October of last year, Sunday the fifteenth to be exact, was to be a banner day for me. Maureen Patton, Executive Director of the Grand 1894 Opera House had asked me to be part of the Centennial Sunday Series at the Grand and I was delighted to accept.
My show was to be called “Island Beat” but it had nothing to do with singing and dancing. The idea of last season at the Grand was that our marvelous Opera House is “at the heart of it all” in Galveston and thus the title for my show. It would be a full-court press, two hours with an intermission. I began work on it months ahead of time so that I could add new material to my stories about Galveston. I already knew from past performances which stories drew laughter and appreciation from locals and tourists but I wanted to add some new material especially for local audience members.
As this was also to be a fund raiser for the Grand, Pat and Fred Burns, great friends of mine and supporters of the Opera House, had volunteered to host a party at their beautiful home on Avenue O. after the show. This grew the audience by a considerable amount.
All in all, it was shaping up to be a great time, seats were selling briskly in advance and I was delighted to think I could fill the Orchestra and first tier boxes of the house.
Sad Message Received
That Sunday dawned with sun and cool weather. But before I could awaken to enjoy both those things, I received a phone call that cast a terrible pall on everything.
My childhood friend, Edward Williamson, had died in his sleep the night before at his home in New Jersey. Although I knew Edward had heart problems I had understood they were being addressed and that he was in pretty good shape for our mutual age. Edward went to sleep Saturday night and just didn’t wake up on Sunday morning. On a relative scale, this is not a bad way to have it end. But the time is never “right” where friends and loved ones are concerned.
This was not only a great shock of itself but I had to do some fast soul searching about the show I was to do that day. A good portion of the first part of the show had to do with stories from my youth and school days here in Galveston. Edward Williamson was in most of those stories and I had formed the habit of referring to him by name. As I had breakfast and looked back over the years I arrived at a decision. It would not work logistically to try and change any of the stories at the last minute, especially as I was grieving over the loss of my friend. My decision was to proceed as planned and the stories that included Edward would be my eulogy to him, our friendship and our childhood together here on the Island. It was, happily, the very best decision I could have reached. I think the old boy might have been right there with me urging me on. The show was a tremendous success and I credit my pal for helping that happen.
Friendship Through The Years
Edward and I went to Lovenberg Junior High and Ball High School together and we were inseparable friends. Our parents were not always the greatest fans of this friendship since Edward and I got into our share of trouble in and out of school for things we did together. Naturally, each set of parents felt that the other child was responsible for the capers and misdeeds that got us into hot water. The truth, as always, is that rotten kids don’t need to inspire one another, their poor conduct comes naturally to each one individually!
After high school, our paths diverged as we attended different universities and pursued different careers. As luck would have it we were reunited on the east coast. Edward had moved to New Jersey where he completed forty-five years of teaching English and coaching drama at the high school level. I became a congressional staffer and lobbyist in the private sector, living first in Washington, D. C. and then Philadelphia for twenty-five years. We resumed our friendship right where it was some years before. My Mother always told me that it did not matter how much time elapsed between visits where true friends were concerned. Mother said that whenever the friends were reunited everything took up again as though there had been no intermission. And, indeed, this was the case for Edward and me. We did lots of visiting back and forth between New Jersey and Philadelphia.
By the time I returned to Galveston to live in 1995 we were keeping in touch regularly by telephone and when I learned to use a computer we started exchanging emails. Happily, I still have some of those.
When we were in high school, Edward did not care to read any book he did not have to read. I read the books and wrote the book reports for both of us. I had no skill in drawing so high school biology was a nightmare for me when we were required to make any drawings about lab experiments. Edward was pretty good at drawing and I simply traced what he drew and handed it in as my own work. I am happy to report that we were not caught at either end. Well, maybe once, on the book reports by a teacher named Yvette Rosenthal who was a little too damned smart for us.
There is some wonderful irony here. While I never learned to draw and could not care less, Edward became as addicted to books and reading as some are to drugs. He also developed a great love for theater. Both of these drove him toward his career as a teacher. As the years went by, I, then and now a prodigious though not discriminating reader, came to feel Edward was by far the better read of the two of us. I knew he was ahead of me in theater. He went into New York to see everything on and off Broadway. Often he would write his “review” of what he had seen and send it to me via email. I must say, he was right on target. Whenever I would see what he had written about, I agreed whole heartedly with his assessment of the show. As for grammar, the boy knew it all! And he did not mind correcting anyone. I suspect Edward is with the Almighty but I hope God watches his grammar or he will stand corrected, politely but very firmly.
Edward’s Career and Family
Edward was chairman of the English Department at Roselle Park High School in Roselle, New Jersey. Upon retiring there, he became Professor of English at Union County College in Manhattan until his final retirement in 2005. I had hoped he might return to Galveston as I had done but nothing doing there. Edward wanted to remain close to Manhattan so he could continue to be the ultimate theater maven.
Edward Holman Williamson was his full name. Edward’s mother, Mabel Holman, was the daughter of Judge and Mrs. E. B. Holman here in Galveston. Mabel Holman married Frank Williamson, who was not born in Galveston but adopted the Island when he found his love. Frank Williamson spent most of his working years at the Pan American refinery over in Texas City.
When I began writing these essays for Guidry News, Edward was a consistent reader and critic of them. Often, I would run something from the past by him before I published the piece. I have a pretty good memory for incidents and detail but I think Edward’s was as good if not slightly better. At any rate, he could often “fill in the blanks” for me when I was stuck on something from our past.
