May 18, 2014, 11:40 a.m. Pensacola Historic District
Clearly, I am in the presence of awesomeness.
I can’t describe it, but as I walk around historic downtown Pensacola with Jacki Wilson, retracing Emmett Wilson’s everyday steps, I am aware and humbled by her true awesomeness.
For the record, my relationship with Jacki grew mostly from lengthy email messages on a variety of Emmett and Pensacola topics; messages that were back and forth for several months. That can be an awkward way to start friendships, but as I walk with her, I feel accepted and totally at ease, just as one would a friend I’d known for years. What comes out in our hanging-out together is an appreciation for history and mystery, and a love of obscure facts that tell the deep story of people long gone.
And in fact, she’s introducing me as her friend and a fellow researcher as we walk about in Pensacola.
It’s humbling. In this moment I realize how precious this dual gift of acceptance and friendship really is — and I receive it thanks to the man who was pretty much shunned the last year of his life. How ironic. Yet how gratifying.
The other thing you have to really admire about Jacki is her access. EVERYONE knows here in this, downtown and historic Pensacola. She knows where to go.
Plus, she has a BADGE. That badge is power. But the lady wearing it is graceful and easy with such access. I tell this to Jacki, who beams at me.
“Yeah, well,” Jacki says with a laugh. “I enjoy my work.”
Before I know it, we are in front of a tall pink building. Seville Tower, once known as the American National Bank Building, constructed in 1909. This is where Emmett had a law office with his partner, J. Walter Kehoe, on the 7th floor.
Jacki says the building is on the National Historic Register, so it is mostly unchanged — and that goes also for the claustraphobically small elevator. Once upon a time, there was an elevator operator for this thing, Jacki says. Imagine how tight it was back in the day!
As we ascend to the 7th floor, I’m a bit hesitant as it is a law firm, we weren’t really coming with any advance notice, and people were working, but Jacki is not a woman to be dissuaded for any historical fact-finding mission! That badge, you know, lends lost of authority.
(O.K. To be clear, her ‘badge’ is her Pensacola Historical Society nametag, but it has clout in this town. I digress.)
The doors to the elevator open to a law firm. The receptionist did not seem at all inconvenienced when Jacki explained out mission — she was very nice and let us take a look out of different windows of the office to see what Emmett may have seen back in the day — namely, his other old office building, which was (and is) right across the street.
Back in Emmett’s day, the building across the street was called the Customs House. It housed the post office, and several federal offices, which were located on the third floor. Emmett was the assistant district attorney for several years; so, his office was on the third floor of the Customs House.
The background about Emmett as the assistant D.A., I tell Jacki, was that he was the youngest D.A. in the country at the time. Also, when Emmett was named to the position, a lot of people were surprised because a) Emmett didn’t seek the job outright and b) he had little experience.
As we walked across the street to the Customs House, Jacki nodded her understanding, adding that not much seems to have changed in 100 years in political partisanship.
The Customs House is now an art museum. But when Emmett was a congressman in 1913, it had needed a lot of repairs. He lobbied for (and got) a $30K appropriation for the improvements. Today, that would be about $630,000. The improvements needed then were cosmetic (wall repair, painting, light fixtures, sidewalk). Unfortunately, something happened before the repairs were finished: The appropriations, somehow, never materialized, and the local party bosses (and community) blamed it on Emmett’s incompetency and/or ineffectiveness.
Regardless, it looks as if the people of Pensacola care a lot about this historic building, because it is in excellent condition today.
One of the things I talked with Jacki about was the fact that there WAS a chance for Emmett to turn his image of incompetency around re the Customs House appropriation mess. In fact, Emmett did follow up on the issue. A mistake was definitely made somewhere in the bureaucratic document shuffling that is Washington, D.C. But in Pensacola, the only thing people understood was that Emmett said one thing, but something else happened:
“But he didn’t. Or, he couldn’t,” Jacki said.
I think the political machinery was too much; that Emmett might have sold his soul, so to speak, for quick gain, to make something of himself so that he would be independent, or to feel good about himself, to feel fulfilled — and of course, I’m just guessing here at this point, I tell Jacki, as we walk along the sidewalks toward a diner for lunch. “There’s a scrapbook that he willed to a friend, that somebody got, kept, treasured for a little while anyway. I just wish I could find it.”
Maybe you will, Jacki said. I hope so, anyway.
I hope so too.
But for now, I treasure one of the best gifts of Emmett’s research, and that is of friendship.