Circle of Friends: J. Walter Kehoe

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We all have that one friend who we know we can turn to, no matter what, no matter the time of day. The friend who knows us better than our spouses (sometimes). The friend who loves us for who we are, who accepts us, unconditionally.

There aren’t many people in our lives who fit that bill. If we are lucky, we’ve had this kind of friendship at least once.

This was Emmett’s closest friend. J. Walter Kehoe.  Although Emmett’s childhood friend, Paul Carter, remained close to Emmett, they drifted apart after Emmett moved to Pensacola in 1906, and his law/political career took off.

J. Walter Kehoe in 1917. Kehoe, Emmett’s law partner, also succeeded him in Congress. Source: Wikipedia.com

Paul and Emmett were always friends, whereas Walter started out as a mentor to Emmett, and remained close to Emmett until Emmett’s death (although the relationship with Walter became estranged at the end).

But this was more than a mentoring relationship. Emmett lived with the Kehoe family between 1906-1918, except for a two-year period, when Emmett was ‘baching it’ in a boarding house with friends (1909-1910). It was more like Emmett was a member of the Kehoe family. Indeed, Kehoe’s great-grandson Mike once told me in a telephone interview that his grandparents, Walter and Jennie Jenkins Kehoe, “thought the world of Emmett. That’s why they named their youngest son and my favorite uncle, for him.”

Walter and Emmett’s older brother, Cephas, were law partners in Marianna for several years before Walter was named States’ Attorney around 1902, and moved to Pensacola. (As luck would have it with Emmett, Cephas’ law practice now had an opening — and in two years, when Emmett graduated from Stetson University, he became Cephas’ junior law partner.) Walter, therefore, knew Emmett since boyhood; knew his character, his intelligence, his potential — Walter knew and saw the REAL Emmett Wilson — the Emmett Wilson pre-alcoholic disaster.

Emmett’s ‘home address’ is actually the Kehoe’s address. Also, that’s the Kehoe’s phone number. Emmett didn’t have his own, separate line. Source: Ancestry.com

As with any ‘family’ relationship, it was loving, frustrating,  agonizing, painful — but it was honest — and the relationship between Emmett and Walter was one of the few consistencies in Emmett’s life.

Even though I know Walter and Jennie Kehoe were good to Emmett — Emmett was always treated as if he was a member of the Kehoe family — Walter had political aspirations too, and knew that a partnership with the Wilsons (Cephas primarily, but if not with Cephas, then Emmett) would likely propel him into the United States Congress, which was Walter’s ultimate goal. Walter’s continued partnership with Cephas was preferred for obvious reasons: Emmett was a neophyte in 1906, when he moved to Pensacola, an alcoholic, and immature on several levels. But the idea then (as now, sometimes) was that with a consistent home, and maybe a good woman to make it happen, Emmett would straighten up, stop drinking (or at least curtail it), settle down, and everyone’s political/power dreams would be realized.

Walter and Jennie did their best to help Emmett settle down — they even went so far as to introduce Emmett to ‘suitable’ women, and at one point, pushed, er, encouraged him strongly, to ask one young woman from Columbus, Georgia they deemed suitable to marry him. This was no grand passion or true love story between Emmett and Miss Georgia. Perhaps if it was, Emmett may have capitulated. But Emmett was inconsistent. And Miss Georgia was canny enough to realize that Emmett was too much of a project, and not her type. Besides, her Anti-Saloon League President father would certainly not welcome Emmett into the family.

But Walter and Jennie went too far — almost sabotaging their project in the works. It gets interesting — so stay tuned for the second installment on Emmett’s closest friend, J. Walter Kehoe.

 

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The Gold Medal

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Source: The Stetson Collegiate, January 30, 1904.

The thin gold medal, looped with a blue silk ribbon laying across my palm was inscribed: “1st place, Interdepartmental Speech Competition.” The obverse: “Stetson University, 1904.”

I coveted this medal because last year I was the runner up to my best friend Paul Carter. I never placed first in any competition with Paul —  be it academic, athletic, romantic — I was always second.

It’s a beautiful medal. I strove to win this medal. It was my own holy Grail. If I won, I reasoned, it might fill the hole in my soul that constantly nags at me to be beat Paul. To be number one.

Only now, as I hold the medal in my hand, I realize:

The hole in my soul is still there.