One email from Edward that I kept pertains to the essay I wrote on our Bolivar Ferry. My story jogged Edward’s memory for several delightful vignettes from his family. I shall include them in this as they are worth your reading time. On 24 May 2006 Edward wrote to me---
“Here are two tidbits I can contribute to the story of the cement ship in Galveston. First, I was surprised to discover that the third cement ship is just off the coast of New Jersey and is something of a tourist attraction there. Some of the locals in Cape May where the ship is permanently moored were amazed when I told them of the SS Selma in Galveston. When my Mother was a teenager she attended several “”socials”” or dances on the Selma. I seem to recall these were sponsored by either the Eastern Star or Demolay groups. She said she loved the dances but feared the trips to and from the ship.
Judge E. B. Holman, my maternal grandfather, was in charge of the Quarantine Station for some years, having been transferred to Galveston from Ellis Island in New York. Judge Holman and Rabbi Cohen helped many Jewish immigrants enter the United States through Galveston after they had been turned away at Ellis Island. In fact, the two friends ran a kind of underground railroad for the immigrants. They provided temporary shelter and food and arranged transportation back to the East and elsewhere in the U. S. so the immigrants could join their families who were already here. Eventually, Holman lost his courthouse position for his involvement in this humanitarian work. However, afterward he was elected as a Justice of the Peace, an office he retained for over twenty years.
You mentioned you are going to write an article on the Causeway. Let me know. I have a few anecdotes about the old causeway’s opening, involving my Mother, who cut the ribbons and my grandfather, who was instrumental in planning for the Causeway.”
My friend Edward was considered a great dancer by all the gals in our days of the Marine Room and high school proms. He was a fine piano player and rather too good at Canasta to suit me. Believe it or not, we played a lot of Canasta when we were in high school, boys against the girls, etc. Edward also taught Sunday School at a Methodist Church in Galveston. I don’t think this had anything much to do with religious fervor but rather more the beginning of his desire to become something he did extremely well---a teacher of our English language.
We Did Everything We Had Time To Do
I won’t attempt to detail all our sins of omission and commission growing up in Galveston. But there is one story I think I might use to end this essay that is a great favorite of mine. I usually include it in “Tales of Galveston” when I present the Galveston stories.
Most of my crowd had gotten their drivers’ licenses when we were fourteen years old. That could be done at the time and perhaps still can. What was necessary was for you to pass the State test but also have your parents sign off that it was necessary for you to be able to drive the car without an adult accompanying you. I don’t think it was difficult to come up with an acceptable reason.
One fine Sunday when we were in Junior High School we launched one of our better capers. I was dropped off at Edward’s house by my Mother. Edward’s parents were out playing cards with friends. Edward’s elderly Grandmother was at home. The Williamson family car was parked in front of the house on Austin Drive. Edward’s parents had been picked up by friends to go to their engagement. Edward knew there were keys to the car on top of a table in his parents’ bedroom. We schemed and plotted. The decision was I would knock on the door of the neighbors and ask to use the phone. I would make the call, Edward’s Grandmother would answer and I would keep her on the line as long as possible asking for Edward, inquiring after her health, etc. Edward would pop in the front door of his house, snatch the car keys and run back outside. We would then be off on a Sunday joy ride. All went well and as planned. The Williamson’s car was a white Mercury Coupe with a 12 cylinder motor, big white sidewalls and standard shift on the steering wheel. Off we went in a puff of smoke and we immediately went to pick up two girls we had been dating. Once they were in the car with us we proceeded “down the Island” toward the west end of Galveston. The only way to do that in those days was on what is called Stewart or “S” Road. It was only two narrow lanes and snaked around as it went toward the beach and sand. At a certain point, S. Road turned toward the beach and came to an end. Your choices then were go onto the sand but be very careful you were not caught by incoming high tide or got stuck in the sand. Or, sensible people could execute an about face and return on S. Road to the main Island. We opted for the latter. There was, however, one problem. None of us were very good with reverse gear and turning in tight spots. There were drainage ditches on each side of the road into which we could topple and this was not the most desirable situation in which to be.
Eventually we succeeded in getting the car turned around. A good deal of time had gone by while we were on this lark. We dropped the girls at home and sped back to Edward’s house, certain we would not be caught and punished. Well, you guessed correctly. The Gods were not smiling. When we pulled up in front of Edward’s house, his Grandmother was standing on the front steps. She was very tiny. My Mother was not very tall but she was standing behind Edward’s Grandmother. My Mother had her hands on her hips holding open her overcoat like a cape. She had a highly combative look on her face and the general attitude of a German Field Marshall at the Battle of Stalingrad.
We hopped out of the car and proceeded to confrontation time. Usually, my pal was happy to let me take the rap for whatever mischief we had committed but this day, for whatever reason, he decided to be the fall guy. Striding in front of me as we approached the two furies on the steps, Edward began addressing my Mother saying “Now, Mrs. Lang this….” Before he got any further my Mother interrupted him and said “Edward, don’t bother to lie.” Edward was by this time very upset, scared and downright rattled. He misunderstood my Mother entirely and replied “Oh, Mrs. Lang, it’s no bother!”
We paid and we paid dearly with all kinds of suspensions and revoked privileges as well as blocked allowances. Would to God my friend were here today along with our parents and grandparents and that we could do it all over again!
I will close out for this time by recalling something I heard said at a memorial service for another friend of mine years ago. The only good thing about Edward’s death is knowing that when next we meet I’ll never have to say goodbye again.
Victor shared another story about Edward in an interview with Jim Guidry.