Don’t ask me why I have zero pictures of my first car, a 1980 Ford Fairmont that my parents bought for my 20th birthday in February 1981, when I was a sophomore at Texas A&M. Who the heck doesn’t take photos — lots of them — of their first car?
I came home from school for my birthday, which fell on a Saturday that year, and Dad told me to come out to the garage. I walked through the breezeway from our house in Oak Ridge North, south of Conroe and 30 miles north of Houston, opened the garage door and was stunned to see a baby blue car with dark blue vinyl roof where Mom’s blue Oldsmobile Toronado was usually parked.
Of course, I had no idea what make or model it was. On the windshield was a piece of white cardboard from one of Dad’s sample boxes from his job as a lingerie salesman for Hollywood Vassarette. On it, he’d written in all caps:
TAKE ME I’M YOURS
I really couldn’t believe they’d bought me a car. One I didn’t have to make any payments on; all I had to do was buy the gas and take care of it. It came from Max Mahaffey Ford, the dealership owned by two of my Conroe High friends, bandmate Scott, who graduated the year before me, and his sister Jan, who graduated with me.
Kay and I were Googling last night and found this photo, and this is the car I had. Not exactly a chick magnet, but I loved it. It was a stick shift, and my brother Isaac — who had learned to drive manual on Dad’s ’70s brown Pinto hatchback that Isaac rebuilt the engine on — took me to the old McCullough High parking lot in The Woodlands to teach me how to drive it.
We all endured a multitude of hardships with Mom’s abusive, destructive behavior, but one thing she deprived me of was taking driver’s ed — she never seemed to come to terms with the fact that I was growing up, despite being a year younger than all of my classmates.
So, Dad had to teach me how to drive without her knowing, and in August 1979 on the day he took me to A&M to move into my dorm, Moore Hall, we stopped at the DPS office in Conroe so I could take my driving test. I’ll always love him for that, and for the things he did to try to make life a bit less painful for his sons. I just wish he’d done more.
Needless to say, when Dad bought that Fairmont a year and a half later — I’m quite sure it was his idea, not Mom’s (and she probably needed convincing) — I was SO ready to finally have my own car.
This Fairmont got me through my last 2 years of college, nearly 4 years of my first job as an Odessa American sports writer driving all across dry, desolate West Texas, and through my first couple of years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram until I traded it in 1989 for an Aggie maroon Nissan pickup — another manual transmission.
I always had a blast driving stick. The first car Kay and I bought after we married in ’94 was a manual Geo Prism (I know, what were we thinking?), trading in her beloved ’83 Toyota Celica (her first car — a stick, too). I later traded my pickup — which was totaled in the historic Fort Worth hailstorm on May 5, 1995, but I drove it another 4 years — for a manual Mazda Protege. We finally bought our first automatic in 2003 — Kay’s Honda Accord, which we kept until trading it in 2016 for a Subaru Forester.
Anyway, this Fairmont (well, not *this* one, but a duplicate!) will always be special to me, even if it wasn’t exactly a looker!
To say I was thrilled to have a brief phone visit Thursday with the gentleman at left in this cool 1970s photo would be an understatement. Jan. 7 marks Dr. Gilbert Alonzo Ratcliff Jr.’s 83rd birthday, and he and his late wife Betsy have been the definition of family to my family since 2005.
We keep track of birthdays the old-fashioned way around here — on a big calendar hanging on the side of our refrigerator — and I knew Gil’s big day was coming up. I really wanted to be able to call and wish him a happy birthday, and I knew I’d probably need to take time during my Dallas Morning News editing shift to do it. But it would be so very worth it.
I messaged Lenore, the oldest of his three daughters, this afternoon to ask if it would be OK if I called her dad. He’s been dealing with some health issues, and I didn’t want to bother or inconvenience him. I was so glad she welcomed me to call, which I did about 5 p.m. our time — 6 p.m. at the cozy little Ratcliff farm in Proctorville, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from my birthplace of Huntington, West Virginia.
It was even more wonderful to hear Gil’s voice, how clearly excited he was to talk to me, and how thankful he was that I remembered his birthday. His caregiver answered and didn’t say hello but handed him the phone, saying it was someone named Frank. When I heard him excitedly say, “Oh, it’s Frank Christlieb!” it warmed my heart to know he was so happy I’d called.
We talked less than 10 minutes, but it was enough time for Gil to tell me he’s eating really well and getting around fine with his walker, and for him to say (jokingly, I think), “It hasn’t shut down yet?” when I told him I was still working at the paper. Being of similar political persuasion and knowing we’ve had many discussions on that topic, I considered touching on politics with all that’s been going on … but I figure we can save that for another visit.
Gil, a native of Huntington and a 1963 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, served his hometown as a beloved pediatrician/neonatologist for 49 years until his retirement in 2012. He co-founded the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital, where I was born in February 1961, one of over *10,000* babies delivered by his father, Gil Sr. (shown between his two doctor sons, Gil and now-retired OB/GYN Bruce, in the photo).
The elder Dr. Ratcliff practiced medicine into his 80s and lived to be 101 before his passing in 1999. Not only did he deliver me — he also was instrumental in arranging for my private adoption. My adoptive parents, Clark and Olga Christlieb, were so indebted to him for making it possible for them to adopt a second baby boy, they gave me two middle names — Lindsay and Gilbert, both of which appear on my birth certificate.
