Tuesday, March 5, 2013

E.E. "Jiggs" Letlow (1925-2013)

For E. Elliott Letlow's full obituary, click here

E. Elliott "Jiggs" Letlow was very special to all that knew him. As a young boy, he spent most of his days in Start, Louisiana, and he spent a great majority of the rest of his life in Bienville Parish, on a little slice of heaven off of "Back Forty Road."

Richard Letlow hit the nail on the head in remembering so many of the warm and heartfelt feelings that each of us share about not only Uncle Jiggs, but his entire family as well. In my own generation, all too often, the passing of a great-uncle might not even garner mention at the dinner table. But in our family, this is not the case.

I first learned about my "Great" Uncle Jiggs from my father, Johnny Lynn Letlow. And as the youngest grandchild of John M. Letlow, also known as Johnny by his brothers and people that knew him, I was unfortunately the only grandchild of John to have never directly known him, as he passwd away a mere month after I was born. But when I heard my dad speak of his "Uncle Jiggs," it was always accompanied by both reverence and a smile. As a boy, I remember my daddy teaching me horseshoes out back by our house. And though daddy taught me the game and the process, I couldn't help but notice even at that very early age, that he was just as focused on practicing for the next big match against his Uncle Cloice and Uncle Jiggs. I would only learn in time, just what it was that my dad had come to respect and admire about those that had come before us both.

I have never doubted that the Letlow genes possess a competitive nature, which also explains each of our individual unique ambitions in life as a whole. But if you don't wish to take my word for it, just stop and look at how the three youngest boys of William T. Letlow ended up with such elegant, timeless ladies, known as Florine, Janet, and Florence. Maybe it's an "humble swagger" us Letlow guys inherited. Whatever the case, each of them could not have chosen better leading ladies to begin families with. I never really knew any of the elder siblings of Jiggs, John, and Cloice, but I do know many of their descendants, and there is a special kinship with all who are part of this family.

E.E. "Jiggs" Letlow, left, and
John M. Letlow, right
I first remember visiting with Uncle Jiggs when I made it to High School at OCS in Monroe. I was never the star athlete of the Letlow gang, though in part, I do blame "genetics" and an inherited reluctance to begin growing in height until at least my senior year. Fortunately, my older cousin Robby Devinney more than shouldered the olympic burdens of the Letlow bunch, and he did so quite well, which made my life that much easier. My Uncle Jiggs was always in the stands to watch his grandson Robby play football and baseball. But even though I wasn't an olympiad nor his own grandson, he always took such an interest in my day to day life, and made me feel special, just the same. 

It was during these days and following years that Uncle Jiggs began to offer a special window for me, into that relationship I had missed-out on with my own grandfather, John M. Letlow. 

Short backstory. After High School and College, I somewhat haphazardly found myself fully engaged in a Governor's race, without ever fully appreciating how or why it was that I cared so much about such political nonsense in the first place. To my knowledge, no one in the family had grand political ties. And to be sure, as best I can tell, there weren't any direct kin filling the campaign coffers, thereby securing my place in the political movements of the moment. People would often ask me how it was that I found myself on the campaign trail in the midst of a statewide campaign. And more often than not, I would find myself at a loss for words in fully knowing just what to say. And then Uncle Jiggs explained it to me ever so simply. And with a laugh and wise chuckle that only now can I fully appreciate.

In this conversation, he mentioned his older brother Johnny's own political activity, back in the 1930's, when his brother, also my grandfather, was caught "running as fast as he could from the cotton fields, and straight towards anything that could get him off of a turn row." And it turned out that my own grandfather's escape in at least one of those hard farming years was to jump on the bandwagon of a local politician in the Assessor's race in Richland Parish. Uncle Jiggs explained that my grandaddy, or "Big Daddy" as my brothers and family called him, had made every futile attempt possible to latch on to the brightest light he saw outside of "dirt, sweat, and farming." Makes sense to me! And so here I was in the summer of 2003, with a degree that I wasn't really using, working in a similar capacity just as my grandfather had nearly 80 years earlier, in of all things, politics. I suppose it was my own search of the "great unknown." Or maybe it was just a knack for riding a horse that is bound to run either way. But in that brief moment of time with my Uncle Jiggs, it all came together for me. And no one had ever connected the dots as well as he did in those short visits. My Uncle Jiggs made me feel like I truly knew my own grandfather Letlow, and for that alone, I am forever grateful.

That was sort of Uncle Jiggs' way. Whether he was someone you saw once a year, once a month, or even every day, he could open a window of optimism and reflection for anyone willing to look in.

As he and my aunt Florence Wynn Letlow entered the final seasons of their lives, I made a trip over to Arcadia one day, and sat down with them for a visit. I recorded our conversation, and though I knew Uncle Jiggs' memory was beginning to fade, I was ever hopeful I could capture a snapshot of the great stories and memories he still held on to. That day was more of a blessing than I could have ever expected. As we shuffled through old photographs, Uncle Jiggs' memory became both vivid and clear. He had such fond memories of his elder siblings, his father, and especially his mother. And though his times in those earlier days were hard, he explained them in a way that could bring nothing but laughter and warmth. You would never know that their lives were as difficult as they must have been, in listening to Uncle Jiggs. 

He also reminisced about my grandfather John's continuing efforts to escape the routine hard labors of farm life, which included the "adoption of a hobo" to stand-in for my grandfather's part in keeping up the farm. This effort went on for what Uncle Jiggs laughingly said "seemed like a year." He reflected on the time that my grandfather made the mule behind the plow lie down and wallow in the dirt while explaining to his siblings who would listen that "the mule had gone sick." By the time the mule was up and running with dirt on his back, my grandfather John was "off to Rayville." These stories and memories are priceless, and what made them more than magical, was Uncle Jiggs' laughter and smile as he told them. In my grandfather's quest of finding his own path, Uncle Jiggs found great amusement. I was able to see some of those same "situational approaches" in my own life, and I found myself truly blessed that he humbly shared those experiences with me.

As a closing -- the one thing I think I admired the most about Uncle Jiggs, was the example and legacy he represented in defining what it means to truly be a Letlow. As I list the words I would use in describing E. E. "Jiggs" Letlow, they include: "Funny, Clever, Witty, Caring, Self-Less, Warm, Sincere, Loyal, Reflective, Patient, Peaceful, and just as Cousin Richard noted, FUN!" Yes, -- Uncle Jiggs exemplified each of these great qualities as I knew him. He and his siblings each overcame more adversity than I am fairly certain any of their descendants or my generation can know. I have witnessed many of these same qualities in virtually all of the Letlows and related families, and I know that each of us in the next generation who have Letlow blood have a lot to live up to. I hope that one day I have children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces, that I too can share Uncle Jiggs' stories with. I will always remember his laugh, his smile, and his good naturedness. 

Nothing can replace the window he gave me into my own grandfather's life, and I am equally as thankful for both he and his family. Moe, Alice, Kristi, Patsy, Bob, and Robby -- you have so much to be proud of and fondly celebrate, in remembering a truly great man. And as cousin Richard said so eloquently earlier, there is no doubt that Uncle Jiggs has found great peace and happiness in the reunion with his sweet red-haired beauty, Florence, along side his siblings, parents, and friends who have long awaited his arrival. There are a lot of people I want to see when I get to heaven, but finding the happy, laughing bunch of Letlows will be easy. And I'm fairly certain that Uncle Jiggs will be working the door diligently, with that ever-so-sly Letlow wink and reassuring pat-on-the-back, as he welcomes all who enter to what I'm sure he has already renamed up there in heaven "the back forty."

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