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The Fighting Judge

June 8th, 2018 Comments off

 

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.

 

Hedy Lamarr Meets Judge Hunt

May 21st, 2018 Comments off

Here Come Da Judge

In April of 1959 famed actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr found herself in Judge Hunt’s court suing her husband Houston oilman W. Howard Lee for divorce.

This from the Houston Chronicle April 15, 1959:

Miss Lamarr’s three appearances in Judge (Wilmer) Hunt’s courtroom Tuesday constituted an impromptu fashion show that was dictated in part by climatic conditions.
When she first came to the courtroom at 9 a.m. for the docket call, Miss Lamarr wore a bright red wool suit, thong sandals and a black scarf tied under the chin and worn like a babushka.
Returning shortly before 11 a.m. for the actual start of the hearing, she wore a tailored black suit with white beads and a yellow coolie straw hat over the babushka.
After the noon recess of court, she returned with an orange-red sweater under the suit coat and a salmon scarf in place of the coolie hat and black babushka.
The next day, Hunt awarded Lamarr $3,000 a month in temporary support, far less than she had originally sought.

The Houston Post reported
Within minutes after Judge Hunt announced his decision in the packed courtroom, Miss Lamarr walked over, smiled and chatted with Lee.
Asked by bystanders if she did not think a handshake was in order, she replied: “Why not? No hard feelings!”
Lee, apparently abashed, smiled and shook her gloved hand gingerly.
The niceties didn’t really end their legal squabbles, which continued off and on for at least the next 10 years.

Note: Here’s the source blog:

When Hedy Lamarr called Houston home

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

 

 

The Judge, Children and the Elbow Story

August 25th, 2017 2 comments
Lalu and her father at St. Anne's in Houston (c. 1940)

Lalu and her father at St. Anne’s in Houston (c. 1940)

Happy Birthday to my father Judge Hunt who was born on August 25, 1903.

Our father adored children.  Every kid who remembers him has a story. (If you do, please leave one as a comment.)  My dad would often engage one sitting at a nearby table. You can’t do this any more, but many times he handed a stick of gum to a passing tyke. His love of children and playing cards would sometimes lead him to engage older ones in a round of poker or gin rummy.

One of his favorite pastimes was leading a kid on with a card trick, a joke or a story.  My favorite was his tale about kissing his elbow. I watched him do this with dozens of two or three-year-olds. Here’s how it went:

Dad would sidle up to the child who was in the middle of say… eating pancakes.

“When I was a little girl,” he would say. “I put honey on my pancakes.”

The kid would freeze mid-bite, squint up at him and state the obvious with utter conviction. “You weren’t a girl,” she would say.

Dad would nod and continue. “When I was a little girl, I would pour so much honey on my pancakes there wouldn’t be any left for anybody else.”

The kid would roll her eyes, heave a heavy sigh and say, “You were a boy, not a girl.”

Dad would nod again and march on with his pancake story.

Exasperated, the victim would invariably pose the obvious question, “If you were a girl, how come you’re a  boy now?”

“I kissed my elbow and turned into a boy,” he would say as though everyone knew this is how gender was redetermined. He would then complete his pancake elaboration and turn away.

Onlookers following the ruse would then observe the child scowl as if deeply in thought.  After a moment’s contemplation she would seize her elbow and try to draw it to her lips, then stop and shake her head.

As to whether she chose not to kiss her elbow because she couldn’t or shouldn’t was left to question.

 

 

 

Happy Father’s Day

June 18th, 2017 Comments off
Wilmer Eugenia Sperry Brady and Young Roy 1960 or so

Wilmer, Eugenia and Sperry with young Brady, and Roy circa 1960.

Wilmer Brady Hunt, my dad, was an avid sportsman, as was his father Wilmer Sperry Hunt. Dad told me that in 1910 or so, Grandpa shot as many ducks as he could carry home, somewhere in what is now the Montrose section of Houston. In the early 1900’s Grandpa bought – or accepted as a legal fee – 2200 acres of dense forest near Danciger, Texas. Dad and Grandpa hunted there in the ’20s. My brother Grainger and Dad hunted there in the ’50s mostly. Dad and I were there in the ’60s after Grainger went off to university.

My most vivid memories of hunting with him were on days when we’d arise at 3:45 AM and drive through a dark, ocean of fog so thick you could see nothing beyond the hood of our car. Had we encountered a stalled vehicle or a cow, we would have died instantly, as would have anyone behind us. I was absolutely terrified. Dad whistled “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I must have been clutching the seat, for he occasionally patted my leg reassuringly.

The drive was about ninety minutes. We arrived in the dark. I opened the padlock on the gate by the light of the car. It was cold by Texas standards. Forty-five degrees or so, which seemed frigid to me then. We drove down a shell road that crunched beneath our tires to a narrow clearing in the forest. We were met by a group of men and women gathered in the flickering shadows around a campfire. These people were from the coastal area around Freeport and had a hunting lease with us.  An older man named Red seemed to be the leader.  His wife, I believe, was named Betty. Wonderful hosts, they fed us coffee, biscuits and pan-fried squirrel and venison – all delicious.

