Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. – Yoda
My dad was born in 1954 as the third of five children to Norma Jean Partin and Edward Grady Partin, whom everyone called Big Daddy. Norma Jean was a gorgeous, confident, well spoken redhead with dark brown eyes and a voluptuous figure. She was from Spring Hill, Louisiana, near Texarkana and the tri-state border of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. She was so stunning that people compared her to the famous model and actress Marilyn Monroe, whose real name was also Norma Jean, and by 18 years old the beautiful Norma Jean that would become my Mamma Jean was courted by almost every man who meet her. Everyone called her Mamma Jean, and Mamma Jean’s extended southern family was spread out across the tat least six states, and when she visited her cousins in Woodville, Mississippi, she met Big Daddy, a physically large and fit man who was remarkably handsome, with clear skin and rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes and wavy blonde hair with hints of red, and with a charming smile and slick southern accent and sweet words.
Big Daddy was a 26 year old up-and-coming labor union leader who ran unions for both the Woodville sawmill workers and the truckers that delivered raw lumber and carried away cut timber. His Wikipedia page changes often due to its open source, and usually around the time a movie is made about Jimmy Hoffa, and because photographs were black and white back then, only a few of us remember the hints of red in his hair and slightly rosey cheeks, and none of the actors who have portrayed him in films quite matched his perpetual and charming smile.
All books about Hoffa are filled with facts about Big Daddy, and all recalled his brute force and tactics; a remarkable observation, especially considering who Hoffa was and whom he allowed in his inner circle. Big Daddy had briefly been a marine during WWII and had boxed several semi professional matches, and part of his calm demeanor came from his confidence that he could take care of a room full of men with his bare hands, and if he needed more than his hands he always carried a folding knife he used for elk hunting in Flagstaff, and knew how to use it.
Everyone said he was charming. In the chapter about him in Hoffa’s 1975 book, Hoffa begins the chapter about Ed Partin, Chapter 10, The Chatanooga ChooChoo, by saying, “Edward Partin was a big, rough man who could charm a snake off a rock.” Mamma jean agreed with that first impression, and she was immediately smitten.
She wrote to her family that she had found a handsome, hard working man who she believed would make a good father. They were married six weeks after meeting, and began having children within nine months. Aunt Janice was born first, followed by Cynthia, my dad, Theresa, and then Kieth. They outgrew Woodville, and moved to Baton Rouge, where Big Daddy took over the Teamsters Local #5 and forcibly installed one of Hoffa’s men into power in New Orleans. Hoffa was so impressed with Big Daddy’s tactics and that Big Daddy quickly became one of Hoffa’s most trusted lieutenants, a decision that would soon cost Hoffa his presidency and many years of his life, and then his life; or so I assume. To this day, no one knows for sure what happened. I don’t.
Big Daddy helped Hoffa expand the Teamsters, forcibly removing defiant union leaders from major port cities like New Orleans, and intimidating company managers to only use Teamster labor. They traveled far and lived modestly, spending little but having practically unlimited access to monthly dues from almost 2.7 million international Teamsters’s and hundreds of millions of dollars in the unregulated Teamsters pension fund. Big Daddy had a similar authority in Baton Rouge, with millions replaced by thousands; but the power remained.
In 1963 Mamma Jean believed Big Daddy was behind many local deaths and even suspected him of being involved in the Kennedy assassination, and she fled with their five children and hid them in various hunting and fishing camps throughout the south. She was good at it, and remained hidden for a while.
In 1964, Big Daddy helped Sydney Simpson, a 22 year old Local #5 Teamster, kidnap his two young children after losing them in a custody trial in the same East Baton Rouge Parish courthouse that my records would begin appearing a few years later; simultaneously, he was charged with manslaughter in Mississippi, and would have faced trials for both federal crimes, but President Kennedy’s little brother, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, had him freed and provided him immunity and cleared his criminal record in exchange for infiltrating Hoffa’s inner circle and reporting “any attempts at witness intimidation or tampering with the jury,” “anything illegal,” or “anything of interest.”
Immediately after Big Daddy’s release from the Baton Rouge jailhouse, the director of the FBI’s Get Hoffa Task Force, Walter Sheridan, located Mamma Jean and her children and offered her a deal: if she remained silent and didn’t divorce Big Daddy until at least after they convicted Hoffa of something, the federal government would buy her a house big enough for her and her five children and pay her a monthly stipend equivalent to what she would have received in alimony. She agreed, and later that year Big Daddy became famous as the surprise witness that sent the world’s most powerful Teamster leader to prison.
