Monday, May 28, 2012

A Memorial Day memory

      Memorial Day -- a day for remembering our servicemen, a day of reflection, a day of peace.
      It was Memorial Day two years ago, the last day of May, when -- on my way out of town from Shreveport, headed back home to Fort Worth -- I stopped in at Forest Park West Cemetery. I can tell you for sure that it was the first time in 42 years I had been there.
      Henry Lee "Trey" Prather is buried there. So are his parents.
       It was a beautiful, sunny day. It was peaceful. The visit there was something I felt I needed to do -- I'd put it off far too long.
      It was painful. It was a pain I had avoided all those years. But it was also cathartic.
      We -- my family -- were facing difficult days. Four days earlier, as I was walking the short distance from our apartment to Colonial Country Club just a bridge across the Trinity River to follow Shreveport resident David Toms in an early morning round on the first day of the Crowne Plaza Invitational, I received a phone call -- my mother, age 88, had fallen at her front doorstep and broken her left hip.
      The timing of the phone calls, first from my mother's best friend, Lou Gwin, to Bea, and then from Bea to me was fortuitous. Five minutes later, and I would have been inside the Colonial gates, with my phone turned off. Bea would have had to come find me at the tournament, and she didn't have a ticket.
      Emergency trip to Shreveport. Surgery -- a risk at her age -- for my mother. Eventually, she was sent to a rehab facility. We didn't know it then, but less than a month later, she would be gone. She tried to recover; her spirit was willing; her tiny body wasn't up to it.
       Bea stayed with her the entire time, either at the hospital, then at the rehab place, only spending some time at Oma's house. I had to return to work in Fort Worth, but came back each Monday-Tuesday when I had days off.
       On the original trip back home, I stopped at Forest Park West.
        The cemetery is located at 70th Street and Meriwether Road. The Shreveport airport grounds are within sight; access to Interstate-20 is a short drive away; going the other way, so is Oak Terrace Junior High, where I first met Trey Prather, where I first saw him play quarterback, and basketball, and throw the discus in track and field.
       In an e-mail a few months earlier, Ralph Kraft -- Trey's center in our senior year at Woodlawn High -- had given me directions to the location of the Prathers' graves at Forest Park West. (Ralph is now an attorney in Lafayette and, for years, had encouraged me to write about Trey.)
       Directions-challenged that I am, I couldn't find the location. Wandered the cemetery for 30 minutes without luck. It was a very warm day, and I was getting warm. There were few visitors to the cemetery that day; somewhat surprising considering it was Memorial Day.
       Finally, I came across an older couple walking in the same vicinity. The man asked if he could help me find someone.
       When I told him the name, Prather, he thought for a moment, then said, "I remember that name. Wasn't the boy a star quarterback here a long time ago?" Yes, I replied, yes he was. And I told them of the Woodlawn/LSU connection and Trey's death in Vietnam. The man nodded; he remembered.
         The man also suggested I go to the cemetery office for help finding the location. (Now why didn't I think of that?)
         Fortunately, there were people in the office. A young lady asked for the name and looked up the location in a couple of minutes.
        The graves sit just off a road. If you're standing in front of them, Trey's grave is in the middle, a small American flag in front of the grave. Mr. Prather (Lee) is to the left; Mrs. Prather (Marilyn) to the right.
        It was quiet, except for birds chirping and squirrels darting here and there. As I stood there, memories flooded my mind. I thought about that cold January day in 1968 when I had last been there; the most painful day for so many of us Woodlawn kids; trying to make sense of a young man's death; of a needless, stupid war; the loss of promise of a talented, smart, personable, good-looking, down-to-earth guy with whom I had shared so many games; of the parents who cherished Trey and his sister Pou.
        It struck me that Mrs. Prather was only 45 when she passed away, just two years after Trey; that Mr. Prather had died in 1985, just one year after the day I had seen him -- after so many years -- at the annual Woodlawn memorial service for fallen servicemen, the day I couldn't find the words to say to him.
         I'm glad I went out there that day. Because a family friend (the wonderful Ann Vanderwal) died a year later and was buried nearby, I had occasion to visit again. And I'll go back again ... maybe even on Memorial Day.
        Today we think of Trey Prather, and all the people -- male and female -- who gave their lives while serving in the U.S. military. They didn't die tragically, but I also think of my father-in-law, Howard Clinton Shaw, who was in the U.S. Army, and of my dad, who was in the Dutch Army.
          It's a day for remembering, a day of reflection, a day of peace.       

