are not the only interesting things you can find in a library.
The Sam Rayburn Library in Bonham,
in addition to housing Rayburn's extensive personal collection of
books and papers, has a 2,500 year-old Grecian urn. But from 1976
until 2001, the library's most interesting "holding" was a gentleman
named MacPhelan Reese. Reese was a Texas character with an uppercase
C, a walking volume of history, humor and philosophy.
A slight, always meticulously dressed man with a bent nose, Reese
grew up in Bonham. There,
like just about everyone else in that modest-sized North Texas community,
Reese came to know Sam Rayburn. Though born in Tennessee, Rayburn
grew up in Fannin
County. After a stint as a school teacher, he got elected to
the Texas House and by 1911 had become its speaker. In 1913, Rayburn
ran for Congress and got elected.
He served in the House of Representatives for the next 48 years.
From 1940 until his death, Rayburn wielded the gavel as speaker
of every Democratically-controlled House. When he died of cancer
in 1961, he was one of the most powerful politicians in the world.
One of his protégés, for example, was Lyndon Johnson. Then Vice
President Johnson, President John F. Kennedy and every living former
President came to Bonham for Mr. Sam's funeral.
Library, an appropriately Federalist-looking stone building, was
dedicated in 1957. Until his death, the Speaker maintained his Texas
ranging in subject from history to politics to current affairs,
were his reference works. Judging from their well-used condition,
Rayburn did not rely heavily on staff members to do his research
on legislative issues. The Grecian urn was given Rayburn in the
late 1940s by the Greek government in appreciation for his support
of the Truman Doctrine.
to Mac, as he was known by most. As a youngster, he learned to fight
because he didn't like being bullied by fellow classmates who teased
him about being frail and wearing glasses. However he learned the
art of fisticuffs, he got good at it. That talent led to a short
stint as a welterweight boxer, a chapter in his life that left him
with a bent nose. He also worked as a gag writer for Bert Levy (1872-1934)
, an Australian-born vaudeville actor and cartoonist. Reese had
his own vaudeville act for a time, touring the Midwest. He also
spent time at a music conservatory in Cincinnati and in Phoenix,
where he told a writer he had gone to "dry out." Exactly what he
wished to relieve of excess moisture he did not elaborate on in
an interview in the Texas Observer published not long before his
Mac did say that the reason he came home to Bonham
in 1976 was to care for his elderly mother. Soon, he had an office
in the basement of the Rayburn Library, where he was a docent and
writer-poet in residence. He wrote his poems and witticisms in a
notebook he always carried, going through scores over the years.
As time passed he was one of the few folks still around who had
known Rayburn well. He co-authored a book about him ("Speak, Mr.
Speaker"), was a wonderful storyteller and prolific poet. Here are
a couple of things Mac revealed about Rayburn:
* Rayburn may have been a powerful man, but like you and me, he
was aware that books can wander off if not watched closely. Just
to keep folks honest, he wrote his initials on page 99 of every
book he owned.
* Every night before he went to bed, the Speaker ate an onion sandwich.
I thought that was relatively eccentric until I learned that onions
are known to have a soporific effect. A natural sleeping pill, if
Maybe Rayburn's habit of a nightly onion sandwiches explains why,
following a short-lived marriage in 1927, the speaker remained a
bachelor for the rest of his life.
Reese, too, was a bachelor, but even in his 90s, he still had an
eye for the ladies. But words clearly were his best friends. He
used them well in telling true stories, jokes and in poetry that
ranged from funny to philosophical. Not long before he ran out of
birthdays, he wrote a poem he called "Happy Birthday To You" that
is really a birthday wish for all:
| Why borrow sorrow
from a vague tomorrow,
Tomorrow's a birthday near;
Be alive and thrive on three sixty-five
Birthdays every year;
May your dearest memories - with Love ever near -
Banish each sorrow, and vanquish each fear.
Woo each hour like a winning suitor,
Be glad your Today was Yesterday's future.
| Every new "today"
of the work week, Reese walked from his residence to the Rayburn Library.
Local residents knew it was useless to offer him a ride, though they
and others had to be careful not to run him over since he generally
walked in the middle of the street on his trips to and from the library
or anywhere else he needed to go.
Reese remained a fixture at the Rayburn Library until his retirement
in 2001. He died in Bonham
at 97 on July 6, 2003 and is buried at Willow Wild Cemetery there.
"Texas Tales" April
13 , 2017 column
Home - Sam Rayburn House Museum
By Bob Bowman
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