Just trying to help out

Published 11:31 am Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury

The water of 38 years has flowed under the bridge since I “stole” a hearse. Surely the statute of limitations has kicked in by now, thus this confession.
I am NOT, however, admitting guilt. Instead, I was the “victim” of yet another Groner Pitts prank. Friends who knew this merriest of morticians–who reigned in Brownwood for a half-century–also were “victimized” from time to time.
Yet, I never had a better friend, and Brownwood (TX) never had a greater ambassador. And thousands who followed his antics for three decades through the late George Dolan’s daily columns in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram never lacked for laughs. Many were often ensnared in his webb of tomfoolery. I’m probably the only “victim,” however, to “steal” a hearse—one partially owned by Pitts himself.
The “pro’s pro” among morticians, he had fitting first and last names (Groner? Pitts?). Even his initials (GAP) pointed to the grave. The Cleburne native conducted funerals with utmost dignity. To the Brownwood community, he was “Uncle Groner,” the “go to” guy counted on by several hundred grieving families annually.
During slack time, however, he was helping college students.or assisting others who’d reached rope’s end (maybe striking out in Austin or Washington DC).or co-signing bank notes.or—maybe this should head the list—plotting his next shenanigan.
He befriended me from my first enrollment at Howard Payne University. Though 15 years my senior, he was a fellow “trooper” in the Texas National Guard, and best man when Brenda and I married in Alpine almost 49 years ago. I was privileged to speak at his funeral in 2004. Upon his death, thousands of “Groner Pitts stories” were shared, locally and beyond.
Admittedly, I was an accomplice during many of his escapades. Yet, many times when pies were thrown toward him, they coated my face instead.
That’s the way I choose to remember the day I “stole” the hearse. Had it happened today, I might have gone down in a hail of bullets, or, short of that, endured the indignity of arrest, the messiness of finger printing, the ordeal of a trial, etc.
I might never have been a university president, but likely could have remained the “PR flack” at Tarrant County College, because my boss, Dr. Joe B. Rushing—a classmate of Groner’s at Howard Payne—might have ruled in my favor. He KNEW Pitts well, and sometimes was a co-conspirator. It was indeed an era not unlike “Mayberry, RFD.”.
Here’s what happened. On that long ago day, Pitts was bored. He decided to charter a plane to fetch some press people to Brownwood, ostensibly to “cover” a reception for new Filipino nurses at Brownwood Regional Hospital.
As requested, I contacted a half-dozen press folks, promising them chicken and biscuits on the way down and a “surprise” on the flight back.
I was blissfully ignorant, NOT privy to what the “surprise” would be.
On the returning flight over Granbury, Pitts feigned boredom, ordering the pilot to land. (He’d arranged a special act for the press at the Opera House.) One of the writers, Roger Summers, groaned, fearing he’d miss a deadline.
I spotted a hearse near the theater, presuming the late George Martin, Groner’s Granbury partner, was “in” on the deal. The key was in the ignition, so, when lights darkened, Roger and I slipped out of the theater. We took the hearse—okay, I took the hearse–dropping Roger off 40 miles later in downtown Fort Worth at the Star-Telegram. Then, I was off to DFW where I’d leave the hearse and retrieve my car. (I didn’t realize Martin was not privy to the goings on, and was merely stopping off for a cup of coffee near the Opera House.).
When Martin discovered his hearse missing, things got tacky. Another hearse had been stolen a few days earlier, so the local mortician was somewhat edgy. He notified authorities. They gave chase.
We missed several road blocks by minutes. No arrests were made. All–or most, anyway–was forgiven. Summers made his deadline. I was spared.
Memories of Pitts’ big heart—and his shenanigans—live on. He won all the community awards Brownwood had to offer, some twice. He deserved them all.

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Inquiries/comments to: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com. Archived: venturegalleries.com, newbury blog.