispatch archives)

Betty had been divorced from my alcoholic birth father for a number of years by the time she started working at Stevens. But a couple of years after she arrived, Dolores told me, she introduced Betty to a man who was 17 years Betty’s junior — a local amateur country musician named Ronnie Cazad. They ended up marrying in July 1971, with Ronnie only 33 and Betty weeks from turning 50.

She always loved him, but his son Ron, who sadly passed away three years ago, and others have told me the marriage was difficult because Ronnie, who also struggled with alcoholism, didn’t work after the early years. Betty, who never drove in her life, often got rides to work from Ronnie’s mother, who was just five years older than Betty. She worked there until Mr. Stevens sold the drugstore in 1988, when she was 67 years old — and then found another job clerking at a small drugstore in Guyandotte, a tiny community on the eastern outskirts of Huntington.

The most revelatory, lingering comment I can recall from my first phone conversation with Mr. Stevens, who I wish had shared more specific memories of Betty with me but didn’t seem inclined to:

“One thing I’ll never understand is why she ever married that damn Ronnie Cazad.”

This cherished image I found in some photos my oldest birth sibling Crys gave me several years ago shows our mother Betty with Crys’s sons Brad (left) and Tim in 1984, upstairs at Stevens Drug Store. The boys’ mother, Charlene, had flown with them from Denver to visit their grandparents in Huntington.

Like other elderly contacts I’ve made in my search for people still living who knew my birth parents, I’d done occasional Google searches for Mr. Stevens in recent years to see if he’d passed away. Late this afternoon, I searched “Joe Stevens” and “Clearwater,” where he and his wife had lived for years, and was saddened to find his obituary in the Huntington newspaper. I’d hoped to call him one more time to see if he might open up a bit more about Betty, but never had time (isn’t that always the way it goes?). After reading of his Alzheimer’s, it became clear we couldn’t have had that chance.

Mr. Stevens’ obit is full of wonderful life adventures and achievements involving not only pharmacy, but military service, singing and dancing, poetry writing and directing musical variety shows. It’s clear he was quite an accomplished fellow and I would’ve loved to have met the man who hired my mother for the job she would hold longer than any other in her life.

Rest well, Joe G. Stevens Jr. And thank you for taking a shot on Betty over half a century ago.  

A ruptured-appendix patient and a ruptured nation: One’s healing, but can the other?

So much can happen in a week.

Our nation slipped deeper into an abyss of racial division and hatred after the savage, unforgivable killing of George Floyd by four officers in Minneapolis. Protests, the majority of them peaceful, lawful and proper, began and will continue as we try to make sense of all killings of this nature, whether white on black or black on white.

It’s hard to have much hope for our country’s future if so many refuse to have empathy and genuine regard for all human life, no matter our skin color or beliefs. But one need only look at the goodness of people across this great nation during such crises as the COVID-19 pandemic to keep believing there’s a way out.

Or am I only dreaming?

****

I’ve always seen the appendix referred to as a “finger-like appendage.” How perfectly fitting, because it’s an organ that serves no purpose, and when it decides to go kablooey, it actually gives you the middle finger. About 4 inches long, it dangles from the start of the large intestine like a — well, it just hangs there.

We can live without it. It’s a shame it takes something as painful and avoidable as appendicitis — and, worst case, a rupture — for us to end up living without it.

****

The day George Floyd was killed, Memorial Day, I was off work and pretty oblivious to the news. I’d woken up that morning with stomach cramps I’d call bad but not severe. As with other abdominal issues, I figured these would dissipate in a few hours. Our family had eaten Rusty Taco takeout the night before, so I assumed that was the link. I took some Pepto and Imodium (figuring runs were on the way) and napped off and on.

When I awoke mid-afternoon, the cramps were still there. In my haze, I stretched out full-body while still lying down, suddenly feeling an intense pain in my lower right abdomen. What the heck, I thought, did I just pull a muscle? I got up, went into the living room and told Kay, saying, of all things, how could I have pulled a stomach muscle stretching in bed? Or caused a hernia?

