In Memoriam

No Churchy Stuff'

When Maury Maverick Jr. died, we asked John Burnett to write a remembrance for our February 14 issue. But Burnett was whisked away by NPR to work on a story. He’s about to be whisked away again–this time thousands of miles away–but was kind enough to send us the following article before leaving.

In 1981, when I was a young reporter working for the San Antonio Express-News, a remarkable man walked into the office leading an Irish wolfhound named Ellie and said to me, “I’m Maury Maverick Jr. Who are you?” We ex-changed niceties as he probed unsuccessfully to flush out my politics and my religion. A few days later, he came back to the office and marched over to my desk. “I’ve had my spies checkin’ up on you,” he said, “and your mama’s in the Dallas Junior League!” In spite of that indictment from a stalwart Texas liberal, Maury and I struck up a relationship that lasted for 22 years until he died on Jan. 28.

In the great, bland urban places of America where increasingly people seem afraid to take a stand, afraid to show their mettle, afraid to be themselves, Maury stood alone. He was a fiercely principled lawyer and journalist, defending unpopular causes and individuals that included Palestinian statehood, draft dodgers and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, “the most hated woman in America.” He also believed in the principle of spitting on convention. Once Maury was walking along Broadway with Ellie, who was the size of a pony, when he heard jazz piano wafting out of a high-brow bistro. He walked to the window, lifted the hound’s paws onto his shoulders and jitterbugged with her in front of the startled patrons.

Nobody gave tours of San Antonio like Maury, a living link to Texas history. When we walked into the hushed sanctuary of the Alamo he invoked his great grandfather, Samuel Augustus Maverick, who had fought alongside Ben Milam against Mexican General Martin Perfecto de Cos, and was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. When we drove past Municipal Auditorium, he told of the time in 1939 when a mob almost lynched his father, San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick Sr., for allowing the Communist Party of Texas to meet inside. When we went to the East Side, he talked of the black prizefighter Sporty Harvey, whose right to compete against a white boxer Maury successfully defended in 1954, and in so doing integrated boxing rings in Texas.

Maury and his wife, Julia, never had children. Instead, Maury collected young people whom he adopted, cajoled, challenged, cussed, and encouraged to stand up for ideas that were larger than ourselves. He always gave generously of his time. Allan Kownslar, a Trinity University history professor, and editor of Maury’s collected columns in a book titled Texas Iconoclast, remembers when he was a 17-year-old political science major in San Antonio in the 1950s.

“I was just a kid,” he recalls. “Maury invited me down to his office, took out a legal pad and spent the afternoon showing me how he was going to argue the Sporty Harvey case.”

Likewise, Cary Clack was working in a San Antonio typewriter shop when Maury took an interest in his writing and recommended him to the Express-News editorial board. Clack became the paper’s first black metro columnist.

“Were it not for Maury,” he wrote, “I wouldn’t have this column.”

In 1983 I quit my job at the Express-News, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, sold my belongings, and moved to Guatemala City to learn Spanish and be a foreign correspondent. At my going-away party, Maury challenged me with a bit of reverse psychology, which, at the time infuriated me.

“You’ll write some pretty travel features about the volcanoes and the shopping and be back in six months,” he said casually.

I ended up covering Guatemala’s bloody guerrilla war for two years for United Press International.

When I moved back to Texas in 1986 and settled in Austin with my wife, Ginny, to start a family, I tried to check in with Maury whenever I came through San Antonio. The visits to his ramshackle cottage on Bellview Street usually followed a sequence.

First, I was announced by the latest barking stray mutt he’d picked up in Brackenridge Park, such as Sweetie Pie or Girlie Girl. Then he would show me his purple martin houses and expound on the perfection of the bird. At some point, he usually complained about going deaf and of his fear of getting cancer.

“Johnny,” he’d conclude, in his throaty drawl that I now miss so much, “at my funeral I want you to play some whorehouse music on your harmonica. No churchy stuff.”

Then we went back to his office, which smelled of must, dog hair, old books and typewriter ribbon. He would point out, yet again, the letter from FDR to his father or the scowling picture of Sam Houston. Finally, we’d talk about his latest column. He’d demand to know what I thought of depleted uranium weapons used in the Gulf War, or praise his beloved old friend and fellow legislator D.B. Hardeman, or recommend a new downtown café that served savory frijoles a la charra. And with Maury, it was possible all three could end up in the same column.

In its obit, headlined “Champion of the Unpopular,” The New York Times quoted former Observer editor Willie Morris as calling Maury “the last angry man in America.” That didn’t sound right to me so I looked up the quote. What Morris wrote was “one of God’s last angry men with a sense of humor.” That sounds more like Maury to me.

John Burnett has been Southwest Correspondent for National Public Radio, based in Austin, since 1986.

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Published at 12:00 am CST