The third reprint of Dr. Jerry Thompson’s Laredo, A Pictorial History will be available in late August through the Webb County Heritage Foundation in a limited edition hard copy and in soft copy.
This iteration of the pictorial features five new chapters — “Bill Batey and the Boys of ’56;” “Las Calles de Laredo;” “Aldo and the Fall of the Old Party,” which focuses on the Rhode Islander who became Laredo’s Mayor and the downfall of patrón mayor Pepe Martin; “Warriors, Artists, Reformers, and Sports Figures,” and “Education and the Growth of A Border City.”
As I read through the galley proofs of Chapter 29 about the 1956 Martin High School basketball team that won the 4-A State Tournament championship at Gregory Gym in Austin, I was taken by how much detail Thompson had packed into the story. The narrative went to its conclusion, and you never forgot that the central story was about Coach Bill Batey’s basketball team, but all along the way and with every individual Thompson introduced into the story, you learned something about the character of the people of this city and the era in which this story unfolded.
I couldn’t put the pages down, so rich were they with factual timelines, basketball history, the plays the Tigers used, basketball in Texas — hard details fused with anecdotal histories, that of Bill Batey of Moulton, Texas and his family, his education, drive, and sports ethic; Martin High School and its faculty comprised largely of women; the skills of the individual team members, like Andy Santos’ dribbling drill that had the power to both mesmerize the opposing team and eat the ticks of the clock; the racism the team encountered in Austin, but also the overwhelming support they got as underdogs in the playoffs; the state of Laredo and education at the time; and how this town turned out to support the Tigers.
Where else might I have learned that the team often traveled to games in Coach John Valls’ Oldsmobile or Coach Batey’s Studebaker, in which on rainy nights, Batey used the car’s foggy windows to draw basketball plays. The backs of paper plates weren’t safe from him either.
The chapter on Aldo and the fall of the Old Party packs some rarely (if ever) discussed details on the machinations of the Partido Viejo — a couple of surprises and a few wallops.
WRITING NOT POWERED BY NOSTALGIA;
BUT FUSED WITH EVOCATIVE DETAIL
Thompson’s writing is not powered by nostalgia — it is fused with evocative detail, and it is engaging and loaded with meaning; and sometimes when he writes about political injustice, there is a crisp edge of indignation to the narrative.
That is how this historian/storyteller writes, and that is why even his academic writing is anything but dry.
With the ink not yet dry on the third reprint of the pictorial, Thompson has embarked on a personal literary journey — one that began in 1984 when he opened a box of letters in a dresser drawer in New Mexico after his mother’s death.
Those 17 letters would catapult and compel Thompson to research the life and times of a man unknown to him, that of his grandfather, Joe Lynch Davis, a quarter-Cherokee bank robber and train bandit — 16 banks, five trains — who served 16 years of a 25-year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Thompson had heard little of his grandfather from his mother, Jo Lee Davis.
He has the memory of a conversation between a great uncle and his father that he overheard as a seven-year-old — “Everything would be different if Joe hadn’t been in the pen.” He thought the conversation had to do with his mother Jo and his grandfather’s cow pens on the ranch, and he never thought of the exchange again until he read the letters from Joe Lynch Davis to his only child Jo.
Thompson’s grandfather rode in the Gang of Seven, along with Henry Starr, the Cherokee Badman, sometimes robbing two banks on the same day, sometimes blowing train safes open with nitroglycerine.
According to Thompson, his grandfather “married a country girl who was Bonnie to his Clyde.” After his release from Leavenworth, Davis became a watchman in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.
Thompson has located Davis’ grave in Sand Springs and has read through prison records and visited the places Joe Lynch Davis traversed or lived in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Thompson wears the excitement well of this literary departure from writing about historic figures and places to writing now about his own family history.
“Historians are instinctively detectives. I had no trepidation following the leads in the letters. The older we get, the more curious we are about our ancestry,” he said, adding, “Much of the information was on the periphery of the ‘real’ story. Looking back, there were all kinds of hints in the letters that I did not immediately pick up on. There was enough information, however, to lead to the bigger story.”
It has taken Thompson two decades to research what could be known about Joe Lynch Davis, learning from Oklahoma criminal records about the bank and train robberies.
“He robbed a train outside of Nogales, Arizona in 1916, one of the last train robberies in Arizona. This is the one the Feds got him on,” Thompson said.
He learned from the National Archives in California that his grandfather had first been imprisoned in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington. The Mid-West National Archives in Kansas documented Davis’ incarceration at Leavenworth, and his parole records were found in Washington, D.C.
“I think my greatest worry was not that the story would be forgotten or that someone would not publish what I was researching, but it was that I could write the story of Davis objectively. I still worry about that,” Thompson noted.
THE WRITER’S LIFE BEGAN
WITH AN OLD UNDERWOOD
Jerry Thompson’s writer’s life began with the gift of an old Underwood typewriter when he entered college at 16.
