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  • Henry had been painting houses in our neighborhood for more than 60 years. He once said that he started painting houses when he was 17 after his father died and left the family without a breadwinner. By the time I met him, he was a kindly old man with well-worn, paint-splattered white overalls and a white Sherwin-Williams gimme cap that was covered with splotches of paint from each of the houses he had painted in the past two weeks. He knew every kid and dog in Munger Place.

    Since most of the prairie-style houses in this little 5-block enclave were built at the turn of the 20th Century, the neighborhood was deemed “historical” by the responsible parties who composed the historical society of the city. This meant that the palette of colors that was available for homeowners who wanted to update their outside paint was limited to those that were being used when Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States.

    It was silly, of course, but anyone who enjoyed living in these cool, old houses were grudgingly amenable to having a 75-year old former home economics teacher, who was the current president of the Dallas Historical society and specialized in the colors of turn-of-the-century houses, dictate exactly what colors they could or could not use on the home that they were making sizable monthly mortgage payments on. When the sisterhood of history left the front porches of the yuppies who bought and renovated these classic structures, they were often (fondly) referred to as the “hysterical society.”

    This limitation in the number of color choices actually pleased Henry. There were no silly-ass, trendy colors to deal with.

    Since he had painted just about every house in the neighborhood, at least once, he knew where the tough spots were to scrape on each home. He meticulously executed his scraping strategy, followed by his sanding and board replacement, followed by the primer coat, culminating with the piece de resistance; the final coat of the hysterically appropriate paint.

    Unlike most 82-year olds, Henry didn’t have a problem climbing ladders to reach the eves of these two-story homes. He used sturdy ladders and was extremely conscious of safety. Plus, he never hurried. Slow and steady, just like the way these old homes aged, was the pace at which Henry moved and this resulted in his taking more time than the paint contracting crews that some impatient, nouveau riche types brought in to challenge his home-painting market share.

    He once told a Munger Place homeowner, someone whose family had lived in the house he was painting for three generations, “You know, one of these days I’m gonna climb up this here ladder and keep on going. I don’t know when or even where it’s gonna to take me, but I’ll know when it’s time to go.”

    The Wednesday that Henry disappeared was overcast but a cool, crisp spring day in the neighborhood. He showed up at his usual time of 7:30 am at 5119 Victor for what was to be his final day of painting this classic home, originally built in 1906. The young woman who was one of the homeowners greeted the sweet old man with the usual, “Hey Henry, how are you? Want a cup of coffee or a piece of toast?”

    “No. I got my own coffee right here, but thank ya kindly. We just about done here. I figure one more day and this job is gonna be done.”

    “That’s great Henry. Let me know if you need anything.”

    “I will. You know, you are the hardest working white woman I’ve ever seen!”

    “Actually, Henry, (she laughed) I don’t think of myself as a white woman. I’m from Louisiana!”

    “Well, that splains it then. Uh huh. Them girls from Lusiana are pretty, they work hard and they can cook! Mmm Mmmm.”

    The day turned warm and then hot and Henry finished the all of the outside walls and then the trim. He took his usual 30-minute break for lunch and a 10-minute nap in his paint-stained pickup.

    About 4:30, he started folding up the drop-cloths and putting the cans holding the last remnants of the paint into his truck. The smell of fresh paint was permeating the warm afternoon air. The hard working (Louisiana) woman in this newly painted house was busy working on one of a hundred other inside renovation chores and forgot all about Henry.

    At about 6 pm, two homeowners noticed that Henry’s pickup was still parked in the front of the house and everything was packed except for the ladder which was still in the backyard. After they looked around and called his name, they just assumed that someone had come and given him a ride to one of the blue collar joints on Columbia Avenue for a well-deserved beer.

    The next morning, when Henry’s pickup had not moved, everyone on the block was worried about what happened to the sweet old man. The police were eventually called and two DPD officers were dispatched to the scene. They found nothing irregular, no signs of foul play and eventually they called a wrecker to tow Henry’s paint can filled pickup to the secured police lot downtown.

    Henry’s last job was meticulously completed and his clean-up was flawless. The only thing that didn’t make it to the back of his pickup was his ladder. It was still leaning against the back wall of the house. I guess he thought he wouldn’t need it for his next job.

    Photo by Sandy Earle/Years of Souvenirs
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