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The Fighting Judge

June 8th, 2018 No comments

 

Wilmer Brady Hunt, Texas 133rd District Civil Court Judge 1947-1969

A Recollection by Sperry Hunt … with a little help from my friends. 

A few months before my birth, my father Wilmer Brady Hunt (1903-1982) was appointed, and later elected, judge of the 133rd Judicial District Court of Texas where he remained unopposed for 22 years. A humorist and a concise storyteller, Dad created a ludicrous tale about the occasion. The morning began, he said, with his speaking from the bench to a mass of prisoners brought before him. He asked the men if it was the birthday of any among them. Perplexed and wary, no one spoke. He said that was a shame because, in honor of his son’s birth, he would have release them had they said yes. Hands shot up.

Another humorous fabrication was the account of meeting my mother at her debutante ball in 1928. As he described it, she stepped in front of the other girls, extended her arms, and said, “Stand back, girls! This one’s mine.” My mother’s version of the story involves the tradition that the debutants were given dance cards filled with the names of young men who wished to dance with them. Upon meeting her, my father asked to see her card. When she gave it to him, he quickly switched it with one with his name written in pencil on every line. I have that card.

My father was gracious and gentle. He could be stern, but never lost his cool. (The exception was when my mechanically challenged dad had to change the license plates. There was much swearing.) His own father, my mother said, had a temper. In one reported incident, Grandpa pulled a pistol on a streetcar conductor in New York City. My grandpa’s temper likely tempered his son’s.

Dad enjoyed solitude and measured conversation. A devout Catholic, he spent a number of weekends during my childhood in silent meditation at a monastery not far from our home in Houston. I believe one of the reasons he loved the court so much was that the conversation was civil, and he was in charge of it. Many times, I waited for him in the gallery, watching how relaxed and often jovial he seemed, seated between his clerk and bailiff, elevated above everyone.

But as peaceful as my dad was, he was equally proud, patriotic and fearless. My mother said he dreamt of fighting for his country. He was born in the American South filled with aging veterans and the glory stories of the Civil War. When he was a boy, President Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, sent the Great White Fleet around the world. Dad was thirteen when America joined the first World War. A year later the United States was a global power.

Dad glorified fighting with words. His favorite retort to a challenge was, “I’m a match. Strike me and see where you light.” Raised by a lawyer to be a lawyer, my dad was heavily schooled in poetry and oratory. As treatment for a serious boyhood stammer, he memorized large blocks of poetry. His favorite was the chivalric verse of Alfred Tennyson. He could recite “Lancelot and Elaine” in its entirety, beginning with the lines “Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable, Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat,” His favorite books as boy were those of Sir Walter Scott, notably the tale of the bold knight Ivanhoe. As a man, he read the Horatio Hornblower naval novels of C. S. Forester and the plays of Shakespeare his entire life. Some of my best teenage memories of him are of sitting together watching Shakespearean on television. His favorite characters were the warriors, particularly John of Gaunt and Henry V. Dad could recite the entire St. Crispin’s Day speech which ends …

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition…And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Mom told me a story of coming home from shopping one winter day to discover Dad’s car in the driveway. She put the groceries in the kitchen and searched the dim, still house. She opened the library doors to find him on the sofa with the curtains drawn. Sitting beside him, she asked what had happened.

“They wouldn’t take me,” he replied sobbing into his hands. It was soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, and the army had rejected for him for having three kids, flat feet, and being thirty-nine.

A story both of my parents told me took place at a restaurant across Texas Avenue from the Rice Hotel in downtown Houston. The occasion was a visit by my mother’s friend Georgia Bell Duncan, whom she described as “young and lovely.” As she was only a few years younger than my mother, I would put the date in the late 1930s.

During the meal a drunk approached the table and began making suggestive remarks to Georgia Bell. After trying to reason with the man, Dad asked the maître d’ to call the police, which he apparently did not do. The drunk persisted which prompted my dad to attempt to eject the man out himself. The result in a brawl across the restaurant. My father said he traded punches with the guy for some time. He was getting the best of the man, but he kept coming at him. Unable to knock him out with his fists, Dad grabbed the man’s tie in one hand and his hair in the other and broke his nose on the bar, ending the struggle.