So what do we all do when our bodies start doing something weird? We hurry to the internet. I looked up abdominal muscle pulls/strains and hernias but didn’t find much to help me self-diagnose (always a bad choice). The location was definitely out of place for a hernia of any kind, and I felt no bulge, so I nearly ruled that out. 

Knowing that Kay had suffered a ruptured appendix 14 years ago, and realizing the location was pretty much where that nonessential organ sits, I decided I’d better look at the possibility. But seeing that appendicitis is rare at my age (59) and that I had none of the other classic symptoms (vomiting, fever, diarrhea), I all but convinced myself that couldn’t be it either.

The Fort Worth hospital where I received such outstanding care — twice — after my appendix decided to make life miserable for a while.

The pain didn’t really worsen through that evening, but I did a little more research and was befuddled. And I was stuck on the probability that I’d pulled a muscle, for the simple fact that the onset of sharp pain hit at the exact moment I stretched. Looking back, that’s probably when my appendix burst. But neither Kay, who’d been through this before, nor I thought it was my appendix — because of “the customary symptoms” I didn’t have.

Messaging a childhood friend, Alison Lee Shiets, that night on Facebook, I told her what had happened, saying surely I was too old for it to be my appendix. Tuesday morning after a fitful night of trying to find a comfortable sleeping position, I woke up with about the same pain.

I found a 3:44 a.m. message from Alison saying I was NOT too old to have an appendix problem and I’d better get it checked out because if it bursts, it’s serious. 

****
I would’ve gone to see my doctor at some point, but may have waited another day if not for Alison (thank you!!!). So I made an appointment with my PCP early that Tues morning for 1:45 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the pain was worsening and my doc got yelps when he barely touched my appendix area. Sure, he said, it could be a muscle, but it sure presents like appendicitis. So he sent me straight for a CT scan. 

After arriving at the imaging place, I sat in the parking lot on the phone wasting time with the insurance company, because our policy insists on pre-authorization for MRIs and CT scans to avoid a $200 penalty. So, silly me, I sat there in my agony and, by the time I was walking inside, I was struggling to do that or stand up straight.

Waiting for the CT scan in Arlington, most definitely testing my pain tolerance and patience.

It took a while for them to take me back for the CT because of others ahead of me — plus, they needed me to drink 20 ounces of apple juice, apparently to help improve the scan quality. I asked the staffer at the door admitting patients how long it would be because I was in severe pain, and she said soon. Soon dragged out interminably.

The CT tech had to help me get on and off the table and was above-the-call sympathetic. Because of the possibility of it being my appendix, and with it already being well after 4 p.m., they put a stat on the results. 

Just after 5 p.m., while I drove home about 15 minutes after leaving, my cell rang and I hoped it was either the imaging place or my PCP calling. It was the doctor who’d read the scan, and he told me the now not-so-unexpected news: I had acute appendicitis. He’d tried to get someone at my doc’s office to pick up, but they were already closed — and he knew it was urgent enough that he’d better call me directly.

I told him I was almost home and we’d head to the hospital stat.

****

Kay and I couldn’t decide right away whether to dash off to a hospital in Arlington, where we live, or Fort Worth. Knowing we couldn’t waste time, we picked Harris Methodist Fort Worth, where our daughter had been born in 2004. Kay — my angel throughout this ordeal who has taken the best possible care of me, along with all my nurses during two hospital stays — got me to the ER pronto.

She worked to get me past the front-door COVID-19 screener to check-in and triage while a man was telling the screener he had to get in to see a dying relative who’d been attacked in her home. I felt awful for him but was in too much pain to stick around for the outcome.

Kay told the screener I was in an emergency situation and had to be seen ASAP, and as always, she was firm about it. With no visitors allowed, she felt guilty having to abandon me.

