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  Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"

Bura Handley

“Mister Wellington”
October, 1898 – May, 1964

by Phil Handley
Chances are good that those citizens of Wellington whose age is less than 60 years may sometimes wonder just what the man whose name adorns the Bura Handley Community Center was really like. Perhaps this small accounting of history will provide some answers to that question, as well as a degree of insight into the character, integrity, and sheer genius of the man whom I was privileged to call my “Dad”, while others simply referred to him as “Mister Wellington.”
Mister Wellington Bura Handley, Wellington Texas
"Portrait of Bura Handley as the Wellington City Manager, seated at his drafting table in the Community Building he built with WPA labor. This picture hung in the Community Building until his death in 1965. It now hangs proudly in my den." - Phil Handley
No man, living or dead has ever contributed more to the development, heritage and quality of life within the community of Wellington, Texas than Bura Handley. Serving as the City Manager for thirty-nine years, he was directly responsible for numerous projects that materially improved the life style of every citizen of Wellington, and earned the community its well deserved reputation as “The Jewel of the Panhandle.” A much abbreviated list of his accomplishments would include:
  1. Construction of the Community Building (built with WPA labor).
  2. Marion Air Park, to include the community swimming pool.
  3. Founding of the Wellington Volunteer Fire Department, of which he was the Chief for twenty-five years.
  4. Paving the majority of Wellington’s streets.
  5. Development of the wells and pumping station where the City’s golf course is now located.
  6. Construction of the water reservoir located on the north side of town, and too many other noteworthy accomplishments to list.
Born on October 11, 1898 to “Hamp” and Henrietta Handley, Bura was the oldest of seven children. After his dad purchased a small 40-acre farm just north of Wellington, the family became members of the community when they moved to that farm from a half-dugout located on the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River just south of Childress. Bura was the “kingpin” of the Handley children and was forced to drop out of school after the seventh grade to help support the family. By the time he was seventeen years old, he was the head mechanic at the Ford Garage. He then started the Wellington Machine Shop with his good friend “Monk Leggett. After he was hired to run the City Light Plant, he was quickly promoted to the position of City Manager, which he occupied from 1922 to 1961. Although his formal public education ended at completion of the 7th grade, it by no means stopped his quest for knowledge which he quickly assimilated into his extraordinary, technically oriented brain. A ready example of his remarkable engineering expertise is the fact that he was one of less than a dozen engineers in the State of Texas that held a “Grade A” Water Well Operators Certificate, which he earned by passing the onerous qualification test administered at Texas A&M University. This stunning accomplishment earned him the respect of every municipal engineer in the state.