My dad told me a story which, though it isn’t about him, seems significant to his character because he repeated the tale several times. In the story, a white farmer married a black woman. The farm, as I remember, was near Brenham. The couple had several sons and did well for many years. One day the farmer received an anonymous letter from the KKK directing him to leave town or die. (My father hated the Klan for their bigotry and despised them as cowards, for their masks.) Without hesitation, my dad said, the man drove into town and walked into the office of a prominent attorney, who everyone knew to be the local Klan leader. He grabbed the lawyer by his lapels and stood him up. “If you kill me,” the farmer told the lawyer, “you’d better kill all of my sons too. If one of us is left alive, you’ll be the first to die.” The farmer was never bothered again. My dad believed in the direct, manly approach in some situations, which is not necessarily what one would expect of a judge. The following story exemplifies that attitude:

I have a vague memory of what happened in the house that night. But I must have been young. On reflection I think it was the vivid way Mom told the story that makes me believe I witnessed it.

The court system was simpler in the 1950s. There was no family court. A civil state judge handled pretty much everything non-criminal including civil suits, adoption, divorce and child custody. The most contentious were the latter two. In one case, a man called our house at night angry about Dad’s decision to grant his wife a divorce. The man said he wanted to fight him over it.

“Where are you?” my dad said. “I’ll be right there.”

The man paused, then said he was at a diner on Telephone Road, a wide commercial street that runs behind Hobby Airport.

“I’ll be there in thirty minutes,” Dad said and hung up the phone.

An extremely emotional woman, Mom pleaded desperately that he not go. Bear in mind that Dad was in his fifties and had already had a heart attack. He had been a local tennis champion as a young man, but he had done little physically since except to hunt, fish and swim laps.

“Call the sheriff,” Mom said.
“No, and don’t you either,” he said. “I’ll take care of this.”
Dad dressed and left. My mother immediately called Sheriff Clairville “Buster” Kern whom they knew as a friend. Kern was an institution, serving from 1949 to 1975. Mom pleaded with him to help, but not to let Dad know that she had called him. Sheriff Kern assured her he would send plain clothes officers who would not reveal themselves if possible.

My dad returned later to say he had waited for some time, but the man didn’t appear, and that was the end of it.

My mother became the owner of a Smith & Wesson .38 Special pistol. She told me the sheriff gave it to her for protection. She kept it around the house and in the glove compartment when she travelled alone. (As a cautionary tale, I will tell you that on a visit to my parents’ house, my three-year-old son discovered it, loaded, and brought it downstairs and into the living room where I gently took it from him.)

My brother Grainger has what he believes is an account of this, though I think it was a different event. Here is his recollection:

The man was a foul-mouthed lawyer that lost a case in Dad’s court and was calling the house every half-hour or so. Dad remained calm and borrowed a little baseball bat from me and stuck it under his coat before leaving. He’d been gone about ten minutes when the man called the house. I told him Dad was on his way. When Dad got there, the guy was not home. 

I only saw my father touch the pistol once. We were at our little summer house high on a dry, stony hill overlooking Alpine, Texas in the Chihuahua Desert five hundred miles west of Houston. I was eleven. Grainger was target shooting in the dusty driveway. He had just shot four or five rounds unsuccessfully at a bottle cap hanging from a clothespin on the line..

My dad strolled by, and said, “Let me show you how it’s done.” He took one shot and blew bottlecap off the line.

My brother and I were stunned. “I’ll bet you can’t do that with your next shot,” Grainger said.

“You first,” Dad said walking away. 

My dad retired in 1969 and my folks moved to Austin where my brother and I were in college. By the mid-70s, my mother’s mother’s health failed. Nanny Mine, as my cousins and I called her, was in her late eighties. My folks rented an apartment in Houston near her home in the old Montrose.

One weekend in the early 1970s, my dad decided to pay Nannie Mine a visit. As he walked from the apartment to her house, two men appeared from behind, punched Dad, knocking him down. They took his watch and wallet and left him there.  “They were experts,” he said anxiously when I saw him soon after. “They could have killed me.”  

Several months later my parents visited my sister Robin and their house on 13th Street. near the Bowery in New York City. The neighborhood was  frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers. When Dad took Robin’s Weimaraner dog Eva for a walk, he was confronted by a much younger man. Dad told him something like, “If I don’t get you, this dog will.” The man walked away.

A few days ago I sent a draft of this post to my dear friend Andy Wilhoit in Houston.  He replied with an account of an event I had forgotten. I put it at 1969-70 when Andy and I lived near each other in Austin. To my dad’s actions displayed how bold he still was, despite his age and vulnerability. This story also speaks to my mother’s respect for his pride.