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Proud to be an American

      Posted this photo of a special certificate on Facebook a year ago today, and it received as much response as anything I've posted. So here's a blog post on it today.
      May 23 is a special date for the Van Thyn family. This is the 51st anniversary of the day -- May 23, 1961 -- that our family became United States citizens.
      This is my certificate of citizenship. I treasure it.
      That day, as I noted a year ago on the 50th anniversary, was one of the great days of our lives. I'll always feel that way.
      My parents, my sister Elsa and I were proud to be from Holland. It is one of the two greatest countries in the world. We have lived in the other one since 1956, and believe me, this -- not Holland -- is home.
     Just as they were determined to build a new life here, Rose and Louis Van Thyn were determined to pass the test to become citizens of the U.S. They worked hard to learn the answers to the potential questions that would be on the test, just as they had worked hard on their English class lessons when we first came to Shreveport.
     Once they past the test -- not that it was terribly difficult -- we went to the Caddo Parish courthouse in downtown for them to take the oath of citizenship. It was a fine moment.
     It was easy for me, and for Elsa (age 9). All we had to do was show up. I was 13 -- soon to be 14 -- and an eighth-grader at Oak Terrace Junior High, my first year as a team manager in athletics and my first year as a newspaper correspondent.
     Don't remember much about that day, except Wally Hood -- one of my old buddies from the St. James Episcopal Church baseball teams -- reminded me that Mr. Dubose (Bobby Dubose), our coach, gathered the team before practice that afternoon and announced that our family had become citizens that day and asked the boys for applause. Pretty cool.
     I can assure you this: If today, I had to study for that test just as my parents had done, I would gladly do it. And I'd pass it.
     My mother could sing the first two verses of The Star-Spangled Banner; she could recite Emma Lazarus' poem engraved on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty museum; she knew the whole poem, not just the famous "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..."
     She spoke English fairly well, although she had a Dutch accent. My dad, as many people remember, had a thick accent and mixed a lot of Dutch words with his English. But here's a key element: After a few years when a lot of Dutch was spoken in the house, English became the everyday language; there were only moments of Dutch. More importantly, they thought in English.
     I became very aware of this in 1991 when I made my first visit back to Holland since '56, going with my dad. As he spoke with Dutch friends in Dutch, I realized he was mixing in as many American phrases and words as he once mixed in Dutch with his English. And he had to stop to translate his own thoughts.
     I have often been asked if I could still speak or understand or write Dutch. Basically, very little. I know words and expressions, but can't put them in a sentence. I understand some of it, if it is spoken slowly and the speaker has an Amsterdam dialect (yes, there are various dialects in Holland). I can read just enough to comprehend a little of what is written.
     Let's put it this way: In '91, I tried to tell a security guard at Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium that I wanted to go inside and take a look at the place where I went on my own as a 7- and 8-year-old to watch pro soccer games. The guard didn't speak English; he had no clue what I was trying to say.
    I am an American. Like Elsa and my parents, I am a Dutch American, not an American Dutchman. Make sense?
    My mother and dad loved this country as much as anyone ever could; they were flag-wavers. They were grateful for the opportunities America provided, and they tried to give back. I feel the same way, and I'm sure Elsa does, too.
     Being a U.S. citizen is something I will never take for granted.

Friday, May 18, 2012

He's taken life to the Max

        His given name is Brian. Never heard anyone call him that. It's always been Butch ... Butch Smart. And beginning in the mid-1960s at Louisiana Tech, to many of us associated with the basketball team, it became Maxwell Smart -- yes, just like agent 86 in the TV show Get Smart.       Max, for short.
       He was a team manager -- and a friend to everyone. He had played high school basketball at Summerfield (more on that place later) and he was a basketball savant. Sometimes at Tech, he would take part in team scrimmages as a fill-in. Mostly he absorbed the game.