I can’t tell you how enriched my life has been by knowing Gil Jr. He is one of the smartest, most charming, wittiest and most gracious people I’ve ever known. He’s also among the blessings I’ve lost count of during the life-changing adventure my birth family journey has been. In fact, without Gil and Betsy, who passed away in late 2017, there might have been no journey.
When Gil received a letter in the spring of 2005 at his office from some guy in Texas — who so badly wanted him to know his intentions were genuine, he enclosed a copy of his driver’s license — Dr. Ratcliff’s giving, compassionate heart opened yet again as it has been doing for decade upon decade.
The adopted stranger — having been familiar with the name of Gil’s father from the amended birth certificate listing him as the delivering doctor on Feb. 28, 1961 — wanted to see if he’d help him find the family he came from. The adoptee’s main question: Did Gil have access to any of his father’s medical records that might provide clues to the Texan’s biological mother?
The details are many. But the Ratcliffs did want to help, because that’s the kind of folks they are.
It took a lot of legwork and about three months. But by the time Betsy called me early that June, she had all the answers — names, dates and other details I’m certain I never could’ve found on my own, even as a journalist. That day, I learned I had two brothers and a sister who, mind-bogglingly, were 17, 14 and six years older than me.
By the next day, after I’d spent two hours meeting the oldest of them, my brother Crys, by phone, our lives had changed forever. Within a few weeks, we confirmed through DNA what we suspected — that we’re all full-blooded siblings, sharing both parents.
The most unexpected, joyous of reunions — all thanks to the Ratcliffs.
So when I talk about how much Gil means to us, they’re not mere words. He and his beloved Betsy, who was a nurse and a longtime Red Cross difference-maker, changed the course of two families with their goodness and willingness to help others.
A million thank-yous to you, Gil. And a million wishes for this birthday and as many more as you can celebrate. We love you and will always have the deepest respect and admiration for you and your family.
Every Christmas in recent years, I’ve listened to those words over and over, with weepy eyes and wistful heart. They came from the loving, lonely heart of my biological mother about 30 years ago as she put the finishing touches on a cassette tape of holiday music — a gift to her children, who lived far away and almost never made it home to West Virginia for the holidays.
Before Betty died of lung cancer five days before Christmas 1992, Thanksgiving 1990 was the last holiday she and sons Crys and Robin and daughter Terry shared at her home in Huntington — and that had been their first holiday together since the 1960s.
As she had earlier in her life performing with bands and throughout her life while always singing at home, Betty used her remarkable vocal talents to accompany records of Willie Nelson and others on her recorded Christmas gift. Though her voice had aged to that of a near-70-year-old, it still had the clear, on-pitch quality it always had, with a sweet, not overdone vibrato that made it perfect — to me, anyway.
Weeks after I found my three older full siblings in June 2005, my family and I drove to the Denver area to meet Crys and Terry and their families. It was during the Fourth of July holiday, and we had a memorable reunion, getting to know one another as my sibs embraced the little brother Betty had never been able to bring herself to share the truth about.
At one point during our visit, Crys’s wife Charlene left the living room, saying she had something to share with me. She returned with the Christmas cassette and popped it into the player, and for the first time, I heard my birth mother’s voice — not only her beautiful singing, but her poignant words to her children. As I listened, I had a hard time taking it all in during the moment. I couldn’t believe I was really hearing the voice of the woman who’d given birth to me.
When Betty softly uttered the words “I love you. I love *all* of you, very, very much,” it didn’t hit me at first. Someone else in the room said it — I think it was my wife Kay — but Betty was including me when she emphasized the word “all” in addressing her children. Of course she was.
I am sure of many things about Betty — how much she loved me, why she knew she couldn’t keep me, how painful it was for her from that moment on — and her intent in those eleven words is among them. Although the three children she raised didn’t meet their fourth sibling while she was living, her heart must have told her that somehow, someday, the four of us would be together.
The rest of the closing section of her tape is so Betty, who I’m told had a great sense of humor. She calls herself “Bette Cazadler” — a reference to Bette Midler and to Betty’s last name after marrying her second husband, Ronnie Cazad, in 1971. I’m not sure what her “Terry Baxter Orchestra” reference means, though.
On Feb. 28, Betty’s youngest child will turn 60, and next July 22 would be Betty’s 100th birthday. I hope her fellow angels will be throwing her a gigantic party, because she sure deserves one.
Happy holidays, Betty. Your four kids will always love you.
P.S. The photo is the one my dear friend Katie (Karen) Erickson — a birth mother like Betty who gave up a son for adoption — created two years ago as a sweet gift to me. She combined a photo of Betty from about 30 years ago with one of me from a family pic a few years back to come up with an image I’ll always cherish. Thank you, Karen. You are a true gift.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas 1954, the family leasing 121 Perry St. in east Huntington, West Virginia, was brimming with anticipation and excitement. In a home where a father’s heavy drinking and years-long molestation of his oldest child — unknown to the boy’s mother — had brought unhappiness, fear and pain, a much-needed gift was soon to arrive.
With two boys, 10 and 7, money was tight on their father’s salary as a refrigeration mechanic and what little their mother brought home from her late-night shifts working at the town’s huge Owens-Illinois glass factory. Bob Workman drank away far too much of those earnings.