Thankfully, my care began almost immediately. An IV was started, morphine given and laparoscopic surgery to remove my appendix set up for that night as I was moved later to pre-op. I met the surgeon and told him I’d heard from staff that he was definitely the man for the job. He said he’d seen my scan results and it was a pretty clear-cut bum appendix.

In the ER, surgery in my very near future, getting fluids and morphine through my IV.

As I lay waiting for surgery, the nurse taking care of me suddenly said to her colleagues seated nearby, “Did anyone call Dr. (name redacted)?” Apparently she’d been so busy, she hadn’t had a chance to call the surgeon to let him know I was ready for him. So she called, then apologized to me for making me wait quite a bit longer than I needed to. Then she apologized to him when he walked in.

I’m not sure of the time, but I’m pretty surgery started around 10 p.m. By the time I was coming to and could groggily hear a recovery nurse calling Kay to let her know I was out of surgery and would be taken to a room soon, it was well after 11.

I arrived at my room on the second floor of the Harris Tower just before midnight.

****

My general surgeon, a late-40s fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and an easygoing, reassuring bedside manner who clearly likes his patients to understand everything about what’s going to happen and what already has, came to see me around noon the next day. When he told me he’d found not only acute appendicitis but a ruptured, gangrenous appendix with infectious ooze seeping into my abdomen, I couldn’t help myself.

“Shit, it was ruptured?”

Then he showed me the photographic evidence.

I probably should’ve figured on it having burst, based on the severity of the pain, but what do I know about a straight screwy appendix vs. a ruptured one? He assured me he felt confident that he’d gotten all the infection and that I shouldn’t have major problems recovering.

He mentioned the possibility of ileus, a condition that commonly develops with the bowel after abdominal surgery, which can be a serious blockage or involve more of a general disruption of normal digestive function and clear up in a few days. (Side note: According to her death certificate that my birth sister Terry and I located after I found my three siblings, our maternal grandmother, Olive, died of “paralytic ileus” after having a hysterectomy at age 32 in 1934.)

I was discharged early that afternoon, and if I could do it over again, I’d have insisted on staying at least another night. For one thing, I could tell I was dehydrated — and told the doctor and nurses — because my mouth was extremely dry and I was getting cotton mouth just talking. Doc did say that was common with ruptured appendixes (appendices?).

So I clearly needed more IV fluids to get rehydrated, but I didn’t push on that and thought I could rehydrate at home with lots of water and Gatorade. (Was I ever wrong.) It would also seem after surgery for a potentially life-threatening situation, they’d want to keep you longer than 12-13 hours post-op, to make sure you’re *really* OK to leave.

I went home, though, and even though I felt crappy, had no appetite (especially for the clear liquids I had to eat for 2-3 days), felt bloated and my colon didn’t move anything until Friday morning, I knew it was only a matter of time before I started feeling better — especially if I drank those liquids and did nothing but rest. Which I did.

But Friday sucked from the start, from still being dehydrated to vomiting to diarrhea to the horrible way I generally felt. So I told Kay late that afternoon I’d better get to the ER. I’d been in contact with the surgeon’s office earlier about how poorly things were going, and they knew this was a possibility and told me to go if needed.

Back in the ER at Harris Methodist Fort Worth, two days since leaving there after having surgery for a ruptured appendix. I was about as happy as it looks.

At the ER, they had trouble drawing blood and getting an IV started, a red flag about my dehydration level. The ER doc came to see me briefly as nurses gave me fluids, anti-nausea med and morphine in my IV and sent me down the hall for another CT scan. A bit later, I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, one of the nurses said I was being readmitted. 

It wasn’t long before I was further surprised to see my surgeon walk through the door — I’d figured the ER doc would handle everything. Doc was great and told me what was going on. He said the scan showed I’d developed the ileus he’d told me about, and although he said he didn’t believe it would develop into a serious situation, he and the ER doc consulted and knew I needed to spend time getting IV fluids and meds so I could hold things down and give my digestion a chance to start working itself out.

