An Old-school Southern Gentleman

On April Fools’ Day 2022, the government made public the records of the United States Census for 1950. That night I made two discoveries. The first one is that it is almost impossible to find a particular household in the U.S. Census for 1950 without the aid of an index. The second one was a letter my step-grandmother wrote shortly after my maternal grandfather’s death in 1956. Something I had no idea existed until that night.

In preparation for searching the newly released census records, I realized that I was unsure where my parents were living in 1950. They had not yet met each other, lived in different parts of the country, and were both 22 years old. In that year, my father was either with his parents in Hastings, Nebraska, or he was in Chicago enrolled in art school. While my mother could have been in Louisville, Kentucky; Birmingham, Alabama; Washington, DC; or Stuttgart, Germany. Both are gone now, so I thought I had no way of verifying the timeline. Then I remembered that before my mother passed away, she left with me her memoirs. Tucked away in a desk drawer were about a hundred handwritten pages complete with exhibits on rule-lined paper and collected in a 2-inch binder.

Retrieving the binder, it did not take long for me to learn the answer to my mother’s whereabouts in 1950. For the first half of that year, she lived in a boarding house in Washington DC; then, she boarded a ship for Europe in August. Finding the answer to my question, I lingered to look over the exhibits my mother had glued to the rule-lined paper. The fact that she had pasted the pictures onto the pages was something I recall criticizing her for having done when she first gave the book to me. Of course, I now feel wrong about having made that criticism. That is karma for my being an asshole sometimes.

I had seen most of the pictures and postcards many times before over the years, but on one page were attached three items, two of which I do recall having seen before. Yet, I am sure I had no prior knowledge of the existence of the third item. The first two items were clippings of the obituaries for my maternal grandfather. One was from the Dallas Morning News and was dated January 20, 1956. The second item from the Waco Times-Herald was dated January 19, 1956. They both provided the basic information regarding his death which I already knew about:

James M Dobbs, age 53, former administrative officer of the soil conservation Service in Temple, Texas, was found dead in his hotel room. An inquest verdict of the death by natural causes was returned by the Justice of the Peace. He had been ill for several days. He was born July 4, 1902, in Dallas and was a graduate of the University of Georgia law school in 1923.

I am mentioned in both the obituaries in the list of survivors: Survivors include two daughters Mrs. William W Carlin of Corpus Christi and Mrs. David DeBacker of St. Louis Missouri; one grandchild and one half-sister, Mrs. WH Smith of Washington DC.

James Monroe Dobbs, Jr. -1917

My mother had been estranged from her father for most of her life. In fact, in her memoir, she mentions him only three times. The first is an early memory that she has of him before her parents were divorced in 1932. She was four years old, and she remembers that he was “tall, thin, and had dark hair.” After her parents divorced, she did not see her father for the following 18 years. The next time she saw her father was when he came to see her in Washington DC just before she left for Europe. That was in the summer of 1950. When my parents married in 1954, my grandfather was not invited to the wedding at the insistence of my grandmother. However, according to my mother’s memoir, she did see her father one more time, which was a month or two after the wedding. She said that he met my father and the three of them had dinner together. She describes her father as being “tall, thin, with dark hair” on both those occasions.

In terms of family resemblance, I tend to favor my mother more than my dad. If I were fleeing a crime scene, I am sure that the witnesses would describe me as “tall, thin, with dark hair.” In the few pictures I have seen of my maternal grandfather, I feel that there is a resemblance between us. I grew up with a photograph of my grandfather taken when he was about 15 years old hanging in my bedroom. Ever since then I have been obsessed with wanting to know more about him. I met my paternal grandfather one time and that was when I was about 4 years old. On the other hand, my maternal grandfather, whose picture hung on my bedroom wall, died when I was about 6 months old.

 And that brings me to the third item included on the page with the two obituaries. This item was an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper upon which was typewritten a letter from my grandfather’s second wife, Helen Mewhinney Dobbs. The letter was folded such that I probably missed it on the first pass. It was typed on letterhead from the First National Bank of Holland, Texas, dated January 23, 1956. It is addressed to “Dear Emita, Pat, and Jo:”; that would be my grandfather’s half-sister, my mother, and my Aunt Joie.

It begins: May I suggest that you try to remember Jim as I will try to remember him (as I knew him in earlier days)

This is an apparent reference to the disease of alcoholism that took my grandfather’s life. Helen had divorced my grandfather a couple of years before he passed away because of his drinking. According to her privately published autobiography, she did so, hoping that the separation would force him to change.

