Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Exceptional American of the day: Poor, fat, loud, and in cowboy boots

The "People Of Walmart" series of photos mocking customers at that retail chain disturb me. I am all for mocking the rich and powerful. Tossing the snowball at the tophat is an American tradition. But the "People Of Walmart" series bugs me, and I did not know why until I ran across a column Jim Bishop, published on January 11, 1978.

"We met but once, Ed Leach and I," Bishop wrote 15 years after golfing with him. "He was a stout giant of a man stepping up to a tee in Texas boots. He flailed at the ball and it bounded to the ladies tee. Polly Leach swung a wood and the ball traveled 180 yards."

An amusing story. Polly was a slight woman, and the wife of the 300-pound hotelier.

Then Bishop heard this from a waiting golfer, "That's your typical Texan. Fat as a hog, rich as Croesus, wears cowboy boots with spikes, and can't hit a ball."

Hmm. If only the waiting golfer could walk a mile in Ed's cowboy boots with spikes. But he would have to do that with his feet pointed backward. Born with club feet, Ed spent the first three years of his life enduring surgeries, followed by months in leg casts to his hips, followed by a another surgery as the doctor tried to right the infant's feet.. Eleven surgeries in all. Even after all that, his legs hurt and he had to wear steel braces.

Born in 1913 in Cleveland, Texas, Edwin Leach's father was an engineer. When Ed was 9, the family moved to India, where his father had a contract to build Tata Steelworks. His father dreamed of financial security for his crippled son, and told his only child, "Soon we will be rich. You won't have to be a success in life."

But when Ed was 12, his father caught a fever and died 30 hours later. Black smallpox. The family was quarantined in a small room for two weeks, before receiving a small stipend and tickets for a ship headed for the United States.

Back in the United States, his mother sent him to the Tennessee Military Institute, where Ed took the ridicule of being called "Twinkletoes" and "Beef." Ed learned to drill all day, and soak his blistering feet all night.

He had a rival, Mead Johnson, who was handsome and rich. His father, also named Mead, created Enfamil Baby Formula and other products. But no one has it easy. The father came up with the baby formula after his first son, Ted, died of congenital heart failure.

The rivalry was healthy for both of them. Ed nosed out Mead for top honors in their graduating class, setting a record that still stood 30 years later. Ed made it to West Point, and even played football, but he had to resign after only nine months due to a spinal injury.

He went to work. For 15 cents an hour, he was a job gardener's assistant at the Baker hotel in Mineral Springs, Texas; he spread fertilizer by hand the first month. Henry Love, the hotel manager, had staked him, giving him a room and clothes. Love did not like him, though, and the feeling was mutual. Still, Ed rose through the ranks, doing all the dirty jobs as he learned the hotel business. Finally, Ed made it to maitre d'hotel.

Then one day, Love took him outside, and said, "See that hotel? It's going to stay in business long after we're both gone. But you're going first. You're fired. You know why? You're arrogant,"

Ed tried other enterprises. He sold used cars, then he sold insurance to black people, then he started a window washing service. Finally, a Baptist convention was coming to town. Ed begged and borrowed the money to open the Period hotel. He cooked, served meals, made beds, hauled luggage, and pocketed $1,500 in Depression era money when the convention was over.

That led to his driving an oil truck. He became the food manager at the Holt hotel in Wichita Falls. He baked $1 bills into three lunch rolls as a gimmick, and made sure a local radio reporter got one of the prizes.

In short, he hustled. He may have been 345 pounds and arrogant, but he worked hard. He became the maitre d'hotel at the Texas hotel in Fort Worth, a 600-room hotel. This impressed W.L. Moody III, who hired him to work in Galveston for 13 years. That is where he met Polly Norwood, whom he almost immediately married. She got him to wear cowboy boots to relieve the pain in his feet.

Moody and Ed fought for 13 years, then Moody sold the hotel to Charles Sammon, which proved a blessing for Ed. They became a team. Sammons bought hotels; Ed Leach ran them. By 1963, Ed was 50 with a wife, three children, and part ownership of the Jack Tar chain of hotels (named for British sailors, at the suggestion of a 13-year-old girl).

And so he and his wife found themselves on a golf course in Texas with syndicated columnist Jim Bishop in March 1963. After nine holes, they went to the clubhouse to eat. Jim and Polly ate heartily. Ed drank a high-protein liquid in an effort to lose weight.

It was Metrecal, made by Mead Johnson.

I suppose many shoppers at Walmart could use Metrecal, if it were still made.

But before I can laugh at them, I struggle with this thought: Which one of them is hiding club feet in their cowboy boots?


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