In 1957, my folks bought their first house. We moved from the small community of Round Timbers to Seymour, the county seat of Baylor County. We were so proud. I remember the address even today, 608 North Donald Street.
Living in town was challenging. Prior to our move, I had taken the bus to and from school. So I had little knowledge and few experiences with my new classmates or their home environment.
One block north of my house was a cross street named California Street, but known locally as the Lubbock Highway. A few houses further was the home of Mrs. Ryan and her two children. Georgia Ann was the youngest, and her older brother Billy was an athletic star for the Seymour Panthers. While Billy was athletic, handsome, and a natural leader, Georgia Ann was the most beautiful girl in the world. Actually, she was out of this world, an Angel perhaps. Though my reputation for knowledge about aesthetics and beauty were somewhat limited, I think I was fairly representative of the average, mature fifth grade country boy of what “Real Purty” represents.
I used to sit out in the front yard hoping to get a glimpse of Georgia Ann. However, I rarely saw her, but always got a friendly wave from Billy.
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Our first summer, Dad went into the watermelon business. He bought 100 melons from Mr. Compton. Mr. Compton raised great melons. I know because a few years later, I often made a late night visit to his melon patch.
Our whole front yard was filled with melons. Dad put me in charge of sales. “They sell for two dollars. Don’t eat any or drop any of them. Get your money before giving up the melon,” he instructed.
I slept on a screened-in-porch near the front of the house. Late one night I heard talking and laughter out front. Then my mother yelled, “Some boys are stealing our melons.”
I jumped up and ran out front just in time to see five boys load five melons into two cars and speed away with laughter’s merry ring. Dad said he was disappointed in me, but seemed to have a little disguised reflective harmony in the words.
The next day Billy pulled up in front of my house. He got out of the car and walked towards me and called me by name. “Understand you lost some melons recently,” he said, with a boyish grin. I dropped my head, using the toe of my well-worn tennis shoe to dig in the dirt.
Then he placed a hand on my shoulder as he reached into his pocket and gave me a ten dollar bill.
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“This is for the melons you lost. It won’t happen again,” he concluded.
Billy went back to his car, and waved. But suddenly I yelled, “Tell Georgia Ann she can have a free melon!”
He pulled slowly away, bent over the steering wheel chuckling.
We sold all the melons in a few days. I saved Georgia Ann’s melon for about a week. But one hot afternoon I went over to my neighbor Mrs. Hart’s house, and we enjoyed feasting on that melon.
One day while looking at magazines in Ferguson’s Drug Store, five football players came in wearing their sport jackets. “Well if it’s not Watermelon Boy,” said the biggest of the group. The comment was escorted by hearty laughter. Then I saw Billy standing in front shaking his head. He was part of the group. He turned with his back to me and spoke quietly to the other four boys. The atmosphere was thick, but stilled.
The boys filed quickly out of the store. Billy was the last to leave. At the door, he turned and winked as he exited. I was never called that name again.
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In 1959 we move to another part of the town. But in high school I worked at Mr. Cowart’s Fina Service Station on the Lubbock Highway. Tech fans passing through stopped at the station often, on their way to the big game at Jones Stadium in Lubbock. They mentioned how this was Billy Ryan’s home town which always gave me a chance to state what a good friend of mine he was. Not only my friend but my hero.
In 1987, I was a middle school principal in Fort Worth, when I heard that Billy had passed away. It was a sad time for me. Billy had been a coach, teacher, and administrator in Denton, Texas after he graduated from North Texas State in 1963. In 1991 Billy was honored by having a high school named after him in Denton. Ryan High School came at the request of the people of the district, to honor a man beloved by the community.
Later I heard that Billy had been a member of the Lions Club. I too am a Lion, and our motto is “WE SERVE.” Billy had a servant’s heart. Teaching is a superb way to serve. There is no greater or nobler profession than teaching. You generally teach using different educational tools, pedagogy, and philosophy. But I feel the best way to teach is through example. Billy not only taught in the classroom, but by living an exemplary life. He was decent, moral, and an honorable man that never allowed fame or fortune to misguide his pathway.
I read once there is no greater person than one that will extend a helping hand to a child. I am no longer a child, but when fear or trouble water lie ahead, I can still feel a warm hand from a kind man on my shoulder. Mrs. Ryan had two angels for children. And one has already gone home!