Your father was quite a man[, Andy wrote]. I think we spoke of this before but I don’t know if you remember the incident. We were together one day where you were living and if I remember right your mother called and said your father had his briefcase taken from [my] yellow mustang. She said some guy had called and said he had “found” it and wanted a reward for returning it. Your father had agreed to meet by the [University] COOP on Guadalupe to exchange. She was alarmed so you and I quickly drove down to support him and step in if needed. We stood a way off( I remember us taking off our shoes and prepping to step in if needed). We watched from about two stores away. We saw your dad walk up and a young guy approached him and the exchange went fine. Your dad went back to his car and left never seeing us or knowing about your mother’s call. We were glad it was just a shake down and not a stick up.

My dad spent his last decade with my mother in a beautiful home at the summit of Red Bud Trail in Austin. The house had a long lawn leading to a pool perched on a bluff that offered a fine view of the Colorado River and the Capitol. He and Mom travelled to Europe and California. They formed lasting friendships with good people and often visited by their many grandchildren. My last memory of the fighting judge was in in the rearview mirror of the U-Haul truck that Springer, Chris and I would take to Vermont to build a new home. Dressed in slippers and a burgundy robe, his silver hair freshly combed, he waved to us with a smile. I miss him every day.

 

Jeana’s day in divorce court

September 10th, 2017 Comments off

[I found this in a steno book from around 1951. The photo is from the 1940’s  ~ Sperry Hunt]

Judge Hunt and Jeana 40sRestaurant

My husband is a judge. I was waiting to have lunch with him. He was trying a divorce case. He denied the divorce, and added, looking straight at me, “Young man you have had nothing worse happen to you than any of the rest of us.” The whole court room howled.

[Click below to open the image.]

Jeana’s Day in Court

Eugenia Hunt’s advice on having a happy marriage

September 10th, 2017 Comments off

[From Eugenia’s steno pad dated November 2, 1952. The photo is from the 1940s ~ Sperry Hunt]

Judge Hunt and Jeana 40sRestaurant

Marriage is a  remarkable institution. It’s full of more fun and trouble that you can imagine. But if you make up your mind to have more fun, you’ll have less trouble.

Make it your business to keep him happy and you know what[?] He’ll make you happy. Worry him good and plenty and you’ll reap your reward.

That’s my best advice.

 

[Click below for scan.]

Jeana Advice on Marriage

 

 

Lennie Sherman

February 16th, 2017 Comments off

Lennie Sherman

This was a print from a painting. According to Eugenia Hunt this is the woman who made or helped to create the battle flag at San Jacinto. She was the wife of [later] General Sydney Sherman. Sherman was second in command at the battle. It is who is credited in Bartletts Quotations as the author of the phrase “Remember the Alamo.” She was the grandmother of Lucy Brady, who married Wilmer Sperry Hunt.

Eugenia and Wilmer’s First House at 2920 San Felipe, Houston

November 27th, 2016 Comments off

judge-and-jeanas-house-1933-to-1945-was-at-or-near-3315-san-felipe-st2

Judge Wilmer Hunt bought this house for his bride, Jeana.

The judge claimed that when he showed her the living room, she said, “So, this is where we will entertain our guests.”

He nodded and took her into the dining room.

She said, “So, this is where we will eat our dinner.”

He nodded and took her into the kitchen.

She frowned and asked, “What happens in here?”

 

Jeana: The buck stopped here.

November 25th, 2016 Comments off

jeana-and-the-buck-back-and-front

This photograph was taken when Jeana was 26.

The back of the photograph reads:

About 1936.

Buck I killed on King Ranch was 19 points. I felt like a murderess. Needless to say I never shot another one.

Eugenia Howard Hunt

Her husband Wilmer was an attorney for the owners of the King Ranch at the time.

Jeana’s conundrum: Take a husband or paints to France.

November 25th, 2016 1 comment

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In 1975 Jeana wrote:

Dear Ones. The terrible week of decision. This has happened many times and I have yet to come out of ahead. What to take on an extended trip to a foreign country, where I really want to work. Of course the first selection is whether to take a husband. This is an impossible decision. He will go. I will enjoy him. I will not get as much done as I would like to. The second selection is paints. I go to a country where there are thousands of artists. Last time I went to France I decided to leave my paints and other supplies here and buy a small, fresh supply there.  Paris is immense. It was icy cold and my French is always scared, so the supplies I purchase were to say the least inadequate. So I shall take them with me. On the ship going over the weight will not matter, but we are flying back. So, I shall take an adequate amount and use them up and only return with the finished products. Voila! Then comes the clothes. We go over on the Queen Elizabeth which is sailing on the 21st of July. We dress for dinner every night. Then we will be in the country in France where it will not matter so that means an extra suitcase of clothes, which they will weigh on the plane when we return. So I have decided to take caftans which will serve as dress-up clothes and country clothes. I will fix those French for over-weight. I think that they should count the weight of the person.  Wilmer [husband] certainly should not be allowed as many pounds as I, who have so systematically shed so many pounds, that soon I have to have y face lifted.

