Fort Worth

‘Everybody’s got a story.’ Famed Star-Telegram columnist Jon ‘Bunky’ McConal dies at 82

Jon “Bunky” McConal is shown here in a photograph provided by his wife, Jane McConal. The former Star-Telegram columnist known for his human interest stories died Thursday at the age of 82.
Jon “Bunky” McConal is shown here in a photograph provided by his wife, Jane McConal. The former Star-Telegram columnist known for his human interest stories died Thursday at the age of 82. Courtesy of Jane McConal

Jon “Bunky” McConal would say everyone has a story to tell, and he spent his life trying to prove it.

As a reporter, editor and columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 40 years, McConal had a passion for sharing the stories of real Texans, often finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the magical in the mundane. In one of his personal favorite columns, he wrote about a couple who took in 13 children from bad homes. He also liked the smaller, quirkier stories — an old hotel in Jefferson rumored to be haunted, a self-described “Toad Lady” with a passion for horned toads, a man who collected pocket watches.

His curiosity about his home state led him to take two treks across Texas totaling hundreds of miles, sharing the offbeat and entertaining tales he picked up along the way. He later wrote a book, “A Walk Across Texas,” telling stories from an additional 450-mile walk he and friends took from the Texas Panhandle to Granbury.

His wife, Jane McConal, 82, said she found out about his inquisitive mind during their first meeting at a Greek restaurant, when he questioned her about her upbringing and she felt like she was being interviewed. He lived his life, she said, as he approached his columns — with a longing to learn and a love of people.

She and other family members were by his side in an assisted living facility around 11:30 a.m. Thursday when he died following a years-long battle with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. He was 82.

“He said, ‘Everybody’s got a story,’ and that’s true if you sit down and listen,” Jane said over the phone Friday from her home in Granbury. “He was special. We had nearly 40 years together.”

McConal’s prose was a part of the lives of countless Texans who knew him as the writer with an insatiable curiosity and an ability to take the little story and make it big. He wrote with a descriptive and often humorous voice, valuing the little details in people’s lives, taking them seriously.

He’s perhaps best known for his columns under the name “Jon McConal’s Texas” or his several books, including “My Years With Bob Wills” — which he co-wrote with Al Stricklin — and “Bridges Over the Brazos.” His writing, as readers recounted on Friday, was hard to forget.

Beverly Mahanay-Short, of Alvarado, said she would look forward to Jon’s columns, and he inspired her to get a job at a newspaper.

They once had lunch, and she gushed about his stories.

“He was almost bashful and very humbled by my compliments,” Mahanay-Short said. “He did, however, pass on some good advice. ... He said, ‘You don’t need to do the talking, let them do the talking.’”

McConal was also known for his role in the Fort Worth burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. As one of the few members of the press covering the scarcely attended service, he was asked by the funeral director to be a pallbearer, and reluctantly agreed.

He felt a responsibility to help out, Jane said. But, she said, “it wasn’t something he was proud of.”

“He was a very strong Democrat and he adored Jack Kennedy,” she said. “He was so personally upset that someone would’ve killed Kennedy.”

In another well-known story, McConal was working at the Star-Telegram on the night in June 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed, and he bolted down to the printing presses that were churning along.

Like a scene out of an old black-and-white movie, he shouted “Stop the presses!” before changing the front page to the assassination story.

“He went racing down to the ground floor,” Jane recalled. “The head pressman — he didn’t want to do it. And, of course, Jon was jumping up and down screaming.”

Jon was a proud native of West Texas, hailing from Glen Rose, Jane said. He and his brother were raised on a farm where his father raised cattle and grew peanuts. He acquired the nickname “Bunky” from his friends when he was a child, and wanted to hang onto it as he grew up.

He graduated from Glen Rose High School and went on to study journalism at Sam Houston State University. His first job at the Star-Telegram, Jane said, was as a night police reporter, but he eventually moved to the farm-and-ranch section where he felt more at home.

He was later a general assignment reporter, a night city editor and a contributing editor, all before he started his three-days-a-week column and became a household name for many Texans.

Jim Witt, a retired Star-Telegram vice president and executive editor, said in a 2000 story announcing McConal’s retirement that he was “no doubt one of the finest writers to ever appear on the pages of the Star-Telegram.”

“And he has the journalism awards to prove it,” he said. “But the proof is really in the feedback that we get from our readers. Bunky took them to places they might never have the chance to visit — not in faraway lands, but in ordinary places full of ordinary people who live among us.”

Former Star-Telegram columnist Katie Sherrod said on Friday “his stature was short, his talent was immense, his courage huge, his capacity for story-telling endless.”

“The last few times I was with him he didn’t know who I was, but he was sweet anyway,” she said. “I’d say rest in peace but I suspect he’s already asking God all those questions he’s been wanting answers for.”

Jane said it was hard to watch McConal deteriorate over the past six years as he has dealt with a Parkinson’s diagnosis as well as dementia associated with the disease.

His quick sense of humor — he would often playfully tease Jane about her East Texas roots and her different-sounding accent — left him, she said. He required help for everyday tasks. His memory faded.

But his writing lives on.

And, in a way, he does.

“He just interviewed ordinary people and nobody who had a claim to fame,” Jane said. “Everybody does have an interesting story to tell.”

Update: A memorial is planned at 2 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, 4530 Acton Highway, Granbury.

The family has asked for donations in lieu of flowers to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the American Parkinson’s Disease Association or to the church.

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