Bowie County says goodbye to the “Mayor of Malta”

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By Heather Russell
Staff Reporter

I had the privilege of knowing Hootie Russell my whole life.  
When I was born to his oldest son Mike, our family lived next door to him on one side of him and my grandmother and my Uncle Doug and his family lived next door.  He kept his boys close.  
As his second grandchild, some of my earliest memories are of him tilling the garden between our houses, driving the tractor, and leading the music at Malta Baptist Church.          Hootie loved music.  He loved the classics, country music, and of course, gospel.  He was constantly singing or whistling, and boy, could he whistle.  He didn’t whistle like you or I would - he curled his tongue and warbled like a song bird.  Legend is that he learned how to whistle that way because he entered a contest at school where he ate crackers and then tried to whistle, and whistling through your tongue was a sure-fire way to win.

But Pepaw Hootie, as we called him, had a life before me.  A lot of life.  Born in Malta, Texas ,the youngest child of May Bell and Joseph Russell, he was spoiled to the core.  He went to Malta School through the eighth grade, but when it was time to go to high school in New Boston or DeKalb,  he decided it was too far from his mama to continue his education.  
He dropped out and did odd jobs and helped around the farm until he convinced his father to sign for him to join the Navy in the early forties.  He caught the tail end of World War II and served in the South Pacific until he was discharged, and returned to Malta and signed with the closest Marine Reserve unit in Texarkana.  That unit was called up in 1950 to serve in the Korean Conflict, and Hootie soon found himself on the USS General Meigs, a troop transport, headed to Korea.

Pepaw Hootie never talked much about the war until the final years of his life.  He stormed the beaches of Inchon on September 15, 1950 and drove an amphibious DUKW, transporting troops and supplies to the front lines.  His “co-pilot” if you will, was Sam Purtle, another Bowie County boy, whom without, Hootie said, he would have never made it back to Malta, Texas.  He was a member of the Chosin Few - soldiers who fought in the Chosin Reservoir in the winter of 1950 in the harshest conditions ever known to US forces.  Temperatures dropped to -40F and according to him, “You could spit and it would freeze before it hit your boots.”  He also told of holding vials of pain medication in his mouth to keep them thawed out for medics administering them to the wounded.  “Those North Koreans and Chinese, they had no respect for human life,” he often recalled.  “They sent those boys down the mountains, sometimes barefooted - barely dressed - to charge us ,knowing they were sending them to certain death.  Wave after wave would come at us, whooping and hollering, some of them armed only with sticks - and we killed them all.  Those we didn’t shoot were burned up with the napalm dropped by US fighter pilots, and they were just left there.”  

He gladly left Korea and returned home in the summer of 1952.  “I promised the Lord if he would bring me home to Malta, Texas, I would never get any higher than Glass Hill, any lower than the Anderson Creek Bottoms, and no farther from home than what I could get back before the sun goes down,” he always said.

And he pretty much kept that promise.  He met my grandmother, Ima Fay Davis, shortly after he returned, at a church singing.  When he asked her to marry him, she told him she would agree, but only conditionally.  She told him he had to do three things to win her hand: Get his GED, resign from the Marines ,and join the church.  He agreed, and they were married on March 7, 1953.

Married life was good to them.  Pepaw worked at the Depot, they bought a home in Malta within shouting distance of Hootie’s parents, and had two boys, Mike and Doug.  
Pepaw became a deacon at Malta Baptist Church and was the song leader.  Ima finished her degree and took a job teaching at Malta School and life played out near picture-perfect.  
Five grandchildren were born, they both retired, and Pepaw putted around the farm, while they doted on the grandchildren first, then great-grandchildren.  Life was serene, picturesque even, when tragedy struck the Russell family on the 28th of December 2002.  Their oldest, my father Mike, had gone on a camping trip to the Trinity River in Palestine Texas, when, without warning, he died of a massive heart attack.  He was 48 years old.  Losing a child is the most horrible thing anyone can experience, I know this from watching what they went through.  I also know that the second hardest thing anyone can experience is watching someone you love lose a child.  
Losing my dad was hard for me -  very hard -  but it was even harder watching the heartbreak both my grandparents experienced until the day they both died.  They cried every day.  They missed him every day.  But they never questioned the Lord’s plan in their lives.  They just kept looking forward to the day they would see him again.          Memaw dreamed of my daddy often, and Pepaw would tell me how jealous he was, that she saw him and talked to him and he didn’t.  “I know he wonders what’s taking me so long to get there…to get to heaven,” he would say.

But life rolls right on.  Time doesn’t stop for a father’s grief.  My grandmother, who was always so independent, was diagnosed with dementia and Hootie took on the role of primary caregiver.  
However, in 2011, a routine surgery for polyp removal went wrong and my grandfather ended up in very critical condition.  He fought for his life for three months, with doctors telling us every day would be his last - all in order to return home to my grandmother who needed him.  
At that point, they both needed near round-the-clock care.  But my grandmother, a product of the Great Depression and caregiver for her parents and a brother, had thought ahead.  
She had spent a significant amount of her retirement on a long-term care policy that provided in-home care.  That, along with their children and grandchildren, who were more than willing to give back to the people who had given them so much for so long, they were more than adequately provided for by people who knew and loved them.  
Memaw lost her battle with Alzheimer’s in February of 2016, with Pepaw by her side.  He even sang her his favorite hymns in her last hours - a memory I will cherish until I too - see heaven.

With Memaw gone, Hootie was lost.  For the next two years to come he did his best to remain upbeat, and to bring smiles to all our faces, as he always had.  
On December 18, 2017, he joined my grandmother and my father in heaven, and I have no doubt he has never been happier.  He is where he longed to be for so long.  

“The last of a dying breed…”
“They don’t make them like that anymore….”
I could go on and on, but to sum it up there is a hole in the world today.  
A world without people like Hootie Russell is a sad place.  But as I told him I loved him for the last time, he winked at me and mouthed the words, “I’ll see you again.”  
And I, for one, will spend the rest of my days making sure I do.

 

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