“Did you know,” I said to our kids Friday before being cut off by the oldest. “Yes,” she said, “Mommy told us last night. Again!”
What I was about to tell them — again! — was that my wife and I once worked with several of the men who served as pallbearers at the burial of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who was shot and killed just two days after Kennedy’s death.
On the day of Oswald’s funeral, Nov. 25, 1963, there wasn’t exactly a long line of mourners interested in paying last respects. That left pallbearer duty to the reporters who had assembled to cover Oswald’s burial at a Fort Worth cemetery.
Mike Cochran, a retired Associated Press writer and my one-time co-worker at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, put it this way in an AP article last week: “Fifty years later, I remain a reluctant and minor footnote in American history.”
There are even photos capturing the moment. Each time I see the images, I scan for the one face I always associate with this bit of history — Jerry Flemmons.
Flemmons, who died in 1999, was a renowned reporter and editor for the Star-Telegram. A news man, through and through, he covered the University of Texas Tower shootings in 1966, deadly tornadoes across the Lone Star State and hundreds of other news stories. Yet, Jerry was also a writer, a master storyteller.
When a strike halted Major League Baseball in 1979, Flemmons helped create a fictional team — the Fort Worth Strangers — to fill the void in the pages of the Star-Telegram. My favorite on the Strangers’ roster was the big leagues’ first female pitcher, Gloria (Sic Transit) Zepeda Mundi Leonard.
In retirement, Jerry wrote a regular column for the opinion section I edited. He invited readers to explore the history of Texas secession movements, what it was like to be an early owner of a VW Beetle and the loss of the essential Texas-ness of the chicken-fried steak. On this last point, he wrote in the 1990s, “Unless we set up a string of cooking schools across America or regularly send out chicken-fried steak missionaries, like the Mormons do, this problem isn’t going away.”
Of course, we included a recipe for the proper way to chicken-fry a steak, one collected from Doylene Bradshaw of Anson, Texas, who had cooked this meal every day for the past 30 years. The gravy portion of the recipe didn’t make much gravy, but that was OK, because, as the column explained, “Doylene doesn’t like a lot of gravy.”
I’ve saved a lengthy piece Flemmons once wrote in answer to the question of what makes a good writer. Never published, as far as I know, it is a brilliant distillation of Jerry. One of my favorite parts is the reminder that “writing is rewriting, is rewriting, is rewriting.”
In a tribute after Flemmons’ death, a former boss, Mike Blackman, wrote that Jerry was chiefly responsible for keeping his employer’s “head above the murky waters of newspaper mediocrity.”
Now that’s how a reporter, editor and writer should be remembered.
Cochran’s AP article last week remembers another side of Jerry, the curmudgeonly one.
Cochran writes of the Oswald funeral: “Shaking his head ever so slightly, Jerry Flemmons of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram turned to me and said, ‘Cochran, if we’re gonna write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, we’re gonna have to bury the son of a bitch ourselves.’ “
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.