THE MEMOIRS OF IRENE GISH KIRKWOOD
((K. denotes Mrs. Kirkwood; JS, WS denotes the Sargeants.))
K: I was born in Louisiana in a little town that is no longer in existence. It was called Almadane. It was near Leesville, Louisiana. My fther was a timber inspector for the Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company of Orange. He was a Louisiana inspector. I grew up there and graduated at Deridder, La. High School. I came to Port Arthur in 1919. I went to work....well, I was really too young to go to work....I was going to go off to college....I'd been gone several months, and they put up on the board that the Gulf Oil Company needed two girls. So my girl friend and I said, "Oh, well, we can go to college at night. Let's go out and see if we can get the job." Well, we did. So I went to work and worked there forty years for Gulf Oil.
J. S. Is that so?
K: When I retired in 19.... This is my sister.
WS: You and your sister went to work then....?
K: No, my girl friend went to work delivering mail in a six-story building. Gulf Oil had their own little post office on the first floor. So I delivered mail there during the war (WWII?) Then I worked part time in the ....what they call....I worked under accounting all right. It was shift work. During the war, every....the office stayed open 24 hours during the war. Everyone, well, not everyone, not any of the supervisors, but we had one night supervisor. And when the war was over, I was promoted to supervisor of all communications. So I did that then until 1968. I retired October 1, 1968. I really spent a little more than forty years. I took off five years and had my two girls. And then the company called me to come back to work. And on my return they gave me those five years (of seniority), which was very generous. You don't get things like that very often. They were always, very, very good to me. I love the Gulf Oil Company (now merged with Chevron).
I lost my first husband (Earl L. Gish). He was mayor (of Nederland) at the time. He died in 1961. And then in 1962 I went to Europe and the (Gulf) Company gave the the whole summer off so that I could go to the Holy Land and study. As I said, they've been very good to me. But at that time, when I first moved to Nederland, I don't suppose there were over 1,000 people in this whole area here. I moved out on the highway here....you know where our place was on the highway? The old Gish home. I sold it to the girl that lived down the street. Now she has sold it and they have torn the house down. The girl that worked....what is that girl's name? When you get to be 83 years old, you can forget names quicker than anything.
JS: You don't have to be that age. I found that out.
K: Anyway, we moved in, that was in 1938, I guess....You know where the Farris's lived in that white house? Not very far, just one block. Then in 1941, the (H. L.) Ingrams were transferred to Houston or went to Houston - I don't know whether he was transferred or just quit and went with another company. Anyway, he was one of the big shots out at Pure Oil (now Unocal). We bought this house (915 Fourteenth) and have been living here ever since.
JS: When were you married to Mr. Gish?
JS: What type of business was he in?
K: He was a refrigeration engineer at the Refinery. My second husband was the mayor of Port Neches. I worked for him out at Pure Oil (Union or Unocal) in the office. I knew the people; I knew Edith, I'm sure, that is Mrs. Kirkwood. She was a lovely, lovely lady. My husband died in 1961 with a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was away on County business, he and Dr. (Paul) Meyer (of Port Arthur), and he passed away on the airplane coming home. I was sitting there waiting to take off when he died on the plane. And then four years later, I married Mr. Kirkwood. I knew Mrs. Kirkwood very well, but I didn't know him. She and her family were my closest friends. Her family in Houston. She died the next year with a heart attack. I didn't see him or anything for three years, four years, actually before I married Mr. Kirkwood. And he was mayor of Port Neches. And he had finished up his term so he left Port Neches and moved over here and we were married 19 years, but he died two years ago this month.
JS: How long had Mr. Gish been mayor?
K: He had been mayor twice. I don't remember the first time, but the last time, he was mayor when in died in 1961. He had been mayor ten months then, the second time.
JS: I understand you've been active in all kinds of activities here in Nederland.
K: Well, yes, to pass away the time. My daughters had finished college, married and left home so I spend my time heading most all organizations, I guess. I'm still a charter member of the Nederland Business and Professional Women's, which, I guess we're the oldest women's organization in this area.
WS: When did you form this organization?
