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McElroy: The honor burns in his son’s heart

My introduction to Debra Ambroise, Port Arthur ISD board chairman, came with a curt warning that if I misquoted her, she’d never speak with me again.

The threat proved an idle one: Leafing through my notes, I discovered that in my first 30 minutes in Herself’s presence — I covered Thursday’s school board meeting — she’d uttered not a single word I had thought worth writing down. Problem solved.

It takes a certain hubris, though, even in a public official, to consider oneself so “quote worthy” that you would be rude to others from the outset of a social interaction. She ought to respect her elders more.

Fortunately for me, Thursday’s meeting brought me into contact with a kinder and more noteworthy soul than Ambroise. Austin McElroy, son of A.Z. McElroy, the former Abraham Lincoln teacher and coach, school board member and president, had made a second trek to his native Port Arthur — just in case a local school was named in his father’s honor.

The school board was to decide Thursday whether and what to rename two elementary schools that, up until Thursday, had been named for Confederate Army officers. Some local people of late had suggested naming one school for A.Z. McElroy, whose image hovers in the hallway of the ISD’s administration building, along with other former school board members. His 28 years of service to the school system included his election as Port Arthur’s first black board member and, eventually, board president.

Those were exciting times, McElroy said, when his father decided to tackle Port Arthur politics. His father built a local political network and “everyone got involved,” helping him win election. His win inspired others to run for office, too.

As a public figure, his son said, A.Z. McElroy took up the cause of all children, not only black children. Unlike his father, a Sour Lake native who graduated Abraham Lincoln High, Austin McElroy attended grade school at Sacred Heart, then high school at Thomas Jefferson following integration. He starred at end on the TJ football team, and remembers his alma mater fondly.

That decision came with some loss, he said. He remembered proudly his father coaching at Lincoln, and his mother washing football uniforms there.

He said Lincoln had great athletes but inferior football equipment, and his father once visited with Coach “Bum” Phillips at Nederland High who told him, “Mac, you just need to order some of this stuff.” Phillips handed him a catalog for football equipment. McElroy ordered it for Lincoln High, and got in dutch with the Port Arthur school system for his unilateral action, the son remembered.

Despite his father’s active life — after teaching math and coaching, he opened an insurance business while serving as a board member — he never missed his son’s football games. Sometimes, he’d show up by surprise, like the time Austin played an away game hours from Port Arthur and cursed in the shower. His father’s head appeared around the corner of the shower, and he asked where his son had learned such words.

Austin McElroy said he had no expectations as he awaited the board’s vote on the school names Thursday night. But, he said, he remembered his father’s devotion to the school system and his leadership during integration and he “hoped against hope.”

“My dad’s story should be taught, should be told, should be appreciated,” his son said. It may be, but not with a school name. Board members renamed Dick Dowling as Port Acres Elementary; Robert E. Lee Elementary became Lakeview Elementary.

You could sense the disappointment in McElroy’s voice as he discussed the board’s decision in the cool darkness outside the administration building. If he felt embittered, he kept it largely in check, responding graciously.

It was “a shock” to hear the board’s decision, though, he conceded, which he said seemed to disregard his father’s hard work. Maybe so.

But if Austin McElroy wanted his father to be honored, he might consider this: 28 years and two weeks after his father’s death in an Oct. 10, 1990 traffic accident, A.Z. McElroy’s son drove from Baytown to Port Arthur to honor his father’s memory. Just in case. It may not put A.Z. McElroy’s name on a brick-and-mortar building, but it shows that the father’s memory is emblazoned on his son’s heart.

Given a choice of honors, his name on a building or his son’s unyielding love, A.Z. McElroy got the greater part of the deal Thursday night. Someone ought to remember that.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.