Big Daddy had testified that Hoffa had asked him to bribe a juror in a relatively minor case against Hoffa using $20,000 from Hoffa’s petty cash safe, and though there were no witnesses or recordings, Hoffa was sentenced to eight years in prison based on Big Daddy’s testimony alone. My grandfather was called an All American hero in national media, saying he was a big, rough, hard working union man who helped Bobby Kennedy stop organized crime by putting Hoffa in prison; and of course Bobby was planning to run for president and was hoping someone as charming as Big Daddy could help sway the 2.7 million Teamster votes.
Few Americans knew the truth about Big Daddy because Bobby Kennedy and Walter Sheridan had expunged his long history of criminal activity. But Walter kept many of his FBI records, and he listed some of Big Daddy’s history his 1972 book, “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa,” published just after I was born and including dates right up until the events around my birth, coincidentally. Walter wrote:
“Partin, like Hoffa, had come up the hard way. While Hoffa was building his power base in Detroit during the early forties, Partin was drifting around the country getting in and out of trouble with the law. When he was seventeen he received a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps in the state of Washington for stealing a watch. One month later he was charged in Roseburg, Oregon, for car theft. The case was dismissed with the stipulation that Partin return to his home in Natchez, Mississippi. Two years later Partin was back on the West Coast where he pleaded guilty to second degree burglary. He served three yeas in the Washington State Reformatory and was parolled in February, 1947. One year later, back in Mississippi, Partin was again in trouble and served ninety days on a plea to a charge of petit larceny. Then he decided to settle down. He joined the Teamsters Union, went to work, and married a quiet, attractive Baton Rouge girl. In 1952 he was elected to the top post in Local 5 in Baton Rouge. When Hoffa pushed his sphere of influence into Louisiana, Partin joined forces and helped to forcibly install Hoffa’s man, Chuck Winters from Chicago, as the head of the Teamsters in New Orleans.”
Walter had made a few mistakes in that summary, like Mamma Jean being from Spring Hill, not Baton Rouge, and that Big Daddy hadn’t as much stolen that captain’s watch as removed it from the captain’s bloody and badly beaten body after Big Daddy had punched him. And many crimes were omitted from Walter’s book, and were being removed from court houses across America. But, even then, analog records persisted, and a few sleuths uncovered photos and documents, and Big Daddy was one of the only few people charged with being a part in Kennedy’s asssasination by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison in a nationally televised trial that, interestingly, focused on businessman Clay Shaw after the witnesses connecting Big Daddy to Hoffa, Carlos Marcello, Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald vanished. But analog copies were hard to find, and witnesses who spoke died quickly, yet with today’s internet you can quickly see that by 1964 Big Daddy was unquestionably a rapist, murderer, thief, lier, adulturer, bearer of false witness (Hoffa even knew that before trusting him), who, according to Momma Jean, had begun skipping church on Sundays.
Chief Justice Earl Warren was perplexed by my grandfather and why other people trusted him so much. More specifically, he was the only one of nine judges critical of my grandfather’s character, and the only one to dissent against Partin’s testimony in Hoffa vs. the United States, where he permanently recorded his thoughts on my grandfather for posterities sake, publicly available to anyone seeking it since 1966.
By then Warren was a household name, a respected bipartisan Supreme Court judge with almost a 40 year history, having overseen landmark cases such as Roe vs Wade, Brown vs the Board of Education, and the case that enforced Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent; and, most notably, the 888 page Warren Report on President Kennedy’s assassination that the world had waited for and famously but inaccurately concluded that “Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he shot and killed President John F. Kennedy.” Of all people, Warren should have had access to all of the facts about my family, yet he was so confused by the situation surrounding Big Daddy and wrote a three page missive of this thought process to forever be preserved in Hoffa vs. The United States for posterity to ponder, not unlike Judge Lottingger had partially documented my family history in Partin vs. Partin for posterity, too.