K: Back in 1947. I was president in 1948 and 1949. When Nederland, the main street, Boston Avenue, was a shelled street, and during my term as president, Mr. Chester was mayor, and they were paving the street, and he asked me if the Business Women's group would like to open it up with a celebration and a big street and everything, which we did. I was just looking at the paper; I just found it today. It was the first....I though you might....I have an edition of parts of it at least of the first paper ever put out in Nederland. Volume I, Number I. And it tells of the paving. And the reason I kept it was because I was president of the Club at that time and we were going to have the opening of the street. That was back in 1949. Then on April 10, 1955, we voted in our Home Charter, which we are still under. I was very interested in that, trying to help with that, too, to put that through. We're still under the same Home Charter, four different areas in town, and councilmen from four different areas.
JS: How about school activities? I understand.......
K: Well, yes. When my girls were in school, they graduated in 1941. One of them went to Lamar and the other to TSCW, which was TSCW at that time and is now Texas Women's University at Denton. She taught in Midland; she retired this year from teaching in Midland, Texas. My youngest daughter graduated from Lamar and went to work at Union Oil (Pure). She now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. I have three grandsons and eight great grandchildren. Six of those are adopted, but they're mine anyway.
JS: What school activities were you......
K: Well, I was president of the PTA at one time. And then I was a home room mother several times. I worked with the teachers in every way that I could. My closest friends were the teachers that ran the school at that time. I tried to stay very close to the school. We always, I do mean always, had a good school system. In 1929, my husband, I was working, my husband took the girls to register in Port Arthur. And they were down in the basement at Dequeen School. I came home from work, he happened to be off that day to register the children. He said, "I'll tell you, mother, we aren't going to put up with this. They put them in the basement, right next to the lavatory. I can't take that. We're going to Nederland." His mother and dad had bought a place out on the highway in Nederland, so he said, "Let's go talk to Mother and Dad, and see if Mother will keep the kids so you can work. We'll just drive back and forth to work. I hear there's a good school system in Nederland." At that time the old Langham School was there. That's where they started. It's been torn down now. This new school (Langham School at 12th and Helena) is in its place; has been there for many years now. And then they graduated, they were never anywhere else except the Nederland schools. They graduated in 1941. They both started school the same time. My oldest daughter was sick and couldn't start when she was six, so they both started the same year and both finished the same year. At times I felt I had to get out on the corner with a cup, (as a result of) having two in college. Takes two of us working. I said I did't work because I wanted to; I worked because I had to.
WS: Was school just 11 years at that time?
WS: When did it change over to 12 years?
K: I don't know when they changed. (voice: I should remember-I used to teach). You drift away when your children are out of school. (Ed.'s Note: Nederland became a 12-grade system during World War II, probably 1943-44.) You just lose interest more or less. Our interest was in the college. We spent a lot of time going back and forth to Denton and then I was interested in....well at the time it was South Park College; it wasn't Lamar then, South Park College, a junior college. Now it's Lamar University.
JS: When did it change to Lamar University?
K: I don't remember the date. (Ed.'s Note: Although Lamar has been Lamar University only since 1972, it was Lamar State College of Technology as far back as about 1951 and Lamar College back to about 1934. It began as South Park Junior College in 1923. It remained a junior college under the South Park School District until 1951, when it became a four-year state school.) (voice: it was a junior college and then it was a college before and then....) It's been an accredited college nor for 10 or 12 years (Ed's Note: Lamar's accreditation goes back many years before that. Lamar began issuing Bachelor's and Master's degrees during the middle 1950s.) It was as junior college, it was South Park when my daughter went. John Gray was president of the junior college at South Park when my daughter went. Then he was later president for many years. (Ed.s Note: John Gray signed the editor's M. A. degree as college president in 1974.) But I don't remember the year when they changed over to Lamar. As I said, my daughter was teaching in Nw Mexico. I just lost track of colleges too.
JDS: How about social activities? I understand that you were active in these too.
K: Well, I guess I belonged to about everything they had. Garden Club, I was active in the Garden Club. The B&PW, I'm still a charter member. At the church, all the things we had at the church.