Soon I was being wheeled across the hospital to the sixth floor of the Richardson Tower. If I’d thought of it at the time and hadn’t felt so dismal, I might have been humming a Howard Jones ’80s song: “Things Can Only Get Better.”

****

The nurses who came to my room looked at the IV in my left elbow, saw my swollen arm around it and said the IV wasn’t working. Apparently it hadn’t taken, or if it did, I was getting little to no benefit.

I’ve always been someone with solid, accessible veins, having donated blood for years after 9/11. But now, I was so dehydrated that finding a “good vein” was proving a tall order for the nurses. A couple tried and failed, and both arms still have the bruising to prove it.

Finally, someone said it was time to call in Kim, the charge nurse that night. It wasn’t long before a not-so-tall, friendly Asian nurse in her 60s came into my room. She looked at my arms and knew she had work to do. She tried another vein on my left arm. Nothing.

Kim then looked at my right bicep area, where I’ve never had blood drawn or an IV placed. I had no idea you could even start an IV there. She started slapping my arm, trying to get the vein to pop up into prominence.

“I’m not trying to beat you up!” Kim said more than once, smiling. I assured her I knew she wasn’t.

She used a heated compress, trying to get the vein of her focus to the surface. She said my veins were rolling and expressed how dehydrated that showed I was.

As Kim worked on that vein for what seemed 20 minutes, telling me not to move, I asked, “Should we pray?”

“Yes, yes, we should pray. Please God, please God …,” she said as I did the same.

Before long, as I refused to look, I asked her if I should.

“Yes! It’s in!”

I told Kim I knew she would come through and thanked her.

****

For the next two days through the weekend, I was cared for by a squadron of nurses whom I could never sufficiently thank for their constant attention and genuine concern for my comfort and condition.

That includes the main nurses as well as the patient care technicians who often took vitals every four hours, changed bedding, logged my info online in my room, brought ice for my water — and, worst of the worst, monitored levels and form (none) of everything coming out of me in the bathroom. I hated having to say, repeatedly, “Sorry, I left some more awful stuff in there for you.”

My vigilant nursing crew started with Vienna and included Chelsea, Nevenka, Sara, Donna, Maria and Kristen. Sara, who’s 45 and only four years ago was early in nursing school, came in twice during the wee-est of hours early Sunday to ask if I needed anything — on a night when I barely slept because of hourly visits from those God-bless-’em nurses.

It was also Sara (not during one of those nighttime visits) who told me her grandmother’s story of her father dying of a ruptured appendix in the late 1920s, when the family lived in the country and there was nothing to be done.

My old memory being what it is, I couldn’t recall today for certain if I’d had an overnight hospital stay before. I’ve had surgeries, but they’ve all been outpatient. I’ve been treated in the ER, but never admitted that Kay and I can recall. Going back to my Texas A&M days in the early ’80s, I do remember stays — one being a few days when I got really sick my freshman year — in the student health center. So there’s that, but since then, I don’t remember any.

This was definitely my first time to experience dragging an IV tower into and out of the bathroom over and over, and up and down the hall for the at-least four walks a day the nurses insisted be taken. 

The accursed chart I became so familiar with in my bathroom during my second hospital stay.

As for the bathroom, I became all too familiar with the Bristol Stool Chart from staring at it each visit, wishing, pleading that I could advance from the bottom (Type 7) up even one notch. Once I asked one of my nurses, “Was that a Type 6?” No, she said almost apologetically. Type 7. 

Another memorable component (side effect?) to my hospital stays: getting to experience two COVID-19 swabs. Honestly, they’re not that bad. And although I had to wear a mask in the ER and while taking my walks, patients weren’t required to wear one in their rooms.

****

Since getting home late Sunday afternoon, I’ve made great strides. That night I finally ate some bland solid food — grilled tilapia and rice, courtesy of Chef Kay. In fact, I’ve now had that for five meals, because it feels “safe.” Other than that, it’s been toast, yogurt, applesauce and Gatorade for me. Mmmm!

Post-op Day 7. By Day 8, I felt up to shaving.