       He has just concluded a 44-year coaching career, filled with championships and more than 700 victories. He's gone from North Louisiana to a decade in the Baton Rouge area, and finally, to 16 years in a comfortable place a distance away -- Highlands, N.C.
Coach Butch Smart (with blue tennis shoes) is honored
 at a Highlands High School basketball game
 (photo from Macon County News, Franklin, N.C.)
       Here is the point of this piece: Butch Smart is one of the toughest, most courageous, most inspirational people I know.
        And as I told him, he doesn't even look tough. Anything but.
        He is one of America's thinnest men. Imagine a 6-footer at about 150 pounds. And that was before cancer repeatedly struck at his insides, before hours and hours of surgery -- a couple of times, most recently within the last month.
         He also has a Southern drawl -- Suthern drrraawwwllll -- that is off the charts. If my sister's friends up north think they have trouble understanding me, with Butch, they'd have no chance.
         Love hearing Butch expound on matters of life. It's always fun to talk with him. No, to listen to him.
          He's so mind-mannered. But as I said, there is a toughness, a resiliency, within this guy that cannot be measured.
          Not that it manifest itself outwardly. He was more a scholarly teacher -- in the classroom and on the basketball court -- than a screamer. I'm sure he wasn't too rough on officials or on his kids. Beloved would be an apt description. That's not always the case with coaches.
         There were guys in Coach Scotty Robertson's program at La. Tech who became prominent coaches -- most notably Leon Barmore, Mike McConathy, Tim Floyd, Jim Wooldridge and the late Tommy Joe Eagles. But none were closer personally to Scotty than Butch, and he adopted most of Scotty's coaching methods.
           Back to the Summerfield connection. Butch arrived at Tech many years before Karl Malone came out of that small place in Claiborne Parish and he had been there a couple of years in the mid-1960s before Charlie Bishop -- the top prospect in North Louisiana as a senior -- became Tech's first 7-footer. Butch was Tech's secret weapon; his role, as a hometown guy, was to be Charlie's guardian/confidante.
          Tough assignment. Getting Charlie to classes and keeping him out of places he wasn't supposed to be was a chore. Butch didn't always succeed, but Charlie became a player on title teams and was an NBA draftee.
         So Butch was always taking care of people. After his first serious bout with cancer, and treatment a dozen years ago -- odds were good he wasn't going to make it -- he willingly counseled my wife as she began her own colon cancer treatments. Butch recommended surgeons and oncologists, and talked to Bea about what she could expect.
         They both fought back. I've seen Butch described as a cancer survivor in print. That's not enough. He's a cancer fighter, a battler. He's kept his faith; it's a crucial part of his life.
         And through it all, there was this -- he never stopped being a friend.
         Barmore says Butch is the only person, other than Rachel Barmore, to attend all four of his Hall of Fame inductions ... in Springfield, Mass., Knoxville, Tenn., Natchitoches and Ruston. Butch has never missed a Tech basketball reunion, made all the functions honoring Scotty Robertson, many of the old gang's golf outings. Made every NCAA men's Final Four until this year.
        "He has unbelievable loyalty," says Barmore. And, "he's been through a lot ... he is one tough cookie. ... And he's never once complained to me about what's happened to him."
Coach Smart draws up the play.
(photo from Macon County News, Franklin, N.C.)
        "He such a positive guy, always upbeat and looking ahead," says Jim Pruett, Barmore's partner at guard in the mid-1960s and also our close friend who's visited with the Smarts in Highlands a few times.
        At the end of the past basketball season, the folks in Highlands gave Coach Smart a recliner to use in his retirement. When we talked earlier this week, Butch said he was given two standing ovations at the high school's end-of-year all-sports banquet.
       "I told them I wasn't dead," he said, laughing. "I'm still here."
        He and his devoted wife, Judy, have plans to move back to the Ruston area. They've bought a lot and plan to build a home. Stephanie, after earning all sorts of honors at Highlands High, will enroll at Louisiana Tech soon.
        The thin man with the drawl -- who is anything but the bumbling CONTROL agent from whom he drew his nickname -- looks forward to lots of golf with Barmore and Barry Canterbury, and others.
        His dream, I was told, is to beat Barmore consistently in golf. "That's not a dream," Butch said. "That's a fact."
          I wouldn't bet against this Maxwell Smart.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tommy Tresh: troublemaker