What follows is a beautifully written memorial to my maternal grandfather, James Monroe Dobbs, Jr., written by my step-grandmother. It is something I had no idea existed until yesterday evening.

He was refined and genteel, soft-voiced, appreciative of the finer values of life, polite, cultured, and polished.

He was well educated, had an excellent choice of words, and dictated beautifully. He had an excellent memory and constantly strove to improve his knowledge, parroting out minute details to be better informed.

He was competent. Whatever he undertook, he did with precision and perfection. Queer thing: he never liked to tackle a like problem a second time but constantly sought new fields of endeavor.

He was broad-minded. He always gave a person the benefit of the doubt. If criticism of a person was made in his company, he would invariably say something kind about that person, questioning your authority for any criticism made. He did not like commentators who gave their opinion. He preferred to form his own.

He had beautiful features, was always neat in appearance, and was always immaculate in his dress.

He liked to do things for those he loved. His workshop was a hobby and I encouraged it constantly. If he heard me say that I wished I had something made or fixed, he took great pleasure in getting it done. You could not hurry him but he would get it done in his own time – and it was a perfect job. I think he loved me best when I was ill in bed and he had to wait on me. Whistling or humming a tune, he would tend to me lovingly, cook me good food, and keep the house in order so that things ran smoothly.

He was a good sportsman. He loved his guns, took excellent care of them, and kept all the rules for fair hunting. He prized the walnut, handmade, gun rack I gave him.

He liked to be systemic and orderly. So do I. I have heard him brag that if he were called to make a trip to Europe and had to pack in the dark, he would still know exactly what he was taking.

He loved good literature and music. Often he read aloud to me and always inspired me to read classics that I failed to read in my small town schooling. He loved good music so well that he told me that he became an usher in Atlanta at the opera house in order to see some operas.

He loved children. Before he contacted you two daughters, nearly every time he would take a child into his arms he would shed a tear and hurriedly wipe it away. He often told me of Pat’s antics as a baby and how he loved feeding her her early-morning bottle. Joe’s two visits to our home brought us both much happiness. It was always a great disappointment that he would never get you, Pat, to come.

He presided well. He helped organize a knife and fork club in Temple and he became its second president, doing a very creditable job.

He was a loyal friend. He would “go to bat” for any man he felt worthy of his esteem. He was a member of the Lions Club and worked indefatigably on the Lion’s Minstrel each year.

His home was his palace and how he loved it! Both homes in which we lived, he liked and help select. He could and did show them with pride. Each was paid for at the time of purchase and that gave him an inner satisfaction that radiated. His first choice of entertainment was to sit and read by his own fireside.

The letter was signed by Helen Dobbs.

It is a beautiful testimony from someone who must have loved my grandfather very much. She makes him sound perfect although we know that like all humans he had his flaws. I know that he was guilty of adultery and that he allowed alcohol to take over his life. Nevertheless, having discovered this letter, I feel a sense of closure and now I feel as though I have a better understanding of who my grandfather was.

According, to my grandmother, her father, JoJo Kollros, spotted Jimmy Dobbs seated with another woman in a restaurant down in New Orleans. He observed the two of them kissing.

The woman with whom my grandfather was seen in the restaurant was Helen Mewhinney, his boss at the Department of Agriculture. Jim and Helen were married in Fort Worth in 1937.

It was not until a few years after the fact that I learned that my step-grandmother died at the age of 101 in Holland Texas in 2001. She is buried in the Holland cemetery next to my grandfather, and his mother Helen Spiegel Dobbs who died in April 1950.

There was one other artifact in regard to my grandfather’s death included in the collection of exhibits in my mother’s memoir. It was a Western Union telegram marked “Pd Atlanta Georgia via Temple Texas January 20, 1956” it was addressed to Mrs. James M Helen Dobbs Holland, Texas.

There was one line, it read: “Am deeply grieved over Monroe’s passing am writing stop love cousin Annie.”

Had I read that telegram twenty-five years ago, neither my mother nor I would have had any idea who cousin Annie was. I now know who she was and how she played an important role in my learning the truth about my grandfather’s family.

Cousin Annie was Annie Von Schele Hahr, Monroe’s Aunt by marriage, and Aunt of the woman who first contacted me twenty-something years ago and who provided me access to all of Cousin Annie’s genealogical research on the Dobbs and Prothro families. Without Cousin Annie’s research efforts in the late 1940s, I would have very little knowledge of my maternal grandfather’s family.

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