JS: What church was that?
K: That was the Methodist, First Methodist. Later years, my husband had his first heart attack....He could'nt walk very far and the Methodist Church had gotten pretty big. And then we didn't have the parking lot we now have across the street. So he couldn't walk, I'd have to let him out at the door. He could get in. By the time I found a place to park, I was going to church by myself so I said, "Look, Brother Duran, if they form a new church out here on Helena, we're going to transfer to the Wesley church. I'm tired of going to church by myself." Then they bought the property and built the new church on Helena out near the airport. By the time I got my car parked, I found my seat the best way I could. So I stayed in the Wesley Methodist Church until I married Mr. Kirkwood in 1965. He went to church with me a few times, but you can't make a Methodist out of a member of the Church of Christ. No way. So I said, if anyone is going to change, I guess I'll change, but I couldn't think that way so we settled on the Christian Church. My grandfather and three of my uncles were Christian Church ministers. But they were Disciples (meaning Christian Church, Disciples of Christ). Our church is an independent church. Christian Church is a disciple church, is in Port Arthur. A fine church. It's out there on the highway now. My grandfather and three uncles were disciples, ministers.
WS: You spoke of the Garden Club. What did you have for projects?
K: We looked for information and we did try to beautify the town. We did try to do that. Get people interested in yards and in garden work. Then the Business and Professional Women kind of picked up with us on that, and then we'd plant flowers along the railroad tracks, you know, just really trying to make it a better town.
JS: More or less the starter of beaufification.....
K: Yes, a starter like doing the railroad. Mrs. Kelley took it over. And that was the Chamber of commerce. She does that and she does a beautiful job. For people coming through, it makes it nice to see the pretty flowers.
JS: It makes a nice impresion.
K: It sure does. And that was really the main thing of the Garden Club, keep people interested; keep up their yards nice; making the town look better.
WS: I was talking earlier and they said your jail was non-existent. You don't have a need for one? Everyone behaves himself here? How about it? As mayor did he (Mr. Gish) have any problems?
K: No. Earl never did, the times that he was mayor. No big problems. Of course they didn't always agree. I'll never forget the night he wanted to lay this 30-inch line out and there was only one house out in that area, on Nederland Avenue, out where J. D. Chester lives, and he wanted to lay a 30 inch line out there and he had to fight like the dickens. Even the engineer, Charles Haille and Associates in Houston said, "Oh, you're crazy." He said, "No. In ten years there won't be a vacant lot out there." He (Haille) said, "Oh, I think you're crazy but I'll go along with you." ......And he said, "Well, you're a more far-seeing man than I was." Ten years? He was right - there is not but a few vacant lots out there. And he said, "It saved the city having to tear all that up in order to lay a bigger line." But half the people thought he was crazy.
WS: Are you speaking about a water line?
K: Water line. The big one; the big 30-inch one. Now they could even use a bigger one. As far as having a lot of problems......any city council has disagreements. They're not always going to agree on everything. But they just didn't have any down right fights about it. Earl was very outspoken. I think that was one thing that was a detriment to him. Sometimes you can't be as outspoken as you want to be. But if you thought something, really thought it, he said it. You didn't have to wonder how he felt about anything; he'd tell you.
JS: I think they appreciated it; they trusted him probably.
K: He made no bones about it; he wasn't disagreeable and he didn't get mad at the people that disagreed with him. But he said exactly what he thought. A lot of people didn't like that, and some people do. Then a lot of people, you'd be surprised, that do not like that. He was not a "yes man" to anyone.
WS: The sewer system, they say, was pretty poor.
K: For a while it was. I remember him staying up at night, holding flash lights working on the sewer at night. We had a bad sewer system for a while, but they finally go that straightened out. They built a new sewer plant out there; that helped a lot.
WS: When was that put in?
