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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A structure worth saving

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As far as I know, most of my friends in the Florida panhandle survived Hurricane Michael. I’ve heard from almost everyone — thank goodness, all seem to have fared pretty well, given the severity of the storm.

Friends in Pensacola tell me they were lucky; Hurricane Michael didn’t affect them much. Others in Chipley report many trees down and some property damage, along with inconveniences related to interrupted utilities, blocked roads, and so forth. As one colleague said to me via email last night, “It wasn’t pretty, but all in all, it will be OK. We’re all fine. Things can be replaced, but people cannot.”

Marianna, unfortunately, was hit badly. Many buildings were destroyed; one news report said it looked as if a bomb had gone off in Jackson County, Florida, it was that bad.

And, unfortunately, Cephas’s old office, the building in Marianna still standing with a true Emmett Wilson connection, was significantly damaged.

Cephas’ old office, on the right. The front wall to the top floor is missing, and it’s hard to tell the extent of the damage to the structure. Source: https://postimg.cc/jWW1JwNx

Here’s what Cephas’ office looked like in October 2015, when I took the photo below:

Cephas’ old office has the bright blue awning.

I hope the current owner will be able to save it. Cephas built the red brick structure around 1909. When I visited the office with the awesome Sue Tindel, I took several photos from that second floor, which was unfinished, but had a great view of the courthouse across the street.

Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but the current courthouse is on the original site.

A lot of damage especially to the ancient oaks. Source: Jeffrey Burlew, Tallahasee Democrat

I hope Cephas’ old office can be saved.

 

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.

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.

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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.

New Information on Percy Brockenbrough Wilson

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It’s the Wilson family members I don’t have much information about that intrigue me the most. Over the past few days, I’ve been filling in the blanks of background information for Emmett’s second oldest brother, Percy Brockenbrough Wilson. (I’ve written about him before; you can check back here and here.)

From family genealogy and other background information, we know:

  • Katie referred to him as the ‘angelic’ brother (the overall good kid who could not lie to his parents when asked questions directly as a child)
  • He was the first Wilson sibling to attend college, the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile. He graduated after completing the required three years in 1895.
  • His first wife, Lulie Butler Wilson, was 17 when they married; alas, she died less than four months later from complications either from a miscarriage or in childbirth in 1897.
  • Percy remarried in 1900 to Bonnie Bessie Stapleton. They lived in Sneads, Florida, and had several children; Percy served Sneads and most of Jackson County, Florida much like his own father, Dr. F.C. Wilson, in Chipley and Washington County, Florida.
  • Percy died of tuberculosis in July, 1914.

Some of the items I found going back through different databases were items added since my last check-in; they basically are second- and third-confirmation sources for the research. For instance:

A confirmation of Percy’s graduation from the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile, 1895. The school closed in the 1920s, and records were transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Source: Louisiana State Medical Society Bulletin, 1895, via Google Books

There’s nothing located yet in the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa archives about Percy or his class at the MCA-Mobile, but I found an image of the school at a great blog on Alabama history:

An image of Percy’s alma mater in Mobile. Source: Alabama Yesterdays blog.

And, an 1899 photo of surgical instruction from MCA-Mobile from the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa archives:

Medical students in a surgical training class, 1899. Even though this is dated five years after Percy was a student, medical history colleagues tell me this was what Percy’s class would have resembled four years earlier. Source: The University of Alabama Archives, Tuscaloosa

This was not inexpensive for Percy or his family. Tuition for MCA-Mobile was modeled similarly to a sister institution, the Birmingham (Alabama) Medical College. According to their 1895 school catalog, tuition costs were as follows:

Source: Birmingham Medical College Bulletin, 1895, from the University of Alabama-Birmingham archives.

Finally, I came across an obituary for one of Percy’s sons, Robert Wilson, dated 2005:

Obituary of Robert Wilson, son of Percy Wilson. Source: Legacy, via Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I wonder if Robert looked like Percy. I’d love to find a photograph or any other information about Dr. Percy Brockenbrough Wilson to include in Emmett’s biography.

One-Shot at a Free Ride

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I’ve been thinking about the vocational/educational breakdown of Emmett’s immediate family:

  • Two physicians; one on-the-job training, one college-educated (Dr. Francis Wilson and his second eldest son, Percy Brockenbrough Wilson)
  • Two lawyers; one on-the-job training, one college-educated (Cephas Love Wilson and Emmett Wilson)
  • Four railroad professionals; high school diploma only, mostly on-the-job training (Frank Jr., Meade, Julian, Walker)
  • Two state-certified teachers; high school diploma only (Dora and Katie)
  • One musician/pharmacist/editor; high school diploma only (Max)

Emmett’s education was a bit unusual because he was the only Wilson child with two chances to go to college — he either failed out or dropped out of West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University) in 1900, and two years later, enrolled at Stetson University, graduating in 1904.

Frankly, this surprises me, given that

  • higher education was expensive, even for an upper middle class family like the Wilsons, and
  • there was little if any extra money available for things other than necessities. And:
  • the Wilson family genealogy sent to me from Walker Wilson’s descendants indicated resentment among Emmett’s siblings that the younger Wilsons had to contribute funds to brothers and sisters attending college — a opportunity either not extended nor available to the younger Wilsons once they became old enough.

It seems like the family helped Emmett pay for the first college (West Florida Seminary) tuition, but the second time, I believe Emmett was on his own financially. It just doesn’t make sense to me that the family would put up two college tuitions for one child, and not do the same for the other younger children. Emmett had one shot at a ‘free’ tuition ride — and when it didn’t work out for him at WFS, he knew he’d have to pay his own way if he ever wanted to go to college again.

Ad from The Chipley Banner, 1894. DJ Jones was a well-established attorney and judge for many years. Source: Chronicling America.com

After Emmett came home from WFS in January, 1901, he immediate started clerking for Judge Daniel J. Jones, one of the most important lawyers in West Florida, with the idea that he would do as his brother Cephas: Clerk for a prominent jurist for a few years, take the bar exam, and begin his practice.  But times were changing for the legal profession around 1900, as more states were requiring law school and official degrees as proper credentials over old-school apprenticeship training.

 

Emmett and Judge Jones must have discussed the future of the profession, and I am certain Judge Jones would have encouraged Emmett earn a law degree at a college or university, to ensure his best possible professional opportunities.

Advertisement from August 30, 1901 edition of The (Pensacola) Daily News. Emmett had been clerking for Judge D.J. Jones, during this time — but he could only do so much without knowledge of shorthand. It is likely Jones recommended Emmett obtain shorthand training. Emmett was visiting family during the summer of 1901, and this advertisement got his attention. Source: The (Pensacola) Daily News, August 30, 1901.

Emmett remained with Jones as a clerk for about six months, before he left to take a shorthand course at Meux’s Business School in Pensacola, returning in 1902 to clerk for Cephas in Marianna for several months, earning enough money to attend Stetson University in September, 1902.