Friday, February 27, 2009

Mary Lee Emmert: Remembrances of a son-in-law

My mother-in-law, Mary Lee Emmert, passed away this week. Here is what i said about this wonderful woman yesterday at her memorial service.

I want to tell you about a pioneering woman, one of the most amazing people that I’ve met in my life.

Mary Lee Green was born in San Benito, TX. It was always Mary Lee and not just Mary. And, you only called her Mary Lou ONE time!

If you’ve ever driven down into the valley, you’ll have remembered San Benito by its huge water tower with the picture of Freddie Fender, boasting San Benito as his hometown. Last month Mary Lee was talking about that water tower when she was down visiting us, a bit dismayed that Freddie Fender was her hometown’s claim to fame. After she left we thought of renting one of the big billboards along 77 and adding

San Benito
Birthplace of Mary Lee Green Emmert
And in little type… also Freddie Fender

She would have loved it!

The next time you drive down to the valley, please look at that big Freddie Fender water tower and think of Mary Lee’s billboard. I only wish we had time to put it up for her to see!

Because, in our eyes even though Freddie Fender was a character and well known around Texas, our Mary Lee was known in countries far from Texas, but more on that later.

When her mother suffered debilitating health problems and passed away, Mary Lee was raised by her loving father Bill in Sinton. In Sinton, her women role models were Aunt Ruby and Mrs. Landrum who looked after young Mary Lee when her father was working in the oil fields. I wish that I would have known Aunt Ruby and Mrs. Landrum as I’m sure that they would have some rare stories to tell about young Mary Lee. As I reflect upon those days, it must have been tough for her but is also where she developed her determination, independence and willingness to explore everything new whether it was new people, new ideas or even new lands.

One of her proudest moments that she often related to us, was sneaking off with a friend to see the scandalous Elvis Presley at the Corpus Christi Coliseum.

From Sinton, she went to college at Texas A&I, now Texas A&M in Kingsville, where she first met the love her of her life and lifetime partner, Pete Emmert, a bull riding, stereotypical cowboy from Refugio. I believe it was love at first sight or at least that is what I would love to believe.

During summers she worked at the old Liechtenstein Department Store in Corpus, not so much for what she could earn but more for the discount she got on purchases and the interesting people of Corpus that she met.

Pete and Mary Lee were married on January 2, 1957, spending their honeymoon in Monterrey. Pete’s future boss gave them $100 for their honeymoon, quite a sum in those days. Mary Lee thought that they should blow the whole $100 on activities in Monterrey, but Pete was more financially grounded, wanting to save some of the $100. They went home with money in their pockets. It was one of only two arguments I ever heard of her losing.

While Pete was finishing his degree, Mary Lee taught English at a largely Hispanic school in Kingsville, one of the early pioneers of teaching English as a second language. Her pioneering work was starting! Upon Pete’s graduation from A&I, they moved to Las Vegas. But, probably not the Las Vegas you are thinking of, but rather Las Vegas, New Mexico. And, Las Vegas, New Mexico is about as far from Las Vegas, Nevada as you can get. They spell remote there with a capital R!

And, it was not only remote but also cold, VERY cold. I’m certain that the first time that Mary Lee saw snow in her young life in Las Vegas it was exciting. But, by the time her first born Betinha was born in February and Mary Lee had to go into town a week before she was due because of the snow drifts, I’m guessing that the thrill of the white stuff had long passed.

I’m also guessing that it was Mary Lee who found the ad in the Cattleman’s Journal, advertising for ranch managers for new ranches that the King Ranches and Swift Meatpackers were opening in the exotic country of Brazil. Tropical Brazil might be just as remote as Las Vegas, New Mexico but it had to be warmer! A train trip to Chicago for the interview, where the interview of the spouse and their ability to adapt to a strange country and language was as important to Swift-King as the ranching ability of the manager, resulted in a job offer and off they were, on literally “the slow boat to Brazil”, landing there on December 9, 1958.

And, even though the King ranches in Brazil were even more remote than New Mexico, Mary Lee fell in love with them. The hardships of no roads, no electricity or phones didn’t deter her. The fact that it took two to four days, depending upon weather, to drive the 350 miles from Sao Paulo to the ranch, added to the excitement of a new language, new surroundings and of course new friends. I told you she was a pioneering woman!