As for my digestion, it’s still out of whack, but showing signs of coming around. It’ll notch up to Type 6, then drop back to Type 7, then back up again. Dare I hope for Type 5, out of the inflammation/diarrhea range and merely at the “lacking fiber” level? One Bristol Stool Chart baby step at a time.

The surgeon and I will discuss it all at my follow-up Thursday, which we’ll do by phone. We would’ve had the appointment in person, if only my drain were cooperating enough for it to be removed. But I’m still getting out more than 30cc of fluid per 24 hours, and the tube can’t come out until I cross that threshold. I’m making progress, but I figure it’ll be at least early next week.

****

As I continue to heal, Kay and I hope for our nation’s healing to come about, somehow, some way. But so much has to take place for that to happen. *All* Americans have to genuinely *want* to do that, and to *want* the same unity and brotherhood of races. I’m afraid far too many have far too much hatred in their hearts.

Until that changes, we’re just an appendix in a constant state of rupture.

When a memory from long ago appears on your screen, takes you back and makes you smile

I got the nicest surprise over the weekend when Julia Nolte, a dear friend from elementary days at St. Matthew Lutheran School on the outskirts of downtown Houston, posted a photo of our first-grade class — one I’ve never seen — on our school group Facebook page (thank you, Julia!). The moment I saw it, my eyes went straight to me and I couldn’t believe it. I have some individual school photos from St Matthew, but no group pics, so this is a real treasure for me — even if I only recognize about five other kids.

This was the 1966-67 school year, and as the story goes, I started the fall in kindergarten, having turned 5 that February. My memory’s a bit foggy after almost 54 years, although I remember a little from that K class — singing “I”m a Little Teapot” and sleeping on red-and-light-blue nap mats.

But the teacher, the principal Mr. Schaefer, and Mom and Dad came to an agreement after the first few weeks that because I was bored, knew more than I needed to know to be in K and was wasting my time sitting around playing and taking naps, I should be moved into Mrs. Carnitz’s first-grade class just down the outside hall.

So that’s how I came to be with this group of kids, which is missing at least two very important ones — the boy who became my best friend, Paul Sweitzer, and sweet Marianne Pape Bliss, both of whom must’ve been playing hooky that day.  The kids I do remember in this pic, and quite well, are all 3 girls at left in the back row, Elizabeth Renfro, Camille Peeples (Spreen) and Julia; John Reed, second from right on the middle row, who lives in Fort Worth and with whom I reconnected last year; and cutie-pie Liz Perkins (Roos), at the right end of the front row.

I wish I could remember everyone in this photo! But besides me (front far left), the kids I definitely know are Liz Perkins at the opposite end from me (she was Lizzie Roos then); John Reed, second from right on the middle row; and from left on the back row, Elizabeth Renfro, Camille Peeples (Spreen then) and Julia Nolte Hall, who posted this photo on Facebook. My classmates and I on our school FB page are trying to solve the mystery of the other kids and have figured out a couple. I also know we had more than 15 in the class, and at least two, my best friend Paul Sweitzer and Marianne Pape Bliss, are missing.

By the way, if you haven’t found me, that must mean you need some clues. All I can say, despite my complete modesty, is that of the nine boys in this group of 15 kiddos, I’m the cutest. Think the dark brown hair I used to have. And the big brown eyes. But if you really still can’t figure it out … I’m front row, far left! And no, back then I didn’t smile much for photos.

Over my years at St. Matthew, we added and subtracted a number of other great kids to our class, and we always had a close-knit group and wonderful teachers like Chris Kuhlmann Winstead, our fifth-grade teacher who was in her first year out of college that school year in 1970-71.

My brother Isaac (a year ahead of me at St. Matthew) and I and our parents moved north of Houston to Conroe ISD halfway through my sixth-grade year when I was just 10 years old in December ’71. But I’ll always cherish the nearly six years of school I attended at St. Matthew and the wonderful friends I made there.