“Here, Edward Partin, a jailbird languishing in a Louisiana jail under indictments for such state and federal crimes as embezzlement, kidnapping, and manslaughter (and soon to be charged with perjury and assault), contacted federal authorities and told them he was willing to become, and would be useful as, an informer against Hoffa, who was then about to be tried in the Test Fleet case. A motive for his doing this is immediately apparent — namely, his strong desire to work his way out of jail and out of his various legal entanglements with the State and Federal Governments. And it is interesting to note that, if this was his motive, he has been uniquely successful in satisfying it. In the four years since he first volunteered to be an informer against Hoffa he has not been prosecuted on any of the serious federal charges for which he was at that time jailed, and the state charges have apparently vanished into thin air. Shortly after Partin made contact with the federal authorities and told them of his position in the Baton Rouge Local of the Teamsters Union and of his acquaintance with Hoffa, his bail was suddenly reduced from $50,000 to $5,000 and he was released from jail,”
“… Partin’s wife received four monthly installment payments of $300 from government funds, and the state and federal charges against Partin were either dropped or not actively pursued.”
Warren may have known of a few payments to Momma Jean, but all of us knew about the home and many more payments; those are some of the details of my family history that I know to be true but are undocumented. But, per Mamma Jean’s agreement, no one in my family had ever shared that information publicly until now. Even with only a few payments offered, technically the Partin family is considered America’s first ‘paid informants,’ different than a witness program in which identities are hidden, in that we were paid before a testimony and then we weren’t hidden and our name was known publicly, though the details remained classified or hidden. My family has always been good at keeping secrets.
Earl Warren wasn’t the only person perplexed by Big Daddy’s vanishing criminal history. Jimmy Hoffa had hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, and he hired the best lawyers possible to discredit Big Daddy, men who defended high profile cases and mafia bosses and knew how to find information and intimidate witnesses, yet even they found nothing in the years of appeals between Big Daddy’s 1964 testimony and Warren’s 1966 missive, where he wrote:
“Partin underwent cross-examination for an entire week. The defense was afforded wide latitude to probe Partin’s background, character, and ties to the authorities; it was permitted to explore matters that are normally excludable, for example, whether Partin had been charged with a crime in 1942, even though that charge had never been prosecuted.”
“I cannot agree that what happened in this case is in keeping with the standards of justice in our federal system, and I must, therefore, dissent.”
Despite Warren’s protests and for reasons I don’t understand, his one vote didn’t override Big Daddy’s testimony, and Hoffa went to prison based on Big Daddy’s word and my family remained silent for decades.
Understandably, after seeing behind the scenes of America’s justice system and having a man like Big Daddy be, what all his siblings would call “rough,” on him, and him alone; my dad became a rebellious teenager with distrust of the government and authority. He left Mamma Jean’s to live with Big Daddy’s mother, my great-Grandma Foster, who lived near the Baton Rouge airport a few blocks away from where Wendy was living with Granny. Walter’s book and a team of FBI agents and federal marshals were following my family around the time of my conception, but they were probably unconcerned about what a 17 year old marijuana dealer did and had more important things to focus on; to them, at last.
In 1972, around the time of my birth, Big Daddy was arrested again, charged with stealing $450,000 from the Local #5 safe, and the only two witnesses were found beaten and bloody. The safe was recovered in a murky river near where Wendy was living in the rental house Big Daddy had let her and my dad use. His arrest made front page headlines, and around that time my dad left us and rode to Miami with his friends on motorcyles to travel to some island and buy drugs in bulk, and Wendy was left alone with me, without a car or job. As she said, she felt emotionally upset, alone, scared, and confused; and she felt she had no where to turn. I can’t imagine anyone feeling any less in her situation and with the Partin family. It probably left her feeling bent out of shape, which is when she first time she made the joke about being WARPed, and she fled Baton Rouge one morning to straighten her self out.
The evening after Wendy abandoned me, the daycare center was closing and I was the last baby there and they didn’t know what to do. They called her emergency contacts, but Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob were too drunk to answer the phone and Wendy hadn’t left Granny’s number because they were still estranged. She had given the center Linda White’s name, and when she answered she told her father and he dropped what he was doing and rushed to the daycare center and picked me up, and the rest is history. It’s likely that he had to work during weekdays and couldn’t attend my custody trials, and it’s just as likely that early family court systems didn’t view the opinions of unrelated caregivers as relevant to family matters, but it’s rare to have a non-relative given custody of a minor child, especially one with an extensive family like I had. That was the ex-parte error Lottingger mentioned; a joke Wendy and I would pronounce as “ex-Partin,” and, though she never changed her name, she said that divorcing my dad made her an ex-Partin. As I mentioned, we grew to have our own, unique, insider jokes and humor that few people would understand, especially because it’s such as long story.
