The Deer on the Trail Will Remind Me of Archie

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Rosie the Wonder Dog and I stopped in the post-dawn the other day. The sun barely peeked over the trees that line the power line right-of-way that cuts along the walking trail. A doe and two fawns grazed about 50 feet away, unaware of our presence. Rosie sat quietly and watched. She is not a barking dog, for which I am grateful. Obedience school worked. She was an A- student. After a few moments we left the deer in peace, enjoying the cool air, the glistening dew, the leaves beginning to turn color. At least I was. Rosie wasn’t saying much.

I last saw the deer on the trail several weeks earlier. I was listening to Red River Radio, the NPR affiliate for this area, as I walked. Archie McDonald came on the radio, as he has at 7:35 a.m. each Friday for a number of years. This time it was different. Archie had passed away several days earlier after battling cancer. The commentary was fittingly about funerals, one that he had recorded several months earlier. Archie was complaining about standing outside in the August heat while a preacher said “In conclusion” four times at a graveside ceremony. I laughed and remembered a man who touched the lives of so many in East Texas and beyond. Just then, those deer popped out. Archie would have appreciated the sight, I think, the beauty — and the fact that it was actually cool for an August morning.

Most everybody called him Archie, unless you were in his class, and then it was Dr. McDonald. That’s where I first met him in the mid-1970s, when I was a 20-year-old history major at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. He became Archie when I returned 15 years later to run the local newspaper. We evolved into colleagues and friends. Archie had a lot of folks who considered him a friend, so many that his funeral was held in the Grand Ballroom at SFA, instead of Austin Heights Baptist Church, which he and his wife Judy helped found. The church is where he requested the service be held in his on-air commentary about funerals, but the sanctuary was nowhere big enough. The ballroom nearly wasn’t. And right after the opening prayer, the funeral commentary was the first item on the program. Archie’s short-brimmed Stetson hanging from a hat rack by the podium.

Archie was a noted Texas historian, storyteller, a singer of war ditties, a true Renaissance man. He taught courses on everything from the Civil War to John Wayne. He wrote more than two dozen history books and taught literally thousands of students in nearly five decades at SFA. Archie loved that university and Nacogdoches; his last job there arguably was his most fitting, as he served as a liaison between the university and the community.  One of his best-received books was called “Helpful Cooking Hints for House Husbands of Uppity Women.” That referred to Judy, of course, who served several years as mayor and lost a narrow race for state representative in the mid-1990s. Archie and Judy were a great love story, did untold good in the Oldest Town, and were such a pleasure to be around. Judy, I noticed, is now on an extended road trip. I wish her well and miss her.

Not long after I returned to Nacogdoches in 1990, a local genealogy group asked me to give a talk on my master’s thesis, which was largely centered about a feud between two editors in San Augustine in the 1840s. It culminated in one editor killing the other — the first editorial killing on this side of the Red River.

I guess the group had run out of speakers and needed some fresh material. Anyway, Archie decided to attend, which made me nervous. I gave a summary of my thesis, concentrating on the juicy parts. My host thanked me and praised me for having brought to light for the first time why one editor had killed the other. The dead editor had called the other editor’s mother a “woman of loose virtue.” That was almost certain to get you shot in Texas most any time — even now

I could see Archie watching me, arms crossed, from the back of the room, a glint in his eyes. I quickly and truthfully replied,  “Oh, no ma’m.” I didn’t discover that fact. That was published quite some time ago in another newspaper history.” Archie relaxed and smiled slightly. I like to think that’s when we began to become friends, at least to the level that Archie was friends with so many people.

He was kind enough to write a squib for a modest book I wrote for the University of Texas Press in 2006 (“A Hanging in Nacogdoches.” Copies for sale on this website. Shameless plug now over. Heck, Archie was never shy about selling books.) Not long after, the first compilation of Archie’s commentaries was published, under the title, “Back Then.” I wrote a short review for the Lufkin and Nacogdoches newspapers and complimented Archie on his “mellifluous” voice.

At the time we were riding together to the Red River Radio advisory board meetings in Shreveport each month, since I lived in Lufkin. I would swing through Nacogdoches and park in the garage. Archie always preferred to drive, and to get to the meetings about 30 minutes early. That was the Scottish in him, I figure. The first trip after the review had published, he thanked me for it and then said, one eyebrow raised, “Mellifluous?”

It was Archie’s professor voice — gently chiding me, by then well into middle age — for using a 75-cent word when a dime word would have sufficed. He was right, of course.

On Friday mornings I walk the trail with Rosie, tuned in to Red River Radio, which still airs his commentaries. They are timeless. I know that the many listeners who knew him and those who never did had the pleasure still enjoy hearing Archie’s voice, and those carefully measured words, so richly spoken.

I’ll think of Archie each time I see those deer on that trail. And I certainly won’t ever use mellifluous in a sentence again.

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