Rumination XLII – Eulogy for a Great Man

(Once again in this post, the RT yields to his more-balanced alter ego. The RT promises to return to his usual snarkiness in the near future.)

Robert Ray McClanahan – known also as “Buddy”, “Slim”, “Ray”, “Mr. Mac”, “Double-R”, “Railroad McClanahan”, as well as various names that should not be uttered in a church building – R. R. McClanahan was my Daddy.

Dad was born to a school teacher and a sharecropper in Pecan Gap, Texas just before the Great Depression. My grandfather raised cotton with his father in the black dirt in central Texas. The only property he ever owned was a pair of mules. When he died in 1930, he left my grandmother with nothing but three children under the age of six at a time when nobody had anything and things were about to get worse.

My grandmother taught school in central Texas during the school year and returned to East Texas each summer to work her family’s farm. Money was scarce and Dad’s older brother had to go live with another part of the family because no one could afford to feed that many mouths.

My Dad got two pairs of overalls and one pair of shoes at the beginning of each school year and his Mother had to make them last a whole year. They survived on the generosity of others. Dad said that nobody had anything and everyone shared what they had. He remembered those as good times.

He went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, taught mostly by his Mother. When the lessons for his grade were finished, Dad did his assigned work, then worked on the lessons for the next grade. By doing so, he was ultimately able to graduate high school when he was sixteen.

From the time he was old enough to do so, he worked to help support his mother and his sister. At one point, he was making three dollars a week, two of which went to his Mother.

When he lost his job at the movie theater in Mount Pleasant, Texas a month before graduation, he didn’t know what to do. His neighbor, Ernest Sinclair, saw him sitting on the porch, crying. When Mr. Ernest asked him what was wrong, Dad told him what had happened and that he wouldn’t be able to support his mother. Mr. Ernest told him to be at the railroad depot at 5am the next morning, because the Superintendent was in town. Mr. Ernest promised to get him an audience.

Dad was at the depot at 4:30am to make sure he was there on time. When the Superintendent met my Daddy, he hired him as a student telegrapher on the spot, even though he was 16 and hadn’t yet graduated high school. During the final weeks of school, Dad went to the depot every morning and studied railroad, then went to school, then back to the railroad when school was done.

And so began Dad’s career with the Cotton Belt Railroad. He worked virtually every depot in East Texas, sending and receiving train orders via telegraph, then delivering them to passing trains. Each time the Superintendent came through an office where Dad was working, he would comment to those around him: “Keep an eye on that McClanahan fellow. He’s one of the good ones.” In 1949, he was promoted to Train Dispatcher in Tyler, TX.

He was too young to serve in WWII, but joined the Texas National Guard in 1948 when the draft was reinstated (yes, he was a draft-dodger). He served fourteen years in the Guard and rose to the rank of Captain. He became the battalion adjutant and was the Colonel’s “get it done” man.

In 1950, he married his first love, Gerry Lou Brogoitti. She was the daughter of one of Mt. Pleasant’s most prominent citizens and he was from the other side of the tracks. They had met when he was in high school and she in junior high. But once he graduated and she was in high school, it became acceptable for them to date. When she went to college in Commerce, TX, Dad knew he had real competition and “wore out a car” driving back and forth to see her.

My sister Terry Lea came along in 1951, Cindy Ann in 1956 and lastly me in 1959. Dad worked three jobs to make sure that our family had the stability that his didn’t have. The railroad was always #1. He also worked at the men’s clothing store in Mt. Pleasant. And he ran “Mac’s Bike Shop” where he sold bicycles that he and Mom rebuilt. He was determined that our family would stay together, no matter what.

In 1960, he was promoted to his first officer position on the railroad, Freight Agent in Texarkana, TX, beginning the “Trek of the Gypsy Railroaders” my Mom always talked about. He was promoted to Trainmaster in 1965, which took us to Memphis, TN. In 1968, he became Assistant Terminal Superintendent at East St. Louis and our family moved to Collinsville, IL. He then rose to Terminal Superintendent at East St Louis, the busiest rail terminal in the country, before he was transferred to Eugene, OR in 1970 to become Terminal Superintendent there.