It’s doubtful Betty and her struggling husband had planned to bring a third child into the difficult and often chaotic environment they lived daily. Their second child had been born almost seven and a half years earlier, so they couldn’t have been planning on a fifth mouth to feed.
And yet, on Dec. 19, sons Crys and Robin and their parents enthusiastically welcomed one — brown-eyed Teresa Ann, born at St. Mary’s Hospital a healthy 6 pounds, delivered by the same doctor who’d delivered Crys, the oldest, on Feb. 28, 1944.
Two days before Christmas, Betty brought baby Terry home, and her brothers fell in love.
“Our gift came a few days before Christmas in the form of a baby girl,” Crys remembers. “We all wanted to hold her and enjoy her peaceful disposition. Although I was only 10 years old, I remember a closeness that had been absent in our family. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the winter of our discontent was made a glorious summer by this little girl.”
Though I didn’t grow up in this family, it is mine.
I actually joined my first family twice. The first was a little over six years later, when I was born Feb. 28, 1961, to Betty, by then a single mother who had divorced her husband nearly two years earlier before a moment of “something” within a year resulted in my creation. I left the family through adoption three days after my birth, then left West Virginia before 1961 was out when my new family moved to Houston.
The second time I joined my birth family came 15 years ago, when I located and reached out with only hope to my three unknown, but as it would turn out, remarkable full siblings. When they took me in with no doubts, nothing but love and acceptance, we began forging the bonds we’d been deprived of the first 44 years of my life.
Last week, when our sister turned 66 and she, Crys and I had an hour-plus video call along with my wife Kay, I asked my siblings to share Christmas memories from their childhood with me, especially about Christmas with our mother Betty. Because of their age differences and that of our brother Robin — who was born in 1947 and passed away at age 61 in January 2009 — and due to their broken family, the three of them had few Christmases with both of our parents.
“That’s why I’ll always remember the first one,” Crys says of Christmas ’54. “I’ll never forget that.”
Unfortunately, Crys also recalls that the euphoria over baby Terry seemed to wear off after a time, because Bob was never able to overcome his alcoholism — which took a toll on his ability to hold down a job and, ultimately, to save the marriage.
“I enjoyed it while it lasted, but I was already jaded by events in the past,” Crys says. “Our father was soon back to his old habits and the reality was harsh. Our mother, however, made sure that our baby girl would grow in love and happiness.”
Crys is certain Betty, despite the financial hardship of a third child, was overjoyed to have a little girl after two boys.
I asked Crys and Terry if they thought Christmas was Betty’s favorite holiday. Crys said that because she always saw it as a holiday for kids and wanted it to be special for her children, that made it a big deal for her. But it wasn’t like the family had tons of money to spend on gifts. They moved around Huntington a lot, never owning, always renting.
“She never really wanted anything,” Crys says of Betty.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t like getting gifts, though.
“And when she got presents? She was excited — she was like a little kid when she’d open ’em up,” Terry says, a touch of glee in her voice.
From Terry’s birth until Crys graduated from high school in 1962, Betty had eight Christmases to spend with all three of her children — from 1954 to ’61. In September ’62, Crys joined the Air Force for a four-year stint, and after Robin graduated in 1965, he joined the Air Force a year later, just as Crys was finishing his tour.
So because of the way things worked out with my brothers’ years spent serving our country, Betty didn’t have all of her children with her at Christmas most of the 1960s. Terry does have a memory that Robin, who served a year in Vietnam from early 1968 to early ’69, came home for Christmas after boot camp before leaving for that terrible war.
“We walked over to Stewart’s Hot Dogs and then bought a Christmas tree,” Terry says, “and Robin carried it all the way home.”
This would’ve been Christmas of ’67, and that would’ve been about a mile walk in East Huntington, where Betty and Terry — who turned 13 that month — were living in an apartment on Third Avenue. At the time, Crys, who’d been back from the Air Force a little over a year, was working full-time at WSAZ-TV and attending Marshall University, majoring in English.
When mother and daughter were living in that apartment, Terry was the designated tree-trimmer — by choice.
“Christmas was always near my birthday and I loved decorating the tree,” she says.
After Robin got out of the Air Force, where he’d been stationed at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., he stayed in the area, marrying a young woman he met there. When Crys graduated from Marshall in 1972, he and his new wife moved to Colorado, where he’d been stationed. The year after Terry graduated from high school in ’73, she moved to Colorado as well — and she and Crys and their families have lived there ever since.
Over the years, Betty’s children and daughters- and son-in-law visited her, bringing the grandchildren, sometimes at Christmas. But she never had all of her children together again for Christmas, which is bound to be why one of her dearest friends and colleagues at Stevens Drugstore told me when I spoke to her in 2011 that Betty would get emotional whenever she heard “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
Betty, who spent nearly three decades as a drugstore clerk, was known for being kind and gracious to everyone — it’s no wonder she was a customer service ace. But she also had a reputation for her beautiful singing voice, which her children have always admired and appreciated. Betty performed with bands from the ’40s to the ’60s.
“I can remember her singing Christmas carols,” says Crys, who also has memories from his early childhood of when Betty and Bob performed with a dance band while they and the boys lived in West Logan, West Virginia, in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Crys has memories of Christmas in West Logan, too, when he was between 5 and 7 years old. He recalls getting an American Flyer train set and Lincoln Logs, which was a huge deal for a kid whose dad couldn’t have earned much at the Borden’s facility in town.
