CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
Leona Marie Tate
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Story of How We Met
- On Second Glance
- The Big Ask
- Meeting the Tates
- Rub A Dub Dub
- Tate Homeplace
- Louisiana, Missouri
The Story of How We Met
When I was a junior in Hannibal High School, I had made friends with a neighbor, George Millner, who lived three houses down from us on Grace Street. George was a senior that year, and he had been dating my younger sister, Jean. Jean wanted to go to George’s graduation, and then go out to dinner afterwards, but she didn’t want to go alone. She asked me if I would get a date and go with her.
I had just broken up with the girl I had been going steady with for several months, and hadn’t paid attention to who might be available. I called several girls I knew and also got some names from friends, but was unsuccessful in finding anyone who was available to go out on graduation night, just a week away.
Reporting this to Jean, she suggested that I call some of her friends. That idea didn’t appeal much to me. After all, we were talking about freshmen girls, two years younger than me! I didn’t know any freshmen, other than boys on the junior varsity football team. I thought of them as being quite a bit younger, and consequently had no friends in that age group.
But, after making more phone calls over the next couple of nights, and still not having any luck at finding a date, I decided to pursue finding a date with a freshman. After all, it was just for the one night, and George and Jean were really wanting me to double date with them. So, I went to Jean and asked her who she had in mind for me to call. She mentioned a couple of girls, one who lived just a block from us on Grace Street.
I knew the girl, from seeing her at the school bus stop, and passing by our house on the way to the neighborhood grocery store. Although she was cute, she was two years younger than me, the same age as my sister, so I had not paid much attention to her.
But, I called to see if she would be interested in attending the graduation and have dinner afterwards. Unfortunately, her family had conflicting plans, and she was unable to accept, but invited me to call again another time.
I asked Jean who else she thought I should call. She got her billfold out of her purse and started showing me classmate photos she carried of her friends. We sorted through the photos, eliminating those girls who were in relationships, and then I sorted them again, making a stack of a few photos, with my first choice on top. After calling each of these girls, and having no luck at getting a date, Jean and I returned to her wallet to see what pictures she had left that we didn’t pull out the first time through.
On Second Glance
I looked at the photos again, and asked Jean what she knew about a couple of the girls, and decided against them. Then one photo caught my eye. It was a thin little girl, in a simple blouse, who had a lovely smile. I asked who it was. Jean said that her name was Leona Tate, and though she didn’t know her very well, she seemed to be very nice.
She went on to say that Leona was Jim Tate’s sister. I was surprised! I had known Jim since third grade, played junior high and high school football together, and we had even hauled hay together for a couple of years! I hadn’t realized that he had a younger sister!
The more I thought about it, though, the more I remembered all those kids in diapers I had seen at Jim’s house when we were in the fifth grade. I knew her mother babysat, so I presumed all of those children were those she cared for.
I finally decided to call Jim, and visit with him about asking his sister out on a date. When I called, Pauline, their mother, answered the phone. Pauline was a very special woman, whom I was destined to dearly love during the forty years I knew her. I identified myself and asked her if Jim was there. She asked me to hold on while she got him.
I visited with Jim for a few minutes to catch up on old times and what he was doing to occupy his time. When we got caught up, I told him that I was trying to find a date for the senior graduation, and wondered what he thought about me asking Leona to go. He said, “Who, SIS? Oh, she’d probably think that was alright. You wanna talk to her?”
The Big Ask
So, having renewed our friendship, and feeling that Jim was comfortable with me dating his “Sis,” I was ready to ask her out. I don’t remember much detail about our specific conversation, but I recall that it was fairly brief. I told her that our plans were to double date with my sister, attend the graduation and go to dinner afterwards.
We agreed upon a time for me to pick her up, but I don’t recall any other chatting. I was happy when she accepted, because my search for a date was ended, but I really didn’t expect much to come from the date, since she was so young. She was just someone to go out with for the evening, and that was all I was expecting.
We had two cars in the family at that time. Dad had a white over red 1960 Chevrolet Impala Sports Coupe, while mother had a turquoise 1959 Ford Fairlane 4-door sedan. The Fairlane was the car I usually got to drive. It was a six cylinder with standard transmission, with the shift lever on the column.
I washed and polished the car the afternoon of the graduation, and drove George to the high school early, so he wouldn’t also have a car at the school, and we could leave directly from there and head to the restaurant.
Meeting the Tates
Jean and I then headed to the Tate’s home at 905 Ely Street. When we arrived, I knocked at the front door and we were invited into the living room. There seemed to be an awful lot of people in that room . . . I didn’t realize how big the Tate family was . . . five boys, two girls, and mom and dad. And, they were all in the living room of that little four-room house, wanting to get a glimpse of the guy that was taking “Sis” out on a date!
I was a little overwhelmed, of course, but found that chatting with Jim eased things somewhat. After a few minutes the younger brothers and sister started leaving the room to do something, or anything, more interesting. Then I realized that Leona wasn’t in the room yet, and I began to wonder what she would be like. I felt some apprehension at that point, because I had never dated a girl as young as my sister, and mused that an evening of little or no consequence lay ahead.
