Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Underground Journalism: San Antonio's surprising dead celebrities

When Lincoln Borglum's sculptor-father died in 1941, he did what any good son would do: He finished his dad's work.

That project was Mount Rushmore, one of America's most spectacular monuments.

So it is ironic that Borglum, who died in 1986, lies in somebody else's family plot beneath an unremarkable stone in San Antonio's dog-eared City Cemetery No. 1.

The defenders of the Alamo are certainly San Antonio's most famous (albeit slightly misplaced) dead people, but the B-list of departed notables such as Borglum in local graveyards is no less fascinating — and a little spooky. Why? Because most living San Antonians probably aren't aware of some famous (and infamous) dead buried in our midst.

One of the big leagues' most powerful southpaw pitchers, one of America's earliest anti-terror heroes, the fevered brain behind one of the nation's most tragic suicide cults, more than 30 Medal of Honor winners including a Little Big Horn survivor, a man who died 140 years ago but whose name is spoken every day in the 2008 race for the White House. They're among dozens of once-memorable figures who have gone underground in some of Bexar County's nearly 200 cemeteries, from tiny churchyards to the sprawling Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

Take Rube Waddell. This Pennsylvania kid grew up to be one of baseball's most formidable pitchers — and one of its most eccentric characters. Waddell led the league in strikeouts every season from 1902 through 1907 — as well as in headlines for pitching drunk, leaving games to chase firetrucks and wrestling alligators.

His personal peccadilloes aside, Waddell still holds the American League single-season strikeout record by a left-handed pitcher almost 100 years after he last pitched.

A bout of pneumonia weakened his immune system, sparking a case of full-blown tuberculosis.

On April Fools' Day, a resident of Grace Lutheran Sanatorium in San Antonio, baseball's clown prince died. He was 37.

Waddell was buried beneath a simple wooden marker in Mission Burial Park. Nine years later, weather had erased Waddell's name so a 6-foot granite monument was erected. In 1946, he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.

And not far from Waddell's grave is another Hall of Famer, Ross Youngs, a Shiner native whose remarkable career ended abruptly when he died in 1926 of kidney disease at age 30.

Between 1962 and 1977, Texas-born Heloise Bowles Cruse was better known to most American housewives simply as “Heloise,” a gal with countless helpful household ideas. She moved to San Antonio from Hawaii when her syndicated newspaper column, “Hints from Heloise,” was published in almost 600 newspapers.

Heloise died in 1977. Her tombstone at San Jose Burial Park is as simple as her ideas. All it says is: “Heloise, Every Housewife's Friend.” And at the bottom is a “-30-” — newspaper code for “The End.” Her daughter Heloise continues her column.

Marshall Applewhite and Sandra West's claims to fame came not in life, but in death.

Applewhite was born in Spur to a very religious family, but his faith took a perverse turn. In 1975, he founded a cult called “Heaven's Gate.” In 1997, Applewhite convinced the cult's 38 die-hard believers that if they would commit suicide, an alien spacecraft would fly their souls with the Hale-Bopp Comet into heaven. They poisoned themselves.

President Clinton ordered the cult members' bodies be cremated, and Applewhite's ashes were transported not by a spacecraft but a common hearse to be buried in Mission Park South.

No Halloween cemetery tour would be complete without a visit to Sandra West's grave.

West was a beautiful Beverly Hills socialite and widow of millionaire Texas oilman Ike West. After she was diagnosed with a fatal illness, she decided to leave her $3 million estate to her brother — but only if he carried out her final wishes meticulously.

And her final wishes were anything but simple. Sandra wanted to be buried in a lace negligee behind the wheel of her favorite powder blue, 1964 Ferrari 330 America sports car (only 50 were made). Her body was to be “tilted at a comfortable angle.”

In 1977, the late Sandra and her car were sealed in a giant wooden crate, and then lowered by crane into her super-sized grave at Alamo Masonic Cemetery. Just to be sure future collectors wouldn't be tempted to dig up her slightly used Ferrari, it was encased in two truckloads of concrete at the end of a $17,000 service that was more festive than funereal.