      About that day in high school when I almost got sent to the assistant principal's office ... it was Tom Tresh's fault. Tommy Tresh, and the New York Yankees.
       Fifth period at Woodlawn, 1 to 2 p.m., yearbook period (in  place of study hall). Miss Smith's room. Actually, the setting was the yearbook workroom -- behind a regular classroom. 
       Miss Willa Smith, other than my coaches, no question was my favorite teacher.
       We got along great -- then and now. She's been retired from teaching for three decades, lives back in her hometown -- Tylertown, Miss. -- in the house she grew up in, and we've stayed in touch. Few teachers I ever admired more.
         But on this one day ...
         Miss Smith was a typing/shorthand teacher. I had her for typing, and I already could type pretty well by my junior year, but she helped refine my technique.
        More importantly, she was Woodlawn's first yearbook advisor, 1960 to '68. It was part of her life's work ... she told me recently she was the advisor for 31 high school yearbooks.
         For the last six years of her stay at Woodlawn, the Accolade earned All-America honors from the people who judge yearbooks. This was a select, competitive honor.
         Here's how good she was as an advisor -- she was as skilled, as knowledgeable, as dedicated and as successful as Woodlawn's football coaching staff ... and Woodlawn was the winningest Class AAA school of the decade in Louisiana.
        She taught me things in journalism that would stay with me through a career -- how to write a copy block to fit, how to write headlines (be clever, not cute or trite), how to write cutlines to fit (no one- or two-word "widows," breaks to the next line -- I've seen it often in newspapers), how to select good photos and crop them, how to use big photos (didn't do that enough in my days as a page designer).
        We had page margins, and we observed them. Didn't run type into those margins. We could "bleed" photos into a margin, but only once a page.
         Miss Smith stressed two things about yearbooks: (1) It was a history book; what we were putting together was a reference book; (2) be accurate, on facts and especially on names. This is where we started each year -- checking names of the kids for class photos. Nicknames were taboo, unless they were commonly used. Trey was OK; Bubba or Buster or Cookie, not necessarily so.
         Also, in the Woodlawn books, you didn't see cutout photos or collages as you did in so many yearbooks. No personal messages or poking fun at people. It was strictly business.
         Miss Smith let the students do the work, come up with the ideas. She was patient; she guided us gently; and she kept us on schedule -- meeting deadlines throughout the school year leading to that thrilling day in May when the books arrived.
        (The color of the cover was always a secret; only Miss Smith and the editor -- Sharon Bagby in our senior year -- knew. Because the covers in my sophomore and junior years had been red and then white, I lobbied for blue all year. Thank you, blue it was. See above.)
         I loved working on the Accolade staff my junior and senior years. Maybe even more than I did working on the school newspaper, the Herald.
         But on Monday, Oct. 12, 1964, yearbook work was slow. And Game 5 of the World Series -- St. Louis Cardinals vs. Yankees -- was on radio. Series tied, two wins each. Games started at noon, Central time, those days. I had my transistor, and I was in that backroom by myself listening.
         And I was miserable. The Cardinals were winning 2-0, bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium, Bob Gibson pitching for St. Louis against Yankees rookie Mel Stottlemyre, a rematch of Game 2 won by Stottlemyre (yes, we had beaten the great Gibson four days earlier).
          So, little hope for the Yankees. To open the ninth, Mickey Mantle reached first on an error by Cardinals shortstop Dick Groat. But the next two batters made outs. That left it to Tresh, the Yankees' left fielder.
           And he crushed one -- deep into the right-center field bleachers, a long drive at the old stadium. Game tied 2-2.
           I jumped, I screamed -- and I kept screaming.
           That is, until Miss Smith bolted through the door. And she was m-a-d. Totally unlike her.
           OK, maybe I was disruptive. Maybe they heard me in Sunset Acres, which was a mile and a half away. Maybe, Miss Smith "suggested," I shut up. She threatened to send me to see Mr. Cook, the assistant principal in charge of discipline. 
           "But it's 2-2; we're back in the game," I think I might have said. Man, I was happy.
            I promised I'd be quiet. And I was. I was real quiet when Tim McCarver of the Cardinals hit a three-run homer off Pete Mikkelsen in the top of the 10th inning. By the time I'd left yearbook period and headed for football practice, St. Louis had won 5-2.
            Disgusting. But not as disgusting as three days later when Gibson and the Cardinals won Game 7. Little did I know that would be the Yankees' last World Series game for 12 years.
            I've reminded Miss Smith of that day, and that incident, whenever we talk. She should have known how passionate I was about the Yankees; she knew I was about the Woodlawn Knights. She can laugh about it now ... I think.
             And I know that J.W. "Bubba" Cook, sports fan that he was (and still is), would have told me to restrain myself, and then sent me back to the yearbook room. Of course, he was probably a Cardinals fan; so many people in North Louisiana from that era were because that was the team that was on radio in that area until Houston got a team.
             If he was a Cardinals fan (and a Yankees hater), he would have laughed because they won the game, too.
             Right, Mr. Cook? ... Mr. Cook?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dr. Rose