K: I can't remember that either; the year they put that in. That relieved the whole town a whole lot. They had bad drainage for a long time. But we didn't pay much taxes. I remember the first taxes I had to pay on this house; I went and paid them myself. It was $12.50. And the little old City Hall was across the (railroad) track in a little tiny black one room building. (Ed.'s Note: Nederland's City Hall during World War II was in the old Lion's Club "Scout Hut." However, the building was some fifty feet square, with another room, a kitchen, built on the rear. Klaas Koelemay, the first city secretary, was an original Dutch settler who came to Nederland in 1898.) And that was before Sandy Rienstra (city manager) went to work for the city. His name was......(Koelemay)....Oh, he was an old settler here....was the first one (city secretary or manager), then Mr. (C. E.) Gibson took over. Back in the 1940s, early forties.
WS: This was your combined tax or just your.....?
K: No, it was just the city tax. $12.50 on this house. I don't remember what the school taxes were, but they weren't very much either. Not like they are now. I watched the town grow and I thoroughly enjoyed watching this little town grow.
JS: I thing the more involved you are, the more interested you are in it.
K: The more you appreciate people.
JS: That's right.
K: Because we do have fine people in this town. Our crime rate, now these last years, (Police) Chief Neal tells me it has risen conderably. But you know, in years gone by, I'd go on vacation and leave my house unlocked; my neighbors might need something they needed to borrow. They'd do the same thing. No one locked their houses. Oh now, heavens, you're scared to answer the door at night. It has changed considerably. Even in the last 25 years, the four years that I was a widow, I lived here by myself. I once kept a school teacher for nine months, but other than that, I was alone the other three years. I lived here by myself and I was never afraid. My neighbor across the street, if it were going to freeze, he worked out at the plant where I did, and he would call me from the plant and say, "Now, Mrs. Gish, it's going to freeze tonight. If you hear someone in the house, that will be me. I'm going to cut the water off and drain the pipes. You never thought of that, of being afraid. I woundn't do that for anything now.
JS: Can you think of anything we should.......?
K: We have a very, very good little town here.
JS: It seems that way. We've enjoyed it.
K: It's growing; it's been growing; and it's still growing. When my husband was mayor, he took in, in a buffer zone, all where Port Arthur now is, across from our hospital, across the highway 365, he took that in as a buffer zone for Nederland to grow. He said that Nederland would grow that way. So he took it all in. I guess he took in a whole bunch more. They laughed and teased him, "Well, I guess we'll be the biggest city in the United States." Someone put it in the paper. But he did take it in, just as a buffer zone. Because Port Neches was coming this way; Beaumont was coming this way; Port Arthur was coming this way. He said, "We're going to be hemmed in if we don't do something."
After he was out as mayor, Preston ------, bless his heart, I don't know why he did it. Dr. Hall was mayor, but Dr. Hall was not at the meeting - he was sick or something. Dr. Hall got sick right after he went in as mayor, but Preston ------ took over. Well, he gave it up one night, all of the buffer zone. Port Arthur called a meeting at 10 o'clock the next morning and took all that buffer zone into their city limits. It made me sick. Our Central Mall and all that has been built up.....it's all the way in Port Arthur now. I think that hurt my husband more than anything else that could have possibly hurt him. He said, "They're leaving us out and it has..." (voice: We have the airport on that side.) ...and he took in all around the airport, just a buffer was all, but no one complained as long as we had it in the buffer zone. Why Preston did that....There was an attorney in Port Arthur, he's dead now, came out here. He happened to be city attorney for Port Arthur. He came out here and when he left, my husband was so mad. I said, "What in the world...." I went out in the back. I didn't know what the man wanted. He was so mad. He said, "That city attorney of Port Arthur wants me to release this land that I've taken in toward Port Arthur. He must be crazy. I don't need money. He offered me money to do it." He said, "I don't need money that bad." We were getting by. We weren't people that had a lot of money. But we didn't need a lot of money. Our girls had finished school. We didn't need the money, but he was offered it. That was wrong in the first place."