As if to prove money can't buy everything, Sandra West's unpretentious headstone today has sunken at a cockeyed angle.

Now, if we could only find Davy Crockett.

(With GPS coordinates for their graves)

Col. Charlie Beckwith (1929-1994) Heroic founder of the anti-terrorist Delta Force who retired a year after the tragic failure of his mission to rescue 53 American hostages in Iran in 1980. Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery (GPS: N29º 28.632, W098º 25.514)

Lincoln Borglum (1912-1986) The son of Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum — who lived with his family in the Menger Hotel for a time — actually finished the national landmark after his father’s death. Given the mountain he carved at Rushmore, his modest monument is ironic. City Cemetery #1. (N29º 25.206 W098º 28.045)

Leroy Daniels (1915-1998) Maybe you know him as Leroy from TV’s “Sanford and Son,“ but this real-life dancing L.A. bootblack inspired the song “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy” in 1950 and capered with Fred Astaire. Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery (N29º 28.607, W098º 25.349)

Oscar Fox (1879-1961) This classically trained San Antonio choirmaster composed some of the most recognizable cowboy ballads in history, including “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo, Git Along, Little Dogies” and “Old Paint.” Mission Burial Park South (Block 7, Grave 132)

Pattillo Higgins (1863-1955) This one-armed, self-taught geologist is one big reason for America’s modern addiction to oil: he drilled the USA’s first big gusher at Spindletop near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901, literally fueling a nation’s century-long (so far) appetite for black gold. Mission Burial Park South (N29º 20.609, W098º 28.190)

Chuck Hughes (1943-1971) This former UTEP standout remains the only NFL player ever to die on the field during a game. Sunset Memorial Park (N29º 49.943, W098º 43.249)

Lt. George Kelly (1878-1911) He became the first U.S. serviceman ever killed in a military air crash when his biplane crashed near downtown San Antonio. Kelly AFB is named for him. San Antonio National Cemetery. (N29º 25.299, W098º 28.003)

Sidney Levyson (aka Stanley Stein, 1899-1967) A blind Jewish pharmacist from Boerne who was foribly quarantined in a Louisiana leper colony for 37 years until his death. From the isolate colony. He became a leading voice against entrenched fear of the disease, which was neither as communicable nor as untreatable as most people feared. Temple Beth-El Memorial Park (N29º 42.359 W098º 46.608)

Samuel Maverick (1803-1870) The reason we call Sen. John McCain a “maverick” today is because this former San Antonio mayor was renowned for letting his unbranded calves roam free — today, the repurposed term refers to anybody who breaks away from the herd. City Cemetery #1 (N29º 42.034, W098º 46.731)

John Lang Sinclair (1879-1947) As a student at UT in 1903, this Bexar County farmkid added new lyrics to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and created the song that would someday become the Longhorns’ battle hymn, “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” Alamo Masonic Cemetery (N29º 41.978, W098º 46.931)

Adolph (1869-1962) and Elizabeth Toepperwein (1882-1945) In the world of sharpshooting, Ad and “Plinky” were bigger than Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps. Even Annie Oakley herself once called Mrs. Toepperwein the greatest shot she’d ever seen. Mission Burial Park South (N29º 20.611, W098º 28.029)

Rube Waddell (Mission Burial Park South; N29º 20.763, W098º 28.033)
Ross Youngs (Mission Burial Park South; N29º 20.770, W098º 28.277)
Heloise Bowles Cruse (San Jose Burial Park; N29º 20.578, W098º 28.310)
Sandra West (Alamo Masonic Cemetery; N29º 42.019, W098º 46.854)


Jill said...

I did not know that, fascinating!

Stellathomas said...

Mount Rushmore mountains looks like a bunch of famous presidents. Although it wasn’t completed until 1941, work on the mount was began in 1927.

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donald said...

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Anonymous said...

Would you also consider Ruth "Tex" Lessing who holds AAGBL records for most assists for catchers with 144 in 1944, the record for highest fielding average with .982 in '45 and for the most games catching for one season with 125 in '48. She was inducted to the Women's Baseball Hall of Fame and the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.