Bura Handley’s accomplishments speak for themselves. However, to fully appreciate just what kind of man he was, I would offer these personal insights of which I have direct knowledge. To put this into perspective for those who did not know him, think of a man similar to that portrayed in the 2003 movie, Seabiscuit. Recall how the movie began… with the star sitting in front of his deserted bicycle shop and nodding off with no customers in sight, only to be awakened by the sound of the first automobile he had ever laid his eyes upon… a faltering Stanley Steamer. When asked if he could repair the vehicle, he replied “Of course.” When the sun came up the next morning, he had completely disassembled the machine, studied it, and knew not only how it worked, but also how to make it operate even better. Such would have been an accurate reflection of the man named Bura Handley. He once told me: “I have wheels in my head, and if I look at a piece of machinery and really think about it, I know how it works.” That wasn’t bragging, for he could really do it. I would offer the following episodes as examples:
  1. When broadcast radio was in its infancy, he studied the technology and built the first radio in the Texas Panhandle. Sitting on the floor above the old Wellington Fire Station, he built it from scratch through such actions as winding copper wire around oatmeal boxes to make condensers. Using a “whisker and crystal” to explore the shortwave frequency spectrum, he had heard nothing beyond the “wee-oh” sounds emitted through his homemade headset on the evening of September 14, 1923. Suddenly, he heard the voice of the ring announcer at the Polo Grounds in New York City, who was describing the world’s heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo. One can only imagine the thrill he must have felt. He told me that unlike the dramatic ring announcers of today, this one stuck strictly to the facts. As Dempsey methodically knocked Firpo down seven times in the first round, the announcer’s comments were only: “Dempsey knocks Firpo down”, after which he could hear the crowd cheering. He said that the only emotion the announcer ever showed occurred when he exclaimed: “Firpo knocks Dempsey through the ropes.” When Dempsey survived the first round and then proceeded to knock Firpo out in the second round, he said that he ran down to the telegraph office where a large crowd of men eagerly awaited the Morse coded results of each round. He said that when he told them that Dempsey had knocked Firpo out in the second, they all laughed… and had he been a betting man, he could have taken their last dollar.
  2. He built a race car which he named “Bevo.” It was the fastest automobile any of the local citizens had ever seen. When a special racing car, sponsored by Ford Motor was touring the country to show-off their state-of-the-art racing machine, they were scheduled to put on a demonstration at the racetrack oval located in Childress. When their “front man” was told that Bura Handley had the fastest car in the area, he eagerly arranged that Bura would pit “Bevo” against the Team Ford car in a twenty-five lap race to show just how technically advanced and superior their machine really was. Bura lapped the Team Ford car twice.
  3. In about 1950 lightening strikes were burning up the electric pump motors on the water wells located east of town. Bura had repeatedly told West Texas Utilities representatives that this was occurring because they had not installed lightening arrestors on their transmission lines and that the resulting surge from the lightning strikes were systematically destroying the pump motors. West Texas Utilities brushed his complaints aside until he informed them that on the next occasion of a fried motor, The City of Wellington would be sending the repair bill to them. I was watching my Dad sitting on his haunches as he worked on some piece of machinery on the east side of the Community Building when a new Chevrolet coupe drove up and a nattily dressed young man got out and asked to see the City Manager. When “Bo” Yates, the City Waterworks Superintendent pointed to Bura, who continued to work on the task at hand, I vividly remember the smirk on the face of the young man as he introduced himself as a West Texas Utility electrical engineer from the main office in Dallas and said: “Now I understand Mr. Handley that you have told my company that you were going to bill us for the next pump motor that goes out after a thunderstorm, because you think it is our fault.” Without looking up, Dad replied, “Yeah, that’s right.” The young man then launched into an impressive monologue that was loaded with technical jargon, formulas and electrical transmission theory that went on for fully five minutes. He concluded with words that I remember to this day: “So you see Mr. Handley, it could not possibly be the fault of West Texas Utilities that your pumps are being burned up.” I shall also never forget the opening words that my Dad spoke without raising his eyes from the piece of equipment upon which he continued to work: “Well son, in the first place… What followed was a point-by-point rebuttal of each and every fancy-sounding formula and theory that totally discredited the harangue just delivered. By the time he had finished, the young engineer was reduced to saying nothing beyond “yes sir” and “no sir” as he painfully realized that he had just attempted to bamboozle a man who had obviously forgotten more about electrical engineering that he would ever know. Before he slunk into his new Chevy to drive back to Dallas, he concluded by saying: “Thank you Mr. Handley for clearing this up and I’m sure that we won’t have any more trouble in the future.” Bura simply replied, “You’re welcome son, glad to have helped.”
  4. During a trip back to Wellington about twenty years ago after my Dad had passed away in 1964, I was getting a haircut in the old Cicero Gulley Barbershop on the south side of the square when an elderly gentleman approached me and said that he wanted to tell me a story about my dad. He said that during the Great Depression, he along with many others were about to starve to death and he was doing everything he could to feed his family. He said that he had located some old copper pipe that remained buried over on the west side of town and he was laboriously digging it out foot-by-foot to sell it for the pennies it brought when sold to a scrap dealer. He said that when Bura saw what he was doing he said: “Let me give you a hand.” In short order he had started an old iron-wheeled tractor, rigged some extenders to the studs on the left drive wheel, fastened the exposed end of the copper pipe onto the extenders, and driven the length of the run of the buried pipe, winding it onto the wheel. A task that would have taken him a week to complete had been finished in minutes. Tears glistened in the old gentleman’s eyes as he completed his story by saying: “I’m sure that you already know this Phil, but you daddy was the greatest man I ever knew. They just don’t make ‘em like him no more.”
Bura’s engineering genius and managerial skills did not go without notice by other large municipalities through the Southwestern States. Despite more than a few very attractive offers of employment that would have materially increased his wealth many times over, his unflinching sense of loyalty and dedication to the good citizens of Wellington always prevailed, and in the end he declined every offer.

Bura Handley was without doubt the finest gentleman I ever knew and I shall always consider myself one of the luckiest men alive to have been his son. He was indeed a special breed and the pride of Wellington, Texas, the community he faithfully served for his entire life. We shall not likely see his likes again.

Phil Handley
Colonel, USAF (Ret.)

Editor's Note:
People like Bura Handley are the unsung heroes of their respective towns and they deserve recognition, belated though it may be. Things were a lot tougher back then and people need a reminder that the things they take for granted today were hard-won. We're proud to include this article in Texas Escapes.
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