KEN STICKNEY — Port of energy, port of memories

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My single most “Why I love Port Arthur” moment might’ve come short weeks ago, when I swung my weather-beaten Toyota Corolla left onto Austin Avenue and headed toward City Hall.

In the distance — I wasn’t quite at Thomas Boulevard — I could see a tanker passing behind City Hall and in the Ship Channel, rising well-above the five-story building before it. Apparently, it wasn’t carrying cargo and was riding high.

It was eerie but appealing, a marvelous sight. Despite this city’s perpetual problems, despite the challenges and hardships oppressing our coastal town, despite the flooding and poverty and environmental risks, Port Arthur presses ahead, as relentless as that tanker, its story still unfolding. The ship channel and the plants and the ports fuel America. Port Arthur matters for that and much more.

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It matters more than one might have ever imagined 12 decades ago. Arthur Stilwell saw it as the terminus for his railroad and the outlet for shipping Midwestern crops. But very quickly, within five years of its founding, Port Arthur became a refinery town for the oil that burst through the ground near Beaumont and Sour Lake and nearby environs. It became a town for hustle and verve, where some people got ahead and some fell behind.

John W. “Bet a Million” Gates, never short of either hustle or verve, got ahead by swiping the railroad from the control of Stilwell, who built it, but Gates and his millions helped make the fledgling settlement into a community, adding a college and a hospital and a library. These became treasures and foundations for growth.

Its people added to the story, sometimes in the harvest and refinement of energy, as the automobile industry emerged and fossil fuels became of paramount importance to our country. But sometimes the contributions of Port Arthur people rested in other areas of pursuit.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was born not far from where DeQueen Elementary rests now, and she revolutionized the world of women’s sports. Robert Rauschenberg grew up on 17th Street, walking to school as a boy to Port Arthur High, and left this town behind at an early age before revealing his artistic genius. He loved coming back. Known worldwide, two “Rauschenbergs” were on the Shah’s plane when he fled Iran; one of his works recently sold at auction for $88 million.

Clifton Chenier launched his long and brilliant career as a zydeco musician here; Janis Joplin’s shooting star began its ascent in Port Arthur in blues and folk and rock; her family home still stands on 32nd Street.

What was it that gave rise to such brilliance? When “Tom” Collins, the test pilot and the first American to fly a Russian MiG, died this year I found his Port Arthur address and drove to his old home on Thomas Boulevard, then followed the route he might have meandered to the former St. James High School, where he graduated as a boy. Just because.

When I wrote a recent piece on Harry Choates, the itinerant Cajun fiddler who recorded his hit version of “Jole Blon” while living here in 1946, I drove to his old home neighborhood and sought out places where he skipped school to play for pocket change as a young boy.

None of those homes or streets are grand today; likely, they haven’t been grand for a long time, if ever. But everyone comes from somewhere, and these people — business titans and celebrated athletes, artists and singers, honed their genius here. It’s remarkable that so many remarkable people came from one place.

Months back my daughter, who teaches art in Shreveport schools, visited me to see the Rauschenberg gallery at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. She marveled at his works — me, I don’t get it — and as we left, headed for Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe and its shrine, we stopped the car alongside the seawall. A tanker was coming.

We climbed the hill and watched its massive hulk travel toward us. My son in law got excited, flipping through his phone to ID the flag and name. We see things here that people elsewhere don’t get to see.

That’s why I was so proud to work at this newspaper, called by the owner, an old friend, to help it in the wake of its post-Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey trauma and recovery. I relished that challenge but never expected to love Port Arthur like I do, to marvel in its people and call them my friends. I’ll treasure every friendship. And every memory.

Ken Stickney was editor of The Port Arthur News. He has returned to his home in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he has been named metro editor at The Acadiana Advocate.