When I was a junior in Hannibal High School, I had made friends with a neighbor, George Miller, who lived three houses down from us on Grace Street. George was a senior that year, and he had been dating my younger sister, Jean. Jean Ann wanted to go to George’s graduation, and then go out to dinner afterwards, but she didn’t want to go alone. She asked me if I would get a date and go with her.
I had just broken up with the girl I had been going steady with for the past several months, and hadn’t paid attention to who might be available. I called several girls I knew and got some names from boy friends, but was unsuccessful in finding anyone who was available to go out on that night, just a week away.
Reporting this to Jean, she suggested that I call some of her friends. That idea didn’t appeal much to me. After all, we were talking about freshmen girls, two years younger than me! I didn’t know any freshmen, other than boys on the junior varsity football team. I thought of them as being quite a bit younger, and consequently had no friends in that age group.
But, after making more phone calls over the next couple of nights, and still not having any luck at finding a date, I decided to pursue finding a date with a freshman. After all, it was just for the one night, and George and Jean were really wanting me to double date with them. So, I went to Jean and asked her who she had in mind for me to call. She mentioned a couple of girls, one who lived just a block from us on Grace Street.
I knew the girl, from seeing her at the school bus stop, and passing by our house on the way to the neighborhood grocery store. Although she was cute, she was two years younger than me, so I had not paid much attention to her. But, I called to see if she would be interested in going out that night to attend the graduation and have dinner afterwards. Unfortunately, her family had conflicting plans, and she was unable to accept.
I asked Jean who else she thought I should call. She got her billfold out of her purse and started showing me classmate photos she carried of her friends. We sorted through the photos, eliminating those girls who were in relationships, and then I sorted them again, making a stack of girls, with my first choice on top. After calling each of these girls, and having no luck at getting a date, Jean and I returned to her wallet to see what pictures she had left that we didn’t pull out the first time through.
I looked at the photos again, and asked Jean what she knew about a couple of the girls, and decided against them. Then one photo caught my eye. It was a think little girl, in a simple blouse, who had a lovely smile. I asked who it was. Jean said that her name was Leona Tate, and though she didn’t know her very well, she seemed to be very nice. She went on to say that Leona was Jim Tate’s sister. I was surprised! I had known Jim a long time, and although we weren’t close friends in high school, I was surprised that he had a younger sister. The more I thought about it, the more I remembered all those kids in diapers I had seem at Jim’s house when we were in the fifth grade.
I finally decided to call Jim, and visit with him about asking his sister out on a date. When I called, a woman answered the phone. I learned later that it was Pauline, mother of Jim and grandmom, who answered the phone. Pauline was a very special woman, whom I was destined to dearly love during the forty years I knew her.
I visited with Jim for a few minutes to catch up on old times and what he was doing to occupy his time. When we got caught up, I told him that I was trying to find a date for the senior graduation, and wondered what he thought about me asking Leona to go. He said, “SIS? Oh, she’d probably think that was alright. You wanna talk to her?”
So, having renewed an old friendship, and feeling that Jim was comfortable with me dating his “Sis,” I was ready to ask her out. I don’t remember much detail about our specific conversation, but I recall that it was fairly brief. I told her that our plans were to double date with my sister, attend the graduation and go to dinner afterwards. We agreed upon a time for me to pick her up, but I don’t recall any other chatting. I was happy when she accepted, because my search for a date was ended, but I really didn’t expect much to come from the date, since she was so young. She was just someone to go out with for the evening, and that was all I was expecting.
We had two cars in the family at that time. Father had a white over red 1960 Chevrolet Impala Sports Coupe, while mother had a 1959 Ford Fairlane 4-door sedan in a turquoise color. It was the car I usually got to drive. It was a six cylinder with standard shift, with the shift lever on the column. I washed and polished the car the afternoon of the graduation, and drove George to the high school early, so he wouldn’t also have a car at the school, and we could leave directly from there ad hea to the restaurant.
Jean and I then headed to the Tate’s house at 905 Ely Street to pick up Leona. When we arrived, knocked oat the front door and were invited into the living room, there seemed to be an awful lot of people in the room . . . I didn’t realize how big the Tate family was . . . five boys, two girls, and mom and dad. And, they were all in the living room of that little four-room house, wanting to get a glimpse of the guy that was taking “Sis” out on a date!
I was a little overwhelmed, of course, but found that chatting with Jim eased things somewhat. After a few minutes the younger brothers and sister started leaving the room to do something, or anything, more interesting. Then I realized that Leona wasn’t in the room yet, and I began to wonder what she would be like. I felt some apprehension at that point, because I had never dated a girl as young as my sister, and mused that an evening of little or no consequence lay ahead.
Leona’s father, Roy Davis Tate, was a big brawny, deeply tanned man of over six feet in height. He stood quietly in one doorway of the room, listening intently to Jim and I visit. Leona’s mother, May Pauline Tate, was a short, dark haired woman with a face that glowed with warmth and kindness. She was coming and going from the room busy with running her household.
Then, Leona came into the room. She was dressed in a white islet party dress with full skirt that came to about mid-calf. It had narrow black ribbon at the hem, neck, and short sleeve, finished off with a black belt. She was very slender for a fifteen year-old girl, and couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. I later discovered that I could hold her wrist in my hand, and touch my middle finder to my thumb! She was hardly more than skin and bones!
Oh, but she had the face of an angel! Perfect complexion, curly dishwater blonde hair, bright blue eyes, slender straight nose, full, pink lips, and a smile that radiated like a beacon. The combination was quite enchanting. She talked excitedly to Jean about how much she had been looking forward to going out, and when Jena complimented her dress, she turned around in a circle, sending the full skirt sailing to its full length, floating above the floor like a cloud.