“And the cool thing about the train was you could put a little pellet gun in the smoke stack and it would actually smoke as it was going around the track,” he says. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
Late in her life, before she died of lung cancer five days before Christmas 1992, Betty recorded a cassette on which she sang with Christmas LP selections, including several by Willie Nelson. Even approaching 70, her voice was still amazing. (Here’s a link to those recordings, and to some priceless recordings of Betty and Bob performing in Logan: https://clyp.it/user/kjbqzyf0)
Another special Christmas memory for my long-lost sister was her first — and only — bike. Our maternal great-aunt Vic (Victoria) and great-uncle Walter bought her one for Christmas ’61 — late the year I was born and adopted, and months before Crys graduated from Huntington East and soon enlisted for Air Force duty. My birth family was living on First Avenue, and Terry still has a knee scar from falling as Crys taught his 7-year-old sister to ride her new bike.
During the 1960s, when Betty was supporting Terry and herself on her clerk’s salary, she dated a man named James Gregory for a few years. He was very kind to them, giving Betty money to help her buy things she needed and items for Terry — including Christmas gifts.
“So I had some really nice things and I know there’s no way she could have afforded it,” Terry says. “When I wanted Shindig (go-go) boots, we bought them; when I wanted candy-red apple shoes like (a friend) had, Mother bought them for me.”
Cancer took Mr. Gregory at 49 in 1970. Terry always wondered why our mother never married him. But there may be a good reason: His obituary that I found lists a wife as one of his survivors. It’s possible Betty never knew, at least while he was living. It’s a relationship I’ve tried to learn more about, without much luck. In 1971, weeks before she turned 50, Betty did remarry, to a man 17 years her junior — and, regrettably, like my birth father, an alcoholic.
As with every memory that comes my way — from my siblings, through a photograph, a document or someone else who knew one of my birth family members — these Christmas reminiscences are yet more pieces of my family history to treasure. I can’t possibly learn it all, but as long as my loved ones are willing to keep sharing with their curious little brother, I’ll keep asking.
I could never adequately thank them for opening windows to their past that I never got to be a part of. But I have, repeatedly, and they know how much I love them. And I know the love is mutual.
Merry Christmas to you all and your loved ones with you, apart because of the pandemic and other reasons, and those departed. And may 2021 be less stressful and less painful for us all.
Fifty years ago on a cold, rainy, foggy Saturday evening, tragedy visited my birthplace of Huntington, West Virginia.
“This town died today,” a local hospital nurse would say that night, according to an Associated Press report.
Save for those few who hadn’t made the trip, the bulk of the Marshall University football team and staff, flying home from a game against East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970, died when their charter jet crashed less than 2 miles from Tri-State Airport, which sits atop a mountain in Kenova just west of Huntington.
The Southern Airways Douglas DC-9, coming in too low, clipped some treetops, causing a loss of control and sending the jet cartwheeling and flipping into a hillside at 7:36 p.m., erupting into flames.
All 75 people aboard died. The victims included 36 football players, five coaches, eight school administrators, 21 fans and five flight crew. They ranged in age from 19 to 60 and had roots in 13 states. Radio man Gene Morehouse, “The Voice of the Herd,” Marshall athletic director Charlie Kautz, and 20-year-old Jeff Nathan, the sports editor at The Parthenon, the school newspaper, were among them.
The non-players on the Marshall flight included a newly elected state legislator who was one of Huntington’s wealthiest citizens, a city councilman, and the sports director of a local TV station.
As a result of the crash, which claimed eight married couples, 70 children lost at least one parent and 27 were orphaned.
It was the only plane trip planned that season for the Thundering Herd, who traveled to most games by bus. The deadliest accident involving a sports team in U.S. history occurred a little over a month after 14 Wichita State football players and 17 others died in a crash while flying to a game at Utah State.
I was born and adopted in Huntington nine years earlier, moving with my new family to Houston before I could walk. But my three older full siblings — brothers Crys and Robin, and sister Terry — grew up in Huntington. At the time of the crash, Terry was a 15-year-old sophomore at East High School and months earlier, Robin had completed a four-year tour in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam.
Our oldest brother, Crys, was born in 1944 and graduated from East High in 1962, then spent four years in the Air Force. But he returned to Huntington in 1966 and enrolled at Marshall, where he studied English while working full-time.
Crys has a more vivid recollection of the night of the Marshall crash than many others might. For several years while in college, Crys worked at Huntington’s NBC affiliate, WSAZ-TV, eventually filling every possible duty in the control room. Around the time of the crash, 26-year-old Crys was learning what it took to be a director.
“I was there when the news came over the wire service,” remembers Crys, who’s now 76 and usually worked until the station signed off around midnight.
He also remembers Bos Johnson, the station’s legendary news reporter and anchor who died six years ago, coming into the control room to tell the crew what had happened. Bos, whom I developed a friendship with during my birth family journey and had lunch with on one of my Huntington trips, along with Fritz Leichner Sr., another of WSAZ’s legends, broke into network programming to deliver the solemn news to the community that night.
“I remember that information didn’t travel as quickly back then, so most of the evening was spent trying to gather facts, with several news crews just trying to reach the crash site, which was hopelessly inaccessible on a cold, rainy night,” Crys says. “Of course, the first responders were already witnessing a grim scene.”
His fiancee, Charlene, also a Marshall student, often brought baked goodies to the station for Crys and his colleagues. The night of the crash, she walked into the 2nd Avenue studio west of the Marshall campus, tears on her face.