During our stay in Eugene, Dad was named Project Manager for a new rail yard in West Colton, CA which was to become the most advanced rail yard in the world. He was ultimately transferred to West Colton in 1971 and our family moved to Redlands, CA. Once West Colton was completed, Dad was named Terminal Superintendent.

Let me pause here, to say that each time our family was transferred, Dad knew that it was coming before he shared it with the family. Mom would say: “Kids, your Dad is cleaning out the garage and you know what that means.” Once the transfer was official, Dad would call a family meeting and let us know where we were about to go.

When the garage cleaning started in early 1974, we knew something was afoot. Dad came home in the next few weeks and told us we were going to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Our response was something like: “WHERE???”

And so, in November 1974, our family came to live in Pine Bluff and Dad became Assistant Superintendent and heir-apparent to the Superintendent of the Cotton Belt. While Pine Bluff was not East Texas, my Mom declared it to be “close enough” because of the pine trees and rolling hills of south Arkansas.

In 1983, Dad was named Superintendent upon the retirement of his predecessor. That skinny 16-year-old kid who met the Superintendent on his private rail car in 1945 was now the Superintendent himself. The young clerk who sat on the steps of the depot and talked with his peers about who he would fire if he were the Boss was now the Boss. The student telegrapher was now the man who called the shots.

Over the next five years, the Cotton Belt went through three mergers in rapid succession, as the rail industry consolidated into mega-railroads. The last of those mergers bought him out. He retired at age 59, after 43 years with the Cotton Belt and Southern Pacific.

In retirement, he helped build the Arkansas Railroad Museum into what it is today. He and my Mom bought and restored rail cars. He ran excursion trains in NW Arkansas. He helped run excursions with the 819. His love for all things railroad never faded.

When my Mother passed away unexpectedly in 2000, my Dad was lost. He lost his first love. He lost his energy and the color in his face. He lost his interest in the railroad. He lost his will to live. My sisters and I were preparing to lose our Dad, too.

But then, a year or so later, his energy level picked up. The color returned to his face. He called me to ask my permission to take a lady named Betty Hickerson out to lunch. They were married in 2002 and life began again for both of them. Ms Betty gave my Daddy a reason to live and she gave my sisters and me another 17 years with our Daddy.

Ms Betty, we are forever grateful for the love and care that you gave our Daddy. We know that this is every bit as hard for you as it is for us. You will remain in our hearts and in our prayers.

While the other kids at school had Dads who were lawyers or firemen or plumbers – or in some cases, members of the Mafia – I had the only Daddy who could get a locomotive out of the ditch. And the only Mother who had to get locomotive grease out of a suit.

Other kids had Dads who took them bowling or fishing on weekends. Our Dad made us go to church, and Sunday school, and gospel meetings.

Others had Dads who taught them how to hunt. Ours taught us the value of hard work and commitment.

My Daddy could dispatch the entire railroad Division single-handedly when the union went on strike. My Dad could determine the cause of train derailment over the phone from hundreds of miles away. My Dad could actually drink railroad coffee. My Dad could build anything, fix anything and organize anything.

My Dad is my hero. He was when I was a kid and he always will be. He was larger than life to me when he was running a railroad and he continued to be when he could only manage a few steps in his walker.

The past few months have given all of us time to be with him, to talk about things that mattered and to say “goodbye”. If you spent time with him, you probably heard him say that he’d had a great life, that he’d had a “good ride” and that he had no regrets. I expect that all of us hope to say that when our time on is finished.

He had a lot of friends. He had a good number of enemies. But friend or foe, everyone I’ve met respected Robert R. McClanahan. He may have fired his fair share of folks, but the ones I’ve met told me they deserved it and that he hired them back later.

I’ve been blessed to see how many lives my Daddy touched over the years. From his railroad and business colleagues to his church family to his friends and loved ones. He made a difference in the lives of everyone he touched.

Robert R McClanahan was a great man and my Sisters and I are better people for having him as our Daddy.

Daddy, we love you and we’ll miss you terribly. But knowing that you are safe in the arms of Jesus and that you are with Mom forever makes this time bearable. We’ll see you soon.

Memorials may be made to

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1 Response to Rumination XLII – Eulogy for a Great Man

  1. EY says:

    I’m not at all surprised that you had such a wonderful Dad. Your words paint a vivid picture. Thank you for sharing.

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