My daddy, James Thomas Willis, was born 105 years ago today (October 4, 1904) in Fayette County, Alabama; his granddaughter, Kay, wrote a birthday tribute on her blog. If I ever mentioned that he was from Fayette, Alabama, he would correct me: “I wasn’t born in Fayette, Alabama; I was born in Fayette County.” I don’t know if that means there was some sort of rivalry between town kids and country kids, but he never let the difference go by without comment.
Tommy, Ernest, Johnny & Franklin About 1908
Sometime before his brother, Johnny (John Newton Hall), was born in 1906 the family moved to Mississippi. They lived in Itawamba County on the eastern side of Mississippi until sometime between the birth of Rex (Rufus Rex) in 1910 in Mississippi and the birth of LeRoy in 1913 in Fayette County.
I don’t remember Daddy ever speaking about living in Mississippi though they lived there during some of what should have been very formative years for him, from age 2 through 7 or 8. I suppose most of Daddy’s education came through the Fayette County Schools, although they returned to Mississippi sometime before 1920, which would have put him back in Mississippi schools again..
I remember when my brother Mickey was about two years old, Daddy was playing with him on the front sidewalk of our home in Gainesville, Texas. He held Mickey’s hands and had Mickey walk his feet up Daddy’s legs until he could flip over through Daddy’s arms. Mickey giggled and they did it again and again. I would have been around eight years old and as I watched, it looked like such fun but Daddy wasn’t asking me to join in. Finally, I said, “Do me, Daddy.” He seemed a little surprised at my request, but allowed me to try, though he warned me my legs were probably too long to get through his arms easily. He was obviously right, but I did manage it two or three times. Daddy called this game, “Skin the Cat.” When my daughter, Kay, and I did a research trip to Fayette County in 2002, I found a book about the Fayette County school that listed some of the games the children played during the time Daddy would have been a student; one of them was called “Skin the Cat.” It was described as a game the boys played (not the girls because they wore dresses to school and the upside down feature would not have been appropriate); the boys would grab a low-lying vertical branch of a tree that was strong enough to hold them and they would lift their legs up and flip through their arms as they held on to the branch. As I read that description the memory of the day Daddy didn’t ask me to play came rushing back to my mind and I finally understood his childhood memories of this “boy’s” game would have blocked him from ever thinking about playing it with me, but when he had a son, it was a game he could share from his childhood.
Back: Franklin, Tommy, Johnny. Middle: Ernest, Ruth, Zed Hamp, Rex, Melly and Front-LeRoy
The picture above is the whole family, except for the first [Mary Eunice] and last [Rachel] children, both daughters who lived very short lives. Based on the appearance of Daddy, I would guess his age at somewhere around 12-13, which would mean the picture was taken while they were living in Fayette County. By the 1920 Census, they were living in Monroe County, Mississippi. The census was taken in January 1920 and Daddy was listed as still living with the family. He had always told me he left home when he was very young (my recollection was that he said he was around 14 or 15). He would have been 15 in January 1920, so he must have left home not long after the census was taken.
My Aunt Rubye, Johnny’s wife, told me their Dad, Zed Hamp, was, for want of a better phrase, ill-tempered. She indicated he was pretty abusive to his wife, Melly, as well as, in at least one story, the farm mules. Rubye said Daddy was his mother’s favorite child and that Daddy loved his mother deeply – the only sister, Ruth, was also apparently very close to Daddy as well. Rubye’s indication was that Daddy left home due to the abusive nature of Zed’s relationship with Melly, his children and the animals.
I don’t know where Daddy lived or worked when he left home. Perhaps he merely went back to Fayette County to live with other family members. Or perhaps he moved around the country picking up work wherever he could. At some point, Daddy was a cook on a Merchant Marine vessel that sailed to China. I think our conversation about this phase of his life happened when he fixed a meal he called Spaghetti Red (a mixture of macaroni, hamburger meat, tomato sauce and seasonings) and I asked him where he learned to cook. As he told me about being in China, I said, “Wow, what was it like to be stationed in China?” His response was to indicate they really weren’t in China; they apparently went there to deliver and pick up merchandise and he had few, if any, recollections of China. He apparently did not want to go ashore due to not feeling safe in the vicinity of the wharf [there was apparently a good bit of the seamier side of life and he was uncomfortable in that environment]. I gather some of his lack of discussion of that time period had to do with the fact he was not a born sailor who loved the sea. His description of being on the ocean was that it was at times terrifying – times when the water or waves would swell so much you couldn’t see any water below you or even out on the horizon and then you would be below the level of the ocean with huge waves above crashing down onto the ship. When Kay and I went to his sister Ruth’s funeral, we looked through some of her family photos and she had a San Diego newspaper clipping of a photo of a ship docked in the harbor with a note that it was Daddy’s ship as well as a photo of him actually on shore in China.
