My father, Lester Rozelle, died 24 years ago today.
Though this blog purports to be about reading, writing, and literacy, I have to admit up front that though my dad read three newspapers – the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Post, and the Palestine Herald Press – religiously every day, I think he read only one novel in his lifetime. It was Bonny’s Place. And the only reason he read that one was that Leon Hale, the legendary columnist for Post, wrote it. I once told Leon that my father would have read a new translation of the Illiad if he had written it.
My father’s life was enough of a story for me to make it the central focus of my first book, Into that Good Night, which was published a few years after his death.
Then, in 2011 when I was a weekly columnist, I wrote about him in the Sunday paper.
Here it is:
I saw my dad last Saturday.
Not in person, since he’s been gone since 1992. And I didn’t visit the pretty little hilltop cemetery where he’s buried in the East Texas piney woods.
I saw him in a place that was very nearly holy ground to him.
Last weekend my wife Karen and I joined my two sisters and my brother-in-law up in Oakwood, the Leon County town where my father was a teacher, coach, and superintendent for nearly four decades. The occasion was Homecoming, but what made it even more meaningful was the dedication of the new elementary school to him.
He came to Oakwood in 1930 from Alto, his hometown, where he had been the football coach and math teacher. He arrived in a used Model T or Model A Ford; opinions vary and anyone who might know for sure is long gone. But one thing upon which everybody was in complete agreement was that he had his two best football players from Alto in the back seat. The UIL surely had residency rules back then, but they probably were stretched wide and conveniently in rural towns. Those two boys played on my father’s first Oakwood team and, I’m guessing here, lived with the families of some teammates.
Five or six years later a member of the school board walked across the football field during a practice session and informed my father that he’d just been elected superintendent, a position he held for the next three decades except for four years in the army in the South Pacific during World War II. He was in some tough spots in that war, and he always maintained that it was the prayers of the Oakwood students that brought him safely home. The school board, you see, hired a retired old fellow to run things during his absence and the kids were afraid that if my dad got killed they’d be stuck with him.
A few years before he went to war, in March of 1937, my father and three other school men from surrounding towns drove the sixty or so miles to New London when the school there blew up, killing almost three hundred people, mostly children. Whatever my dad saw and did there, probably helping with the evacuation of the injured and the dead, he kept to himself for the rest of his life. I have to assume that his experience there was so horrible that he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.
That was a big part of the reason that I took on the project of writing My Boys and Girls are in There, a book about that explosion which still the worst school disaster in the history of the nation.
Administrators of small schools wore a good many hats in my father’s time. In addition to being superintendent, he taught typing and math and was the business manager, director of personnel and public relations, and the transportation chief. Some of my finest memories of him are of when I, as a very young boy, would ride along as he drove the “school car”, an army surplus staff car, out country roads on many winter mornings to see if the bridges were ice free so the busses could make their runs.
On one of those trips as we watched lights come on in the houses we passed he broke a long silence and told me something I’d never forget. He said he hoped I’d find something to do with my life that would be important, and wouldn’t be a chore at all because I’d like doing it. He was, of course, defining his own career. And this from a man bumping along on a dirt road on a frigid morning long before daylight in a car with a heater that barely worked at all.
Years later, when he had Alzheimer’s and lived in a nursing home he thought he was still the superintendent of the Oakwood School. While many people with that disease find themselves in confusing, maybe unhappy places in their past, my father went to a bright place, where he was doing something important that wasn’t a chore.
He went home.
So, I saw my dad last Saturday.
I saw him in the faces of lots of people who went to school to him and loved him. I saw him in the stories they told about him. And I saw him in that handsome new building that was dedicated to his memory and the kids that would go to school there.
He would have liked that.