No one knows why Ed White was given so much authority of me as my legal guardian when both of my parents were fighting for custody. The first trial judge had “by ex parte order, awarded the temporary care, custody and control of the minor to Mr. and Mrs. James Ed White,” and after that judge’s presumed suicide another judge granted custody to my dad on paper; but, for some unknown reason that judge kept Mr. White as my guardian with physical custody. Whatever the reasons, I’m forever grateful, because Ed White was more than my guardian, he was my PawPaw, my father, my friend, and possibly the most influential person in my life despite only knowing him for a few years. My memories begin with him, and my perspective about life, the universe, and everything stems from him.
James Edward “Ed” White was born some time in the late 1920’s in the pine tree forests of Mississippi, coincidently near Woodville, where Big Daddy had been born in 1926, though I never learned if they had met. Unlike Big Daddy, PawPaw was a physically small man, thin and wiry, but he was a cheerful force of nature with a heart bigger than anyone I’ve known since. He had slicked back black hair that smelled of inexpensive and common hair oil, and his clothes were humble and obviously well worn from physical labor. He laughed frequently, chain smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, sipped bottles of Miller beer, and never quite figured out why other people weren’t as happy as he was.
He had lost an eye as a sailor in WWII, and though his glass eye matched his other one perfectly, he never saw the world the same again. He choose to be happy. After the war, he moved to Louisiana to find work, though I never learned why he chose Baton Rouge, but I know he became the custodian at Glenoaks High School, where his daughter, Linda White, was best friends with Wendy, and that he’d show up to work early and stay late, cleaning up and repairing things as part of his job; and, on his own initiative, he also cared for the many stately oak trees that gave GlenOaks it’s name and made it so beautiful. PawPaw loved trees, and though my parent’s school may have been in a poor district, most people felt the campus was one of the most well cared for they had ever seen, with trees more majestic than in the fancy schools funded by wealthier neighborhoods, though few knew that PawPaw was behind the scenes. He often came home in the evenings with sawdust in his, by then, mussed up hair, and he would smell more like chainsaw oil than hair tonic at the end of a long day.
PawPaw was behind the scenes for many other things, and he had even organized a small statewide movement for public school custodians, cafeteria workers, and landscapers after a massive state teacher’s strike in the 1960’s led to higher salaries for teachers and administrators, but nothing for the invisible workers behind the scenes. Some newspapers reported the outcome of the strike and said that administrators could now afford steaks instead of hamburgers, but forgetting that invisible workers like PawPaw couldn’t afford even the hamburgers. A March 1964 Time Magazine feature article about Big Daddy being an All American Hero showed him walking the picket line with teacher’s, big and handsome and smiling and handing out cash from his pocket so that teachers could pay their bills while striking, and telling Governor McKiethen that Local #5 stood with teachers and implying that if McKiethen and the state legislature didn’t provide the teachers and administrators with healthcare and a raise to afford an occasional steak dinner, Big Daddy would call a Teamsters strike and shut down the state economy, which would be unable to ship anything along the new interstate system to other states or in or out of other countries via the port of New Orleans. My grandfather was given credit for the teacher raise and benefits, but Life didn’t mentioned PawPaw. But, elderly men around town who had been invisible to most would recall PawPaw’s slicked back black hair and best suit, loose and baggy around his small wiry frame, handing out hand-written fliers telling them that they were important and valuable to the kids getting an education. He was right.
Like Big Daddy, PawPaw served in the military during WWII. But, Big Daddy had only served two weeks, being dishonorably discharged after punching a captain and stealing his watch, PawPaw served honorably in the U.S. Navy for two years until he lost his eye working on a battleship and was honorably discharged. His former shipmates said he was always hard working and cheerful, but mischievous, and he would sneak into the officer’s quarters and steal their beer and give it to enlisted men, like Robin Hood on a battleship.
As a kid, I viewed PawPaw as Popeye the Sailor, a popular cartoon character who was a small man with big forearms and squinted with one eye and smoked a pipe and protected Olive Oil’s infant son from the big Brutus, possible because he ate his spinach and it made him strong. Like Popeye, PawPaw mumbled a bit. He pronounced his words with a southern accent that omitted sylables and blended ‘th’ sounds into d’s, like New Orleans Saints football fans that chant “Who d’at! Who d’at! Who d’at talkin’ ‘bout beatin’ d’em Saints? Who d’at!”