This holy medal isn’t enough.

And,

Nothing may ever be enough.

I close my hand over the medal for a moment; I drop it in the wastebasket.

I Wonder

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When I first started blogging about the Emmett Wilson research project, my goal was to put his name back out into the public discussion forum, in the hopes that distant relatives or descendants (who were also doing genealogical research) would find me/him, and exchange information.

I knew that by itself, the blog wasn’t going to be as effective — if you want research to produce results, you have to be proactive — so I simultaneously launched an outreach project to descendants of both Emmett’s family and friends, as well as to archivists and historians in West Florida. This combined effort has worked well. I’ve met in person and online many wonderful people — and new family members — in this effort. Everyone I’ve met has been generous and helpful sharing information, photographs, clips, and the like.

I enjoy — and prefer — writing as my main means of communication. It isn’t that I don’t like to ‘talk’ to folks (I do!), but when I write, I have a chance to reflect before I hit ‘send’.  Writing the blog gives me a chance to try out new ideas and perspectives about my research.

For example, when I first ‘met’ Emmett, I felt sorry for him, and angry for him! I remember thinking (while reading his obituaries on microfilm for the first time): Poor, misunderstood young man. I even wrote those words in my notes that afternoon at the American University library, as I scrolled through the film. This was, of course, before I learned that he died pretty much by his own hand — drinking himself to death. I didn’t know him at all in those days.

I thought I could get to know Emmett this way, through reading about him, hopefully some of it in his own words, too. But alas, there’s very little of him, in his own words (save for the elusive scrapbook of his that may be floating around out there, somewhere).

And while I feel as if I know something about him, there’s so much I don’t know, and that is intimidating me, 100 years after his death. I know a lot of details about him, but there’s so much I still don’t know. I wonder:

  • why he persisted in a career that he was fundamentally unready to embark upon;
  • why he always seemed alone even in a crowd of admirers, both male and female;
  • why he seemed to always have an ‘escape’ from personal commitment when people got too close;
  • why he ultimately drank himself to death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find the answers to these questions. Whether or not I do, the discovery of this long-lost cousin, and the journey to understand him — and myself — has been a worthwhile project.

 

But for the Grace of God

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When I close my eyes, I see it: The ancient scrapbook covered in gray dust, high on a shelf in a Florida library, long forgotten. And on the phone, I hear the excited voice of my friend Jacki the Archivist:

“We aren’t sure how it got there, but it’s been undisturbed for decades. It was part of a collection of mementos belonging to a long-deceased Florida lawyer named Kehoe.”

It? I ask.

“Your cousin Emmett Wilson’s long-lost scrapbook.”

I’ve fantasized receiving this message from Jacki since I began this research in 2013. This scrapbook is the major piece in the puzzle to tell Emmett’s story that’s still missing.

Emmett willed the scrapbook to his namesake, Emmett Wilson Kehoe, the son of his best friend and law partner, Walter Kehoe.

Emmett Wilson Kehoe, son of Jennie and Walter Kehoe. 1930, University of Florida. Source: Ancestry.com

But young Kehoe was only 12 when Emmett died on May 29, 1918.

And the scrapbook disappeared shortly after Emmett’s funeral. And it’s still missing, unfortunately.

Always the realist, Jacki has warned me: “The odds of finding Emmett’s scrapbook intact today are minute.” But I’m optimistic, because I’ve uncovered a surprising amount of information on my obscure and troubled cousin — once considered the Golden Boy of Pensacola politics — who succumbed at 35 to combined addictions of ambition and alcohol.

Emmett’s story isn’t a happy one. I doubt my ancestors would appreciate me writing his biography, even 100 years after his death. But I am compelled, because Emmett’s story is also my story: My long-dead cousin and I are related not only by blood, but also chemistry.

Emmett drank to escape. I drank to escape.

Emmett had three interventions. I had three interventions.

Emmett didn’t want to face himself, character defects and all, to find out who he really was minus booze in his life. It has taken almost a decade of continuous sobriety to be willing to face myself after drinking for more than 30 years.

Emmett’s struggle with alcohol killed him.

My struggle with alcohol almost killed me.

After Emmett died, my ancestors literally closed the book on him: They dispersed his meager belongings; shelved his memory, hid his truth. Tried to forget.

