OPINION COLUMNS

Remembering friends and colleagues lost this week

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Saturday, May 9, 2015
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Jim Wright was elected to Congress in 1955, about a year before I landed my first job at KXOL radio in Fort Worth, so I had the opportunity to cover him for almost 20 years.

Wright was a friend of KXOL General Manager Earl Fletcher, so through the years we got many opportunities to “scoop” our competitor KFJZ with stories from the Congressman.

Roy J. Eaton

Roy J. Eaton

Jim Wright was considered too liberal for many conservative Fort Worth businessmen, but he brought so many good things to the city that they were rarely able to get someone to run against him.

Jim Wright died this week, and his funeral will be Monday at the First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth. For the past 10 years, we have seen Jim regularly at church. As we greeted him, he always had a smile.

For many years I was part of the Fort Worth “Gridiron” show where reporters gathered to poke fun at elected officials. It was always a sell-out crowd and Jim Wright was one of the favorite targets of our barbs.

He and Senator John Tower, polar opposites politically but good friends personally, would often take the stage to read scripts that we had prepared for them. It was great fun.

I never had the opportunity to play Wright or Tower in the spoof, but I was often part of the script-writing crew that got to “stick it to ’em” during the show.

Both Wright and Tower, along with Gov. John Connally, were always invited to the cast dinner following the show. There were some especially solemn moments at the show following November 22, 1963.

Gov. Connally, his arm still in a sling from the gunshot wounds, kept the cast spellbound in silence as he recounted the events of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Those parties were always “off the record” so the governor spoke candidly.

Jim Wright often told this story about Kennedy’s visit to Fort Worth. After his warm welcome in Fort Worth, the president boarded Air Force One for the short, half-hour trip from Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas Love Field.

Kennedy had told a crowd at the Hotel Texas that no city in America was better represented in Congress than Fort Worth.

Wright told of how Kennedy asked him and the governor why Fort Worth was so politically different from Dallas. They were telling him of the cultural and political differences when the pilot told everyone to take their seats for the arrival in Dallas.

Kennedy was fascinated by the story and told Wright and Connally he wanted to hear more when they left Dallas and traveled to Austin. Tragically they never got to continue the story.

Jim Wright’s days in Congress did not end well. He resigned under an ethics cloud and returned to Fort Worth. Ironically the ethics probe was initiated by Newt Gingrich, himself later engulfed in an ethical storm.

But Jim Wright didn’t come home with his head lowered in shame. He began a new career teaching government classes at TCU. Former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said, “He shared his history and his intellect and his great perspective with hundreds if not thousands of students.”

Wright’s great oratorical skills were almost silenced in 1991 when he was diagnosed with mouth cancer. The operation left him with slurred speech. As years went by, speaking become much more difficult, but the smile that we saw on Sunday never went away.

Many will fill the majestic sanctuary Monday afternoon to pay their respects to Jim Wright. Congresswoman Kay Granger, who now represents Wright’s old district and part of Wise County, said, “Speaker Wright’s footprint in Fort Worth and North Texas is large. He was instrumental to projects that helped build this state and particularly North Texas to the prominent place it holds today.”

I was proud to have called him my Congressman and my friend.

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Two other persons have died in the past week who meant a lot to me.

Jim Jones, the retired religion writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, died after a short battle with cancer. Jim was the first area journalist to cover religion as “real news.” He was on the front lines to report on the split in the Southern Baptist Convention, the split in the Fort Worth Episcopal Diocese, the tragic murders at the Westcliff Baptist Church and the ministerial scandal that rocked First Methodist in Fort Worth.

Many newspapers covered “church news” based primarily on news releases from the churches, but Jim treated it as real news and won many awards for his even-handed coverage of oft-times volatile disputes within churches.

Jim was a native of Bowie and was tops in his 1953 graduating class. We were professional, personal and church friends, and when I stopped by to visit him in hospice care a few days before he died, the first thing he asked was if Jeannine was with me.

When I told him I was keeping a watch on Bowie for him, he smiled and squeezed my hand. Jim had willed his body to Baylor University for research. His memorial service will also be at First Methodist Fort Worth on May 20.

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The death of Nell Low of Decatur was particularly sad for all of us at the Messenger. Nell had been our co-worker for more than a decade before joining the Wise County district clerk’s office.

When I think of Nell, I think of the old Southern Gospel song “Others, Lord, yes others, let this my motto be.” She adored her son Todd and his two children, and she always had a big smile for anyone who came into the office.

Nell had been ill with cancer for almost a year. The chapel at Jones Funeral Home in Bridgeport was packed for her visitation. It was a tribute to a truly good person who will be missed by all of us.

Roy Eaton is publisher of the Messenger.

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