“Austin Askew”–Chapter XVIII– More Underground Austin: the Austin Memorial Park

Right alongside the auto graveyard we call Mopac Boulevard, is another graveyard, the Austin Memorial Park, at 2800 Hancock Drive. And while it may lack the cumulative star power of the State Cemetery or the faded grandeur of Oakwood Cemetery, it’s nevertheless the final stop for some major players in Austin history.

I’ve known plenty of writers in my life, and I’ve also known plenty of people who wanted to pose as writers, who wanted to live their idea of the writer’s lifestyle. (I myself even went through a silly period where I wore tweed jackets and khaki pants and smoked a pipe, in imitation of William Faulkner.) About fifteen years ago a friend of mine who shall remain mercifully nameless decided he wanted to be the next Ernest Hemingway, so he went one afternoon to a downtown bar that he’d heard was a hangout for local writers.

Inside he found the bartender waiting on an elderly patron. My friend announced, “My name is such-and-such and I wanna be a writer, and I’ve been told this is where the writers in Austin hang out!”

The amused bartender nodded and said, “Well then I’m Joe, the bartender, and that man down on the end is Mr. Michener.”

My clueless friend said, “Oh, you know there’s also a famous writer named James Michener.”

The old man at the end of the bar chuckled and said, “Uh, yeah, I’ve been called that too from time to time.”

James Albert Michener was born in 1907. According to some sources he was abandoned at birth, and spent part of his childhood in a Pennsylvania orphanage, though one of his biographers claims Michener was raised by his unwed biological mother, who in hopes of protecting her reputation, insisted she had adopted the boy. In his youth and young adulthood he divided his time between studying art, history, and English at universities in the United States and Europe and traveling around, taking odd jobs, working on freighters and in carnivals, soaking up all the experiences he could. He taught at several universities and seemed destined to the quiet life of an academic, but when World War II broke out, though he was a Quaker and exempt from military service, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served in the Pacific Theater.

His wartime experiences inspired his first book, “Tales of the South Pacific” (1947), which won a Pulitzer Prize and was turned into the highly successful Broadway musical and motion picture, “South Pacific.” He lived in Hawaii for many years, producing such books as “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and “Sayonara.” His historical novel, “Hawaii,” was finished shortly before Hawaii was named the fiftieth state in the Union.

Michener became known for enormous, door-stop-sized historical novels, which combined historical research with the sort of fiction techniques that make for mass-market appeal. The average person felt smart reading a Michener book, and as a result, the books sold very well, many being made into movies or television mini-series. His more popular titles include “Alaska,” “Caribbean,” “Centennial,” “Chesapeake,” “The Covenant,” “The Eagle and The Raven,” “Iberia,” “Journey,” “Legacy,”   “Mexico,” “Poland,” “The Source,” and “Space.”

Michener became extremely wealthy, and since he had no children, he gave much of his money away. His lifetime philanthropies exceeded $100 million. He donated his collection of modern art to the University of Texas, as well as a good deal of money that eventually went to the construction of the new Blanton Museum of Art.

If my memory serves, in the 1980s, Governor Bill Clements, himself a major collector of Texana books, personally asked Michener to write a historical novel for the Texas sesquicentennial. Michener moved to Austin, to a little house in Tarrytown, to begin his research. “Texas” appeared in 1985. He endowed UT’s Michener Center for Writers, which is based out of the former home of Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, and died in Austin in 1997.

Though Longhorn sports fans would no doubt want to argue this point with me, UT’s reputation in the world depends chiefly on the holdings of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, one of the greatest libraries in the world. The HRC was named after Harry Huntt Ransom (1908-76), the administrator who spear-headed its development. Born in Galveston, Ransom taught English, history, and journalism before working his way up in the UT administration, serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, vice president and provost, president, chancellor of the UT System, and chancellor emeritus.

For decades UT was regarded as just another state university, a gathering place for bumpkins and rednecks, until oil was discovered on land owned by UT in West Texas. Suddenly UT had one of the largest endowments of any university in the country, and even a massive building program failed to make much of a dent in that big pile of money. Ransom, et al., decided to dip into that fund create a world class special collections library.

For many years, the rarest of books were in the hands of wealthy private collectors. In England this included the Third Earl of Spencer (ancestor of Princess Diana), explorer and diplomat Robert Curzon, Gothic novelist William Beckford, and the eccentric Sir Thomas Phillipps (who vowed to collect every book ever printed and almost succeeded–he died in 1872 and his library was still being sold off a century later). Great American collectors included financier J. Pierpont Morgan, railroad magnate H. E. Huntington, and composer Jerome Kern.