As Crys recalls, on the campus of 8,500 students and in the city of 73,000, “everyone was in a daze for months afterwards.” He and Charlene married the following April and he graduated from Marshall in the summer of ’72, after which they moved to Colorado, where he’d been stationed in the Air Force. Although they’re not together anymore, they have three awesome kids and five fantastic grandchildren and have never left Colorado.
My birth family felt the devastating effects of the Marshall crash in another way: Sister Terry tells me that one of the team physicians, Ray Hagley, who was aboard the flight, had been her and our mother Betty’s family doctor. His wife, Shirley, also made the trip, and if that’s not sad enough, they left behind six young children — four daughters and two sons. Shirley had just turned 35 a few days earlier, and Ray was three days from his 35th birthday.
The tragedy came as Marshall’s football program had already suffered an earlier trying stretch of 27 games without a win, had been kicked out of its conference for recruiting infractions and had seen its head coach fired. The program hadn’t posted a winning season since 1964.
As was chronicled in the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall” starring Matthew McConaughey as new head coach Jack Lengyel, the university somehow cobbled together a team and brought back football the following year. Marshall didn’t have another winning season until 1984, but the program has had its share of success and a number of players who’ve gone on to long NFL careers, including Randy Moss, Byron Leftwich, Mike Bartrum, Carl Lee, Ahmad Bradshaw, Troy Brown and Chad Pennington.
Marshall won NCAA Division I-AA titles in 1992 and 1996 and lost three other title games in the ’90s, finishing the decade with 113 wins — more than any other college program. The Herd moved up to Division I-A in 1997 and has compiled a 12-3 record in bowl games, including winning seven of its past eight.
For a program that lost so much 50 years ago, I’d have to say Marshall has lived up to the title of “Ashes to Glory,” the 2000 documentary about the program’s comeback.
On Friday, Marshall posthumously awarded degrees to 39 students who were on that plane: the 36 players, an assistant trainer, a student assistant statistician and Nathan, the student sports editor. I call that a beautiful gesture that should’ve happened long ago.
Then, on Saturday, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary was held on the Marshall campus, at the site of a memorial fountain dedicated to the crash victims in 1972 and rededicated in 2008. At the end of each year’s Nov. 14 service, the fountain is turned off, then flows anew the following spring.
I hadn’t known this until reading about Saturday’s service, but famed contemporary Christian singer Michael W. Smith hails from Kenova. The Grammy winner sang “Amazing Grace” to begin the ceremony, then told those gathered about his memories of the crash, eight minutes from his home, according to an Associated Press account.
“It forever changed my life,” said Smith, who was 13 when the crash occurred. “The town died. But the town came back.”
Four members of the 1970 East Carolina team that played Marshall the day of the crash drove eight hours from Greenville, N.C., to attend the ceremony. “I remember having to chase that quarterback all over the field,” former Pirates defensive tackle Chuck Zadnik told The Washington Post of junior Ted Shoebridge. “It was a hard-fought game” — one Marshall lost, 17-14.
Later Saturday, the Marshall football team stayed undefeated with a 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee State. The Herd, now 7-0 and ranked No. 15, wore black uniforms and No. 75 decals on their helmets in honor of the 75 who lost their lives 50 years earlier to the day.
I’m proud of my hometown, and of the university my brother graduated from. Go Herd!
Last week, I posted a tribute to my best friend Doug, who left a huge hole in countless lives and hearts 18 years ago when he died suddenly at the age of 45. In those 18 years, Kay and I have done a very poor job of spending time with his kind, giving, compassionate and sweet wife, Melissa Brown — who also happens to have one of the cutest smiles and best laughs in recorded history.
As we all know, life “gets in the way” and often keeps us from spending time with the people we love. I’ve seen Melissa at the funerals of her father in 2011 and her mother last year, but social get-togethers with her have been nonexistent for far too long.
So, pandemic be darned, I texted her recently and asked if she’d like to meet up with Kay and me some Sunday, and of course she was all for it. We finally decided on this past Sunday. Instead of restaurant patio dining, Kay and I suggested keeping it simple: Bringing chairs to a park, social distancing and visiting for a while. Melissa lives in Crowley (south of FW) and we’re in SW Arlington, so Kay came up with a cool neighborhood linear park in south Fort Worth called Overton Park, not far from Texas Christian University (Kay’s alma mater).
We met up at 3 in the afternoon. The weather was perfect, in the low 70s with just a few clouds, and we found a shady area under some big trees to fold out our chairs. We ended up catching up for two and a half hours until, with the time change, we lost some light and it started getting chilly.
The three of us had an absolutely fantastic time talking about our families and so much other stuff that we haven’t been able to share over the years except for occasionally through texting and FB messages. All the while, people walked and biked the paths on both sides of us, many with their dogs. As I told Kay, we definitely have to go back and take advantage of that park!
After 32 years as a kindergarten teacher — 27 at Ridglea Hills Elementary in Fort Worth ISD — Melissa decided to retire last spring. To say she was beloved would be a major understatement. She’s enjoying retirement so far, spending time with family, and once the pandemic is over (I’ve asked this before, but it *is* going to end, isn’t it?), she has other activities in mind.
After we said our goodbyes and Kay and I were driving away, she commented that it was so sad that Doug had passed away, because he and Melissa made the perfect couple — because they are both such wonderful people. I told her that was so true.