       Of the many honors received by my parents, my mother had a favorite one -- being awarded an honorary doctorate at Centenary College in May 2002.
       Centenary's most recent graduation ceremonies this past Saturday brought to mind that day in the Gold Dome when she became Dr. Rose Van Thyn. And, as Ron Nierman lovingly recalled at the recent Shreveport-Bossier Holocaust Remembrance Service, she loved being called Dr. Rose.
Dr. Rose, at Centenary commencement, May 2002
(photo courtesy of Centenary archives)
        Didn't matter if people thought she was a medical doctor or, say, a doctor of philosophy (which, in a way, she was). As long as she was referred to as Dr. Rose -- or introducted that way to audiences where she was speaking -- that was fine with her.
      As Ron noted, "she used to laugh that she and 'Dr. Ruth' had a lot in common."
       She loved seeing Dr. Rose Van Thyn in print, such as on those address labels you often receive in the mail. She would use those for her return address on outgoing mail.
        Receiving the doctorate was a proud moment for all of us. It was quite a sight to see this little woman -- she was 80 then -- march into the Dome at the front of the graduation procession, and then be hooded during the ceremony.
        I loved the title -- Doctorate of Humane Letters.
        My mother loved to write -- she was a dedicated letter writer, especially to our friends and few relatives in Holland in those first few years we were in the U.S. She wrote in longhand her speeches for her 2 1/2 decades as a Holocaust educator, and she wrote poetry (which she also incorporated into some of her talks).
         My dad shared in the honor. I think he deserved a doctorate, too -- Doctor of Sports Fandom. He was pleased just to receive a pass that got him into any Caddo Parish school athletic event free.
          What's really amazing to me is how far my mother came in those years in the U.S. When we first arrived in Shreveport in 1956 -- and she told this to Bea -- she was terribly homesick for Holland.
           It was only a week or two when she got word by mail that her Aunt Lena -- who lived two houses away in Amsterdam -- had passed away. It wasn't a surprise; she had leukemia and we knew it. But the timing was eerie; Tante Lena died on the very day (Jan. 12) that we arrived in Shreveport; it was also her son's birthday (that was Maurits Kopuit, my mother's cousin and closest remaining relative). My mother cried for what seemed like hours.
           I was 9 and Elsa was 5 early in 1957 -- we had not yet moved to Sunset Acres -- when she was hospitalized with pneumonia. There was concern that she would not make it.
           She battled depression, anxiety, pain in her legs, inability to sleep, for years and years. This never went away, but she had a tremendous support group in Shreveport-Bossier -- led by Dad -- and she persevered.
           The brave, proud woman who stood before many audiences and detailed her experiences before, during and after World War II -- and what Nazi Germany had imposed on her and millions of others -- behind the scenes occasionally was fragile.
            But when she was asked to speak, she answered. She would not turn down any school group; she felt more than anything that educating young people about the Holocaust was the most important thing she could do, other than being a wife and mother. She spoke at churches and to civic groups and to the military at Fort Polk and to lawyers' organizations -- and my parents sometimes traveled far outside the Ark-La-Tex for speaking engagements.
           Most of all, she enjoyed speaking to young people.
          And the visits to Centenary were the most special. She and Dad, in their final decade, would spend a week at a time visiting Centenary daily as an Attaway Fellow in Civic Culture. She was fond of Dr. Donald Webb and his successor as Centenary president, Dr. Kenneth Schwab, and of Dr. Lisa Nicoletti, a professor at the college who took a special interest in Holocaust education and, with husband Steve, a special, loving interest in my parents.
           In her last couple of years, even when Mom hardly could stand and when she grew more quiet (which was rare, as those who knew her would agree), she continued to take speaking requests. But each one she accepted took a toll; she could barely get out of bed afterward.
           She was still pretty sharp mentally, although she did repeat herself some. She would sit and stare at a piece of mail or a document or bill for long spells, not really comprehending.
           One day when Bea and I were visiting, she sat quietly as we dealt with one of the women who was looking after her during the day. She had those address labels in her hand; she wasn't saying much, but she didn't seem too happy.
           A few minutes later, as I was talking on the phone, conducting an interview, she somehow got herself off the couch and, using her walker, made her way over to the kitchen table where I was sitting. Tapped me on the shoulder, threw down the labels and exclaimed, "This says Rose ... I want it to say Dr. Rose!" And she slammed down the walker to emphasize it.
           I was a bit taken back.      
           It was no surprise that my mother asked that her memorial service be held on the Centenary campus. And she is going to be a part of Centenary forever -- a Rose for the rose garden. We plan to put a plaque there to honor her.
           It will read: Dr. Rose Van Thyn (1921-2010)... wife, mother, "Oma" ... Holocaust educator.
           Please note it's Dr. Rose.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A special salute to fallen Knights