For years, Emmett had put his family through an emotional and psychological wringer; his death was probably a relief to them all. This may explain the disappearance of Emmett’s scrapbook. And I don’t really blame them.

Frankly, I’ve been trying to forget my alcoholic history. Sometimes I believe that if I can hide that part of my life, pretend it didn’t exist, then I, too, can move on.

Or can I?

I understand why my ancestors chose to bury Emmett’s memories along with his body, but ignoring an unfortunate truth only excuses it temporarily; renders it dormant to rise again, when you least expect it — as it was with Emmett.

Writing Emmett’s story isn’t only about coming to terms with Emmett’s truth — but rather it is about coming to terms with my truth. Perhaps Emmett couldn’t save himself; but now, 100 years later, he life story can save me from myself.

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Coffee with Emmett. May 20, 2014

It was a glorious Spring morning, May 20, 2014, the day I ‘met’ Emmett.

There was nothing to fear, but I was jumpy; my heart and thoughts racing as I walked through St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola, anxiously scanning the headstones with a travel coffee cup, a cemetery map, and a dozen supermarket red roses in my hands. Few were about save for a middle-aged woman on a brisk morning stroll with her terrier, and a caretaker carefully moving a buzzing weed whacker along granite-lined family plots. He nodded good morning to me across the rows, as I picked my way along the bumpy, but well-manicured turf in search of Emmett. He politely silenced his weed whacker while I paid my respects.

Why was I nervous visiting a dead man? St. John’s wasn’t a frightening place during daylight hours; I felt perfectly secure. Absurdly, I wondered if, when I arrived at Emmett’s grave, the ground would move and he would reach up through ground and throttle me for unearthing his unfortunate life story —

— but before I could parse my feelings, I realized I was standing in the Wilson family plot — and there was Emmett beneath my feet.

The concrete slab over his grave was covered by several inches of sand — from occasional floods during hurricane season — irregular tufts of weedy grass, and sandspurs. Emmett’s granite headstone was in good condition: The engraving clear, the stone mostly unchanged in almost a century.

Then, it struck me: No one has visited Emmett in decades. Maybe almost a century.

I remember thinking: Booze took everything from you, Emmett.

And then: There but for the grace of God go I.

My anxiety was gone.

I laid the roses atop Emmett’s grave. I sat down next to him with my coffee.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” I started.

I left St. John’s feeling calm and resolute: I’d keep looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I’d tell his story. Not from a sense of obligation, but because even though we’ve never met, I understand him. And in understanding Emmett, I understand myself:

His story’s tragedy is my life preserver.

===

Jacki the Archivist and I are still looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I hope we find it, because Emmett’s story isn’t complete without his words. His truth.

There’s a saying in the AA rooms: “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I’ve almost twelve years in recovery, and I’m still discovering the secrets that drove me to drink. The reality is that I live authentically when I can come to terms with all of myself, including those dark days of alcoholism. My truth.

That truth saved my life in 2007, when I took a deep breath and declared in an AA meeting that I was an alcoholic.

And so, with Emmett’s scrapbook, I would take a deep breath, and carefully open the cover —

And accept the truth, Emmett’s and mine.

For better or worse.

Not Quite the MOC

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I found this brief article about Emmett while doing a periodic database check last week:

Source: The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Friday, June 21, 1912.

It is another piece related to the dedication of the Florida window, in the Old Blandford Church in Petersburg, Virginia. (More details about Emmett and the Florida window can be found here.)

What’s interesting is that the reporter calls Emmett a “…member of Congress from that State (Florida) …”, which really isn’t true. Emmett won the Democratic party nomination for the Third Congressional District of Florida only three weeks earlier.

He still had to win the general election in November. But in 1912, Florida was primarily a one-party state, and Emmett, the neophyte politician, would win the seat with more than 90 percent of the vote.

100 Years Ago Today

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The front page of The Pensacola Journal, 100 years ago today. If you click on the link here, you’ll see the entire front page as it was on May 29, 1918.

Here’s a better look at Emmett’s death notice:

The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page one.

Emmett’s death notice was obviously unexpected and thrown together with few complete details as The Pensacola Journal‘s first (and only edition) of morning newspaper was going to press.

