A Lesson Learned From Dad

Airdate: June 11

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

Fathers teach us valuable life lessons based on their own experiences, as they equip us to be responsible citizens and to make the most of our lives. Judge John F. Onion Jr. of Austin recalls an important lesson he learned from his dad, starting in 1936, when his dad ran a successful campaign for district judge in Bexar County:

"The incumbent for some reason would not get up on a platform and speak. He had a young lawyer who had been an assistant DA get up and make all his speeches for him. And my dad—I heard him on the platform say, ‘My opponent is here, ladies and gentlemen. He's standing right down there. When it came his time to speak to you, he sent his young mouthpiece up here to talk to you.' And he said, ‘Now, Mr. Beb Ladon is a good lawyer, but he's speaking for this guy who thinks he's too good to get up and speak to you. Now, you know, he used to be known as Fred Stevens.' Said, 'When he became district judge, it became Frederick Stevens.' Says, ‘Now, most of you good people know me as Pete. Now, wouldn't it be a shame, when you elect me district judge, I start calling myself Peterick?' And he says, ‘Now let me tell you about what's going on down there at the courthouse.' (interviewer laughs)"

After the election, Onion remembers learning that his father had plans to go quail hunting with his adversary's right-hand man:

"And I was shocked. And I looked at my dad, and I said, ‘You mean to tell me you're going hunting in the morning with Beb Ladon?' I said, ‘He was your opponent's campaign manager. He's the one who got up and made speeches for your opponent.' I said, ‘How could you be going hunting with him?' I said, ‘I wouldn't have anything whatsoever to do with him.' And he looked at me one night. He says, ‘One thing you're going to learn in life is the people who were against you once might be your best friends later on in life, ones that you may deeply treasure. And you never turn your back on them because they were not on your side just on one occasion.' And he said, ‘He's been nice to me. We enjoy each other's company. He tries cases in my court. I hold nothing against him.'"

This was difficult for Onion to understand at first, and he had to think it over for a while:

"But later on Beb Ladon went hunting with him any number of times. And one of the first lawyers I went to see when I got out of law school to ask, ‘What do you think I ought to do? Where can I light? Where can I'—you know, was Beb Ladon because he not only had been my dad's friend, he had represented my dad on some of the condemnation of the property out there on Bandera Road when they were trying to take it for highway purposes and things. And then, of course, after my dad had died and I came on the scene, I mean, he was a good, good friend. In fact, I think after I was already on the [Texas] Court of Criminal Appeals we were on a trip to London together."

Onion never forgot that lesson about burning bridges, and he has passed it on to his children, as well as to friends.

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