His son in law, Craig Black, didn’t watch football or cartoons but read a lot and had been in GlenOaks theater department, and he thought PawPaw was like Puck, the jestering hobgoblin ferry from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a woodland ferry who adored trees and playing pranks on people. Puck’s pranks sparked the other characters into action; without him, there would be no Midsummer Nights Dream. That sentiment was echoed by anyone I spoke with who had met him.
Like Puck, PawPaw loved nature. As a side gig, he was a tree surgeon, and the most respected tree surgeon in all of Louisiana. His services were requested by families protecting the magnificent stately oak trees that had been planted by their great-great grandparents. He was called to be preventive in the spring, repairing damaged bark and limbs before insects or disease took root, and reactive in the winter, removing toppled trees after hurricane storms. There wasn’t a lot of work, so he had other entrepreneurial ventures, like running a franchise of the Kelley Girls, a national franchise designed to give young, uneducated women opportunities for employment with flexible schedules so they could attend school or attend school meetings for their children, and he had given Wendy her first job. Judge Lottingger mentioned Wendy’s job with Kelly’s Girls, but, like Life, didn’t mention Ed White. Considering that Lottingger knew PawPaw viewed me as a son and was hoping for custody, it’s remarkable that PawPaw had selflessly helped Wendy, and ironic that he couldn’t attend my custody hearing because he was working at GlenOaks during weekdays.
Craig would tell me that PawPaw never made money from his side gigs of Kelly’s Girls and as an arborist, which is what people call tree surgeons now, because instead of taking a percentage of pay for himself as an administrator he gave all of the money to the people he hired. For Wendy, that was $516 per month, a lot of money back then, especially considering that Mamma Jean was paid $300 per month only a decade before to care for her five children. And he used his tree surgery business to hire and train men recently released from jail when no one else would give ex-cons an opportunity, and those ex-cons became, in a way, his competition. Craig himself would work for 40 years as the landscaper for Houmas Plantation, a tourist destination among the many former slave plantations in and around Baton Rouge, where he also sold his paintings that were fanciful and centered around ferries and elves in Louisiana’s swamps and forests. After Wendy would pass, Craig pointed to a majestic stately oak tree that PawPaw had planted before I was born, and say that hundreds of thousands of people saw its beauty each year and received shade from it’s long undulating branches, and he’d humbly admit that even his best paintings only brought joy to a few people who purchased them and kept them in their homes.
All Judge Lottingger had to say about PawPaw was that, “The Whites came to regard Jason as their own,” and though I appreciate his phrasing, it’s an understatement. I know that PawPaw loved me as a son. He passed away before I could thank him or tell him how I felt or ask his version of this story, and whenever I struggled with how to honor my mother and father, I also struggled with what defines a mother or a father. But now I can’t imagine sharing my family history without beginning PawPaw. Just like there would be no midsummer night’s dream without Puck, I wouldn’t be who I am without the seed planted when he saved me, and I hope whatever I write about him brings as much joy or hope to people who read it as the trees he planted have given to people who rest in their shade or climb in their branches.
As Mike drove me to the airport, we passed by PawPaw’s old farm, a few miles from where Granny and Grandma had lived, and I saw the trees I remember. Like the scratched record, some parts you just skip over.
“Posterity,” I said, emphasizing th ‘o’ as subtly as the b in subtle. “is someone’s children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children.”
“So you’re Big Daddy’s pawsterity?”
“Yes I am.”
“No, sweetheart, posterity means people born from Big Daddy’s children, and their children.”
But I had lied, if you consider speaking what you thought to be true at first, but then not correcting yourself when you learn the truth. Later that day, I looked up posterity on Wikipedia, and it said that posterity is, “All the future generations, especially the descendants of a specific person.” I double checked in one of the dictionaries in the library, and that was close enough. I didn’t correct myself to her, because too long had passed and eight – oops! I mean nine now – year old girls don’t benefit much from things brought up from the past. I made a mental note to listen to her the next time she says pawsterity, and tell her that I had used the library and learned I was mistaken, and she was, in fact, Big Daddy’s pawsterity.
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