KILGORE — For some years, Van Craddock and his wife, Bettye, have been gathering the recollections of their family members — the stories are priceless, Craddock told Rotary Club members last week, exhorting his audience to act quickly to preserve their own personal history.
Many of his own older relatives have now died, he added Wednesday, but their memories live on.
“Our family members, our ancestors — yours and mine — were individuals living their own individual lives,” Craddock said. “I know you have someone in your family you need to sit down and talk with. There is a time it will be too late to get that information.”
In his research, among many family stories, Craddock learned of an ancestor who served as a colonel in Connecticut’s militia during the Revolution War. For a time he served under the infamous defector Benedict Arnold, and in his unit was a young lieutenant named Nathan Hale, a soldier-turned-spy who is probably best known for his legendary last words before being hanged by the British, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
Others of Craddock’s forebears started a newspaper in the Dallas area when it was still just a small community. Another, in the Clarksville area, may have saved Davy Crockett’s life once, albeit temporarily.
Crockett and his fellows “spent a number of days in the Clarksville area,” Craddock explained. “They went out one day hunting buffalo,” and Craddock’s ancestor alerted them to rumors of Comanches in the area.
“We’ve always said in our family they saved Davy Crockett’s life, so he could go on to the Alamo to die six weeks later.”
Among more personal stories, Craddock recounted sitting down with his grandmother three decades ago. She told him about the first time she ever laid eyes on his grandfather, when they were both still children, and the time she narrowly, cleverly, avoided being a victim of a gangster.
“We have an account of the day in 1934 when my grandmother came face-to-face with a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang,” Craddock said.
Raymond Hamilton, of the Barrow gang, knocked on her door and asked to come inside, insisting he was selling vacuum cleaners. “My grandmother was a pretty sharp women — she saw he didn’t have a vacuum cleaner.”
Soon after, she saw a newspaper headline reporting the man had been arrested.
Craddock’s father also had a brush, almost a fistfight, with fame as well, coming toe-to-toe with Elvis Presley in 1954 in a cafe in Gladewater.
“I think everybody in East Texas probably has an Elvis story,” Craddock said. In his father’s, “Elvis apparently was in a bad mood, and he complained about the sunlight reflecting off my dad’s bald head.”
A one-time boxer who had won 29 of 30 fights, the elder Craddock was ready to face the man-who-would-be-The-King before they were pulled apart. Probably better for the rocker and all his fans, his son said last week.
“He might have been singing ‘Love Me Tender’ with a lisp,” Craddock joked.
From his wife’s family stories, Bettye Craddock’s mother — Helen Herrington — began keeping a daily journal in 1977 and continued for more than 20 years. Sometimes it was just a sentence or two, Van Craddock said, but the small insights into her life are invaluable.
“The most remarkable thing that my mother-in-law left us was short stories.”
A few pages or more, the handwritten tales focus most often on Mrs. Herrington’s past, myriad aspects of her life — the Craddocks have collected the tales in book-form and presented them as gifts to their children and will, someday, to their grandchildren.
It’s why Craddock’s numerous speeches at civic organizations and events often include a charge to his audiences, to spend time with their loved ones, to listen to them and to record their stories. To that end, Bettye Craddock — who taught journalism at Kilgore College for almost 30 years — has crafted an extensive list of interview questions aimed at sparking memories and drawing out almost-forgotten details.
“The life stories from your family are important,” Craddock said. “They’re priceless, unique and you need to preserve them.”