From The Shreveport Times, Friday, May 4, 1990 ...

The Times
     It had been 20 years since Trey Prather left Shreveport for the last time, but a large group continually streamed by the granite wall looking for him. If they couldn't find the former Woodlawn quarterback, Donnis "O.B." O'Bryan would point them in the right direction.
     There he was on Panel 34-E, Line 24, H.L. Prather III.
     "It just amazed me," said O'Bryan, the president of Chapter 94 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. "There were so many high school kids and young people who just wanted to come see Trey Prather's name. There was a table set up with a whole display full of newspaper clippings. But what really got me was the number of young kids."
      That was in the summer of 1988 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall came to Bossier City for a week. For a week, Shreveport and Bossier wept over their favorite sons who had been killed in some jungle far away. For a week, they stood in the glaring sun and asked "Where's Trey?"
      Not that they've ever been able to forget Prather. From the generation of the Vietnam War to the generation of glasnost, nobody has forgotten. Prather and three other former Woodlawn students -- Edward Cox Jr., Glenn Ogburn, and Harold O'Neal -- who were also killed in Vietnam, have been memorialized since 1969 in an annual sunrise service at the school the first Friday in May. The ceremony takes place today at 7:25 a.m.
      So emotional is the sunrise service that people from former students to LSU basketball coach Dale Brown call it one of the most moving experiences they've ever witnessed.
      "It was so different," said Betsy Blankenship, then a sophomore in the Woodlawn choir and now a teacher at the school, of the first service. "It was very impressive. To me it hit home because I had a brother who might have had to go to Vietnam. It didn't end up that way, but that was all I thought about.
      "To this day, I don't know of anyone who walks away from it with a dry eye. I still don't. And I've seen it lots of times."
      Said Brown: "It was just the sincerity of it all. Nobody has anything to gain from that. Yet people still reach out to others to soothe their pain."
      The pain has diminished somewhat. Time will do that. Some of the involved parties, like Prather's parents, have since passed away. Others, like O'Neal's parents, have moved. But when the memories come forward so does the pain.
       For most of the South Shreveport community that had rallied around Woodlawn since it opened in 1960, Prather had been the idol. He preceded Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson. He took what Woodlawn's first quarterback, Billy Laird, had started and refined it to an art, throwing for 1,238 yards in 1964 and being named the All-State quarterback.
       He led Woodlawn to the playoffs in 1964 with a 10-1 season. After a loss to Baton Rouge High in the playoffs, Prather stood in the middle of the field in a downpour crying for what seemed like hours to the assembled masses. Three days later he was on the basketball court for the start of practice. When that ended, he moved on to the baseball field.
       But it was on the football field where Prather ruled with an iron fist and a bolt of lightning for an arm.
      "He was aggressive, that's why he was such a great leader," said Lee Hedges, who coached Prather at Woodlawn and served as a pallbearer in his funeral. "He wanted to play defense, too, and we wouldn't let him. It was the same with Terry (Bradshaw). They were both so aggressive and so willing to work hard.
      "I'm sure that's what made him (Prather) a good Marine. But it's just hard for me to think about him -- or any of those kids -- in any other environment than how we saw them at school. To think about his death, well, it was just a hearbreaker for me. My mind just won't let me remember any particulars."
       Before the tragedy, Prather was headed for LSU. All of Woodlawn's legions followed him south with loving eyes.
       But at LSU, North Louisiana's hero met South Louisiana's hero. Prather was shelved. Despite leading the freshman team to an unbeaten season, he was still stuck in a logjam with three other quarterbacks behind Crowley's Nelson Stokely.
       Even though Stokely had undergone knee surgery just six months before and missed all of spring practice, Prather, a sophomore, seemed to play only in games that were hopeless. He was just eight of 22 for 103 yards and three interceptions.
       So, moved by his fall of discontent, he enlisted in the Marine Corps after LSU's 1966 football season. A year later, he was in Vietnam. Two months later, he was dead, the victim of a land mine.
       He had been on patrol near a village called Quang Nam when he stepped on the mine. He was transported to Da Nang and his leg was amputated. That was enough of a shock to the community. Four days later he died. It took the news two days to reach Shreveport.
       So ended a legend.
       But the Woodlawn community, which he and a small group of crew cut boys with big smiles and broad shoulders had united, wouldn't let him die with the funeral. The 1969 Student Council donated a plain stone monument that sits near the flagpole in the school's quadrangle.
       Each year, they have come to rededicate it to the group of four.
Woodlawn's memorial monument
(courtesy of Patti Garrett for the
Woodlawn Knights Alumni page on Facebook)
       Each year, they have gathered before school starts in early May to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and to listen to the eerie sound of the bagpipes as the lone piper steps off his cadence along the school's rooftop above the ceremony.
       Each year, they pledge to remember.
       "It means a lot to us that their spirit never dies," said Woodlawn Principal Chris Strother, who graduated from the school in 1963. "I knew Trey because everybody knew Trey and because he was such a school leader. It was just impossible to not know Trey and not know what he was capable of. But he was only the most well-known of that group. Every one of them was important to this community."
       So important that Class of 1969 President Jerry Harper came to Principal J.W. Cook with the idea to purchase the samll stone monument toward the end of the 1969 school year. That was the birth of the service.
       Prather had already been well-eulogized to an overflow crowd at First Presbyterian Church in January of 1968. His pallbearers had included Hedges and other Woodlawn coaches Lowell Morrison and A.L. Williams. But within a year of Prather's funeral, O'Neal and Cox had both been killed. Ogburn had died in July, 1967.
       "It was such a traumatic thing," said Cook. "None of the students in 1969 had gone to school with that group, but everybody knew the names."
      So, from the death of a legend came the birth of a tradition.
      The service has changed little since the first dedication on May 14, 1969. Today, as always, it will begin with a drum roll and the choir will sing America. It will close with the laying of a wreath and roses at the monument, the roll call of the four names, taps and closing remarks by Strother. Only once has there been a speaker, when O'Neal's family donated his service flag to be used in the ceremony. The same flag has flown above the service ever since.
      Though the service is held before school and is not mandatory, attendance has always been strong. And while the monunment would be a prime target for vandals, it has never been bothered. Even earlier this year when somebody took spray paint to the inside of the quadrangle, they left the monument alone.
      "This is Woodlawn at its best," Strother said. "It doesn't matter if you are black or white or rich or poor. We are all a part of this. This is just people doing what is just and right."
     Last fall, Cook failed to see Woodlawn play football for the first time in 334 games, but he said nothing would keep him from his 22nd straight memorial service today.
     "I've seen the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and I've seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but to see a group of 16- and 17-year-old kids put on a service like this ... well, it's something  you won't ever forget."
      At Woodlawn, they never have.