The St. Matthew school we all loved is no longer open (although it’s still there on the church grounds), having closed years ago due to declining enrollment and financial constraints. But the church is still doing well, and Julia and Liz and their families still attend.

Crusaders forever!! 

Bidding a too-soon farewell to an old friend, colleague, trailblazing sports journalist and ‘Mississippi homeboy’

As I was working from home Friday, I took a moment to glance at Facebook notifications. I had spent much of the afternoon editing a long, sad narrative for The Dallas Morning News about a young African-American man from West Dallas who had been killed a couple of months ago, a tragic end to a life of hardship that had begun to show promise before he was struck down trying to rescue his mother from the drug house she was living in.


When I looked down the list of notifications, I saw something had been posted on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Friends group by my old friend and colleague Clarence E. Hill Jr., longtime Cowboys beat writer for the S-T, and I could’ve sworn the tiny post image looked like another friend and old S-T colleague. The small name was hard to make out without calling up the post, but sure looked like his: Roger B. Brown. It appeared to be a flier.


Right away, I had a very bad feeling. I hoped it was something about a speaking engagement, because “B,” or “Roger B,” as all of us who worked with him for so many years in the S-T sports department knew him, is known and admired far and nationwide, so that would sure be a possibility. B used to have a long-running radio sports talk show in Dallas, so CHill was probably just posting a notice about an appearance B would be making in the coming days. That was my hope.

But I knew better. It had to be bad news. As it turns out, B had left this world four days earlier, but I hadn’t been on FB enough lately to see the many posts, tributes, farewells and tears that had poured out for him from all over Dallas-Fort Worth, the state and the country. 


I pulled up CHill’s post and stared at the flier in disbelief, saying over and over: “What? What? What?” It was an announcement of a Zoom tribute planned for this morning. “Join us for a Celebration of Life Honoring Roger B. Brown,” it read. “Sunrise May 15, 1959. Sunset May 18, 2020.”


As in the story I had been editing when I jumped over to FB and saw this shockingly sad news — although under entirely different circumstances — a beloved black man had been taken home when he still had so much more to do here and so many more lives to impact. 


I read through the comments on that post and the one CHill had posted the day of B’s passing. I went to B’s sister Alicia’s page and looked through numerous posts there. It had really happened. He’d had a stroke recently, but was fighting his way back, pushing through rehab. Celebrated his 61st birthday on May 15.


Then, three days later, the great Roger B. Brown, the pride of Columbus, Mississippi, was gone. 

https://www.dallasnews.com/sports/mavericks/2020/05/20/longtime-sportswriter-radio-host-and-mississippi-homeboy-roger-b-brown-remembered-for-vibrant-personality/


Roger B and I, just a couple of years apart in age, both arrived at the Star-Telegram in 1987. I actually spent my first few months in the features department, editing copy and designing pages before I was recruited by sports editor Bruce Raben to join his copy desk. One of the paper’s crack high school reporters was none other than B, a funny, always upbeat, hard-working guy who had a great way with coaches and athletes. He could always get an interview, a quote, a scoop, whatever he needed because they all trusted him and he was everybody’s homeboy.

Roger B. Brown with his sister,
Alicia Brown Young.


I had no idea when I joined the sports staff that B was the first African-American to be a full-time sports writer at the Star-Telegram, and I shouldn’t have to tell you how big a deal that was. Like several who honored him at today’s Zoom tribute said, he carved out a path that allowed so many others to follow. B went on to cover high schools for several years at the S-T before getting his big shot, taking on a pro beat covering the Dallas Mavericks. In his 15 years at the paper, Roger B came to know everyone and everyone — from Magic to Barkley to Jordan and more — knew him and loved him. And respected him.


There are a lot of things I’ll always remember about B, not only while working with him but being friends with him. He always had time to talk to people. He was always friendly, always optimistic, laid-back, gregarious and funny. He loved to laugh and make others laugh. I probably edited hundreds of his stories, and those of us on the desk knew that when the phone rang at 817-390-7760 at night, it was either someone calling in a high school score — or one of our reporters calling in his or her story. “This is Roger B,” or “This is B,” he’d say in his Mississippi drawl. “Got a story in there,” meaning he’d filed one remotely by computer and we needed to check to make sure it had arrived.