For those who have struggled coming up with safe settings for spending time with friends during the pandemic, we highly encourage parks. We started with masks and took them off right away, knowing we were sitting far enough apart that it wasn’t a problem (except for the photo we took before leaving!).
Of course, cold weather’s here so there won’t be as many nice days to spend outdoors. But take advantage of the ones we do have by getting together with friends — especially ones you haven’t seen in a long time or don’t get to see very often!
A few hours ago, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram family — which I’ll always be a part of after working there from April 1987 to February 2000 — received devastating news about the passing of one of the kindest, most easygoing, funny, professional and skilled friends and colleagues we’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Stephen Schroats, who’d just turned 61 in September, died of a massive heart attack Sunday.
Our friend and former colleague John Henry shared this note via Messenger with several of us after getting the news from Steve’s distraught wife, Saskia:
“It is with great sadness that I pass along the news of the passing of our friend and colleague, Stephen Schroats, who died yesterday. Saskia called about 20 minutes ago with the news. She said he had spent the entire day outdoors, his last stop a field where he was flagging balls in the outfield for a father pitching with his son. It was there that he collapsed … a massive heart attack the suspect. Saskia understandably is devastated.”
As John commented about Steve on our Star-Telegram Friends Facebook group earlier tonight after I posted the shocking news there, “That he took the time to help facilitate a ‘moment’ between a father and son, complete strangers, I think, is all you need to know about the guy. A dear human being.”
Steve, nicknamed “Schroatsie,” was an editor/designer in the S-T Sports department for over 25 years. In an intense business where there’s never a stress-free day and the pressure to achieve accuracy, write great stories, break news and hit deadlines can make even the most laid-back get flustered, Steve always kept his cool. He was always upbeat, always calm, always handling situations with restraint and respect for his colleagues, whether writers or fellow members of the copy desk on the S-T‘s award-winning sports staff.
I always felt like Steve’s calm and calming demeanor was one of several on the sports desk that helped keep us all from losing our heads when things got crazy — which, for a major metropolitan newspaper’s sports staff, happens on a nightly basis. The common refrain is that in newspaper sports departments, “Every night is election night.”
I haven’t had a lot of contact with Steve in the 20-plus years since I left the S-T for The Dallas Morning News, but we’ve seen each other a handful of times and have exchanged some FB messages and post comments. A few months after being a victim of one of the S-T‘s numerous rounds of layoffs a couple of years ago, Steve took a job designing pages at the Killeen Daily Herald in Central Texas, staying there during the week and driving home to Granbury on weekends.
But Steve told me when I wished him a happy birthday in September that he was now retired and spending time traveling with Saskia in their RV. They have two beautiful grown daughters and I believe one grandchild. Steve was so very proud of his family. They bought their home on Lake Granbury years ago and have cherished living there.
Steve and I should’ve known each other years before he arrived at the S-T in the early ’90s — and we may have actually talked on the phone a few times but didn’t realize it. When he was a sports writer in Hobbs, N.M., in the mid-’80s, I was a sports writer in my first job at The Odessa American. The two staffs always exchanged scores and stats, but I never knew Steve — I only knew one of his colleagues. Steve and I only figured out later after he got to the S-T that we’d been at those papers 90 miles apart at the same time.
Steve’s tragic passing is yet another heartbreaking example of why it’s so important to love one another — and show it — every day and make every moment count.
Blogging my Facebook post from Monday, a tribute to my best friend, who left this life on Oct. 26, 2002:
Eighteen years ago tonight, I was working the 4-to-midnight Saturday copy desk shift at The Dallas Morning News when I got a call from my wife that stunned and shook me more than any I’ve ever received. It was the kind of sad news we all often get, usually about beloved family members, and it’s always painful to hear and difficult to process.
Kay told me as gently as she could that my best friend, Doug Brown, had died earlier that day, apparently of a heart attack. He was sitting in his favorite chair with a football game on the TV when his dear wife of four years, Melissa Brown, came home from running errands. She thought he was taking a nap after mowing the yard, so she let him sleep. She came out a while later to check on him and couldn’t wake him. Neither, shortly, could the paramedics.
Her sweet Doug was gone, already at the side of the God he worshipped so faithfully.
My DMN colleague Ed Sargent, who was in charge of the copy desk that night, let me finish the editing I was working on and go home early. I was in shock, unable to believe this had really happened. I bawled, yelled and cursed most of the way home, demanding that God tell me why something like this had happened to one of the most wonderful, selfless people he’d ever brought into this life.
Doug was only 45 years old. For 15 years, he had been my closest friend, my Fort Worth Star-Telegram colleague, my most trusted confidant, my fellow best man (he at my wedding in 1994, me at his in 1998), my golf buddy and my forever Astros-fan-in-arms.
I cannot fathom how it has been 18 years since Doug left us, and yet it seems like an eternity. I miss our long talks late into the night after work, our 18-hole walks (and his brilliant shot-making), the numerous sports events we attended together, and his deep love for, fascination about and knowledge of God’s creatures great and small.