I have made Daddy [husband] a caftan out of blue denim and it makes him look like an old sheik. All he needs is a wrapped white turban above his white beard. It was like making a tent. I have sewn seams and sewn seams. I think he needs a girdle.

Love and kisses,

Jeana

[Eugenia Howard Hunt]

Jeana, Venus and the Russians

November 24th, 2016 Comments off

russians-venus-and-jeana-2

On March 1, 1966 Jeana wrote in her appointment book:

“Horrors! The Russians landed on Venus, and planted the Russian coat of arms!”

Wikipedia Article: The Soviet Union becomes the first to land [crash] a probe on another planet.

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Jeana portraits circa 1960 at 526 W. Friar Tuck, Houston

November 20th, 2016 Comments off

jeana-portraits-early-1960s

The portrait on the left was done by another artist. Jeana did a portrait of her as well.

The photograph at the right is of Jeana in her bedroom with her garden behind her. The house was at 526 W. Friar Tuck in Houston.

Jeana writes about a camping trip at ten.

November 19th, 2016 Comments off

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Jeana wrote this circa 1950 about a 1920 camping trip to Galveston as a ten-year-old with her brother Ryland, her best friend Marie Lee and her family.

I raised myself on my elbow. The fire was out. The cot creaked as I sat up to see the reason why. There was  a sound of lapping.

My ten years, even with the Lees for friends, had not prepared me. I was on a coot under a tent by an automobile. There were sleeping people around me. But we had all gone to sea! The water was swarming with jelly fish, round, opalescent, transparent pearl jelly. There they were gray, gargantuan quivering pearls bumping the legs of our cots. I parted the sodden mosquito bar [net]. I put my hand out and pushed one. It was cold and resistant. “Mr. Lee,” I called.

His head came up in his mosquito bar. Mrs. Lee’s head arose. Marie said, “It’s too early, shush!”

“Well, we have gone to sea.”

Mr. Lee yelped, and jumped from his bed into the automobile. The car would not start.

Mrs. Lee scrambling out of bed. “We’d better all pull our things back out to the beach.”

We put our feet over into the warm, sticky water of summer at Galveston. The small arisen tide was foaming gently on the hard sand. For three feet in the beach, was a mass of jelly fish that the water was busily moving about.

Mr. Lee ordered us all out to push the car to safety. Gabriel [Lee] and Ryland helped. But the automobile remained exactly as I and the down first saw it, stationary.

There were some net fisherman further down the beach. We were sent for them, to please come.

The whole earth was a replica of the jelly fish, grey sky filled with clouds, which the sun could not pierce. The sands were hard and grey and wet. Far out the water was silver moving in patterns of crinkled foil. Looking down the beach at the thousands of lumps of jelly through which we had to pick our way. I wondered if the car would sink or just wash out.

The fisherman reluctantly returned with us. We found sticks and brutally pierced the globs of jelly and Mrs. Lee took our picture so that the sticks were hidden while the men pushed the car dryward. We scurried out and pulled the cots back also.

“Firewood,” shouted our director. We fled toward the higher sand, and came back with satiny, cream branches which we heaped in a pile.

“Get those jelly fish back where they beyond, and we’ll have breakfast.”

Sand, wet and fish smell faded as the fire ate at the woods. The bacon and eggs were floating in bubbles of fat. We were toasting bread on our sticks, which were now divested of sea creatures.

“The clouds threaten rain,” Mr. Lee stated. “Guess, we better go in after breakfast.

Ryland and Gabriel were gobbling breakfast and objecting. They were already suited for bathing.

“Those jelly fish are knee-deep out there. You don’t want to get mixed up [with] them.

“But, Daddy,” this from Marie. “We just came here last night.”

I was tired. Mrs. Lee had kept the fire going for hours last night. I had awakened many times as he poked and pitched on wood. The waves were there making wind in the pines sounds. I was dirty and thought of home pleasantly.

So, we started the long journey home. Gabriel snuck a jelly fish in under the seat of the car. Mrs. Lee kept smelling and said we all needed baths. We giggled so much, she finally demanded the fish.

Mothers certainly are smart.

Eugenia Hunt (left) and Marie Lee (center) circa 1927,

Eugenia Hunt (left) and Marie Lee (center) circa 1927,

Marie Lee in 1926 at Rice University . [Marie Phelps]

Marie Lee in 1926 at Rice University . [Marie Lee Phelps]