Golden Moments

by Tom Ashley

I’d be willing to cut him a little slack, now, because I was a hyperactive kid. But I never got along with my father.

A lot of people did, however. He was a man who was devoted to charitable causes, forever organizing fundraising events and attending dinners. His primary devotion was to his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame to which he gave so much of his time that he was elected President of the Alumni Association one year. He loved the football games and was on a first-name basis with the college’s gridiron stars. He dragged me to endless games where I stood aside as he drank and cheered with his friends, one of whom was Jim Donnelly, Class of 1933.

Half Cherokee and half Irish a good football player but a better – indeed, a great – baseball player, Jim stood six-feet, three-inches with a chiseled frame but his demeanor was that of a gentle giant. After Notre Dame, he had declined an offer by the Yankees and chosen instead to pursue a career as a missionary priest in the remote hamlet of Lampasas, Texas. In order to support the needs of Mexican families and migrant workers, Jim would make annual trips to major cities in the mid-west and northeast. My dad would play host to Jim when he trekked to my hometown of Detroit.

The Detroit of the 1950’s was a prosperous city by anyone’s standards and proved to be fertile fundraising territory for Jim. The powerful gathered at the London Chop House or Caucus Club, and Jim would leave town with a thick stack of envelopes filled with cash and checks.

On one trip to our city, Jim saw how poorly my father and I were getting along and learned that I had been put into triple lockdown for getting in late: I was grounded, given no allowance, and assigned basement cleaning chores. Jim pulled me aside and asked if I would be interested in spending the summer in Texas.

Would I! Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger! I had seen all of their movies and TV westerns—I’d even shaken hands with Gene Autry at a live show.

Jim worked on my father and in early June, 1954, aged twelve, I flew out of Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. It was my first airplane flight but that wasn’t what made my heart pound. It was the thought of Texas. At Love Field in Dallas, Jim threw my suitcase in the back of his big station wagon and headed towards Lampasas. I don’t recall much of that drive through the open fields. During the previous week, in anticipation, I’d slept only a couple of hours a night. By the time we reached Jim’s house I was fast asleep within an hour.

With the first signs of daylight I headed outside to explore. The land was hardscrabble – grey, pink and dusty. Small stucco houses surrounded the white stucco church that stood at the edge of the village where fields began. Out in the distance an occasional horse grazed.

About fifteen minutes into my walk, I spotted a herd of twenty of the famed Texas Longhorned Cattle! I ran at breakneck speed towards them and, as they are a gentle breed, was able to get within a few yards where I could then stare at these beautiful imposing creatures, their hulking brown and white bodies and huge heads supporting horns that extended more than three feet on each side.

As time went by, I had my own animals. I’d catch horned lizards along the dusty roads and keep them in a little fenced compound I built where they camouflaged themselves in the grass. I fed them ants from the anthills in the dirt. I also had pet jackrabbits and a young fox, Reynard.

Jim knew everybody, and so soon everybody knew me, the kid from Detroit. People were generous; they would offer me cold drinks and food. They taught to me ride their horses and how to rope. One day we rode for a few miles to a watering hole where some cattle had been attacked by prairie dogs. Two cows had been killed. Three had been badly injured and had to be shot in the head. I couldn’t look. Fifty-eight years later I think back and realize how hard life was for those ranchers.

Owners of the big ranches drove Cadillacs. They got a kick out of me, the kid from Detroit who knew more about cars than they did: which features the next year’s models would have. They wanted to know all about Detroit and I lapped up their attention. One of them, Vern Perryman, had a pretty eighteen-year-old daughter named Susan. I fell in love with her and would turn crimson whenever she entered the room. Of course, just like in the movies, her boyfriend was a handsome cowboy. He played football for the University of Texas. Damn!

Jim took me to Austin and San Antonio. We visited the Alamo. I bought yellow cowboy boots at Joske’s Department Store. I loved those boots. I kept them in my closet back home long after my feet would no longer fit inside them.

By the end of August it was time to leave. I hated the thought. I built a cage for Reynard and a contraption for about a dozen of my lizards. Back to Detroit I went with them. But not long after, I came home from playing with friends and found that my father had taken Reynard and released him into a big wooded park, Sherwood Forest. A few months later, I gave my horned lizards to the Detroit Zoo.

Jim Donnelly and I wrote each other over the years. After college, I sent him a small check every Christmas to help with his missionary work. He stayed on in Lampasas for the rest of his life, working among his beloved poor. In the years since then, I’d occasionally get to Texas on business but never went back to Lampasas.


This year my partner gave me a birthday trip to Marfa, Texas. I have been a long-time admirer of the artist Donald Judd, who moved to Marfa in the 1950’s and bought an abandoned U.S. Army fort and turned it and the town into an artist’s mecca. It’s located in a you can’t-get-there-from-here place, seven hours from the Austin airport. Only 65 miles from Austin is Lampasas.

As we drove through the tiny towns, things didn’t seem to have changed much. What could have changed? The ranches, cattle in the fields, the single antelope, the Rio Grande Mountain range 100 miles south, and the Needle Peak Range 50 miles off to the northwest – all this had stayed the same. As we drew close to Lampasas, I warmed inside myself, recalling that summer.

Once in town I spotted the Chamber of Commerce immediately. I went in to find out the location of Jim’s old house and church, and the center of town – the courthouse square. The church and house had burned down and been replaced over twenty years ago. But Jim’s good works had continued. There was a very busy food pantry and a clothing dispensary filled with sweet-faced young Mexican women, most with a child or two in tow. No one at the church seemed to know anything about Jim or his history. I found that disturbing. I met an old woman in the parking lot. She only vaguely recalled Jim. Disappointed, I moved on to the courthouse square.

There I was astonished. The square was intact. The buildings sparked my memory. The Lampasas County Court building was exactly the same, surrounded on all four streets by one- or two-story buildings, which in 1954 had been dry goods, feed, and general stores. The outside of each store back then had had a hitching post. Those had all disappeared and the stores now had names such as Rite Aid and Dairy Queen. It was okay though. There hadn’t been a new structure placed on the square since my summer. I loved just standing there, remembering that short, extraordinary part of my life. I bought an old cowboy rope as a touchstone of those times.

As we left and Lampasas slowly disappeared in my rear-view mirror, all I could think about was the time I got to play a kid cowboy. It seems like a dream, but I lived it. Jim Donnelly and Susan Perryman have vanished from people’s minds. But ranching continues on Vern Perryman’s old spread and Jim’s good works continue in the hands of others.

There is still a certain elegance to it all. The respect that people seem to have for each other, how well they treat one another, and the role that nature plays in their lives.

In his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote: “This is a man, who, if he can remember ten golden moments of joy out of all his years, ten moments unmarked by care…has the power to lift himself with his expiring breath and say, ‘I have lived upon the earth and known glory.’”

I lived those ten golden moments of carefree joy. Fifty-eight years ago.

Tom Ashley: Too busy protesting during college in the 60’s, then caught up in a whirlwind career in television, I didn’t settle down to study until I joined IRP. Thank you, fellow classmates, for the opportunity to grow, and happy 50th anniversary IRP. We wouldn’t be the same without you!