But by the middle of the twentieth century true rarities came onto the market with less frequency, and when such things did appear it was at a dear price. Institutions began to dominate the rare book market and none more so than UT. Boxes and crates of new acquisitions began to fill the hallways of various UT buildings because the school was buying things faster than its cataloguers could process them. Not only did UT buy books (including the personal libraries of famous people, in their entirety), it also collected manuscripts from just about every major writer you can think of, artworks, furniture, photographs (including the first one ever taken), movie and theatrical items, and even entire rooms (such as the study of “Perry Mason” creator Erle Stanley Gardner).

(This column cannot do the HRC justice. Check out the website, http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/, or better yet, visit it in person, at Twenty-first and Guadalupe.)

Most Austinites know about Disch-Falk Field, the home of UT’s baseball team, but they might be in the dark about the men after whom the stadium was named, Billy Disch (1874-1953) and Bibb Falk (1899-1989), former UT baseball coaches who are now interred at Austin Memorial Park. Disch played professional ball, before becoming a coach at St. Edward’s University. From 1911 to 1940, he was UT’s baseball coach, leading the Longhorns to twenty-one championships. He was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame posthumously.

Falk played baseball under Disch at UT, before becoming part of the first team the Chicago White Sox fielded after the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. He stayed with the Sox until 1929, when he was traded to the Cleveland Indians, then spent the 1930s as a coach, scout, and part-time player. He served as UT baseball coach from 1940 to 1942 and 1946 to 1967, racking up a 478-176 record.

Unless you’re of a certain age or are an old movie fan, you probably only think Zachary Scott is the name of a local theater, but Scott was Austin’s first homegrown movie star. Born in 1914, the son of a prominent local doctor, Scott studied drama at UT before going off to Hollywood. Handsome and moustachioed, Scott debuted in the title role in “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944), a noir with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Faye Emerson, while his second film, “The Southerner” (1945), was directed by the great Jean Renoir.

Scott’s most famous role was as “Monte Beragon” in “Mildred Pierce,” the 1946 film that won Joan Crawford her only Oscar. He appeared in “Stallion Road” (1947) with Ronald Reagan and Alexis Smith, and “Cass Timberline” (1947) with Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, before re-teaming with Joan Crawford and Sydney Greenstreet in “Flamingo Road” (1949). Scott spent most of the 1940s appearing in westerns and mysteries, but for the last fifteen years of his life he mostly did stage and television work. In 1960 he appeared in Luis Bunuel’s “The Young One.” When he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, Scott returned to Austin, dying in 1965. His tombstone is inscribed,


He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise…

William Blake

Frank Hamer (1884-1955) was a legendary Texas Ranger. During much of his career he tracked down arms smugglers, bootleggers, and bandits on the Texas-Mexico border. In 1928 he exposed a scam whereby minor criminals were being killed in an attempt to cash in on the Texas Bankers’s Association’s bounty on bank robbers. When Ma Ferguson was elected Governor, Hamer and other high-ranking Rangers resigned (there was no love lost between the Rangers and the Fergusons), though the Commander of the Rangers kept a copy of Hamer’s commission, just in case the State needed to use Hamer’s services again.

Hamer hired himself out during the 1930s as a strike-buster, and in 1934, headed the investigation that tracked down and fatally ambushed bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In 1948 Governor Coke Stevenson ran against Congressman Lyndon Johnson for a US Senate seat, and Stevenson sent Hamer down to Duval and Jim Wells counties to prevent voter fraud on Election Day. Hamer was unsuccessful, though, and the election has since been regarded as one of the dirtiest and most corrupt in American history. Hamer retired the following year, and upon his death in 1955 was buried at Austin Memorial Park.

This is, I must admit, an unusual cemetery. While it lacks the Victorian creepiness I so enjoy, it does have the sort of comfortable untidiness one associates with older cemeteries. Because of the shifting and buckling and general unevenness of the ground a good many tombstones have been knocked over. It retains a measure of peace despite being located next to a freeway.

But it also lacks the sterile quality of the modern “memorial gardens,” where all the grave markers are flush with the ground to allow for easy lawn mowing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cemetery with so many benches; some family plots even have swings and lawn chairs, making for an RV campground vibe. There are statues, flowers, and other decorations everywhere. This is definitely a place where the living still come out to remember their dead.

—May 11, 2006


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