Dad and I never shot anything there. We were there to hunt deer only. We did shoot, clean and eat many a dove, duck and quail shot elsewhere though. At the time I thought we hunted because my dad was eager to do so. Years later, after my father passed, my mother told me he rarely wanted to go. When he was in his forties, he certainly did. But at sixty, not so much. Mom said she sometimes had to urge him to go. I know now, he took me so I could know what he had experienced with his father, who probably didn’t want to go in later life either – as I would not now.

My son Christopher Austin Sperry Hunt, and I didn’t hunt. I never really had a real passion for it. We did get our black belts together and saw hundreds of movies, shoulder-to-shoulder laughing in the dark. Now he has movie nights at home on Mondays with his two girls. He takes them to karate and dance classes, and for hikes to the woods, mountains and beaches. Someday he’ll feel too tired to go but will anyway because he loves them, and he’s their dad. And so the world turns.

Happy Fathers Day, everyone!
See a Companion Story

“When you are my age you will understand.”

January 26th, 2017 Comments off

Evinrude Motor

Good stories have clear characterization, character being defines as desire, drive, ability, compassion and perspective all of which change over a lifetime.  Here’s a simple example of those changes from my own family history. I’ve been thinking about this lately as I ponder my upcoming knee replacement.

Philo Howard, my mother’s brother, was  a frank, funny, energetic man. At sixteen, he ran away to Canada from his home in Houston. There, he lied about his age and joined the Canadian Royal Air Force to fight in WWII, which the US had not yet entered. His whereabouts were determined by my dad’s mother who read an article in the Houston paper listing Texas volunteers. Uncle Philo was returned to the bosom of his family forthwith. Several years later he enlisted in  the American Air Corps and flew P-51s over Europe.

My family had a party in Houston in 2003 to celebrate what would have been my late father’s 100th birthday. My uncle, who recently had his pacemaker replaced, couldn’t make the party. He emailed me this tribute to be read at the celebration. My dad, Judge Wilmer Hunt, was nearly twenty-years his senior. To his great sorrow he was denied military service due to his age,  very flat feet and a knee injured by my mother. (That’s another story.) The setting of Philo’s account is the rich farmland of eastern Texas in the 50’s. By prison, my uncle was referring to a pea farm, as they were called back then. They were minimum security prisons where inmates grew food for the prison system.

Wilmer was my favorite, because he liked to fish and many times took me along. One time he took me to Kemah and we got in a small skiff and towed [it] out to the middle of the bay for four hours. I was always a little hyper, and I almost jumped out of the boat after about an hour. Wilmer seeing this, started telling me stories. As I remember, this calmed me down a bit and I caught some fish.

Being a Judge he had access to a prison and one near Brazoria had a great fishing pond. He and I went there about three times. It seemed I always ended up having  to carry a small Outboard motor from the parking lot to the lake each time. I asked him why, and he said “when you are my age you will understand.”

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?”

 

Judge Wilmer Hunt sat on the board of Houston’s first African-American hospital

November 25th, 2016 Comments off

riverside-general

In the early to mid-1960’s my father, Judge Wilmer Brady Hunt sat on the board of Riverside General, Houston’s first African-American hospital.  Here is an article on the institution, which finally closed in 2014. He took me there on a visit in the summer of 1963.
Sperry Hunt

The article reads:

The Houston Negro Hospital was created in 1926 when the earlier black Union-Jeramiah Hospital was no longer capable of accommodating the rapidly growing black population of Houston, Texas. African American community leaders began a campaign to garner support from local physicians when oilman Joseph Cullinan, who had earlier supported the existing hospital, donated $80,000 to construct a new facility. The city of Houston donated three acres of land in the Third Ward for the new fifty-bed hospital. Construction began in 1925.  

The dedication of the hospital was held on June 19, 1926, a major local holiday in Texas known as “Juneteenth,” which commemorates the day Emancipation occurred in the state.  At the dedication a bronze tablet from the Tiffany Company was unveiled stating that the building was erected “in memory of Lieutenant John Halm Cullinan,” Joseph Cullinan’s son who had died during World War I. The tablet also declared that the hospital was “dedicated to the American Negro to promote self-help, to insure good citizenship, and for the relief of suffering, sickness, and disease among them.”

Read more…

Judge Hunt – Thank you letter from Jefferson County Judge

November 25th, 2016 Comments off

This is a letter from judge in Jefferson County, Texas thanking Judge Hunt for his service. It includes an note concerning another blog post

 

judge-wilmer-hunt-letter-about-trial-of-sheriff2

trial-of-jefferson-county-sheriff

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

November 25th, 2016 1 comment

qe-2

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]