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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

MacPhelan Reese
and the
Rayburn Library

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Books 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.

Sam Rayburn
Sam Rayburn

The Rayburn Library, an appropriately Federalist-looking stone building, was dedicated in 1957. Until his death, the Speaker maintained his Texas office there.

Rayburn's books, 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.

Now 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 death.

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 you will.

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.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 13 , 2017 column

[ Sam's Home - Sam Rayburn House Museum by Bob Bowman]

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