Thursday, July 19, 2007

Uncle Noney-Bird

My sister, who went to Wellesley, recently received a birthday card from Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that they did not know each other in college. (See my political blog at for the full story.*) This card, its "hand-written" message done by auto-pen, and obviously sent by the fundraising arm of the Clinton campaign, because Hillary doesn't know my sister from Eve, reminds me of my Uncle Logan and his little collection of such cards.

Logan Mooney, my maternal grandmother's son by her first marriage, was proud to be the grandson of C.P.J. Mooney. During my childhood, I found my uncle tiresome--for many reasons, not least of which was his constant chatter about C.P.J. Mooney. At the time, I could have been less interested. Now, of course, I wish I had listened. Few of you, dear readers, unless you are newspaper reporters, will have heard of C.P.J. Mooney--and there's a caution here about fame and fortune. Charles Patrick Joseph Mooney was the finest political figure west Tennessee ever produced (although, like many prominent Tennesseans, he was born elsewhere), for he was the muckraking newspaper editor who broke the power of the Klan in the state. Mooney and the Memphis Commercial Appeal won a Pulitzer for their efforts in 1923, and Mooney himself died three years later, at work, at his desk. As one of his friends in the newsroom said, Mooney "rode the owl home at three in the morning," for his work was his life. Despite his trouncing the Klan, Mooney died frustrated, for he had had no such success in exposing the various corruptions in the political machine of E.H. Crump, who was the Boss of Memphis then and would be for decades to come.

Not surprisingly, C.P.J. Mooney's family life suffered. His son Hugh, my uncle's father, was a troubled man, eventually institutionalized (back in the day when this was legally possible). Therefore, my uncle hardly knew his father or his grandfather, for he was only eight when C.P.J. Mooney died. His mother married again, this time to a man (Watkins Overton, my grandfather) who would eventually hold the record as longest-serving Memphis mayor. With his mother and step-father often away on the campaign trail, Logan was sent off to school. In family movies from the 1920's, and in newsreels of the period (my mother and her siblings were the ribbon-cutters of choice for the city), Logan is always standing off to the side, looking ill-at-ease.

When Uncle Logan was a teenager, my grandparents divorced. My grandfather got custody of his three children (a political story for another day); my grandmother kept Logan, who lived with her for the rest of his life. He had grown into the kind of man Southerners called "nervous." Too nervous to hold down a job, people said. Eventually, Uncle Logan got a patronage job in shipping on the Mississippi. I remember my grandmother saying nights that Logan was going down to the river to "meet the barge." He had three pleasures in life: his CB radio, his pride in his grandfather, and his five nieces.

I'm sorry to say that my sisters and I did not always reciprocate the affection. Uncle Logan dropped by my parents' house every afternoon, when he knew we would be home from school. He would rap on the sliding glass door in back; then he would sing and snap his fingers in time to a ditty he had made up: "Julia Bird! Julia Bird! Off we go to Gatlinburg!" The full story of the slant rhyme is much too much--suffice it to say that Julia among us sisters was Logan's favorite. In return, we called him Uncle Noney-Bird. And often we weren't very nice.

As for Uncle Logan's pride in his grandfather, it found its expression in the wall space of carefully-framed cards like the one Hillary Clinton sent my sister. Uncle Logan's cards were from FDR, JFK, and William Randolph Hearst. His family name made Uncle Logan a place on the card lists of the politically-powerful. Childlike to the day he died, Uncle Logan felt that the cards gave him a special connection to Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Hearst. Often at Grandmother's house I had to suffer through a visit to the card wall. From the time I was quite young, seven or eight, I intuited that these famous men did not know my uncle, even as Logan himself was quite sure they did. Now I understand that these cards gave him a sense of self-worth and dignity. Funny thing--not a year goes by that my sisters and I don't think often and fondly of Uncle Logan and miss him dearly. In our loss, I suppose, is his true worth.

*In a few days, I will have figured out my URL for The Huffington Post. For now, you can access my political blog by going to, clicking on blogs, and choosing Off the Bus. You will find me among the Off the Bus bloggers. Alternately, you can click on the list of bloggers, either click on F or scroll down, and find me, Mayhill Fowler.

Note: I will be back to Middle East blogging in a few days, after I get the kinks worked out of the HP blog. Have much to say about Fatah and Hamas.

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