Dr. Paul Butler

Across the street from Howard Payne University sprawls the physical facilities of historic First Baptist Church, and beyond the church parking lot sits a long-time Brownwood business, Davis-Morris Funeral Home. Just a stone’s throw away, across Center Avenue one can see an imposing three-story structure which for a decade and a half has housed the University’s president.

During the years when I served as vice president of that celebrated institution, I spent a great deal of time in that house, being counseled by the man who at the college held the position of Big Kuhuna.

He was in all ways, save one, an honorable man, but it to this character shortfall that I now feel compelled to address my remarks.

The story might easily begin as worshippers entered the church parking lot last Sunday morning. It was then that the weekend edition of the Forth Worth Star Telegram was noticed resting on the front porch of the funeral home. (In a funeral home nothing sits, or lies. It always rests.) The sight of the newspaper was a stark reminder of the less than laudable conduct of the man in question, a community leader who used his position to take advantage of a dark and sinister secret.

Why, you ask, would I wait so long to expose such a serious flaw in the character of a man with the potential to influence tens of thousands? Alas, I can only claim the comforting arms of cowardice as my excuse.

The popcorn president, whose name might best be withheld for the sake of his family, lived what appeared to be an exemplary life in the eyes of the public. A journalist by training and experience, little did anyone know that his passion for news would be the very thing which would lead him down the pathway to obsession and crime.

His addiction to news began simply enough. At first it was nothing more than an appreciation for the hometown newspapers in Brownwood and Early, but in no time he progressed to more questionable tabloids like the Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express. Eventually came the hard stuff, edgy publications such as the Kansas City Star and the Washington Post. Finally, it came as no shock when his family discovered a Wall Street Journal hidden in his sock drawer.

Not surprisingly he had been using his ill gotten information speaking to large crowds around the state and nation. Accusatory whispers circulated among the faculty and staff using phrases like “newspaper junkie,” and “hooked on printer’s ink!” Sadly, I alone, was aware of the depths to which he had ultimately sunk.

I alone knew that summer and winter alike, he would cover his Bermuda shorts and T-shirt with a well worn trench-coat, top his silvery mane with a disreputable felt hat, and each Sunday morning before dawn slip from the shadowed side door of the sleeping mansion.

Across the way he crept, and in the darkened alcoves and shady recesses of the unsuspecting funeral home, his clacking flip-flops would travel their plotted course. One minute the newspaper would be lying on the porch, the next it would be gone, and the only evidence of its abduction would be the darting black figure zig-zagging its way back to the Jekyll’s lair from which it had come.

Of course the man’s offense was not that of the common “footpad.” The newspaper would show up on the porch once again, two hours later, dog-eared, disarranged, and puffed up to twice its size from the folding and re-folding.

Sections would be out of order and occasionally a neatly scissored square in the sports section would leave the next reader staring through a gaping hole. Obviously, the paper would no longer fit in the original cellophane wrapper and would now be stuffed into a small trash bag.

Naturally, traps were set, but the light fingered bandit was in and out so quickly that he could never be caught. No second-story man, before or after, could match his skill. Butch Cassidy and Sundance were klutzes; Bonnie and Clyde amateurs. The “News Napper” as he was later to be dubbed in the very press to which he was addicted, was the Prince of Pilferers, the Baron of Burglars. The Pink Panther himself was a distant second.

Of course, our light-fingered celebrity has moved on to conquer even greater worlds and we are the poorer for his leaving.

Somewhere, however, there is a funeral home in Fort Worth that as yet has not the remotest clue what is happening to their Sunday morning newspaper.

Dr. Paul Butler is a retired professor of education at Howard Payne University. Contact him by e-mail at paul_virginia@verizon.net.