the Controversial Committee Report
“We don’t raise sacred cows...we just butcher them.”
Without a doubt, Jim Widener should be classified as Irving’s representative for what a true bon vivant might be. However, maybe that should be amended to his being an unpretentious bon vivant. This would be more in character with how he conducted his affairs, personal relationships and loyalty to friends.
He was well educated, a world traveler, possessed the taste buds of a gourmet chef, knew social graces as if he had instituted the practices, voracious reader, consummate collector (look for the ‘beer mugs’ in Canton was a refrain often directed at him), and staunch defender of those he cared about.
Having sipped the same birth waters as another remarkable Missouri writer, Jim’s DNA was as closely aligned to Samuel Clemens as could be. Jim could also turn a pun, phrase, or construct a sentence to evoke new meaning, hilarity or definition that might top the best attempts by many others. His ability to also establish the ‘straight line‘ for a topic being discussed was...wait for it -- legendary. And it was these traits that started cementing my friendship bond of over forty years with him. Jim’s humor was only matched by his wit which is why he had no qualms about wearing a French beret in public...much less Irving for that matter.
While an amazing number of folks knew Jim through his title work, wet/dry and DART election activities, horse breeding days, his service as an Irving municipal judge (who wondered why the title of judge didn’t follow him in later years), a hard charging Jaycee in youthful years and a promoter of everything Irving, his personal letters, poems and holding court at informal coffee shop gatherings will be a repository for his legacy by those who knew him. In fact, the day after his passing the Widener-tales, comments and events were already being relived and enjoyed by all the coffee shop regulars.
Looking back, my first serious encounter with this rich, rotund and Republican lawyer (the old Jim) was on a trip to a chamber of commerce retreat. It was during the drive that Jim’s dedication to Irving -- warts and all -- was thoroughly discussed in anticipation of my running for the Irving city council. Not only did his historical perspective of the city provide a useful foundation, but his concepts of how Irving could meet the demands and challenges of the future were also addressed. (Of course, this was in the “old days” when politicians served the people and not special interest.)
His support of my council efforts later led to his being a “Bob Woodard to my deep throat” musings in The Journal, the newspaper he once owned. Toward the end of my council career, he informed the publisher of The Journal that any Letter to the Editor submitted by Mark Holbrook should be printed...unless it appeared libelous. The letters later became a column titled “The Raging Bull.” It wasn’t until my book “TEXAS Is...the Sesquicentennial Remembered”* was published in 1986 that the publisher discovered who Mark Holbrook really was. In fact, she acted as the editor and layout designer for the limited edition tome that sold out a few months after publication.
Keeping the Mark Holbrook ‘secret’ was just another facet of Jim’s ability to be the Prankster-in-Chief. A sheepish grin, a slight roll of the eyes and a demur chuckle was his stock and trade for those wondering who Mark Holbrook might have been.
During Jim’s later years it seemed as if he was morphing (the new Jim) into a more liberal and less ‘republican’ social being. This is not to infer he was a ‘limousine liberal’ as generally defined today, but rather a more socially conscious person that appeared to view our world with a more caring attitude through lenses colored by the passage of time. And the ‘new’ Jim was still relevant and funny.
The mold was certainly broken when Jim was cast. And for this, we should all be grateful. After all, a rarity should be just that...a rarity. And Jim was a rarity who even considered me a friend. I can only imagine the smile on the gatekeepers lips as his name was being called and checked off. Jim’s only comment walking across the cloud upon entering would probably have been something along the line of: “I even fooled myself by making it here!”
………………..Mike E. Howard
- Note: Jim was living in Belgium with Helen and John when “TEXAS Is” was published. The following is the poem he submitted for the book. The next time you eat a bowl of chili, you’ll think of the wordsmith that was Jim Widener. And his humor even made chili heartburn enjoyable by just knowing him.
Ode to Wick Fowler from Belgium
James F. Widener
I’m nibblin‘ cheese and drinkin‘ wine
and eating bread and jelly
Oh how I need to satisfy
this longin‘ in my belly
It’s Paté this and Filet that
and Belgian Chincorilli
I’d sell my precious soul again
For a bowl of Texas Chili
Oh Lord, I see those chunks of meat
a swimmin‘ in that stew
with plenty salt and lots of grease
and onions, garlic, too
I smell cominos in the bowl
where subtle spices dwell
And flavored like the Devil’s breath
with peppers straight from Hell
I know I’m comin‘ home in time
and longin‘ seems right silly
‘Tis then I’d sell my soul again
For a bowl of Texas Chili