Perhaps most of all, I miss Doug’s embrace of and compassion for all people with whom he came in contact. Those who know and love Doug, who loved them equally, remember his gracious and giving nature, and his willingness to offer his time, guidance and heart to anyone.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Doug was an elder at his church in Fort Worth and had a calm, and calming, presence no matter the setting, whether on deadline at the newspaper or dealing with any of life’s challenges. His father, Allen Hawley Brown, had died only a month earlier at age 84 in Clifton, about 80 miles south of Fort Worth. I attended the service for Doug’s dad, and sadly, that was the last time I saw Doug.
Doug spent years as a docent (volunteer) at the Fort Worth Zoo, leading youth groups on tours and educating them about the animals there and many that weren’t. He went on photography safaris to Tanzania (two, I think) and graciously gave framed photos from his adventures to colleague friends as gifts (mine is a magnificent cheetah).
He led an interesting and full life, adding a beautiful complement to it when he married longtime FWISD kindergarten teacher Melissa Tate 22 years ago this month.
Although he loved all sports, baseball and soccer were Doug’s true passions. And though he tried, he never could get me truly interested in soccer. He even took me to the World Cup game played at the Cotton Bowl in the summer of 1994 (don’t ask me who played), weeks before Kay and I got married.
In the newspaper business, it’s tradition for longtime employees who leave or retire to be presented a “front page” of “stories” about them — mostly of the hilariously funny variety. I had already left for the DMN in 2000, but after Doug’s passing in 2002, newsroom staff at the Star-Telegram put together two pages of moving tributes they wrote in honor of him. All were homages and fond memories of our unforgettable friend and colleague, and I wanted to share a handful of them.
Here’s one by a good friend, former S-T copy editor/designer Robert Owens:
“I didn’t know Doug well, but I do treasure the memories I have of him.
“He always had a willing ear if something was on your mind, and he understood how a little sports chat can turn down the heat on a hectic night. He’d talk teams, players, franchises with anyone, but he didn’t trash talk buddies’ favorites the way many of us do in fun — it wasn’t his style.
“If I had a family or personal problem, I knew he always had a willing ear and a patient demeanor.
“His compassion for animals has been duly noted, but Doug also had a soft spot for young people; anyone familiar with his work as a zoo docent knows this.
“But these softer sides of him did not mask the seriousness and rigor that came into play when he edited copy. There’s no one else I would rather have handling something complex for one of my pages, especially if it concerned sports, zoo programs or one of his other areas of specialization.
“I’ll miss him. I feel lucky to have know him and worked with him.”
“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” — William Wordsworth
“What I remember most about Doug is his kindness. When I came to the Star-Telegram six years ago, he was one of the first people to say hello. He made me feel comfortable. He never raised his voice even in stressful times, and he was always willing to help me even if it wasn’t his responsibility. I could always count on him to teach me about an animal I didn’t know about or a sport I wasn’t familiar with. I don’t have one memory of Doug; I have lots of small ones, and I will always be grateful for those.”
And here’s a touching remembrance from the late Paul Cline Jr., former S-T copy editor and one of our golf buddies, who also died all too young at age 54 in 2013 and was previously married to my dear friend and S-T and DMN colleague Sandy Guerra-Cline:
“Doug always shared animal-related magazines, Web sites and other information with my three children, who have grown up admiring Doug and enjoying his safari stories and other animal knowledge, along with the “neat” photos, toys, noisemakers and other stuff in and on his desk.
“Doug was a role model not only for my children, but for his peers as well. Whether it was his concentration and diligence on deadline in the newsroom or his honesty and sportsmanship on the golf course, Doug stood as an example of integrity for all around him.
“I hope that right now he’s playing an immaculate, beautiful, environment-friendly golf course through a cool green valley near a gentle blue sea, with the wildlife he loved so much lining the fairways, serving as his gallery.
“I’ll always think of Doug when I’m in a newsroom, on a golf course or at a zoo.
“I’m thankful for the nine years I knew Doug — but I wish there had been many more.”
There were so many more poignant tributes and stories in those two pages. We all have our lasting memories of Doug stored in our hearts and thoughts, which flow toward him often.
All I know is, no kinder person have I ever known. Even though my life is filled with wonderful people, there will always be a void because Douglas Allen Brown isn’t in it anymore.
(FYI, the 3 other ladies I’m tagging in this post are Doug’s big sisters, Doris, Eileen and Yvonne, who dearly loved their baby brother. On the day Doug passed away, it was Eileen’s birthday, and it saddens me that she’ll always be reminded of that on her special day. But I’m sure she has made it a day to celebrate both her amazing brother’s life and her own. Happy birthday, Eileen! 🤗)
I’m a little late, but happy heavenly birthday to two enigmatic souls who are a huge part of me: my adoptive mother, whose birthday was Friday, and my biological father, whose birthday was Saturday.
Olga Eneida de Freitas Christlieb, shown on a happy Christmas morning in the early 1970s, raised me and therefore greatly influenced who I am. Her constant struggles, internally and with alcohol, made almost every day a challenge for all of us. But when she died in 2004 after years of strokes, both major and minor, Mom finally found a place where her untreated issues no longer had her, and her family, in their unrelenting grip.
I don’t know how old Mom would’ve turned on her birthday, because she never let on what year she was born. She guarded her driver’s license as if it bore secrets on which her life depended. She was either born in 1930, 1931 — or 1923, which is what one place on the Social Security Death Index on Ancestry says and what some Panama documents we found at Dad’s house after his passing in 2014 make reference to.
