During the 60s and 70s, when Bee Caves Road was little more than a drive through the country, there was a beer joint whose back fence hid a small cabin on a back lot known by the cognoscenti as “the Pad.” The Pad’s proprietor and master of ceremonies was Ben Dodson Atwell, a State Representative, elected from Dallas. The Pad was his home during his 24 legislative sessions, numerous special sessions, and whenever he tired of Dallas life.
Most everyone knew him as “Jumbo,” the nickname he acquired as a UT student. Many think it derived from his height (6’4”), but I also heard that it originated from his prodigious consumption of milk shakes made with Jumbo brand ice cream.
When Jumbo was in residence, a typical day at the Pad started early with music emanating from various speakers, inside and outside of the cabin. Faron, Willie, Waylon, Marty, Ray, Charlie, and Merle sang from the outdoor speakers to the adjacent woods, its creatures, and a church built in later years behind the trees next door. (Yes, the church folk appealed to city leaders to make the music stop on Sundays, but to no avail. The music was there first.)
As the day wore on, the Pad attracted drop-in visits from people of all persuasions, e.g., local folks, legislators (former and current), and friends passing through town. You could distinguish between first- and old-timers by whether they recognized the painting Jumbo called Mrs. Nelson with a greeting or a reverent touch as they walked by her. Mrs. Nelson was a tasteful depiction of the back of a nude woman’s torso, from the nape of her neck to the beginning of her calves.
Jumbo welcomed everybody. What set him apart then (and would more so today) was that he bore no ill will against his opposition in the legislative arena. Of course, during his days in the Leg, almost everyone was a Democrat — Republicans could be counted on one hand — but the Ds were divided between conservatives and liberals and functioned like two parties. Yet, Jumbo was known to quip, “I vote with the conservatives, but I party with the liberals.” Hence, Jumbo gladly hosted liberal champions of union interests even while he supported the conservative business interests of his Dallas district.
He may have loved a good party, but Jumbo was serious about lawmaking and achieved many things in his 24 years. He sponsored the Water Safety Act of 1959 and subsequent amendments — which earned him recognition as the “Father of Water Safety.” Jumbo also sponsored the bill creating the first dental school in Dallas, and was instrumental in guiding the House bill creating the authority to build DFW Airport. He had a strong conservationist streak with bills protecting whooping cranes and roadrunners. In 1971, he introduced two bills to protect the cougar, the Texas mountain lion, in danger of extinction. Those two bills were unsuccessful and the cougar remains unprotected.
But he was proudest of his work as chairman of the Revenue and Tax (now Ways and Means) committee for 12 years during which he authored and passed various tax bills, while killing any efforts to tax groceries. Spearheading the passage of tax bills won’t make you popular, but Jumbo was undaunted. Undoubtedly, his service as a navigator on a WWII minesweeper stiffened his resolve for accomplishing the uncelebrated, but necessary, tasks, like imposing taxes on your fellow citizens.
It’s not glamorous work, he’d explain, but we couldn’t have a dependable government without revenues. And, yet, he noticed, while surveying the headstones in the State Cemetery one day, among those state officials who had served in the government, no one chose passing tax legislation as a lasting legacy.
So, long before he needed it, Jumbo made sure it would be part of his, ordering his pink granite headstone in the shape of Texas with this inscription:
Lawyer – Legislator
Author of Tax Bill
For years, the headstone waited patiently for him at the cemetery by his strategically-selected burial plot. The plot he chose is close to 7th street, he said, allowing his friends leaving Ciscos Bakery to wave at him as they headed to the Capitol.
I was about 15 when Jumbo made his appearance in my life story. My parents had been divorced a year or so and my mother had begun dating. That’s not easy when you have a smart-ass teen-age daughter who could be, perhaps, a bit intimidating to men who weren’t looking for trouble. But, it was impossible to intimidate Jumbo. He was a big guy and not one for debating with teen-agers, appearing very stern a lot of the time — until he let loose with that sunshiny smile.
Jumbo did fun things that included me and my sister. He introduced us to Luckenbach, before it was famous. Lazy afternoons watching the town’s owners, Hondo Crouch and Guich Koock, perform were such a treat.
Then, there were chili cook-offs. As one of the sponsors/founders of the San Marcos Chilympiad and others, Jumbo would often be a judge or enter as a contestant. When he was competing, he’d pick a theme and his entourage, which might include me and some of my friends, would dress up accordingly and help him compete. I ingested a lot of chili back then! Tip: you can’t win with beans in your chili.
I also liked being an adjunct to Jumbo’s and Mother’s life because I was able to hang out with his friends on occasion. They could be current or former legislators, lobbyists of various interest groups, Don Russell the president of Aquarena Springs who once wrestled an alligator, local Westlake folks like Emmett and Joyce Shelton, or Austin notables, like Joe “the Barber” (Picciandra). Jumbo surrounded himself with many interesting “characters,” although few outshone Jumbo.
Except, maybe, Willie Nelson.
Willie didn’t drop by the Pad, as I recall. Instead, Jumbo went to Willie to catch his shows. Long before Willie moved to Austin, Jumbo had met him playing poker when Willie was passing through Dallas. Or so I heard.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Willie. Still in high school, I joined Jumbo and Mother at the historic Dessau Hall (Elvis played there twice). That night’s headliner was Sammi Smith, whose “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” was a current big hit. But, Willie made more of an impression on me, especially since he came over to the table to say hello. He wore a loose lantern-sleeved white shirt drawn in by a lace-up vest. His hair was cut in a short page boy, if memory serves. I don’t remember his pants. I’m sure he wasn’t wearing tights, although they would have completed this Renaissance look. Needless to say, Willie’s look has changed over the years.
There would be many other Willie outings. For example, one Saturday, Jumbo got word that Willie was dropping in at Luckenbach for a surprise outdoor concert. Sure enough, we were there when his bus rolled up on the town’s one road, along with about a hundred other in-the-know fans, ready to watch the concert.
My sister reminded me of the night that Willie was performing at the Broken Spoke and Mother and Jumbo took her and some friends to celebrate her birthday. At the end of the night, while the adults chatted and drank with Willie, he heard about the occasion and handed my sister the key to his Cadillac, inviting her to take it for a birthday spin with her friends. She only had a learner’s permit, but she jumped at the opportunity.
In addition to listening to and going to Willie’s shows, Jumbo also “performed” a couple of Willie songs. By performing, I mean that he would mug and lip sync to his two favorite Willie recordings of Bring Me Sunshine, and Me and Paul.
Jumbo gave these performances in front of guests at the Pad, chili cook-offs, and wherever he found a stage (and had his Willie tape on hand).
The best Jumbo-Willie performance was in 1974 at Castle Creek, a club located next door to the Chili Parlor where Willie and his band were appearing. As pre-arranged, Willie invited Jumbo to join him on stage and, while Willie and the band performed the two songs, Jumbo performed his lip syncing act as if he were the star of the show!! It was great to watch the two having fun — just high on life! We were two blocks from the Capitol and many of the folks suffering through the party-less Constitutional Convention showed up at the club, including the House of Representatives’s photographer who, fortunately, brought his camera and captured the moment.
I am pretty sure that Willie Nelson will never know a bigger fan than Jumbo, as I’m also convinced that the Texas Capitol will never see a bigger personality than Jumbo Atwell.
A true original, I think Jumbo would have been a great performer. Music was an indispensable part of his life and brought him great happiness.
And now that I think about it, Willie would’ve made a great politician. Just imagine the new spin he’d bring to legislators working in smoke-filled rooms!!