Rick Perry's roots in little Paint Creek run deep

Posted Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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"I grew up in Paint Creek, Texas. If you can't find it on a map, I won't be surprised. Just look for Haskell, Texas, population 3,000, and then go a few miles to the south and east and you might find it."

-- Rick Perry in Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America From Washington

PAINT CREEK -- Despite its sudden fame as the boyhood home of a new presidential contender, Paint Creek is still easy to overlook.

Motorists heading north from Abilene to Haskell can easily speed past the small farm road that bisects miles of sun-baked cotton fields and leads down to the community school where Rick Perry graduated in 1968.

Long before the governor's office and presidential politics, he was Ray and Amelia's boy, the high-energy teenager who quarterbacked the six-man football team and helped with chores on his parents' farm.

To longtime friends like Wallar Overton, who has remained in the area as a farmer, he is still Ricky Perry.

Throughout his quarter-century in public life, Perry has often cited Paint Creek as a familiar touchstone. In many ways, as the 61-year-old Texas governor embarks on his run for the presidency, Paint Creek constitutes a microcosm of his vision for America -- resilient people, an unbendable work ethic and a value system built on home, family and church.

Perry described himself as a "product of a place called Paint Creek" in his presidential announcement speech in South Carolina on Saturday, recalling how his father returned from 35 missions in World War II to begin working a "little corner of land" as a tenant farmer.

"It's a great place to grow up -- wonderful people out there," he said in a brief conversation with the Star-Telegram last week. "I tell folks, other than coincidental things in life, I could just as well be working in a feed store in Haskell County."

Perry's political trajectory took root here, beginning with a six-year stint in the Legislature that helped propel him into statewide posts as agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and the state's longest-serving chief executive.

While old friends and admirers applaud his latest venture, he also has more than a few detractors in this predominantly Democratic county, including those who still resent his switch to the Republican Party in the late 1980s. He did not carry his home county in his 2006 re-election campaign for governor or his 1998 race for lieutenant governor.In books, speeches and interviews, Perry has told of a rural boyhood that was both hardscrabble and idyllic. The family lived in a 1920s bungalow-style and was "fairly self-sustaining," Perry recalled in a 2010 interview in Texas Monthly. "Mom was a very, very good seamstress and still is. She made my sister's clothes; she made a lot of my shirts. Now, with blue jeans we wore Levi's. But when I went to college, Mother still made my underwear."

The stream called Paint Creek, which runs near the community that bears its name, got its moniker from its dark-red clay banks. The creek was dry for months until a summer rain late last week brought a brief respite in the worst drought to hit Texas since the 1950s.

"I've been farming since 1945, and this is the worst," said Dale Middlebrook, 83, whose cotton crop was destroyed by the drought. Some farmers who have suffered the same fate have been selling scrap iron to help get by.

But confronting hardships -- whether a relentless dry spell or a raging spring flood -- is ingrained in the community fabric and, as Perry has often recalled, helps define those who live here. Despite the distances that separate their homes, the farming families that dot the region seem strongly intertwined. If someone "lost a family member or the rains flooded your property," Perry once wrote, " everybody would be at your door."

'The big empty'

Perry's father has described this area as "the big empty," a rolling landscape of farms and cattle country festooned by mesquite and cactus. Haskell, the county seat, is less than 15 miles north of Paint Creek. Stamford, another small town, lies just to the south. The nearest city, Abilene, is about 55 miles south.

Ray and Amelia still live in Paint Creek. The heart of the community is Paint Creek School, which was established in 1937 and has an enrollment of about 160, about 50 more than when Perry attended. "No Dream too Tall for a School so Small" is the school motto.

Another social linchpin is the community church. The exact population is hard to determine because those who consider themselves Paint Creek residents live in rural homes scattered throughout the area. Perry says the community doesn't have a ZIP code and is "too small to be a town."

Perry has written warmly about Paint Creek in his two books: Fed Up, which embodies many of the themes of his presidential campaign, and On My Honor, a tribute to the values of the Boy Scouts of America that includes reflections on his days in scouting.

"To some, Paint Creek is a throw-back in time -- a fading memory of the way things used to be, when you knew everyone within a 15-mile radius of you, and when you saw each other at work or school and then later at church," Perry wrote in Honor.

"Paint Creek reminds me of a sense of community that seems lost today. ... For me, Paint Creek was not merely an idea; it was the center of civilization, and everything else was an alternative universe."

'110 percent boy'

The Perrys' roots in the community go back more than a century. Rick Perry's great-great-grandfather D.H. Hamilton moved to Texas after fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, ultimately settling in the Paint Creek area. Perry's father was a tenant farmer and a longtime county commissioner.

The bungalow where Perry and his older sister grew up no longer exists. The governor's parents, who typically shun interview requests, now live in a red-brick home adorned with a motto on the front door, "May all your weeds be wildflowers."

Those who knew the young Rick Perry -- and seemingly everyone in the county did -- recall an energetic youngster who was "110 percent boy," in the words of Don Ballard, the current school superintendent.

"He was just like the rest of us," said Ballard, 64, who knew Perry through 4-H. "He grew up on a farm and worked."

Wallar Overton, who is 11 years older than the governor, has known Perry "since he was born" and helped him prepare his book on scouting. His father, Gene Overton, was Perry's scoutmaster, whom the governor has repeatedly singled out as a role model in his life.

Driving through the back roads of rural Haskell County in his 2002 Silverado, Overton pointed out the now-dry pond where Perry and other scouts swam on scorching summer days and the six-man football field where Perry quarterbacked the Paint Creek Pirates. "If I had to say one thing about Rick Perry, it would be that if he set his mind to do something, he would go out and do it," Overton said. "He was goal-oriented."

Perry left Paint Creek to attend Texas A&M, graduating in 1972 with a degree in animal science. After nearly five years as a C-130 pilot in the Air Force, he returned to Haskell County to join his father in the farming business. In 1982, he married his school sweetheart, Anita Thigpen.

'He left us'

Two years later, Perry seized the opportunity to run successfully for a seat being vacated by a longtime incumbent, representing Haskell County in the House for three two-year terms as a Democrat. But he provoked lasting bitterness among many in the area when he switched parties in 1989 and was elected agriculture commissioner.

"We helped get him elected, and then he switched parties," said Sharon Mullino, Haskell County's Democratic chairwoman. "He left us. We didn't leave him."

Another Perry critic is Haskell County Judge David Davis, a Democrat who accuses Perry of placing his party's interests over "the best interest of Texas." Asked whether he's a fan of Perry, Davis said, "No, sir."

But as Perry leaps headlong into presidential politics with polls placing him in the top tier of candidates, many in Haskell County will be part of the cheering section. "I think people are looking at him as a hometown boy, and they hope he does well," said Andy Gannaway, president of Haskell National Bank.

Dave Montgomery,

512-476-4294

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