B, God bless him, was always known for filing late and filing too long to fill the space we had “dummied” in the sports section for him, so we often had to whack his stories down to size. Yeah, he complained some, but he also knew we worked our butts off to put out a sports section every night and didn’t make too much of it.


I also remember what a huge LA sports fan Roger B was — he loved him some Lakers and Dodgers. Speaking of the Dodgers, B came up with a nickname for me — Stubbs, for former Dodger (and short-lived Astro) Franklin Stubbs. For some reason, Roger just decided to start calling me that and it stuck.


We played basketball together, teaming up in 1988 with S-T colleagues Tim Madigan and Roger Campbell in a 3-on-3 tournament and ended up getting to the championship game, thanks to B’s shooting and Tim’s rebounding and toughness. Back in the day in Mississippi and at Tougaloo College, B was a pretty darn solid athlete in basketball and baseball. He played some on our S-T softball team called the RATS, too — that’s Star spelled backward. But we never knew when he was going to come to a game. He’d just sorta show up. 

Here’s a write-up in the Star-Telegram’s in-house magazine about the 3-on-3 tournament Roger B, Tim Madigan, Roger Campbell and I played in during 1988. B and Tim most definitely carried us to the finals. From left, it’s me, B, Tim and Roger.


As for that radio show, B started that uber-popular side gig on KKDA-AM in Dallas in 1990, and “Talking Sports With Roger B. Brown” was a mainstay for more than two decades. He’d have local sports figures, celebrities, politicians — even his mother, a longtime English teacher — as guests. I only heard it a couple of times, but his sister says their mom would correct B’s grammar on the air when necessary.


In more recent years, Roger B worked for the Dallas Parks and Rec Department as a youth league developer/coordinator. He has three grown children, all of whom spoke at this morning’s celebration, which I watched on Zoom before my Saturday editing shift. It was a wonderful sharing of memories, tributes and honor for one hell of a guy who should still be with us. I’m shocked he’s not.

Roger B. (at right) with legendary South Oak Cliff basketball coach James Mays, who won his 500th career game this past season — all at SOC.


I last spoke with B about six years ago when I was organizing a reunion lunch for Bill “Bullet” Ramsey, a former S-T colleague of ours, and we were able to catch up a bit. I feel awful that, after having his number in my cell all this time, I hadn’t connected with him since.


It won’t be the same here without you, but we’ll all see you again, Mississippi Homeboy.


By the hundreds, the mom of my school classmate pays patriotic tribute to our fallen heroes

I recently learned about something beautiful and patriotic: For years, the mother of a former Conroe High School classmate of mine has used her God-given artistic talents to create portraits of fallen soldiers that she has given free to the families of these American heroes.

Martha Wilcox, the mom of Celia Wilcox Blauser, has crafted over 600 of these portraits. I think that’s just extraordinary, and I believe everyone ought to know about her.

Mrs. Wilcox’s admirable efforts began when she became involved in a national project to paint portraits of soldiers who had given their lives in service, and they were displayed in a Washington exhibit called “Faces of the Fallen” from 2005 to 2007 and then given to the families. She has continued to honor these men and women on her own as the Fallen Soldiers Tribute, and paints portraits still today despite eye surgeries in recent years.

I also learned that Mrs. Wilcox, who is in her early 80s, has been a sculptor and presented a sculpture to President Ford while Celia and I were in high school when the president visited Conroe in April 1976 during the election campaign. The sculpture is in his presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he was raised.

Here’s Mrs. Wilcox’s website if you’d like to see her amazing gifts.

http://soldiersportraits-mwilcox.net/?fbclid=IwAR1HEg183-S3UG5S7LGQAHmh6MDCA0SVsqx8P_ojw-bSJII7CZ8Z1hS418A

What a remarkable, giving, selfless, patriotic American. Thank you, Mrs. Wilcox! 