A fellow I reached out to in Panama a couple of years ago — whose grandfather had the same name as Olga’s father, but it apparently wasn’t him — was able to get a copy of her birth certificate for me, and it says 1930. (It’s not the original — just a document typed up with her birthdate and parents’ names.)
But whatever year it was, we all wish you a happy birthday and send you our love, Mom.
Orval Bradford Workman — who decided sometime during his youth to rename himself Robert and went by Bob — never laid eyes on me or, as far as we know, even knew about me before his tragic drowning at age 45 in Florida 16 months after I was born in West Virginia in February 1961. I may not look a whit like Bob — facial features or the hair: His was wavy and mine is straight as raw spaghetti … although hopefully not that stiff.
But Bob left an undeniable imprint on me, as anyone whose genes have been passed on to another would. Just as I see my striking resemblance to my birth mother Betty in the many photos my older full siblings have shared with me since I found them, I have come to know how I am like both parents who conceived me little more than a year after their 1959 divorce.
Startling as it seems — at least to me, a guy who’s still in his 50s (barely) — Bob would’ve turned 104 years old Saturday. He was born in 1916, the same year as some really big names you’ll recognize: actors Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, both of whom died this year at ages 104 and 103; and a slew of other actors/entertainers including Gregory Peck, Glenn Ford, Betty Grable, Jackie Gleason, Van Johnson, Keenan Wynn, Dorothy McGuire, Fernando Lamas and Dinah Shore. Beloved TV journalist Walter Cronkite was also born in 1916, along with world-known British veterinarian/author James Herriot and playwright/screenwriter Horton Foote.
Last but not least, many of you know Ramona and Beezus from her many children’s books, but author Beverly Cleary was also born the same year as my birth father — and she is still alive at 104.
As for this photo of Bob, I wish I knew its story. It clearly was taken during his youth in West Virginia, probably when he was between 13 and 15, but that’s only a guess. My sister Terry — who was just 5 when Bob faded from Betty’s and my three siblings’ lives for good around the time I was conceived in 1960 — and I have talked about it and have no clue who the baby in the pic is. I would think it’s a relative, though.
Bob grew up an only child: His older brother Lyston died at age 3 in 1913, we assume of scarlet fever or some other childhood illness. Another older sibling (we don’t know if it was a boy or a girl), apparently born in 1912, died either in childbirth or at a very young age.
So, a wondrously happy birthday to you, Olga and Bob. Who knows, maybe you’ve met in heaven and are talking about me right now?!
I had the most wonderful phone visit with this gentleman this morning. He’s Bob Nelson, and he was my Dad’s best friend growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Bob turned 90 in April and is still going strong, just using “a stick” — a cane — occasionally, although he says he doesn’t really need to. His wife Betty is doing great at 86, too. They live in a senior community of about 50 apartments in Hudson, Wisconsin, a quaint little town on the St. Croix River that separates the two states.
You’ll never meet a more pleasant fellow. Then again, having visited Minnesota numerous times to see my grandparents Alma and Frank and other relatives while growing up — and quite a few more times since — I’ve never met anyone from the Land of 10,000 Lakes who wasn’t the definition of friendliness and warmth.
Bob was so happy to hear from me. Since Dad passed away in July 2014, we’ve only spoken a couple of times and exchanged a handful of emails. We talked about how much we both miss him.
Betty and Bob have grown kids, along with grandkids and great-grandkids (when I asked him how many grands and greats, he laughed and said he’d have to write ’em all down to add ’em all up) Their oldest is a 64-year-old son who’s a dentist. Sadly, they lost one of their sons in a car accident about 10 years ago.
I told Bob that I’ll never forget how he drove, at age 84, three hours from Hudson to Hutchinson, Minnesota, to join us for Dad’s small but beautiful funeral service. That meant so much to us, not to mention how he stood there and gave a moving tribute to Dad, telling stories about his dear friend and sharing some of the memories he still cherishes after all the years.
In addition to the sweet photo of Bob and Betty, the group shot above is an awesome memory from 1947-48, Bob and Dad’s senior year at Murray High in St. Paul. (Murray stood right across from Dad’s house on Grantham Street in St. Anthony Park.) Dad, whose first name was Clark but who was known by his family and friends by his middle name, Lindsay, is the coolest of cool dudes at left in the awesome leather jacket. Bob, looking pretty doggone cool himself, is right next to him. A few years ago I knew the names of the other guys, but I’ve forgotten.
This last photo is part of a true keepsake: After Dad died and we were going through the countless heirlooms and family treasures at his home in Missouri City, I found a letter Bob had sent him in August 1949. Bob was in the Army, stationed somewhere in the Pacific, and Dad was in the middle of unsuccessfully trying his hand at two Minnesota colleges — Carleton and Winona — before joining the Navy in 1950 and ending up stationed in Panama for over three years.
It’s a two-page letter full of great fun like “Are we still going hitchhiking across the States some summer?” and “It’s hotter than hell again today. … I still wish a damn typhoon would hit here.” We just don’t write letters like they used to, do we?
One of the last things I told Bob before we said goodbye was what an amazing coincidence it is that my biological parents have the same names as he and his wife Betty (her formal name is Elisabeth). He knew about my having found my birth family 15 years ago, but didn’t recall that my parents’ names were Betty and Bob.
The Nelsons are such great folks, and I feel very lucky to know them. It’s like having a piece of Dad to hang on to a little while longer. I’m going to do my best to make sure we stay in as close a touch as possible from now on.