Deep in the Heart of Texarkana

Deep in the Heart of Texarkana

June 29, 1992 | Newsweek
Author: PETER KATEL | Page: 22 | Section: NATIONAL AFFAIRS
Ross Perot likes to say he had a Norman Rockwell-like childhood, and for anyone trying to get a picture of his birthplace, some back issues of the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Church and barbershop, Ladies Garden Club and the Boy Scouts-these are the institutions that defined Texarkana’s social orbit in the ’30s and ’40s, when Perot, 59, was growing up. Back then, going to the movies on Sunday was living fast and loose. A boy and a girl could date on the Sabbath, but only if they had been to church. The curriculum at the Patty Hill School, Perot’s alma mater, included table manners and ballroom dancing; pupils had to memorize a Bible verse every day. Old-timers today remember Perot as “a good Christian man,” high praise in a town where most people were churchgoers.

Texarkana, with a population of 54,287, is literally a city divided against itself. State Line Avenue runs down the middle, with Texas on one side (dry and full of churches) and Arkansas (Wet and full of liquor stores) on the other. Bill Clinton was born in Hope, Ark., just 30 miles away-a coincidence that has local heads shaking in bemusement. The Perots lived on the Texas side, at 2901 Olive Street. A wide porch runs along the front and partway down the south side of the still-standing, three-bedroom dwelling. Should Perot reach the White House, his boyhood home will no doubt join Lincoln’s cabin in the annals of presidential domiciles. The Perots sold the house after World War II; the billionaire bought it back some years later for his mother to stay in on visits from Dallas. In the interim, its red bricks had been painted white. Because the old building couldn’t withstand sandblasting, Perot had workers remove the bricks and put them back other-side-out so the house would look just like it had in the old days.

Texarkana was and remains a creature of its geography. The Red River runs north and east of the city, but this isn’t John Ford country: no dusty plains, just quiet, tree-lined streets in town and rich arable soil in the valley. When Perot was a kid, cotton was still king; five railroad lines converged in town to carry the crop to points far away. Lumber was another staple. Local burghers ran the town in low-key but efficient style. “If you were a respected citizen, more business was transacted in the barbershop than anywhere else,” says Hayes McClerkin, a lawyer and boyhood friend of Perots. Perot Sr., a cotton broker whose motto was ” Sell it, you can’t eat it,” often began his day at the Hotel Grim, drinking coffee, talking business and reading out-of-town newspapers. The World War II arrival of two military plants brought unprecedented prosperity and a population high to Texarkana.

Jim Crow was alive and well during Perots youth. Blacks and whites had their own schools, churches, Boy Scout troops. In a town where everyone knew his place, blacks forgot theirs at their own peril. There were two lynchings in living memory, the second when Perot was in elementary school. McClerkin and another schoolmate, TV journalist Fred Graham, remember their parents’ forbidding them to go look at the body hanging from a pole on Lelia Street. The savagery so shocked J. Q. Mahaffey, 84, the former editor ofthe Texarkana Gazette, that he decided not to cover the civil-rights era rather than risk violence. “I really kept the lid on it here,” he says. “I didn’t practice good journalism, but it was responsible journalism.”

Local heroes:

For a small town, Texarkana has had its share of heroes. Black ragtime composer Scott Joplin, born there in 1868, set his folk opera “Treemonisha” in the region. Jazz great Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter-who worked on farms nearby-immortalized the town in the lines “Down in Louisiana/Just about a mile from Texarkana.” Legendary producer-director Josh Logan hailed from there, too. November will determine whether its richest native son makes it into the history books. But for now, at least, Perot has put Texarkana on the map.

Caption: Photo: A picture-perfect boyhood: Perot as a teenager in the 1940s (DAVID SAMS–SIPA)