New children started coming every two years almost like clockwork. After Betinha; Jimmy followed in 1960, then Theresa and finally Michael. With the closest American school that 350 mile drive back to Sao Paulo, Mary Lee again pioneered in homeschooling her four children, decades before homeschooling became a fad. Of course, Mary Lee wasn’t going to be just teaching it strictly by the book. Classes were taught around the swimming pool, heavy on Greek Mythology, Art History, English and Social Studies. Less so on math and science. And, lots on Texas history! Mary Lee was a true Texan at heart and her children were going to learn everything and more that they would if they were at school in the states.

In the beginning, they would take states-side leave every two years, when Mary Lee would plan the usual visits with family and friends and also long sojourns on Padre Island. As important were educational trips that took the family to Colorado, Wyoming, Mexico and of course all over the vast state of her beloved Texas.

I’m told that when the Emmert kids were getting bored on one of these trips, they would make statements like, “Gosh, there are a lot of streets named Sam Houston. Wonder what that guy ever did?” They knew that it was sure to illicit a reaction and a twenty or thirty minute lecture on what this Texas hero had accomplished. There were certain buttons like that which could be pressed, almost guaranteeing a known response.

Mary Lee and Pete’s Brazilian ranching life was a true partnership. While Pete might have earned the paycheck, even he would admit years later that Mary Lee had as much to do with his success as his knowledge of cattle, horses, pastures and ranching. Theirs was a true partnership with Mary Lee taking care of the guest house, visitors and making sure that any cattle or horse buyers felt right at home. Famous international guests like Henry Ford II, Prince of Turin, Daniel Ludwig, and even TV stars like Starsky and Hutch were constant guests. Starsky and Hutch fell in love with Mary Lee’s Texas accent and asked her to read Uncle Remis’ Burr Rabbit to them over and over.

The big event of the year was the annual Leilao or cattle sale when 60 quarter horses and 20 Santa Gertrudes bulls and 65 heifers were sold each year, It was THE event in the cattle business in Brazil. Preparations included finding accommodations for those travelling from afar as well as preparing a churrasco for 800 and a late night dinner/party for 200. All with extreme style and grace.

It was at the Leilao in 1980, that an American farm boy who was raising soybeans in the wild west state of Mato Grosso attended and instantly fell in love with Mary Lee’s oldest daughter, Betinha. As the two began dating and became more serious, Mary Lee tried to dissuade her daughter, warning her, “Do you want to drive a combine for the rest of your life?” Fortunately, Mary Lee lost the second argument of her life.

In 1981 Mary Lee and Pete moved back to the USA, running the Chaparrosa Ranches for B. K. Johnson in LaPryor, TX. They were the same winning team that they had been in Brazil, with Pete running the ranches and business and Mary Lee anything that had to do with marketing, something at which she excelled.

They say that you never want to outlive your children and Mary Lee and Pete suffered when son Jimmy was killed in an auto accident at Sul Ross University in Alpine, TX. Later Pete would suffer through rectal cancer and passed away on December 20, 1993, leaving Mary Lee a widow at only 61. It was a very traumatic time for her and someone of lesser will might have given up on life after losing the love of her life.

But, Mary Lee went pioneering again. She signed up for the Peace Corps and was assigned to the Philippines where she taught English for two years, living in incredibly primitive conditions on less than $100/month. Even though all the rest of the Phillippines Peace Corps were “kids” in her words, they gained a great deal of respect for the “old lady” (their words) from Texas who ended up becoming someone they looked up to, respected and friends until today.

Later, she moved back to the Corpus Christi area, finally landing in Trinity Towers where she didn’t lose her knack for collecting new friends like most of us might collect seashells. Everybody always knew Mary Lee and she made everyone feel as though they were special.

She continued to reunite with her many friends in Texas from her days when Pete was on the Santa Gertrudes board, her Texas A&I days and even from her schoolgirl days in Sinton. She was usually the leader of reunions and get togethers, always taking on new challenges with enthusiasm and wonder.

She was very proud of the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren and delighted in the almost daily calls that she received from her children. She died peacefully this week, a proud, proud Texan.


Ron Duggins said...

Oi Jack,

Obrigado for the memories of your mother-in-law.

Tchau, Mary Lee

gaylbaby said...

What a lovely tribute. It makes me regret that I never knew this terrific lady.

Gayle Johnson

Anonymous said...

I so enjoyed reading about Aunt Mary Lee. She was the equivolent of "Jackie Kennedy" to me when I was growing up and she always treated our family with so much kindness and we all just loved her so much. She was such a classy person and I can remember my surprise as I got older to know she was raised in a small Texas community because she was always "big city" to me with her grace and intelligence. Thank you for sharing her unique life story. She was really a special person to so many.

Ginger McGuill Roberts

Anonymous said...

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Cheers, Keep it up.


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