A tradition ... with tears

The scene at the monument in Woodlawn's
 quadrangle at this year's memorial service
 (photo courtesy of Cindy DeBusk
 McGowan on Facebook's Woodlawn Knights
 Alumni page)
        There is a tradition at Woodlawn High School in Shreveport that began in the late 1960s, and carries on.
        On a Friday morning this time each year, the school  honors its graduates who died in military service while serving in places such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
        This year's ceremony was last Friday. I'm sure it was as impressive as it's always been.
         Woodlawn is a much different school than it was in the late 1960s. The faculty turnover is complete and today's students have no ties to what happened then, except they're on the same school grounds. But this memorial service is much the same.
       It's a relatively short service, at sunrise, with music and  prayer, and the laying of a wreath of roses at the memorial monument near the flagpole. It ends with Taps.
      The setting is spectacular -- Woodlawn's quadrangle area. Anyone associated with the school remembers how beautiful it is.
      Used to be that the Woodlawn band, pep squad and cheerleaders were in uniform, and football team members wore their game jerseys. Because the school colors are scarlet (red) and royal blue -- with white trim -- it was an appropriate American setting.
       As far as I know, every year James Parker has been  there to play his bagpipe. When he was younger, he would come in from a distance on the school roof playing Amazing Grace. The tears would begin then.
       When Taps is played, as former Woodlawn coach A.L. Williams noted last week, he always thinks of Trey Prather.
        It is a moving ceremony, emotional, truly a time for reflection. The moments of silence, except for sobs, can be overwhelming.
      The tradition began in 1969, but could be traced to January 1968, to a half-mast ceremony in the quadrangle the morning that Henry Lee "Trey" Prather's body returned to Shreveport, days after he died in Vietnam. The next year the Student Council purchased a monument bearing the names of the four WHS graduates who had died in battle circumstances, and the first full service was held.
       I went to only one service, in 1984, when Jerry Byrd and I left work at the Shreveport Journal that morning to attend. What happened that day sticks in my memory.
       H. Lee Prather -- Trey's dad -- was there that day. I had not seen him since the day of Trey's funeral, 16 years earlier.
       Can't excuse that gap, other than to say the pain was too great; there was no way I could visit the Prathers without a total breakdown. Mrs. Prather (Marilyn) died just two years after Trey; her heart broken. I had heard that Mr. Prather had remarried and, after years of alcohol abuse, had overcome some of his demons.
       But I don't want to mislead you. Lee Prather was the biggest fan Oak Terrace and Woodlawn had in those years, omnipresent at practices and games. There were more than a couple of road games when it was just Mr. Prather -- and Mr. Van Thyn (Louis, my dad) -- rooting for the Knights in the stands.
       And Mr. Prather never -- never -- interfered with the coaches. His father, H.L. Prather, had been the longtime basketball coach (and then school president) at Northwestern State College; hence, Prather Coliseum on the campus.
     I had nothing but respect for Lee Prather; I'd been to the house so many times. Sure, alcohol was ever-present there, but the Prathers were beautiful people.
      That morning in 1984 -- as usual -- there was a reception in the Woodlawn faculty lounge just before the ceremony. Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with Lee Prather.
      I hugged him tight, but when I tried to speak, I couldn't. I cannot tell this story, or write it, without tearing up ... ever. Anyone who knows me knows I am seldom speechless. But that day ...
      I had to leave the room and go outside. And during the ceremony, we sat two rows behind Mr. Prather, his wife and other members of the family. When they sobbed, I sobbed.
      Never did talk to Mr. Prather; just couldn't do it. And a year later, he was gone. I hope he knew how much I loved his family.
      During the ceremony, I tried to focus on my memories of Trey ... his dark, sharp features, the way he practiced and played so hard in every sport, how damn good he was at all of them, how he loved to throw a football and run it, how he wasn't afraid of contact on the football field or the basketball court, his broken arm that ended his sophomore football season, his two wild wrestling matches in basketball with North Caddo's very rugged Johnny Ray Alexander.
     His 8-for-8 game from the floor in basketball at Byrd when we almost upset the Yellow Jackets (the cutline under his photo in the Journal the next day started, "This Knight Was Right"), a home run he hit against Byrd, the day in Cotton Valley when he was catching and Butch Daniel -- a tough little guy who would go on to play safety at Louisiana Tech -- slammed into him, causing Trey to bite his tongue (he had to return to Shreveport for stitches).         
      His laugh, his sometimes X-rated, uproarious language, how popular he was with everyone and how friendly he was, how often he bummed money from me for snacks (he referenced that in signing my yearbook in our senior year), the rides he gave Ken Liberto and me, the hours and hours we spent watching football films at the Prather house, seeing him up at Woodlawn that last time the summer after our freshman year -- Trey home from LSU, Ken and me from Tech.
      I'm sorry I didn't make more of the memorial services at Woodlawn; I should have. It's tough to do now that we don't live in Shreveport. And, frankly, I have another memorial service at about the same time of year that I want to attend because it's more personal.
      The past two years I've been asked to be one of the 11 candle lighters at the Shreveport-Bossier Holocaust Remembrance Service. For years, my parents were among those lighters -- and my mother a speaker almost every year. They're gone, and I'm honored to replace them in that portion of the service which symbolizes the 11 million people who died in the Holocaust.
     A couple of weeks ago, I sat at that service and reflected on my parents, and the grandparents, aunt and uncles I never knew. Wish I had.
       But Trey Prather I knew. And I thank the people at Woodlawn for honoring Trey and the other WHS grads whose names are on that monument. We'll always be proud of them, and of our school.
      (NOTE: Also posting a 1990 story from The Shreveport Times about the ceremony, written by Evan Grant, who -- incidentally -- replaced me on The Times' sports staff and now covers the Texas Rangers for The Dallas Morning News.) 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

At first I got in Line ...