Artist Martha Wilcox presented a copy of this sculpture of a pioneer couple, titled “Proud Legacy,” to President Gerald Ford when he visited Conroe in April 1976 during his reelection campaign. This is the copy she still has, but the one she gave him is on display in the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was raised.

Discovering, and treasuring, an image of the mother I never met

A couple of months ago P.P. (Pre-Pandemic), I was sifting through a couple of bags of photos that my brother Crys Workman — the oldest of the three full siblings I life-transformingly found 15 years ago next month — handed off to me several years ago. There were dozens, probably more like a couple hundred, and I really hadn’t had a chance to look at many of them. They included wonderful small B&W pics of Crys as a little kid in the 1940s, many of his three children as adorable youngsters in the ’70s and ’80s, and lots of Crys as a young father with those great kids. I loved seeing every last one of these photos, because they give me a cool and much-welcomed window into the life of one of my beloved birth siblings and his family long before I was blessed to find and bond with him.

And then, I discovered, there was the incredibly sweet memory you see here from 1984 of my dear late birth mother Betty, the mom who raised Crys, our late brother Robin and our sister Terry — and who, at age 39, placed me for adoption at birth in 1961 after conceiving me with the father of all of us, her ex-husband Bob, about a year after their divorce. The biggest smile in the history of smiles filled my face the moment I saw this image, and it will every time I see it from now on.

The two boys with Betty are Crys’s sons Brad (left), born in 1975, and Tim, who was born in 1978 and joined the family through adoption in 1982. Brad is the proud father of a brilliant teen who’s graduating from high school in Colorado and plans to study biochemistry at Regis University. Tim, a police detective in Lakewood, Colo., is the father of two smart, gifted boys, one an Oregon college student and the other in high school.

As it turns out, my adoption by Olga and Clark Christlieb started a trend in our family, as sister Terry followed our mother Betty’s lead in placing a baby boy for adoption — at the tender age of 19 in 1974 — and then Crys and his wife Charlene lovingly adopted Tim to make their family complete, years after Brad and his sister Lew (1973) were born.

My birth mother Betty with her grandsons Brad (left) and Tim, my nephews and the sons of my oldest brother Crys Workman, in September 1984. The photo was taken at Stevens Drugstore in Huntington, West Virginia, where Betty lived most of her life. She worked at Stevens from the late 1960s until the late 1980s. The boys were visiting from Colorado with their mother Charlene, a native Huntingtonian who had brought them and their sister Lew to visit her mother, who died later that year.

As for this touching memory of grandmother and her grandsons, the setting was Stevens Drugstore in Huntington, West Virginia, my birthplace. Betty, an only child, began working in drugstores — starting with Walgreens — when she had to drop out of Huntington High halfway through her sophomore year in 1937 to help her father and his new, much younger wife pay the bills (Betty’s young mother had died tragically after a hysterectomy a few years earlier). She worked at Stevens and, briefly, another drugstore through most of her marriage to a second alcoholic until she died of lung cancer in December 1992. This photo was taken upstairs at Stevens, where Betty toiled as a clerk from the late ’60s until the late ’80s.

Betty and fellow clerks Shirley Booten and Dolores Gardner were best of friends, working together at Stevens all those years. I was fortunate to have the chance to visit by phone with Dolores several times in 2011 and 2012 before she, too, died of cancer, and with Shirley, who told me that she saw Betty as a second mother to her and that she carried Betty’s photo in her purse for many years.

It still holds true that whenever I see a photo of Betty for the first time, it brings me absolute joy like this one did. Since I never had the chance to meet her, seeing photos of her and hearing my siblings and others who knew Betty talk about her is the closest I can get. Until we meet in the hereafter, the gratification and love I feel from those memories and seeing photos like this are fulfillment enough.

Happy Mother’s Day, Betty.