By Jeff Roberson
My father recalls that my grandfather built a house during the great depression, and the mortgage company went bankrupt. He lost all he had invested. My dad, his four siblings, my grandmother and grandfather, were all trying to make it through the roughest economic stretch of the past 100 years.
Until now, maybe. Scary thought, if you think about it. So let’s don’t.
My father is 95 today. Most say, “No way.” They all say he doesn’t look it or act it. They’re right.
April 10, 1925, born in Pontotoc, northeast Mississippi.
Dad said my grandfather learned to wire houses through those tough times and became a go-to electrician in town. He also got a Press-Scimitar route to try to make ends meet. For those of you who have no clue what that is, it was the afternoon newspaper in Memphis that in 1983 went the way of most big city afternoon dailies.
My dad and his dad would head out from Pontotoc down through Chickasaw County, over to Calhoun County and back to Pontotoc, stacks and stacks of papers with them, on roads that sometimes were impassible in an auto that might or might not make it; leave at 2 p.m. back home at 8, if they were lucky, six afternoons a week. Had to do it for the family.
Dad went off to war like so many during WWII. It was right after he’d spent a semester at Mississippi State (you read that right). One story he’s told through the years was when he signed up for the Naval Air Corps in New Orleans. He was five pounds underweight to join. He weighed 115. You read that right, too. But his country needed him and they told him to go gain just three pounds and come back. It was New Orleans so that was easy. He came back a few hours later and had gained three pounds. They told him they’d put more weight on him. Six months later they weighed him – 115 pounds.
He was in school at Tulane and Cornell during the war. I took him up to Cornell in 2002, his only trip back. I figured since I call him an “Ivy Leaguer,” he needed to go back to central New York, to Ithaca, “far above Cayuga’s waters,” and take a look around the most beautiful campus I’ve seen – besides Ole Miss.
We’ve spent time at Tulane through the years at games or walking inside the old gym where the Green Wave still plays basketball. During the war, because of limited dorm room space, the basketball court was row after row of beds, and that’s where he lived. They drilled in the massive, long gone Tulane “Sugar Bowl” Stadium.
The last year of the war he was in D.C. and he was one of the guys in charge of rationing sugar for the entire Potomac River basin. If you needed sugar, he was your guy. He still didn’t gain any weight.
Dad left Pontotoc for Baldwyn to coach with Babe McCarthy, who would go on to State and win SEC championships and then to the pros. Coaching didn’t turn out to be dad’s profession of choice. For decades he was a businessman, school board president, church leader.
He’s led what I’d call a very balanced life, rarely too up or down, with a lot of contentment. Things don’t seem to bother him much, and he’s been through enough to have been bothered a lot.
Like the early loss of his own father, which came on the heels of the accidental deaths of two brothers in law in their 30s. The death of his mother one year and my mother the next year when I was 11, and the passing of a sweet lady from another lengthy relationship, this time back in 1995. And the loss of three siblings. Some of that obviously comes from living a long life.
After quarterbacking his high school football team and playing semi-pro baseball after the war, he played a lot of golf through the years and was one of the early best players in north Mississippi, a champion three times and a runner-up five times at the club he helped start just outside Tupelo.
He had gotten his degree from Ole Miss in the years after the war. And he made sure I was at Ole Miss games in the ‘60s when his nephew Jim Weatherly played quarterback for the Rebels.
He hasn’t been through anything like we’re going through now since his first decade when times were tough and folks wondered, like now, how long those tough times would last.
The last time he got out and about before the global pandemic really set in was back on March 5 when I took him to the Pavilion and he watched not one but two Baldwyn teams lose state championships that afternoon – the teams he had helped Babe coach 71 years earlier. He hated they lost but he was honestly like a celebrity. Everybody who saw him stopped and visited. Despite the final scores, it was a very good day.
So happy birthday, Billy Roberson. Ninety-five. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. It seems to be working just fine for you.