Willis Webb

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything.” — Ruth Evelyn Thornton Webb Barger, circa 1950.

W hen she said that to her eldest son, little did she know he was going to be a newspaper man much less a columnist.

Oh, we happily write often about good people but when we pen something about someone doing something wrong or illegal, those story subjects seem to remember it more explicitly and for a longer time. Some of ‘em will even be confrontational.

Once I wrote a column about the commissioners in the county where I was publishing at the time and, for reasons that will become obvious, the county and the commishes will remain anonymous.

One commissioner in particular took offense, and that’s understandable but it was the truth. Commish #1’s displeasure was related to me by Commish #2, a really nice guy who was also a cousin of #1. Now, that in itself, says something about the process in that county.

As a matter of fact, a previous commissioner in that county had earlier taken offense to something I’d written and came down to see me face to face and said: “Somebody just read me what you wrote about me in the paper and I didn’t like it.” Think about that statement.

Anyway, Commish #2, Robert Earl, (with a big grin on his face) said: “Ol’ Ben Ray didn’t like what you wrote about him in the paper and said, even though he’s a good Christian and church-going, ‘I’m going down to that newspaper and whip Willis Webb’s a--!’”

I put as big a smile on my face as I could muster and said, “Well, just tell Ol’ Ben Ray hidy and come on down. I will be waiting on him.” But, I was thinking, “I wish I’d remembered what Mother said,” because Ol’ Ben Ray was a pretty good sized ol’ boy and he had hands that looked like Christmas hams.

Thankfully, Ben Ray didn’t show up. I did see him several weeks later at a meeting (in a room full of people) and he grabbed my small hand in his big ham and squeezed as hard as he could, which was considerable, and said, “I didn’t like what you wrote about me.”

I smiled through the pain and said, “Most folks loved it, Mr. Commissioner.” He whirled around and left the meeting. Rarely did Ol’ Ben Ray speak to me again, which was okay by me. The staff member regularly assigned to commissioners court said Ben Ray never failed to tell him “I don’t like Ol’ Webb.”

Now, before you go thinking that all elected rural county officials are hot-tempered, bullying idiots, know that Ol’ Ben Ray was the exception. His cousin, Robert Earl, was as country as the day is long but he was smart AND honest, wonderful qualities in an elected official. The majority of rural county elected officials I ever knew and covered in the news were basically honest. They might promise you Arpege and give you Evening in Paris, but they’d try hard to do a good job and please as many people as possible.

Probably the two most important qualifications for a rural county commissioner is to be able to manage a budget and drive a bulldozer. In rural counties, commissioner is a great job and pays well, so most of them work hard to get reelected.

Some metropolitan types tend to look down their noses at ruralsmall town folks. Usually those short-sighted folks mistake Texas country accents for ignorance. That’s a big mistake, and particularly so with rural county commissioners. They may be rough around the edges and somewhat lacking in much formal education, but most are quite shrewd. And, they know how to count votes.

Maybe my mother will show this to her county commissioner.

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2011-01-13 digital edition

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