Today is my dad’s birthday. He was born February 19, 1903 and died February 4, 1972, just a couple of weeks after my 19th birthday. My dad was a native Texan; his mother, Mollie Fitzgerald Leatherwood, came from one of the founding families of Fannin County where he and his nine siblings were born and raised. I was born and raised there, too, along with my four brothers, one sister and many cousins, the children of all my dad’s brothers and sisters.
The Leatherwood family had a presence in our little town of 7,000. I didn’t know my Grandmother Leatherwood, but I understand she was a strong and kind matriarch, who didn’t suffer fools. My grandfather had died in an auto accident long before I entered the scene and all I know about him is that my dad didn’t seem to like him very much. When I asked Daddy about him, his mouth tightened and he shook his head. “I spent many a day behind the woodshed with him and his leather strap,” is about all he would say.
My dad’s name was officially Leslie Earl, but everyone called him George. My Aunt Millie, my dad’s older sister, told me that when my dad was a little boy he loved a man in their farming community named George and he spent all of his time with him. As a result, everyone who knew them started calling them Big George and Little George. Big George also loved to play the fiddle, which my dad apparently loved to hear. My Aunt Millie and Aunt Lucille (the youngest sister) also called my daddy, “Fid.” That, too, was in reference to Big George. So, I can only conclude that my father had a positive male role model in his life as a child, but that person may not have been his father.
My grandfather’s untimely death – a Model T crash – derailed my father’s well-laid plans for a college education and medical career. That death meant that my dad needed to make sure that Grandmother Leatherwood and his three closest siblings in age were seen after. This is exactly what he did and instead of college, he sold products door to door, managed the Denison Hotel, bought a “filling” station with his younger brother, Hutch, then a Buick dealership, followed by a couple of hardware stores. Eventually Uncle Hutch kept the hardware store and Daddy bought the sale barn. This was where ranchers from all over the county brought their cattle, horses and hogs to be auctioned off to other ranchers or to beef and pork manufacturers. I remember seeing 18-wheelers with livestock trailers and the word Hormel printed on their cabs parked in the massive parking lot of the sale barn. When I asked my dad what I was supposed to tell my friends that he did for a living since he owned the sale barn but had a manager and cowboys who ran it, he told me to tell my friends that he was a businessman. I was much older before I understood that he was an entrepreneur who bought and sold products and businesses until he found the one that suited him best and was the most profitable.
Besides my dad’s sale barn, there were three Leatherwood brother businesses on the town square: Leatherwood’s Hardware, Leatherwood Men’s Wear, and the Gem Café, owned by Uncle Hutch, Uncle Claude and Uncle Doc. The hardware store sold household items, glassware, dishes, and appliances along with standard hardware items; the men’s store was filled with beautiful suits, dress shirts and hats; and the Gem Café served delectable lunches and smelled of freshly baked yeast rolls and apple pie. As I said, the Leatherwoods had quite a presence in our little town.
When I think of my dad, who died two weeks shy of his 69th birthday, I think of an elegant man who had a sense of style, a great sense of humor and almond-shaped eyes like my own. He was a people person who had many friends. He loved bourbon, Camel cigarettes, how pretty the alfalfa looked as it was growing in the fields, Gunsmoke, our little Holy Trinity Episcopal church, his wife and children and his hometown. He was the mayor of Bonham when Harry Truman came through for a whistle-stop and I am certain he represented our small town with grace. I have never met anyone who loved his brothers and sisters more than my dad did and they loved him back. He had a strong sense of the importance of family, which is a core element in my own life. I have much to thank my father for, but, most importantly, for loving me with his whole heart. I feel that love everyday of my life even though Dad has been officially “gone” for over forty years.
As he would say to me when I was a teenager, “Len, I was 16 just a minute and a half ago.”
Now I understand exactly what that means and I can revisit 16 – and him – whenever I like.
That’s the grace of love, I expect.
Happy birthday, Daddy.