Line Avenue Elementary School
     The main building still stands at 1800 Line Avenue, and it's been preserved and maintained  because it's on the National Register of Historic Places. To me, it's a majestic place.
     Don't drive by there very often any more, but whenever I do, it's a good feeling. It's nostalgic.
     Line Avenue Elementary closed many, many years ago; a lot of it was torn down and replaced by a building that is now the Northwestern State University school of nursing in Shreveport.
      The playground I remember is paved over; the school's most memorable feature, the huge black spiralling fire escape that went up to the third floor, is long gone. You could slide down that baby, a great joy ride. (I never tried it -- no guts.)   
    On Jan. 12, 1956, just hours after we first came to town by train, Line Avenue became my school.
     My parents, the head of the Shreveport Jewish Federation, and my little sister (Elsa, 4) went to the school office and the principal, Mr. Tatum, and his staff placed me in Miss Davis' third-grade class. I was 8 1/2.
      In Amsterdam, my first school -- for 2 1/2 years -- was a Montessori school, just a couple of blocks from our little house there. The distance from our duplex on Jordan Street in Shreveport to Line Avenue Elementary wasn't much farther. (More on this in a moment.) 
      My dad always regretted enrolling me so quickly; looking back, he felt I should have been given time to acclimate to America and to the new surroundings in Shreveport. I must've been scared, but I don't remember that.
       I don't have any regrets; the kids there were wonderful to a small, non-English speaking little boy. I feel the same way about those kids as I do about the kids at Sunset Acres Elementary a couple of years later -- I'm forever grateful for the way they took me in.
      My first friend -- he was in my class -- was Meyer Brener, the rabbi's son. Agudath Achim, the synagogue, was just down the street on Line Avenue; Leo Brener, at this point, had been the rabbi there for 22 years and would be there another 18. He and his family couldn't have been kinder to us and Meyer, a smart, violin-playing, studious kid, paid attention to me.
       The names stuck with me ... Paul Courtney, Tom McCuistion, Chris Mitchell, Charlie Powell, Marilyn Meyer (who later would be in my Sunday School/confirmation class at B'nai Zion Temple for years), a little girl named Judy Reed, a big girl named Naomi ... and Jan Prothro.
       Jan was a tall, slim, cute girl. Her family, like ours, would move southwest in town and she was in my graduating class at Woodlawn High; she's a Facebook friend now. At a Woodlawn reunion a decade ago, Jan recalled the Line Avenue days.
       "You might not remember this," she said, "but in those first few days you were here, Miss Davis assigned me to walk you to and from school every day until you knew where you were."
       How sweet. Thanks again, Jan.
      Those kids. There was no bullying, no nastiness, no resentment, only people trying to be helpful and encouraging.
      Learning the daily routine, learning the language, learning to read and write in English took some time. But I had one big advantage: I was about a year ahead of the third-graders here in math. That allowed me more time to work on my reading skills. It was a blessing.
      At Montessori school, we were free on Wednesday afternoons but had school on Saturday mornings. So that was an adjustment. Another was that I'd always taken my lunch to school in Amsterdam; here one of the first things I learned was how to go through the lunch line.
       And imagine this ... I'd never seen corn in Holland nor fish sticks nor much of anything that was on the menu at Line Avenue. I remember my fascination at the little milk bottles here, with the pull tab. Nothing like that in Holland.
       Soon, as soon as we were settled and my mother could manage it, I was bringing my lunch to school at Line Avenue. Some American food would be put on hold.
       Recess I liked. Didn't know where to go or what to do, but the kids showed me. And when the weather wasn't as cold -- this was mid-January, remember -- I noticed the boys playing a strange game with a stick and a ball.
        The only thing I knew about baseball was that in Holland it was honkbal; I'd read about it in my comprehensive Dutch sports history book my mom and dad had collected for me (I still have it). I'd never seen a game, nor a baseball field, the rules were foreign. I knew the best Dutch team was OVVO, the best player was a pitcher, Hannie Urbanus, who had a tryout with an American team (the New York Giants) a couple of years before.
      The kids at Line Avenue were playing something called speedball -- a ball just a little bigger than  a baseball with a softball-like cover. That's what SPAR sponsored in the spring; hardball -- real baseball -- was for the summer.
      Soon I learned a little about playing -- and what not to do. One day I got behind the batter in a catcher's position, got too close and the bat caught me flush in an eye. Came home with a huge black eye. My parents were appalled. But there was no big blood loss and, fortunately, no major damage. It really was the worst injury I ever had (losing my appendix wasn't an "injury," was it?)
      One thing I noticed. Almost all the gloves were for right-handers, and I was a lefty. Trying those gloves on my right hand didn't work too well. And here is where Paul Courtney was important.
       Not only was he a nice kid -- I went to his house on Boulevard Avenue, right near the school, a couple of times -- he was left-handed, played first base and pitched some. He let me use his glove.
       "Nobody was sure about you," Paul told me a couple of years ago. "We were little kids; we didn't know the story, didn't know what your family had been through. ... You were a crazy little kid."
      Paul was also in my fourth-grade class -- we remembered Mrs. Anding as our teacher and she had a three-sided ruler that she used to rap the back of people's hands or their knuckles when she needed to get a disciplinary point across. But the "crazy little kid" reference is Paul's recalling me "dropping your pants and running around the room, yelling at people. Don't know what sparked that."
      Well ... I'm trying to forget.
     I was too little and too unskilled to play on a team, but some of the kids were on the school  speedball team. They wore white T-shirts with red lettering "Line Avenue" and blue jeans. And here I found my first American sports hero.
     Mickey Mantle, in his greatest season, was in my future. But Line Avenue had Jimmy Boddie, the team's pitcher. He was a small guy, but a good athlete, and popular. The kids followed him. To everyone at school, he was "Bookie" (pronounced Boo-key). He was in the other third-grade class.
       Don't think the Line Avenue team was all that successful -- didn't see its games or even knew where they were played -- but I loved watching Bookie play on the schoolground. And for years, I would look for his name and my other Line Avenue friends' names in the SPAR statistics and writeups in the paper.          
      Bookie would show up again in a couple of years on Hamilton Terrace Junior High's basketball team, then he pitched for Byrd High. He went on to what was then known as Northeast Louisiana University and didn't play, but for the next 20-25 years, every time I covered or attended a game at NLU, Jimmy Boddie was there as a spectator, and we'd often say hello and visit.
       When LSU played Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl two years ago, my son and his friends were tailgating before the game. Jay introduced me to a young man named Peyton Boddie, a business associate, and said he was from Shreveport. Immediately, I said, I know someone named Boddie from there -- Jimmy Boddie.
      "Uncle Bookie," Peyton said joyfully. And in a minute's time, he had Bookie on the phone, and handed the phone to me. Now that was a reunion.
        Jim Boddie is a sales manager at a car dealership in Ruston, lives in nearby Calhoun. He's been through heart surgery recently, and we've talked a time or two. I told him what I said above about his first-hero status.
        It's a good memory. Line Avenue is a good memory.