Then Jean introduced me to her, and she said that she knew me from seeing me at football practice when she had stayed after school to watch her brother Jim practice. A few more pleasantries were exchanged, and we said our goodbyes and headed for the ceremony at the high school. When it was concluded, we gathered up George and drove across the Mississippi River bridge to the restaurant located just on the other side in East Hannibal, Illinois.
Leona and I sat beside each other across from Jean and George in a booth table. During conversation at the dinner table I learned that this was Leona’s first date, and that she had never ordered from a menu before. I found her to be fascinating. She was very mature, having a great deal of responsibility at home taking care of her younger sister and brothers, preparing meals, doing laundry and many other chores that we didn’t have to do in our home. Since her family was so large, she had to help her mother keep things in order and the youngsters cared for on a daily basis.
Their four-room house had two bedrooms; one for mom and dad, and the other packed with bunk beds for the kids, the living room with a hide-a-bed couch, and the kitchen. Their new bathroom, recently built by her Uncle Charlie Leffert, Pauline’s brother, had only a toilet stool and small sink . . . no shower or bathtub. The bathroom wasn’t much bigger than a closet, and was located in the corner of mom and dad’s bedroom, just off the kitchen. Baths were taken in the kitchen in a #2 washtub . . . the same one used on laundry day to wash clothes!
I couldn’t ever remember not having a bathtub and shower at my house, and was simply captivated by the realization that this charming girl came from such a simple environment. It was so different from my own that my family was quite well off compared to hers. And, yet, there was a sense of pride and lover for her family that wove its way through her conversation, and that made me realize that they had something missing in my family’s home.
I learned that her dad was a railroad track laborer for CB&Q Railroad, later part of Burling Northern; that he didn’t know how to drive a car, and had never owned one. He did drive one once, however. He drove it into a ditch after losing control on a gravel road, and never drove again!
Leona was born on a houseboat, the rented family home, which had been pulled up onto the bank of Bear Creek, near Ely Street in Hannibal. Her dad had been born in a two-room house made from trees harvested from the woods surrounding the family farm near Taylor, Missouri, on the banks of the Fabius River. The house wasn’t a log cabin, but had a sturdy tin roofed wood frame made from small trees. Rough sawn lumber was applied to the exterior and cardboard was nailed to the uprights for interior walls. An exterior door and window in each of the two rooms made the home comfy enough
The cabin remained in the family, and was called the “Home Place” by Lea’s father. The family frequently went to the Home Place for the weekend, and I later spent many memorable weekends and vacations there when my own sons were little boys.
Needless to say, Leona captured my heart. I fell in love with her on that first date, though I didn’t know it until we had dated a few more times. We started going steady that summer, and became engaged on June 3, 1963, after I completed high school and returned from training at the Carolina School of Broadcasting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The summer we first met, 1961, my family moved from Hannibal to Louisiana, Missouri. I attended Louisiana High School my senior year. And, although I owned a 1938 Chevrolet 2-door coupe, which father bought for me for $60, I didn’t trust it to make the trip to Hannibal. So, on weekends that I couldn’t borrow one of the family cars, I took the bus from Louisiana to Hannibal and back to see her.
I usually took a Saturday morning bus from Louisiana, and returned Sunday night, and would spend the night on the hide-a-bed in their living room. On those weekends I would spend all my time at their house, and loved visiting with her mom and dad about their memories, and marveled at the simple life they led, the hardships they experienced, and the love they had for their extended family.
Not long after we started dating, I told Leona that I didn’t like her name, couldn’t call her “Sis” like everyone, including her parents called her, and that “Sissy” didn’t seem to fit her, so I was going to call her Lee. She thought that would be okay, so she came “Lee.” Later, years after we were married, she changed the spelling to Lea, saying that she thought it was more feminine.
We were married February 8, 1964 in the Baptist Church in Louisiana, Missouri, by my Uncle Virgil Vaughn, who had also married my mother and father. It was a pretty simple wedding, attended by our families and a few invited friends, on a Saturday afternoon.
Our wedding night was spent at a motel in Bowling Green, Missouri, and the next morning we arose to a fresh snowfall that blanketed the countryside. We drove to my home, an apartment in Boonville, Missouri, which I had just recently rented. It was located on the second floor of a private residence at 1316 Main Street. Our life together started there in those simple furnishings, supported by the meager income I made as news director for the local radio station, KWRT.
Lea made a wonderful home for us. She learned how to cook for two people, instead of for her big family, and we grew up together. She was 18 and I was 19, and we had decided to wait a couple of years to have children, so we could be together and enjoy doing and learning new things. We had great fun on weekend trips, and she became dearer to me with each passing breath.
She taught me patience, real love, compassion, and so many other things that I can never express how very, very much she has meant to me. She left her family to raise me. To mold me into what I eventually became. She, ever so gently, coached, guided, and led me to strive for self-fulfillment, and is responsible for any success I ever achieved.
I loved her with a passion that knew no boundaries. I loved her, heart and soul. And, I thank God that the passion has never diminished, but, rather, has grown even deeper with each passing year. She has given me such a wonderful life long love, that she has been me greatest blessing. She taught me how to be a good father, and earn the love of my dear sons. She taught me how to be a good husband and friend. She taught me how to be a good person, and give back to my community.
She has overlooked my many shortcomings and held me up when I was weak. How can you ever repay someone who has always been there for you, never doubting, questioning, or belittling? I thank God for the wonderful gift of her love, and praise Him for the many blessings He has given me through her.
I will always hold dear the memories of her beautiful face, her supple body with its warm, comforting embraces, and her glowing personality. I am truly convinced that she is an angel, sent to bless my time here on earth. Thank you, God! Amen