K: And why that man did that, I don't know. I'm not saying whether ------ took that money or whether he just - I don't know whether he did or just went ahead, the man talking him into turning it loose. He let it go. But at 10 o'clock the next morning, Port Arthur called a special meeting and took it all in. And they had all that. And it just makes you sick when you think what it did to Nederland. It stopped us right at Highay 365. And Preston later died to. He died several years ago, I believe. Preston passed away with a heart attack. He quit his job and left here and went up to Kerrville and went into some kind of shrimp business, trying to bring in fresh shrimp up there. Anyway, his wife left him. He just had a sad life after that. I don't know whether the boy took a dime or not, I don't know. But I do know what the man had offered Earl.
JS: What would you say your husband's greatest accomplishment was as mayor?
K: I think, when he was mayor, the laying of water lines would be most important, as far as I know and I don't know a lot, but getting sewer lines and trying to straighten out that situation. I never really paid a lot of attention because I just don't think wives ought to be butting into that kind of stuff. I stayed out of everything like that - I stayed out of his business. I did know he was very interested in the sewer and water lines being laid out. He really expected Nederland to grow that way and to grow all the way to Port Arthur. He really expected it to. He said that eventually Nederland would go all the way to Port Arthur. He said it would be the focal point of any election. It would be the balance of power, which it is today.
K: How the country goes as a rule, is the way elections go. And he always said that, if we could just keep going.
JS: Had he always been interested in politics?
K: No. Mr. Farris was mayor at that time. We lived across the street from them. And I think, really, it was Mr. Farris who got him more interested than anyone elese. Trying to make Nederland grow. Before that, he was quite a bowler. He would go to the bowling conventions. He bowled for the plant. He was more interested in the plant and in the children. After he got interested in politics, I didn't see much of him..... (laughter).....The telephone ringing all the time. I remember one woman telling, she said, "There's a dead cat out here in my yard. Is the mayor there?" I said, "No, ma'm, he isn't" She said, "I don't know what to do with the cat." I said, "I know what I'd do. I'd go dig a hole and bury it."
JS: And you were the mayor's wife.
K: I'm sure it wasn't a very good answer. She didn't know what to do. You'd be surprised the calls the mayors get. And I'm sure poor old mayors have a jillion of them.
WS: You had pretty much of a party system, didn't you?
K: Yes. And I think we are still more or less more Democratic; this area. Now Texas may go Republican this time. I don't know. But in this area, we're more Democratic than anything else. The way I see it. Of course, I could be wrong. (Gov. Wm.) Clements may even carry this area. I don't think he will. But then, that's just my opinion.
WS: How about the segregation problem?
K: Never been a problem as far as I know. We have so few blacks; very, very few. My children never went to school with a black child. All those years they were in school, they never went to school with a black child. You see, it didn't start until after 1960. It was after Earl was dead, before we ever had a Negro living in this area. So we never had any problem with that. At least I never did. Not that I had anything against Blacks. I think we are all created equal as far as that's concerned. I think the thing we need to do, the whole country, not just us, not just the South. The North is worse than we are or were.
JS: I've heard that.
K: Earl was from Indiana. They were worse than we are down here. So, I can't say that.....I don't look to ever, really.....maybe in 60 years, when they have problems. But I think what we need to do, and we are doing it, it's happening all over the United States, they're educating the people, which before they did not. That was not fair. If we had started out, many, many years ago, educating the Black people and Hispanics the same (as Whites). In fact any foreigner who comes here, as we all go back to foreigners, as far as that's concerned. My family came from Ireland. We're really all foreigners as far as that's concerned (Ed.'s Note: Except Indians). But we needed....when they brought the Blacks over here, they should have started educating them right then. (Ed.'s Note: Blacks who came direct from Africa prior to 1808 were slaves, however, and it was against the laws of all slave states to educate slaves.) We'd have a different country altogether, than we have now. But it's only in recent years that we're.....and some of them are very, very smart and fine people. I have had my maid 13 years, and there's no finer, better Christian person than the girl that works for me. She's a woman of 58, I think, now. (Ed.'s Note: During the segregation years, 1892 to 1954 (Plessy VS. Ferguson to Brown VS. The Board of Education), education of Negroes was mandatory under all laws, so it is not something "new" of the 20th century. Segregation, however, meant that more often Negroes were educated in obsolete buildings and with obsolete books and equipment left over from the White schools.)