  • “Following a very short illness….” Those who were closest to him knew that what actually killed Emmett had been killing him for years, and Emmett’s “poor health” had been reported in  West Florida papers for several years. In fact, this was one of the reasons reported in earlier versions of The Pensacola Journal and other Florida papers why “he decided” not to run for a third term.
  • “…died at 12:25 o’clock this morning…” Emmett’s death took place right as the paper was going to press. The position of the death notice in the paper is interesting and important: Right above the fold, but not a top headline. The story was important, as Emmett was a recent U.S. Congressman, and his sudden (and mostly unexpected) death definitely newsworthy. There had definitely been last minute reworking of the front page by the composition editors.
  • …aged 36 years.” Emmett was actually 35. The late night copy editor didn’t know Emmett personally.
  • “Of course no funeral arrangements had been perfected….” Because this was unexpected. Although Emmett’s health had been deteriorating for years, it seems likely that he’d experienced several similar scenarios (for lack of a better description) and family or friends had not thought this was anything new. Or life threatening. I believe that only Emmett, and perhaps one or two others, really knew that Emmett was dying of alcoholism in 1918.
  • “It is probable remains will be held pending….” The late night copy editor was scrambling a bit to fill available text box space. What else would Pensacola Hospital do with a former congressman?
  • “Deceased from (sic) born….” The typo is another clue the copy editor was scrambling. But the bigger clues that this caught everyone off guard is that the second paragraph was taken from Emmett’s official U.S. Congressional Directory biography in 1913, and not more recent sources, because the death notice doesn’t include any information about his second term.
  • Emmett’s photo is from his 1912 congressional primary campaign. There had been several high-quality photos of Emmett taken while in Congress and certainly provided to the media free of charge. It’s curious why a more recent photograph was not used — unless it was just overlooked in the haste to put the May 29, 1918 edition to bed.

 

Frank L. Mayes of The Pensacola Journal. Champion grudge holder.

Once upon a time, back in 1912, Emmett was a good friend of Frank Mayes, political kingmaker, and editor and publisher of The Pensacola Journal. Emmett had been Mayes’ prodigy; he was intended to serve as Mayes’ entree into the Woodrow Wilson’s inner circle.

But there had been a major falling out around October, 1914, and Mayes basically washed his hand of his prodigy. After that, Mayes stopped running regular articles in his paper about Emmett — and when news necessitated mentioning Emmett, Mayes never mentioned his name, referring to Emmett instead as the Third District’s Congressman. Mayes knew that indifference was more damaging politically and professionally to Emmett than anything.

I also believe Mayes knew his indifference hurt Emmett personally, too. Frank Mayes was a smart fellow, he was an excellent ‘read’ of people because he got to know them well. Mayes was also the guy who never forgot a slight, and he knew the best way to get folks to do his bidding. Manipulative? Probably. That’s not meant to be a put-down; that character description often comes with the political kingmaker job title.

I mention the angst between Frank Mayes and Emmett Wilson because in 1918, Mayes’ widow Lois was running The Pensacola Journal, and she had no illusions about the relationship between her late husband and Emmett: Emmett wasn’t useful to Frank, and so The Pensacola Journal had no use for Emmett, either.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, May 29, 1918, page 1, via ChroniclingAmerica.gov

When Frank died in February 1915, he had been on a mission to separate himself from the mistake of supporting a candidate unprepared to hold national office. That meant breaking away from Emmett’s supporters, like Walter Kehoe, as well. If you look at the front page layout for May 29, 1918, notice the article about a debate between Walter and John Smithwick right under Emmett’s death notice. Kehoe is running for reelection for Emmett’s old congressional seat against Smithwick — and Smithwick declared the winner of the debate — no surprise, since The Pensacola Journal endorsed Smithwick over Kehoe for the primary election.

 

The Pensacola (Fla.) Memorial Association

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In the continuing saga of rechecking all sources that have some connection to Emmett Wilson, I found this interesting article about the dedication of the Florida window in Blandford Church, Petersburg, Virginia. (I blogged about this road trip, here.)

Source: The Confederate Veteran, Volume 20, page 406, via Google Books.com

The article contains interesting history about the association, as well as details about the dedication. Julia Anderson Maxwell and Emmett Wilson were cousins, as both Julia and Emmett’s grandfather was Augustus Emmett Maxwell.

The window is beautiful, as is the Old Blandford Church.

Emmett’s window; also known as the Florida window. Old Blandford Church, Petersburg, Virginia