The family moved to Noble and Purcell, Oklahoma (though I’m not sure in what order). Johnny finished high school there, which is where he met Rubye. Rubye told me Daddy went to a business college in Oklahoma City (Smith’s, I think) and took business and math courses. He seemed to have an uncanny recall of numbers and an ability to do math functions in his head. Mother said when they went to the grocery store, Daddy kept a running total of how much they had spent and as they would go to the checkout, Daddy would tell her the total they had spent and she said he was always accurate. Another way in which he exercised his ability to utilize numbers was when he was driving a cab. At the end of the day, he could recite every fare (that’s what they called the person that rode with them) he’d had – the address where he had picked them up, the address he delivered them to, the amount of miles he’d driven, the fare (amount he’d received) including whether it was correct change or if he had to make change, as well as the total money he’d received and the amounts he’d paid out in the process. Additionally, Daddy loved to play cards, dominoes and pool. Cards and dominoes (particularly a game called Moon) both were games in which he utilized his math skills. He understood probabilities – that meant that if he had certain cards (or dominoes) and certain other cards had been played or discarded, then there was a probability factor that someone had or didn’t have specific cards that could defeat what he was holding. He placed bets based on probabilities. Although his gambling was frustrating to mother (because he could be gone for days without letting anyone know where he was), at times it was very successful for him. For example, when I was about four years old, Daddy was winning a lot and so he paid cash for a new house for Mother, plus all the furnishings for it – including draperies and pictures for the walls.
Sometime in the late 20’s to early 30’s the family moved to Smyer, Texas. This is where Uncle Rex met his wife, Madge Howard, Aunt Ruth met her husband, Lowell Howard (Madge and Lowell were cousins), and Uncle LeRoy met his wife, Vileta. We have at least one photo from that time period.
Ruth, Rex, Hamp, LeRoy, Melly and Tommy
At the time Daddy met mother, he was driving a milk truck – I think for Townley Dairy. He was living as a boarder in the house next door to where Mother lived with her sister and brother-in-law. Mother apparently thought he was very handsome (Mother, who loved movies, told me he looked like Clark Gable; I’ve seen some pictures of Clark Gable in which he does resemble some pictures I’ve seen of Daddy). She apparently told a girlfriend early on that she’d met the man she was going to marry – even though it took them about five years to take that step.
While Mother and Daddy were dating but before they married, Daddy went to Noble and participated in a group family photo, indicating that even though he left home at 15, he cared for his family and wanted some contact with them.
Back: Lowell & Ruth, LeRoy & Valeta, Tommy; 2nd row: Rex, Madge & Charles, Lorene, Ernest & Carolyn, Front: Hamp, Melly & Rita Jo.
Tommy & Virginia on their wedding day.
Daddy married Mother December 10, 1938. I suppose no story of your parents would be complete without a happy wedding-type photo: apparently this one was taken on their wedding day. Mother was 24 and Daddy was 34. They were married by her pastor at Trinity Baptist Church with Mother’s brother, Johnnie, his wife, Julia, and the pastor’s wife as witnesses.
Daddy’s grandfather was a Baptist preacher and his father and mother were apparently very active in doing what they called ‘singings,’ which were occasions when they would pack a picnic basket and go off for a day of singing hymns called Sacred Harp shaped note singings (for more information on this, including a sound file, Wikipedia offers some background) .
Remember that Daddy left home when he was fifteen because he couldn’t live with the way his father treated his mother. Somehow, I suspect Daddy couldn’t see in his father the relationship between a person’s faith in God and living a life of kindness and love with your family. Mother had always attended church as a child and young adult, but after her pastor experienced a public disgrace, she stopped her association with church until 1952 when I started attending a neighborhood church with school friends. After the third week, she decided she would not have her daughter attend church alone and so she selected Capitol Hill Baptist Church and we started attending. Daddy, however, did not join us in this.
In 1958, my youth group was holding weekly Bible studies in youth member’s homes. I hosted one of the studies on an evening when we watched a Billy Graham televised crusade. My Daddy and my future husband, Wayne (whom I had invited to come as a guest), both made decisions to accept Christ as a result of that evening in my home. Daddy was baptized at Capitol Hill Baptist Church on April 27, 1958.
Daddy attended church with us for awhile and spent time reading the Bible. Though after some months he stopped attending church services on a weekly basis, it was clear he did, in fact, love God.
His first grandchild, Kay, was born in August 1960 and Daddy loved her. Mother said, “Tommy loves little girls,” but it was clear Daddy really enjoyed being a grandfather and delighted to hold his granddaughter; it’s also clear had he lived long enough to have experienced grandfathering with Rena and David, he would have loved them as much.
Daddy’s brother, Franklin, who was a little over one year older than he was, died in April 1961. That seemed to bring Daddy’s mortality to his consciousness. All his siblings gathered for Franklin’s funeral and took a photo in birth order (note the slightly forward placement of their hands – it was something I always noted about Daddy, and here it appears it may have been hereditary).
LeRoy, Rex, Ruth, Ernest, Johnny, Tommy
Over the next 4 1/2 months, Daddy visited his brothers that lived in the Oklahoma City area, something he had done only intermittently up until that time, but after Franklin’s death, he seemed to feel his time to spend with them was limited. He was correct, because he died September 18, 1961, just days before his 57th birthday. Aunt Rubye’s still here at 102; what a pity Daddy couldn’t be here for his 105th!
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