K: Very fine person. So I don't see segregation is going to be any problem for us in many years to come. Now they tell us there's about three families (of Blacks) who have bought out in Stonegate, a new addition here in Port Arthur (across Highway 365 from Nederland). There are about three families; I think one is a doctor.
WS: How about your doctors? Are you fortunate to have good doctors?
K: We have very good doctors. We have more doctors now than I ever thought we would ever have. We do have many.
WS: How about in the past? Have you always been fortunate to have.....?
K: We've been fortunate to have good doctors. In the last five lyears, we have gotten so many, most of them are foreigners that are coming in now. But they're good doctors I understand.
WS: How about hospitals? I never thought to ask about......?
K: We have one very good hospital. Mid-Jefferson County Hospital. It's a very good hospital.
WS: When was that built? Have you any idea?
K: Let's see. When was that hospital built? When my husband died, he was trying to get a hospital going at the time that he died.
WS: Where did you have to go to a hospital prior to that?
K: He went to Houston to talk to people about a hospital. I think it was Humana, I'm not sure.....is it a Humana out here? I'm sure it is. (Error: it is American Medical International.) He first was talking, before he died, to Humana in Houston.....trying to get a.....and then I think, our first hospital, didn't the doctors own it?
(voice: yes, at first, physicians and surgeons.)
Then they sold out to Mendico first, I don't know whether it's Humana, or what it is. But anyway, we have a very good hospital.
WS: Ever since you have been here, you've had a hospital?
K: No. we did not...It's just in recent years....maybe 20 years; 18 to 20 years since we've had a hospital. Otherwise, we used the one in Port Arthur.
WS: Port Arthur had one long before.....?
K: Oh, yes. St. Mary's. And Beaumont, too.....had several hospitals for many, many years.
WS: So if anyone was hospitalized, you had to go either to Port Arthur or Beaumont?
K: But we do have a very good hospital. And we have several clinics now. There's Mediquick Clinic.....what do they call them? You can go to the doctor at any hour. They don't work regular hours. I think we have one like that on Highway 365. I had to go one Saturday. I had an upper respiratory and they were very good; very thorough. I couldn't get hold of Dr. Walters; weekends sometimes you can't find.....
JS: Irene, you've been so active in all phases in the community. I'd like to ask you, put you on the spot: What area would you like to see changed, if any? Do you see any need for a change?
K: No, I really don't know of anything that could change. I'd like to see our downtown not die like most downtowns have. But I'm afraid that that's what's going to happen if we're not careful.....that our downtown area.....we have several places that are closed now. And the little shopping center across, is mostly vacant I think, over there (Weingarten's?) I would like to see our downtown not go down; I'd like to see it built up more.
JS: And the sad thing is that every town is in the same situation.
K: But we're so close to Nederland Avenue, I don't see the difference. Why Nederland Avenue has become the main part of town when Boston is just two blocks away. (voice: now we're going out to Highway 365.)
K: We're going out on 365 now. I'd like to see our downtown stay or built up, even. Even some of the buildings need to be worked over, done over downtown. I think that would lhelp, if people that owned them might.....I think it would help.
WS: Do you have active lodges? I've heard you speak of the Shriners. Was your husband a Shriner?
K: My last husband was a 32nd degree. He was a Shriner.
WS: Did they have a Masonic Lodge here? Did they have a Masonic Lodge right here in Nederland?
K: K: Yes, Nederland has a ..... we have a Temple over here on 27th Street. I belong to the Eastern Star; Daughters of the Nile.
WS: We're they active when you came to the area?
K: No. Well, they had a small one, I think. In think in 1963 the Masons and Eastern Star built over on 27th Street. I went in to the Eastern Star in 1966, I guess, and in 1969, I went in to the Daughters of the Nile in Galveston, which is the temple for this area. I've been active in both of those.
JS: It's been interesting to talk to you. I don't want to take any more of your time. We do appreciate, Irene, taking your time.
K: It's nice that you are doing this.