One of the tasks my sister and I faced after our father died last week was sifting through photos to find an appropriate one for his obituary in the Houston Chronicle. We chose this one, partly because of the smile. In his last year of life, as his mind slipped away, he still remembered how to smile like that.
He must have been in his 30s when this picture was taken. It was probably a publicity picture for his newspaper column; it’s not a family photo. But it captured him well.
The smile was disarming, because while he was smiling at people, he was also picking up facts about them, watching what they did, filing the information away for future reference. My father did a lot of things in his life — he was a sheep rancher, a sergeant in the Army Air Corps, a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, a writer, a newspaper publisher, even a local talk show host in the early days of television — but he was proudest of being an investigative reporter.
When my father was talking to someone, it looked like he was dominating the conversation. But my mother once told me that he would come back with all kinds of information. The talking, like the smile, was cover for his fact gathering.
He had a few other reporter tricks. When he was covering the courthouse for The Houston Post, he used to call up people he wanted to interview and mumble quietly when he said, “This is John Moore of the The Houston Post.” They’d ask him to repeat his name and he’d say, much more loudly, “This is John Moore. I’m down at the DA’s office and I want to know ….” It seemed to be effective.
He also told me that he used to go into the men’s room that was next door to the grand jury room and put a glass up to the wall so he could hear their deliberations. This was back in the days when Houston had three daily newspapers and getting a scoop still mattered.
He got a lot of scoops. He uncovered a lot of corruption. There were a couple of times when his editors wouldn’t back him up. He never forgave those editors.
And he quit more than one job on principle.
My father grew up in dusty West Texas, near San Angelo. His family spent a few years in Southern California when he was small, back in the 1920s when it hadn’t started to boom, and he always regretted that they came back to Texas. As a teenager he spent his summers cowboying for his uncles and other ranchers in the area.
He went off to Texas Tech for a couple of years and came back and started his own sheep ranch near where he’d grown up. Then the war came along. He ended up in North Africa and was part of the invasion of Italy, carrying with him a book he’d asked his mother to send him: the complete works of Shakespeare.
He came back from the war ready to go into journalism and managed to talk his way into a job on the San Angelo Standard Times, where he met my mother. To hear him tell it, he was entranced from the first time he saw her, and a couple of days later, he pointed her out to his uncle. “See that girl over there? That’s the woman I’m going to marry.”
“What’s her name?” his uncle asked.
“What difference does that make?” Daddy said.
As I recall the stories, their early days were rocky. She yelled at him to quit poaching on her beat — she was covering the courthouse and he the police station (cop shop, in newspaper lingo), and he’d gotten too close to one of her stories.
But my father — the cowboy, the soldier, the macho guy from West Texas — always had a thing for strong women. He persevered, they got married, and they fought for 60 years.
They ended up working on the Houston papers, living in the once small town (now large suburb) of Friendswood, where the two of them eventually started a suburban weekly. It was a high quality publication, but the money was touch and go for years. Eventually, my father was able to negotiate a deal to sell it for enough to fund a comfortable retirement.
He told stories better than anyone I know. I posted a few of them on this blog last year and wish I had more of them on tape.
Over the last couple of years, he stopped telling stories. For awhile we could still get a few from him, if we reminded him of them. But gradually even that faded away. In the last few months, even on the days when he was as bright-eyed as he is in that picture, the stories he would try to tell wouldn’t make sense.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. It ate away at my father’s brain until he could remember almost nothing. On good days, he knew who I was (more or less — he knew we were family); on very good days he wanted me to take him home. On bad days, he mostly wanted to sleep.
It hurt a lot, watching him slip away, piece by piece. So his death came as a relief in many ways, even though I find myself sad and a little bereft.
One thing stayed until the end, though. His smile. Even on the last full day of his life, when he was mostly sleeping restlessly, he woke up enough to smile at one of the aides as she straightened up his bed.
I’m really going to miss his smile.