Leona’s father, Roy Davis Tate, was a big brawny, leather-tanned man of well over six feet in height. He stood quietly, filling one doorway of the room, listening intently to Jim and me visit. Leona’s mother, May Pauline Leffert Tate, was a short, dark haired woman with a face that glowed with warmth and kindness. She was coming and going from the room busy with running her household. She hardly spoke, but had a proud smile that beamed happiness.
Then, Leona came into the room. She was dressed in a white islet party dress with full skirt that came to about mid-calf. The dress had narrow black ribbon at the hem, neck, and short sleeve, finished off with a black waist belt with a shiny square buckle. She was very slender for a fifteen year-old girl, and couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. I later discovered that I could hold her wrist in my middle finger and thumb and touch them together! She was hardly more than skin and bones!
Oh, but she had the face of an angel! Perfect complexion, curly dishwater blonde hair, bright blue eyes, slender straight nose, full, pink lips, and a smile that radiated like a beacon. The combination was quite enchanting. She talked excitedly to Jean about how much she had been looking forward to going out, and when Jean complimented her dress, she swirled around in a circle, sending the full skirt sailing to its full length, floating above the floor like a cloud.
Then Jean introduced me to her, and Leona said that she knew me from seeing me at football practice when she had stayed after school to watch her brother Jim practice. A few more pleasantries were exchanged, and we said our goodbyes to the family and headed for the outdoor ceremony at the high school. When it was concluded, we gathered up George and drove across the Mississippi River bridge to the Colonial restaurant located just on the other side in East Hannibal, Illinois.
Leona and I sat beside each other across from Jean and George in a booth table. During conversation at the dinner table I learned that this was Leona’s first date, and that she had never ordered from a restaurant menu before. The only time her family had eaten out, was at a neighborhood bar where her parents ordered the food. She wasn’t even curious about the bar menu because she wasn’t going to order. Everything was family style. I found her to be fascinating!
She seemed very mature, having a great deal of responsibility at home taking care of her younger sister and brothers, preparing meals, scrubbing floors, doing laundry and many other chores that we didn’t have to do in our home. Since her family was so large, she had to help her mother keep things in order and the youngsters cared for on a daily basis.
Rub A Dub Dub
Their four-room house had two bedrooms; one for mom and dad, and the other packed with bunk beds for the kids, the living room with a hide-a-bed couch, and the kitchen. Their new bathroom, recently built by her Uncle Charlie Leffert, Pauline’s brother, had only a toilet stool and small sink . . . no shower or bathtub. But, they had indoor plumbing, which few of the neighbors had yet installed.
The bathroom wasn’t much bigger than a closet, and was located in the corner of Pauline and Roy’s bedroom, on the back corner away from the kitchen and living room. Baths were taken in the kitchen in a #2 washtub . . . the same one used on laundry day to wash clothes!
A blanket had been hung over the window in the back door, and the lock set to prevent surprise entrances. The doors to the bedrooms had been closed, and everyone knew not to enter during bath time. The water was heated up on the kitchen stove, added to the tub, which had been placed on the kitchen table.
Babies and smaller children could bathe a couple at a time, followed by the little girls, then the boys. At some point the tub would be moved to the floor and the water would be changed before the older girls, then the boys took their baths. When they lived on Lefford Street, the Tate family shared a duplex with their cousins, the Constables, and the children of both families bathed together.
I, too, took baths in a #2 washtub until I was about eight years old, but when I met Leona we already had a bathtub and shower for about ten years, so I barely remembered the washtub, and was simply captivated by the realization that this charming girl came from such a simple, wholesome, environment. It was so different from my own family! She had a genuine sense of pride and love for her extended family that wove its way throughout her conversation.
Leona was born on a rented houseboat, the family home, which had been pulled up onto the bank of Bear Creek, at 619 Ely Street in the mid 1940s! Her dad remembered that it had a small tree growing up through a hole in the floor. But, it was located amidst many of her aunts and uncles who lived in the Ely, Miller and Cherry Street neighborhood along Bear Creek! And, it was a short walk to work for her dad, Roy.
I learned that Roy worked on a railroad track gang for CB&Q railroad, later part of Burlington Northern, then BNSF; that he didn’t know how to drive a car, and had never owned one. He did drive one once, however. He drove it into a ditch after losing control on a gravel road, and never drove again! He barely could read or write, usually having his wife sign his checks so they could be cashed.
Roy and Pauline at the Homeplace, with baby Dennis, 1958
Roy had been born in a two-room house on the family homestead near Taylor, Missouri, on the banks of the Fabius River. The house wasn’t even a log cabin, just a pole barn type structure made from small trees by her great-grandfather. The homestead remained in the family, and was called the “Home Place.” The family frequently went to the Home Place for the weekend, and I later spent many memorable weekends and vacations there when my own sons were little boys.