“My father wanted me to be a geologist because I could earn $100 a day, so I enrolled at New Mexico Tech. I graduated sixth in my class of seven. I couldn’t do math or chemistry,” he recalled. “I had taken a class there called The Indian and Spanish Southwest with Dr. Page Christensen, and he inspired me to change my major to history,” Thompson said.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts in history from Western New Mexico University and a Masters from the University of New Mexico.
Thompson arrived in Laredo in 1968 to teach history at Laredo Community College (LCC).
“I knew a little bit about the Southwest, but I wasn’t prepared for how much history there was in Laredo and how little had been done to record it, preserve it, and learn from it,” he said, adding that he was surprised that the Texas he came to still had segregated schools in towns like Sonora and Del Rio.
“In Laredo, however, the segregation was economic. You could see it in the disparities of wealth and poverty,” he said. “I arrived at a time that the Old Party still wielded power. You couldn’t get a job with the school district without getting an OK from City Hall.”
He recalled finding a friend in the outspoken Laredo activist Chaca Ramirez. “He had the guts I didn’t have. He was Ghandi-like.” Thompson spoke fondly and with delight of the WBCA float Ramirez entered in the 1969 parade. “He called the entry ‘Children for Education.’ Who would argue with that? It was a flatbed truck filled with kids from El Cuatro who waited until they pulled up to the dignitaries’ grandstand to wave their black and red Huelga posters to show solidarity with those who spoke up for better wages, better working conditions, and improved water and sewer services in the barrios.”
At the other end of the political spectrum Pepe Martin had Thompson’s ear. “He wouldn’t let me write anything down, but he had plenty to say. “I saw him at the Kazen Center at LCC on the eve of the mayoral race that Aldo Tatangelo would win. I asked him where he would go now, and he answered, ‘Probably to jail.’ 180 indictments had been rolled into one. He had already gone to check out the place of his future incarceration.”
LCC afforded Thompson a theretofore unheard of sabbatical that allowed him to begin doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
His five decades at LCC and Laredo State University/Texas A&M International University are hallmarked by a prolific literary stream of editing and published writings, and recognition and accolades for that body of work.
Between 1971 and 2017, Thompson edited 10 volumes of letters, diaries, and records, and wrote 11 books and four monographs — many which focused on aspects of the Civil War and the figures whose lives told the story of the Civil War in Texas and New Mexico.
He continues to rely on the 128 volumes of The War of the Rebellion: Original Records of the Civil War, which he said contain some of the most important Civil War documents.
Thompson said that he, like many, believed the Civil War was fought largely in the East, and that he was surprised to learn that there had been a Civil War skirmish on the outskirts of Laredo, a realization that led him to numerous other Civil war-related writings.
His most recent book, Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the History of the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, which was published by Texas Christian University in 2017, has been well-received and was nominated for a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
He said the John Z. Leyendecker papers at UT-Austin were invaluable for the research on Col. Benavides. Leyendecker’s second wife, Juliana, was Benavides’ sister. “Leyendecker’s letters were in Old German, but I found a woman in Austin who translated them for me,” he said.
Thompson’s 2007 book on the rancher-politician-folk hero-bandit Juan Cortina, Cortina — Defending the Mexican Name in Texas, took him to DEFENSA, the national archives in Mexico City. “William Prescott Webb and J. Frank Dobie had tried to write about Cortina using U.S. documents in Texas, but Cortina, who was illiterate, didn’t leave a paper trail,” he noted.
Thompson said that Laredo’s history and that of the region is a deep vein and yet is very accessible. “Much of it is waiting to be told, recorded, and preserved. We need to educate the City Council and Commissioners Court, and this can be difficult. There’s a good beginning about educating the public for the value of historic preservation, but we need to do more at the college and university level and in the public and private schools. I am trying, and so is the Webb County Heritage Foundation, but at times it is discouraging,” he said, noting that he is writing the curriculum for a TAMIU Masters level course on the history of Laredo. He said that among the figures the course will cover are Heinrich Portscheller, the master brick builder; Bishop Peter Verdaguer; the immigrant Leyendecker family; Col. Benavides and others whose lives forged local history.
On the literary plane, where Thompson lives and writes when he is not being the Regents Professor of History at TAMIU, his conversation evidences that he has many more stories to tell. He hints at one called The Last Patrón.
He said he immerses himself in research that includes travel to the place the story first told itself.
“Getting a sense of the place where the people in your stories walked and lived and rode are part of my research. Graveyards, battlefields, and old buildings all offer important details. They inform me, as do letters and obituaries,” Thompson said of gathering details to reconstruct lives, events, and eras.
“I love a good story,” he said, oblivious that so do the many awaiting the release of the Pictorial History.
(To read of Dr. Jerry Thompson’s numerous academic honors and awards and his extensive bibliography, click on the link below. To pre-order a copy of one of the 250 hard copy reprints of Laredo, A Pictorial History or one of the 1,250 paperback copies, call the Webb County Heritage Foundation at 956-727-0977. The Foundation will host a book signing on August 23 at 6 p.m. at the Villa Antigua Border Heritage Museum.)