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Taking a look back at memorable time for two former editors

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

To say it’s been a difficult year is an understatement, and we still have more than six months to go. So, I’ve been busy thinking deep thoughts this week in preparation for our weekly visit.

Perhaps you’ve been doing the same. Thinking.

However, I’ve decided to take a breather this time, leaving everyone with their own deep thoughts without the imposition of being interrupted by some of mine. I can’t promise it will last, because I’m hoping to have some things figured out by next time. But no promises.

This week in June is a particularly memorable time for two former Brownwood Bulletin editors — Candace Cooksey Fulton and me. It was a coincidence we shared independently for several decades until our separate paths happened to cross inside this newspaper’s office. I’m thinking it was probably 15 years ago when we made the connection.

Life-changing events that happen to young people tend to stick with them, and such events happened to each of us in June 1965.

Candace wrote about it periodically while working at the Bulletin, as well as the San Angelo Standard-Times. This is being written a few days in advance, but I feel confident she will post on Facebook personal recollections and website links to historical accounts of the devastating flood that hit her hometown of Sanderson that month. Her father, the late Bill Cooksey, was sheriff of Terrell County at the time, so her family’s involvement in the disaster was first-hand.

Heavy rains that week resulted in a torrent of water that swept through Sanderson on the morning of June 11, killing 26 people and leaving wounds that survivors continue to nurse.

At the same time, my father, mother, sister, and I were traveling west, moving from North Carolina to New Mexico where my dad had been transferred with his company to work with a civilian contractor at White Sands Missile Range.

It’s another coincidence, but the Sanderson flood resonated from Texas to North Carolina for a more tragic reason. Of the 26 people killed, more than a quarter of that number were members of one family from Gastonia, North Carolina. They were staying at a Sanderson motel when the flood hit. They had traveled to Texas in search of work for the father.

The body of John Wesley Johnson, 36, was one of the two victims whose bodies were never found. His wife, Ethel Wooten Johnson, and five of their six children — whose ages ranged from 5 to 13 — also perished, but their bodies were recovered. Michael Timothy Johnson, 12, was the only member of the family to survive. After being hospitalized, the boy was raised by his maternal grandmother in her Gastonia home.

Michael Johnson grew up to have a son and two grandchildren, and he died in 2012 after suffering a stroke and heart attack. The Johnsons’ hometown never forgot the Johnsons. On the 50th anniversary of the flood, in 2015, Michael Barrett of the Gastonia Gazette wrote a major feature article on the disaster. It remains available online.

The news that day for my North Carolina family, which also moved west for employment reasons, was happier. However, severe weather also figured into our story.

The family car and belongings were already being moved to our new home in New Mexico, so on June 10 we were flying in an airliner high above the flooding across West Texas. The storms were severe — the most severe I’ve ever experienced in an aircraft. When we emerged from the clouds, the pilot directed our attention to the flooding below.

Its runoff was the floodwater that crashed through Sanderson around dawn the next day.

I had almost forgotten that experience until I started working with Candace, when on its anniversary she related her own history of the Sanderson flood. I told her I wasn’t there, but I saw a preview of what was happening as our family flew over West Texas the afternoon before that fateful day.

It’s a small world, indeed.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.