Needless to say, Leona captured my heart. I fell in love with her on that first date, though I didn’t realize it until we had dated a few more times. We started going steady that summer, and became engaged on June 3, 1963, after I completed high school and returned from training at the Carolina School of Broadcasting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I loved our visits to the Homeplace. There was no electricity or running water. There was no bathroom. No lights or telephones. Just a small cabin with uninsulated walls, a wood-burning cook stove and kitchen table with chairs In one room, and several twin and full beds in the other. Bedding and other supplies were kept in or on various metal cabinets and cupboards scattered around in most of the corners.
Coal oil lanterns hung from nails driven into door jambs. There was very little, if any, wallpaper. Light came from sunlight in the daytime and coal-oil lanterns at night. On some occasions, some of us would stay overnight in tents or makeshift shelters made with lashed saplings and draped tarps, others stayed indoors. But, wherever you looked, there was a real sense of history, as Roy, Pauline, Uncles Charlie and Jimmy shared stories of the old days.
Lea and Larry Vaughn camping at Homeplace in stick ‘n tarp tent Aug 1971
On the weekends when the family would gather, Uncles Charlie and Jimmie would bring their guitars and entertain us late into the night. They were leaders of a Western music group called the “Sunset Valley Troubadors,” and played at various socials such as school, church and community picnics. No one knows whether they intentionally misspelled troubadours to take artistic license for uniqueness, or if it was an oversight. We liked to think that it was intentional.
Sometimes one or two other members of the Troubadors band would come up for a few hours and have a great time just jamming and playing their favorite tunes. Meanwhile, the rest of the family could be anywhere on the Homeplace property and hear them just fine.
The summer Lea and I first met, 1961, my family moved from Hannibal to Louisiana, Missouri, about thirty miles further south on the Missouri River. I attended Louisiana High School my senior year. And, although I owned a 1938 Chevrolet 2-door coupe, which Dad bought for me for $60, I didn’t trust it to make the trip to Hannibal. So, on weekends that I couldn’t borrow one of the family cars, I took the bus from Louisiana to Hannibal, and walked to her house.
I usually took a Saturday morning bus from Louisiana, and returned Sunday night, and would spend the night on the hide-a-bed in their living room. On those few weekends I would spend at their house, I loved visiting with her mom and dad about their memories, and marveled at the simple life they led, the hardships they experienced, the challenges they overcame, and the love they had for their large, extended, family.
Leona had lots of aunts, uncles and cousins who lived in the neighborhood. Her dad had five older sisters and two older brothers who lived within a few blocks, and her mom had two brothers who lived even closer. So, there was always a lot of visiting back and forth, people running errands for others, and a lot of ins and outs at their house.
Not long after we started dating, I told Leona that I didn’t like her name, couldn’t call her “Sis” like everyone including her parents called her, and that “Sissy” didn’t seem to fit her, so I was going to call her Lee. She thought that would be okay, so she became “Lee.” Later, after we were married, she changed the spelling to Lea, saying that she thought it was more feminine.
We were married February 8, 1964 in the Baptist Church in Louisiana, Missouri, by my Uncle Virgil Vaughn, who had also married my mother and father very early in his ministry. Ours was a pretty simple wedding, on a Saturday afternoon, attended by our families and a few invited friends. Our wedding night was spent at a motel in Bowling Green, Missouri, and the next morning we arose to a fresh snowfall that blanketed the countryside.
We drove to my home, an apartment in Boonville, Missouri, which I had just recently rented. It was located on the second floor of a private residence at 1316 Main Street. Our life together started there in those simple furnishings, supported by the meager income I made as news director for the local radio station.
Lea made a wonderful home for us. She learned how to cook for two people, instead of for her big family, and we grew up together. She was 18 and I was 20, and we had decided to wait a couple of years to have children, so we could be together and enjoy doing and learning new things. We had great fun on weekend trips, and she became dearer to me with each passing breath.
She taught me patience, real unconditional love, compassion, and so many other things that I can never express how very, very much she has meant to me. She left her family to raise me and mold me into what I eventually became. She, ever so gently, coached, guided, and led me to strive for self-fulfillment, and is responsible for any success I ever achieved.
I loved her with a passion that knew no boundaries. I loved her, heart and soul. And, I thank God that our union has never diminished, but, rather, has grown even richer with each passing year. She has given me such a wonderful life long love, that she has been my greatest blessing. She taught me how to be a good father, and earn the love of my dear sons. She taught me how to be a good husband and friend.
She has overlooked my many shortcomings and held me up when I was weak. How can you ever repay someone who has always been there for you, never doubting, questioning, or belittling? I thank God for the wonderful gift of her love, and praise Him for the many blessings He has given me through her.
I will always hold dear the memories of her beautiful face, her supple body with its warm, comforting embraces, and her glowing personality. I am truly convinced that she was sent to bless my time here on earth. Thank you, God! Amen
Next chapter: Adulthood and Other Notions